By Claire Watson
We live in a time where food choices have never been more challenging. Public health messaging to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day is out of date, food is marketed at us in a manner that can hoodwink us into believing we are making a healthy choice (healthy products often contain more sugar than a piece of cake!).
Meanwhile the media bombard us with the latest fad diet or superfood that promises to be a quick fix. Just go Keto, or eat acai berries, then you’ll be healthy! All of this information makes it incredibly difficult for us to make choices that are the right ones for us. But it doesn’t need to be difficult, I’m here to help you cut through the noise and learn how to make food choices.
The starting point for anyone who wants to improve their health in any way – be that loosing weight, finding more energy, addressing a chronic health condition, or a mental health condition, is always gut health. In a nut shell, gut health refers to the trillions of micro organisms that live inside us. They influence our brain, our skin, our metabolism, our hormones and our immunity, in fact 70% of our immune system resides in the gut. So, the health of our gut can have links to depression, anxiety, Alzhemier’s, obesity, cancer, IBS, type 2 diabetes and arthritis. Our microbes do jobs that our human cells can’t.
Good gut health really is the foundation of health. A healthy gut microbiome is one that contains a diverse range of microbes, that means a large population in total and within that population a lot of different types. So how do we get that?
4 Ways we can influence the health of our gut based on what food choices we make.
🥬 1. Microbes need fibre to survive, it is their food. A diet that is rich in a diverse range of different fibres is essential to support a large and diverse microbiome. Fibre is found in whole plants. Current research suggests that we should aim is to include 30 different varieties of plant per week in our diet. This might sound like a lot but if you think about including nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits it isn’t as hard as you might think. The public health message to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables should really be replaced with this advice to eat 30 different types per week.
ADVICE - To increase the variety of plants in your diet start buying packets of mixed foods. For example, nuts, frozen fruit, grains, seeds, nuts. Eating with the seasons is a great way to ensure diversity in your fibre intake.
🥛 2. As well as eating a range of plants, we need to eat probiotics to get good gut health. Probiotics are fermented foods that contain live bacteria. Eating fermented foods is a way of introducing live bacteria into our gut, but it is important to remember that they won’t stay there forever once introduced, so eating foods with probiotics should be a regular practice. Probiotics are found in kimchi, a Japanese fermented and spiced vegetable mix. Sauerkraut, also fermented vegetables, usually predominantly cabbage. Kefir, a fermented goats milk, kombucha, a fermented tea, Miso, fermented soya. Also in live yoghurts.
ADVICE – When choosing a fermented product check that it has not been pasteurised. With kimchi or sauerkraut, always buy a glass container, and often locally made fermented foods are higher quality. Choose full fat, Greek yoghurt and avoid yoghurts that are flavoured, add the flavour yourself with a dash of cinnamon or vanilla, or a splash of honey.
3. There are also some foods that should be limited to aid good gut health. Ultra processed foods can disrupt our gut microbes. UPFs are high in salt and sugar, but of more concern are the levels of artificial sweeteners and chemicals in these foods. They can also be marketed to us as healthy options. Diet coke for example is given three green lights on the side of the can, so you would think it is a healthy option. But, it contains artificial sweeteners that confuse our body and brain and can actually lead to us craving more sweet food. Many UPFs contain emulsifiers which are used to blend ingredients in a food together. Many emulsifiers are chemically formed in a lab – they are not food and in my opinion should not be in our food system. When emulsifiers enter our gut they disrupt the gut lining, making it more permeable leading to inflammation. They also disrupt communications between our microbes and can lead to them sending out abnormal chemicals, also leading to inflammation. I’m not saying never eat these foods, it would be practically impossible.
ADVICE - To reduce UPFs in your life, start looking at ingredients lists, if there are items on there that you can’t pronounce or don’t recognise don’t buy it. For example, wraps, most of them contain emulsifiers so choose a sourdough bagel or a pitta instead. Cereal bars might seem like a healthy option, but many of them contain more sugar than a piece of cake, so treat yourself and have a piece of home made cake (like the ones in Machina!).
⏰ 4. Fasting can have a beneficial effect on gut health. Fasting is good for our microbes, just like we need to rest so do they. When we stop eating a whole new set of microbes set to work, they are like a clean up squad, but also fasting promotes a more diverse range of microbes within our gut. Fasting also improves the integrity of the gut lining, which helps to prevent disease and toxins from passing through it.
ADVICE - To give your gut a rest try a 12 hour fast. If you need to eat your dinner late in the evening, delay your breakfast. If you are someone who likes to eat early in the morning, choose to have an early dinner.
Making change can be really hard, particularly in the current food environment. Our habits are part of the sub-conscious brain which means we don’t even think about them while carrying them out. To make changes we need to get present, and know that it will take time, around 3 weeks to start forming a new habit. It can also be hard to eat new foods, sometimes we don’t like the taste and it can take time to adjust to new flavours and textures. Our taste buds regenerate every 10 days so if you keep exposing yourself to new flavours your taste buds will catch up. Take small steps and make one change at a time. It can be tempting to do a huge over haul but this relies on will power, and can often lead to failure. Commit to one small change at a time, set an intention by writing it down or sharing it with a family member or friend. It might be fasting for 12 hours daily. It could be drinking one less can of fizzy juice per day, or swapping out a UPF food for a whole food, or simply adding in one new plant food.
I would like to leave you with three top take aways…
- Eat more plants
- Try to un-process your food choices
- Fast for 12 hours every day