Gut health has been a hot topic in the health and nutrition world over the past few years.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Well, you see, what happens in the gut doesn’t stay in the gut! The activity of our gut plays an important role in reducing our risk of chronic disease. It is also closely linked with both the nervous system and the immune system, meaning the health of our gut has a big impact on our overall health and wellbeing.
One of the key factors involved in gut health is the diversity of the gut microbiome. Which, in other words, is the number of different types of bacteria and other kinds of microbes that live in your gut.
Studies have found lower gut diversity in people with the following conditions (1): (compared with healthy individuals)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Diabetes Type 1 and Type 2
- Atopic eczema
- Coeliac disease
- Psoriatic arthritis
How can we improve the diversity of our gut microbiome?
Although this association doesn’t prove that variety of plant foods = microbiome diversity (there could be lots of other factors at play), there is an increasingly convincing argument for increasing the variety of plant foods in your diet. It’s also worth noting that the study found the association between a wider variety of plant foods and increased microbiome diversity regardless of whether participants identified as vegans, vegetarians or meat-eaters.
Why might a variety of plant foods promote a more diverse microbiome?
A variety of plant foods means a variety of prebiotics- the types of fibre that act as food for the beneficial microbes. Therefore, it makes sense that the variety of prebiotics would promote a more diverse microbiome, as different microbes need different ‘food’.
And it’s not just fibre that can act as food and have a ‘prebiotic’ action for the good guys in our gut. Other plant compounds have been shown to be beneficial too, for example, the flavonols found in cocoa (4). And yes, this does mean that chocolate can be good for your gut!
Changes can happen quickly, too, with changes observed in as little as 4 days in people changing between plant and animal food based diets (5). It’s worth noting though, that it isn’t generally a great idea to make big dietary changes suddenly. Big increases in fibre especially can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as gas and bloating, so it’s best to go slow and steady when adding more fibre-rich foods to your diet. Adding things in slowly will give your microbiome time to adapt gradually.
Is it realistic to consume 30 or more different plant foods per week?
Obviously this does depend on what you have available to you as an individual, however, it might be easier than you think! ‘Plant foods’ covers a lot of different groups:
Wholegrains (e.g oats, brown rice, quinoa, rye etc.)
Fruits (tinned, frozen and dried count too!)
Beans and pulses (e.g lentils, chickpeas etc.)
Nuts and seeds
To meet the target of 30 different foods per week, that would mean 4 or 5 different plant foods per day. A lot of us get stuck in a rut and eat similar things on a week to week basis for convenience. But why not try switching it up to give your gut diversity a boost?
Here are a few tips that might help you to diversify the plant foods in your diet and improve your gut health:
- Try having a different type of seasonal fruit with your breakfast
- If you’re having a savoury breakfast, try adding veggies such as sauteed mushrooms, spinach or tomatoes
- Why not try a different grain such as buckwheat, millet or quinoa? Or swap white rice for brown for added fibre
- Add a sprinkle of mixed seeds onto soups or salads for some added crunch and variety
- Check out what vegetables are seasonal and try roasting some as a side dish for your main meal
- Use 50/50 mince and lentils in your bolognese or lasagne.
- Grate some vegetables into risottos or pasta sauces
- Add some nuts to your baking- they’re lovely in cookies and cakes, or as part of a topping for a fruit crumble!
- If you have tuna mayonnaise, try using 50/50 tinned tuna and chickpeas with finely chopped onion and celery. This is delicious and a great way to add more plant foods to your sandwich or jacket potato filling
- Findings of The American Gut Project suggest that eating a larger variety of plant foods (30 or more per week) could lead to a more diverse gut microbiome.
- A more diverse microbiome is associated with a lower risk of certain chronic diseases.
- Including a variety of plant foods means you’re feeding your microbiome a variety of ‘prebiotics’ which are types of fibre and other nutrients that promote the growth of beneficial types of microbes in the gut.
- Eating 30 different plant foods per week may not be realistic for everyone, but it’s easier than you might think!
Hannah has a BSc in Nutrition and Public Health (AfN accredited) and is currently studying part-time for an MSc in Nutrition Science and practice; focused around Nutritional Therapy and individualised nutrition.