Seen the headlines? We are not alone! We share our bodies with trillions of microbes. The majority live in our guts, and these tiny critters play a key role in keeping us healthy.
Science is still piecing it all together. But the initial insights are intriguing. Our gut microbes fight off intruders, help digest food, make vitamins, prep and protect our immune systems. Recent research points to an association between the microbiome and behavior, including mood and emotions, as well as to links between our gut microbes and disorders like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, epilepsy, and autism.
Taking care of our microbes helps them take care of us. We can start by being good hosts: feeding our friendly microbial guests what they’re hungry for -- lots of fresh produce, whole grains, fermented foods -- and by staying away from refined sugars. Here are 8 ways to eat for a healthy gut, along with top-rated Microbiome Diet recipes.
1. Eat a Wide Variety of Plants, Fruits, and Veggies
Sound familiar? There’s really nothing new about this advice. Just like their human hosts, the beneficial bacteria that make up our microbiome thrive on a diversity of fiber-rich plants and fruits. So go big on bananas, beans, onions, leeks, oats, whole grains, nuts, avocados, leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus; and fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. The key is variety because it seems that different types of fiber benefit certain bacteria, which in turn benefit the body in specific ways.
Pictured: Avocado Salad. This 5-star salad boasts a bunch of healthy, diverse, and delicious fresh veggies.
Need another reason to choose whole, fiber-rich foods? Research is finding that certain food additives intended to emulsify, artificially sweeten, stabilize, thicken, and/or create pleasing textures in highly processed foods may also be doing serious harm to our gut microbiomes. These additives aren't digested by humans; instead, researchers contend, they feed dangerous pathogens in our guts (like C. diff and E. coli) and may also harm the protective layer of mucus that coats the intestines. As unintended consequences go, these are doozies. Writing in The New York Times, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff explains that "a growing body of evidence [indicates] that common food additives can push our microbial communities in unhealthy directions...encouraging diseases like obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease." For more, read Velasquez-Manoff's article, The Germs That Love Diet Soda.
2. Don’t Overcook the Veggies
Soft, overcooked veggies are quickly digested. Leave a little crunch, and the microbes down the line have more to munch on.
Pictured: Broccoli Mango Salad. This fresh, funky salad is a fruit and veggie mashup, combining broccoli, mango, and mandarin oranges.
3. Chomp on More of the Plant
Eat further down the veggie stalks and stems, not just the soft tips and florets. Your gut will thank you.
Pictured: Roasted Vegetable Medley. This medley goes for gut-health gold with asparagus, yams, parsnips, carrots, zucchini, and red peppers. So much good stuff!
4. Eat Fermented and Cultured Foods
Enjoy yogurt for breakfast, a little sauerkraut on sandwiches and salads for lunch, and this homemade kimchi with grilled or roasted meats.
5. Give an A+ to Artichokes, Asparagus, and Avocados
These fiber-rich foods earn top marks. Also, don't forget about Jerusalem artichokes. Full Disclosure: Jerusalem artichokes are not really from Jerusalem; they're not even artichokes. But despite the fibs, the truth is, they’re among the gut-friendliest of foods.
Pictured: Zucchini and Artichoke Salad. This simple salad combines sliced chicken breasts with artichokes, garbanzo beans, and zucchini.
6. Be Keen for Greens
Your good bacteria love the fiber in kale, spinach, bok choy, and other leafy greens.
Pictured: Roasted Yam and Kale Salad. This one pairs fresh kale with caramelized onions, garlic, and yams.
7. Seek Out Leeks
Leeks are legendary for helping promote good gut health. Watch Chef John make his simple Sexy Fish Stew with lots of leeks, shallots, and fennel bulbs.
8. And, Finally, a Word About Kraut
Sauerkraut's not just for hot dogs. Sneak this fabulous fermented food into summer salads and stir-fries, and onto sandwiches, pork chops, even your scrambled eggs.
Pictured: Sauerkraut Salad. Sauerkraut, onions, celery, bell peppers, carrots, and pimento peppers mingle with a tangy, slightly sweet dressing. Let the flavors meld overnight. Delicious.
Why is dietary fiber good for us? As we've said, when we eat dietary fiber, we’re feeding the critters in our guts. The billions of bacteria benefit first by feeding on the fiber that’s indigestible to humans. Healthy gut microbes lead to a healthier gut, which translates to a healthier immune system. Also, after the bacteria in the gut break down the fiber, they leave behind short-chain fatty acids, which keep the cells of the intestines healthy and may help calm aggressive immune system responses. Diets rich in dietary fiber may also help defeat obesity and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, along with immune disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. For a slightly more in-depth look at the health benefits of eating fiber-rich foods, check out Learning More about Fiber's Benefits in The New York Times.