5 Steps to a Healthier Gut

The guts is the internal eco system that impacts your health and weight – look after your gut and it will look after you!

5 Steps to a Healthier Gut

Our appreciation for the role of gut bacteria has undergone something of a transformation in recent times. Research published in the last couple of years has linked the state of our ‘microbiome’, the colony of bacteria each of us harbours in our intestines, to everything from Alzheimer’s, allergies and rheumatoid arthritis to depression and obesity. But what does this mean for you, and how is your tribe of microbes doing in there?

Bacteria’s bad, right? It’s the stuff that TV adverts show in neon colours, infecting our worktops and chopping boards. Well actually our environment, and our bodies, are teeming with bacteria and other microbes – such as yeasts and viruses – many of which are crucial to life as we know it. Invisible to the naked eye, their numbers are such that those in our gut alone weigh an estimated four pounds. These particular organisms regulate and determine our absorption of calories, produce vital enzymes, support our immune system and perform a host of other functions that scientists have yet to fully understand.

You may have heard that the manner of your birth, your earliest foods and a multitude of other factors beyond your control will have a permanent impact on the bacteria that have come to colonise your gut. “For most people whatever you do you’ll still retain a core of microbes that are unique to you, a natural signature throughout your life, ” admits Professor Tim Spector, lead scientist on the UK’s largest microbiome study project and author of The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat (£8.99, W&N). But positive change is possible. “You are more likely to change a sickly microbiome than a stable healthy one, so if you have a fairly unhealthy average British diet – lots of meat, lots of processed food, just the occasional lettuce – and you suddenly move to a gut-friendly diet, you will be able to dramatically change your microbes. As an experiment, my son spent days on a McDonald’s diet and lost 40 per cent of his microbes in that time, so dramatic changes can give dramatic results.”

“The key message is diversity,” says Tim. “If you want healthy gut microbes and good health you have to eat diversely, with many different types of foods. There’s no point having the same prawn salad every day, even if it is super-healthy. Be adventurous. Try to have 30 different types of food in a week.” It’s the usual suspects that should be avoided – foods that are high in sugar are bad for our microbes, fruit and vegetables do them good. And there are some unexpectedly helpful choices, like polyphenol-rich red wine, chocolate and beer. “The only things I believe are bad are processed foods and chemicals. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘bad’ natural food as long as it’s taken in moderation.”

The European Food Safety Authority’s 2012 rejection of health claims for drinking yoghurts has dented sales in recent times, and Tim agrees that we should be skeptical of their benefits: “They seem to work if you’re very young, very sick, very old or on antibiotics,” he suggests. “The evidence that they protect you if you’re otherwise healthy is not there. They’re getting better every year but the problem is they don’t have a big variety of microbes but just a few, which might suit some people but not others. Because we all have different microbes in our gut, we all react differently to these newcomers. Also, these probiotics aren’t regulated so in the cheap ones the microbes might be dead or in small numbers, so you have to pick carefully.”

Pickled vegetables have fallen from favour with Brits, so we have to look to other cultures for microbe-friendly foods. Best known examples hail from South Asia, home to kimchi, a spicy slaw condiment; miso, the flavoursome paste of fermented soybeans; kombucha, a fizzy drink made from tea and many, many more. Central Europe offers kefir, a drink made with yeast and bacteria ‘grains’; sauerkraut and all manner of other options. “In general you can get all the natural probiotics you want from yoghurt, fermented foods, and even unpasteurised cheeses,” says Tim. “Kefir has five times more species of microbes than yoghurt, but research has shown that regular yoghurt eaters do have healthy microbes. The evidence is there that it does get to the body, so increase the variety of fermented foods you have. Few of us have kimchi, sauerkraut or pickled vegetables, but we should.”

Words by Anna Blewett

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