We’ve heard a lot about gut health lately, and with good reason.
Good gut health translates to a strong immune system, a balanced metabolism, the effective breakdown and assimilation of our food, and, according to recent studies, good brain health as well.
But good gut health is wholly dependent on the maintenance of a strong and healthy microbiome, that colony of “good” or friendly bacteria that lives in our gastrointestinal tract, comprising some 300-500 different bacterial species. Keeping that population healthy and viable is the key to making it all work. And in this world of highly processed food, refined carbohydrates, heavy antibiotic use, and environmental toxins, keeping our microbiomes healthy is no easy feat. Now, I know what you’re thinking — you’ve heard all this before and you know what to do. Just make sure to stock up on yogurt, pop a daily probiotic supplement, and you’re good to go, right? Well, not so fast…
It’s true that we need to consume a regular supply of probiotic and fermented foods to keep our gut microbiome well populated with friendly bacteria, especially since our lifestyle and eating habits often work to their detriment. Eating a variety of probiotic-rich foods daily should therefore be part of a healthy diet. Good examples of such foods include: yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, raw pickles, and raw vinegars. And just for good measure, taking a high quality probiotic supplement is often recommended as well. But we need to continually nourish that good gut bacteria if they are to survive and thrive. Just as with any living organism, our good bacteria will die off if they are not properly fed. That is where prebiotics come in.
Prebiotics are a category of foods that actually feed our good gut bacteria. They are non-digestible, high fiber compounds that are found in certain fruits and vegetables, as well as other plant-based sources. These prebiotic starches, while non-digestible to humans, are highly digestible to our beneficial bacteria, and are essential to maintaining their health. An added plus is that they are resistant to our gastric acid, which allows them to pass through to the intestinal tract intact, where they are then fermented and readily consumed by our hungry microbial population.
The regular consumption of prebiotic foods is important for us all, but particularly so for individuals who suffer from conditions of the digestive tract, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colitis, and Crohn’s disease. But studies have shown that prebiotics offer other health benefits as well. They help to reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes by lowering cholesterol levels and regulating our blood sugar; they promote satiety, thereby keeping our weight at a healthy level; and they help to prevent certain types of cancers, most notably colon cancer. They are a fundamental component of a healthy diet.
WHAT FOODS ARE CONSIDERED PREBIOTIC?
Chances are you are already consuming a number of foods that are prebiotic without even realizing it, especially if you eat a high fiber diet. But not all fibers are created equal. The foods that deliver the greatest prebiotic benefit are those that contain fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), inulin, and resistant starch (RS). So, incorporating those elements into our diet is where our focus should be.
Prebiotic-rich foods include:
- Chicory Root
- Jerusalem Artichokes (Sunchokes)
- Dandelion Greens
- Burdock Root
- Chinese Chives
- Wheat Bran
SO, HOW MUCH SHOULD I EAT?
It is recommended that we consume at least 5 grams of prebiotic fiber a day to maintain optimal gut health. Much of that should be in raw form, to the extent possible, since cooking any fruit or vegetable acts to break down its fibers. But a combination of raw salads and lightly sautéed or steamed prebiotic vegetables should be more than adequate to meet our daily needs.
In terms of “bang for the buck,” chicory root delivers the highest percentage of prebiotic fiber by weight, at nearly 65 percent, while bananas deliver the lowest, with only 1 percent of fiber by weight. The rest of the foods listed above fall somewhere in between those ranges. It doesn’t take much to reach the desired 5-gram goal, but as with any dietary regime, variety is the spice of life. Experiment with including a wide assortment of prebiotic foods in your daily recipes, and you should be well covered.
So, the next time you’re at the Farmer’s Market, be sure to pick up some leeks, asparagus, garlic, and onions, thinking of the prebiotic benefits that will ensue! And while you’re at it, you just might want to throw in some dandelion greens as well. Your gut will thank you for it.
We are what we eat, right? We’ve all heard the saying, but the statement is true. Just think about it.
Everything that we ingest gets absorbed into our bloodstream and serves as the basis for nourishing our cells, building our tissues, boosting our immune system, and maintaining a healthy metabolism. So, it just stands to reason that our food choices can make all the difference when it comes to defining our health. But, unfortunately, making healthy choices has become an increasingly difficult task in today’s world. It seems we are assaulted on all sides by the temptation and convenience of highly processed foods that are largely devoid of nutritional value and saturated with unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates, and a chemical cocktail of artificial dyes, flavors, and preservatives. In truth, the Standard American Diet (aptly known by its acronym “SAD”) is slowly, but surely, killing us. In the last 30 years, obesity rates in the United States have skyrocketed. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases are also on the rise, as are neurodegenerative diseases and mood disorders. And much of this can be blamed on our diet.
The multi-million-dollar diet industry certainly capitalizes on this national dysfunction. As more Americans have become obese and disease-ridden, quick-fix diets and self-help books have become all the rage. So many of us are looking for that “silver bullet” panacea that we hope will resolve all our problems. But there are so many conflicting options to choose from. Do we eat low-carb, low-fat, paleo, ketogenic, do intermittent fasting, or follow some other program of pharmaceutical or herbal intervention? It’s enough to make your head spin. It’s true that some of these programs do work for certain individuals, but most often, people try something out for a short period of time, but then resort back to their old eating habits. And in the process, they often regain whatever weight they might have lost, returning to an unhealthy physical state.
SO, WHAT CAN WE DO?
It’s quite simple — we get back to the basics. Author and food expert Michael Pollan probably stated it best when he advised us to, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” What this means is that we need to get back to eating whole foods that look and taste the way nature intended. Or as Pollan puts it, only eat foods your great-grandmother would recognize. That’s it. Our fruits and vegetables should come fresh from the farm, orchard, or garden. Our food animals should be raised without stress and unreasonable confinement, and they should be fed natural diets without added antibiotics, chemicals, or hormones. Similarly, our grains and legumes should be unrefined, and not subjected to genetic alteration and toxic applications of pesticides and herbicides. If we follow these simple guidelines, chances are that our bodies will soon heal themselves, our weight will naturally regulate, and our systems will return to a healthy condition of homeostasis.
SOME BASIC GUIDELINES
Here are some general suggestions for optimizing our diet and health:
- Eat a variety of produce in its natural form, direct from the farm or garden.
- Choose foods that are organic and locally grown, whenever possible.
- Avoid Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s).
- Eliminate refined sugar and flours, as well as excess sodium.
- Eat grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, but keep meat consumption to a minimum.
- Eat fish that are wild caught, opting for smaller varieties that are less susceptible to mercury contamination.
- Include modest amounts of healthy, plant-based fats in your diet, such as those derived from nuts, olives, and avocados.
- Cook your own food and experiment in the kitchen. It’s a wonderfully creative activity, and you’ll have the added benefit of knowing what’s in your food.
- Drink plenty of water to keep your body well hydrated.
This is not to say that you can’t partake in a favorite food indulgence from time to time. In fact, I would encourage that. Occasional treats are part of what makes life enjoyable and keeps you from feeling deprived. But I prefer to follow the “90/10 Rule”, striving to eat clean and healthy 90 percent of the time, with 10 percent left to delicious discretion. No guilt, and no obsession. It’s all about moderation.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” He believed that correcting imbalances or dis-ease in the body could primarily be accomplished through diet. In truth, I believe that Hippocrates had it right. Achieving good health is not rocket science. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about getting back to the basics and tuning in to what our bodies have been telling us all along. Let’s return to some ancient wisdom. Let’s get back to our roots — quite literally. We will all be healthier for it.