The human body is a complex biological machine. The gut, once thought to be a separate and distinct system within a network of integrated organs is now thought to play a central role in health body-wide. Scientific interest in the gut microbiome — the balance of microorganisms that inhabit the intestinal tract — is increasing exponentially as researchers discover the new and exciting ways it affects the body. Many more quality studies are needed to understand its impact, but for today, physicians are encouraging patients to keep their microbiome healthy with these foods.
Fermented foods top the list of gut-healthy nutritional options, but for some, choices like kefir — fermented sour milk— and kimchi —fermented cabbage— just aren’t what the doctor ordered. The good news is that recent studies show that gut microbes already existing in the stomach ferment dark chocolate into beneficial anti-inflammatory compounds.
As a complete protein, quinoa is one of the few grains that can replace meat in a diet. This is important because research shows that eating large amounts of meat — especially high-fat cuts of beef —negatively impacts gut bacteria. Replacing a portion of meat with a versatile grain like quinoa improves gut health without sacrificing valuable protein.
The human gut harbors as many as 150-250 types of bacteria. The more diverse the microbiome, the better it is for health. Two of the most beneficial types, bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, are particularly helpful and present in yogurts with live cultures.
The gut needs both probiotic foods that contain beneficial microorganisms, like yogurt, and prebiotic foods that contain compounds that help gut bacteria thrive. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains top the list of popular prebiotics, but asparagus also contains a healthy dose of inulin, a complex carbohydrate that helps regulate blood sugar and supports the growth of both bifidobacteria and lactobacillus.
Researchers are cautious when reporting how foods affect the microbiome, noting that the relationship between nutrition and the gut as well as health in general, is exceptionally complicated. Preliminaries studies seem to indicate that diversity in a diet is as important to a well-balanced gut as specific foods. For now, studies continue at a breakneck pace, and for the public, it pays to choose gut-friendly foods that are also generally nutritionally sound.