What does your gut microbiome want anyway?

I saw this headline, “The best foods to feed your gut microbiome” and thought… let me guess, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains :-).  And this answer is… yes, of course!  But, the interesting wrinkle is that there seems to be some really benefit from mixing up the diversity of those health foods, e.g., the fact that I have two apples, a banana, mixed frozen berries, a carrot, romaine lettuce, and fresh strawberries pretty much every single day is actually not ideal.  More mangoes and green leaf lettuce, here I come– I guess.  Anyway, pretty interesting:

In general, scientists have found that the more diverse your diet, the more diverse your gut microbiome. Studies show that a high level of microbiome diversity correlates with good health and that low diversity is linked to higher rates of weight gain and obesity, diabetesrheumatoid arthritis and other chronic diseases.

Eating a wide variety of fiber-rich plants and nutrient-dense foods seems to be especially beneficial, said Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and the founder of the British Gut Project, a crowdsourced effort to map thousands of individual microbiomes.

Even if you already eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, Spector advises increasing the variety of plant foods you eat each week. One fast way to do this is to start using more herbs and spices. You can use a variety of leafy greens rather than one type of lettuce for your salads. Adding a variety of fruits to your breakfast, adding several different vegetables to your stir fry and eating more nuts, seeds, beans and grains is good for your microbiome…

Once you start increasing the variety of plant foods you eat every day, set a goal of trying to eat around 30 different plant foods a week, says Spector. That might sound like a lot, but you’re probably already eating a lot of these foods already…

Another way to nourish your gut microbiota is by eating fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir. The microbes in fermented foods, known as probiotics, produce vitamins, hormones and other nutrients. When you consume them, they can increase your gut microbiome diversity and boost your immune health, said Maria Marco, a professor of food science and technology who studies microbes and gut health at the University of California, Davis.

In a study published last year in the journal Cell, researchers at Stanford found that when they assigned people to eat fermented foods every day over a 10-week period, it increased their gut microbial diversity and lowered their levels of inflammation.

“We’re increasingly developing a very rich understanding of why microbes are so good for us,” said Marco.

I definitely need to up my fermented food intake.  

Unsurprisingly, of course, this also provides more data on how “junk” food is not good for you:

Another important measure of gut health is a person’s ratio of beneficial microbes to potentially harmful ones. In a study of 1,1oo people in the United States and Britain published last year in Nature Medicine, Spector and a team of scientists at Harvard, Stanford and other universities identified clusters of “good” gut microbes that protected people against cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. They also identified clusters of “bad” microbes that promoted inflammation, heart disease and poor metabolic health.

While it’s clear that eating lots of fiber is good for your microbiome, research shows that eating the wrong foods can tip the balance in your gut in favor of disease-promoting microbes.

The Nature study found that “bad” microbes were more common in people who ate a lot of highly processed foods that are low in fiber and high in additives such as sugar, salt and artificial ingredients. This includes soft drinks, white bread and white pasta, processed meats, and packaged snacks like cookies, candy bars and potato chips.

So, mostly reaffirms what we know about eating healthy, but I do find this a very interesting additional wrinkle about the value of diversity in one’s healthy foods.  

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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