Your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, a mix of hundreds of different species of bacteria, fungi, viruses and more. This is called your gut microbiome. Although a lot about the microbiome is not yet fully understood, we know that many of our bodily systems are intricately connected to it. Your gut microbiome not only helps break down the food you eat and turn it into energy, but it communicates with your brain, influences your immune system and affects many parts of your health. That’s why having the right balance of microbes in your gut is important for your health.
Imbalance in the gut microbiome (known as dysbiosis) has been linked to obesity, autoimmune disorders, asthma, allergies, depression, anxiety and mood disorders. Dysbiosis can result in a lack of diversity of microorganisms, the loss of helpful bacteria or an overgrowth of harmful ones, and can be caused by stress, poor hygiene, medications (such as antibiotics) and, in particular, your diet. So here’s how you can keep your gut microbiome balanced by the food you eat.
1. Eat more plant foods
Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstones of a healthy diet, but most Australian men don’t consume enough of these nutrient powerhouses. These foods are full of fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. No supplement can replicate this intricate matrix of nutrients. The complex network of nutrients, including fibre and polyphenols (a class of antioxidants) in fruit and vegetables, can increase the diversity of microbes in our gut. Aiming to include at least two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables each day will better enable you to meet your fibre requirements and benefit from a range of nutrients that promote good gut and overall health.
Plant foods also include nuts and seeds, whole grains, tofu, tempeh, beans and pulses. Eating more of these foods may lead to better gut and overall health. Nutrition scientists recommend we eat 30 different plant foods each week. At current numbers, we’re falling well short. Try replacing one meat meal each week with a vegetarian option such as tofu stir fry, lentil bolognese or chickpea curry as a starting point. It’s not about giving up meat, but we do need to shift the dial towards more plant foods to get the balance right.
2. Fibre is a man’s best friend
Fibre reduces our risk of chronic diseases and bowel cancer (the third deadliest cancer in men). People with high intakes of cereal fibres are less likely than others to die early from a range of chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and even diabetes. So, it’s worrying that despite this known benefit, we typically fall well short of our suggested dietary intake. Fibre-rich foods include fruit and veggies, nuts and seeds and whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, lentils and other legumes. Our microbiome particularly likes feeding on fermentable fibre, which includes garlic, onion, leek, barley, cooked and cooled potato, pasta, rye and wheat.
3. Try fermented foods
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can influence our gut health. So, consuming probiotic-rich foods such as yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut can add to the diversity of microbes in your gut. These foods are also linked with cholesterol reduction and may aid digestion, support weight loss and improve immunity. Try adding yoghurt or kefir to your breakfast cereal or in smoothies, or have them as a snack. Add kimchi to your dinner plate, sauerkraut to salads and sandwiches, and choose kombucha over sugar-sweetened beverages.
4. Limit alcohol and sugary and salty foods
Drinking too much alcohol and eating a lot of sugar and salt can cause dysbiosis, so it’s best to moderate your intake of these foods and drinks. There’s no safe level of alcohol use, but you should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any day.
Eating foods as close to their natural state as possible should be the order of the day. Cutting back on overly processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages is a great way to reduce salt and sugar. Plus, go easy on the salt shaker – reducing your salt use is easier than you think, and your tastebuds will adapt over time. Maximise flavour by adding herbs and spices to your meals.
5. Go Mediterranean
There are plenty of small changes you can make to your eating habits to improve your gut health, but if you’re after a diet to guide you, go Mediterranean. The Mediterranean diet emerged from countries around the Mediterranean Sea, namely Greece, Italy and Spain, and it’s linked to a different microbiome, compared to a Western diet. It’s a way of eating that emphasises fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, moderate amounts of seafood, minimal red meat, and extra virgin olive oil as the predominant source of added fat. These foods are rich in polyphenols, polyunsaturated fatty acids and fibre, which increase the diversity of your gut microbiome. Data from the PREDIMED study showed that the adoption of a Mediterranean Diet protected participants’ hearts and reduced the incidence of depression. This may partly be explained by the diet’s ability to improve gut health. After all, the diet is rich in plants and probiotic-rich fermented foods. Studies also show that the Mediterranean diet can be protective against prostate cancer and may help with men's sexual health.
Looking after your gut can have profound effects on your wider health because good gut health is more than just opening your bowels regularly. And the good news is, supporting good gut health may just be a (delicious) mouthful away.