Best Foods for Gut Health
The title of Lindsay Maitland Hunt’s latest cookbook, which released this summer, says it all. Help Yourself: A Guide to Gut Health for People Who Love Delicious Food. It’s an ambitious, flavor-forward collection that covers everything from digestive system basics, to microbiota science, to leaky gut syndrome. And everyday recipes are what tie it all together. In the excerpt below, Lindsay breaks down her approach to eating good and feeling good. Also included: a couple recipes from the book that you’ll want to make ASAP.
If you grew up with the USDA food pyramid, it’s likely that these guidelines and my food pyramid will look a little different to you. Once you start eating with your microbes in mind, these are the things that are crucial. How you source ingredients matters, too, not just for your gut but for the health of the planet. These are by no means rules; rather, they are meant to encourage and educate you about the best-case scenario.
The USDA MyPlate diagram introduced in 2011 doesn’t distinguish between things like whole and refined grains or fruit and juice, which have very different effects on your body, for instance whether they are likely to quickly enter your bloodstream (e.g., refined grains like white crackers), or make it all the way to the good bacteria in your gut (e.g., whole grains like farro or barley).
I actually think the format of the old-school food pyramid is an easier way to visualize how a balanced way of eating should function on a day-to-day basis, rather than the single-meal MyPlate diagram. Mine is updated with clear terms like whole grains and fermented foods, which align with gut-friendly eating. Additionally, the focus is on integrating vegetables into every meal, and several servings of other plant foods every day.
1. Choose Whole Foods
Buy minimally processed ingredients and avoid ultraprocessed foods.
Whole foods is a term that’s been co-opted by mainstream brands, but its definition is an important one. The closer to its original state, the more likely a plant will escape digestion by human enzymes and make it all the way to the gut, where it will feed your beneficial microbes. The opposite of whole foods are ultraprocessed foods (see below), which are high in additives, stabilizers, and emulsifiers (all associated with dysbiosis). It’s not so much that you can’t eat a candy bar here and there, but if these synthetic, highly manufactured foods represent a majority of your energy intake, they not only introduce these harmful additives but also displace the whole foods that our microbes need to survive.
It’s a whole food ingredient if it’s recognizable in the form that you see it at the grocery store. Think: eggs, lemons, Swiss chard, a hunk of meat. These ingredients can also be minimally or beneficially processed; for instance, a sprouted grain is still a single ingredient but has undergone the sprouting process to increase the nutritional value.
It’s a whole food if it’s a minimally processed or beneficially processed food. This includes things like butter and cheese, fermented foods like kimchi, and meals prepared with multiple whole food ingredients.
Be skeptical of a packaged, processed food that promotes itself with a label like “Contains prebiotics.” Processed food can harm the gut, so whether it markets itself as being good for you or not, the best thing is to skip it most of the time. To say just “fiber” is to lack context: Can it be extracted by a machine and added to processed food? Maybe, but that isn’t going to benefit your gut in the same way that it would from a whole food source, since a food’s complex nutritional matrix seems to promote fiber’s health benefits.
Vegetables and other plants feed our beneficial microbes, which in turn produce chemicals that we need for good health. At the end of the day, eating more plants is the most important thing, whether they’re high in prebiotic fiber or not.
2. Stay Plant-Focused
Eat a lot of vegetables and other plants like whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and fruit.
One of the common pieces of advice for healthy eating is to “eat the rainbow” or go for “lots of color.” Within the context of whole foods, I like this as a useful shorthand for variety in your diet, and it tracks with research by the American Gut Project showing that eating more than thirty different types of plants in a week correlates with health.
This means you can’t just pick one vegetable, one whole grain, one nut, and one bean and consider yourself set. It’s important to vary the types of each plant category you eat, because that encourages a diversity of microbes to thrive in your gut. Diverse microbes produce diverse metabolites, which correlates with health.
3. Be Mindful When It Comes to Animal Products
If you eat them (dairy, eggs, meat, fish), source them from ethically minded producers and eat them occasionally.
Too much red meat and animal fat can tip the balance of microbes in your gut toward inflammation. Red meat specifically can result in harmful metabolites, while excessive consumption of all animal-derived foods in the absence of a variety of plants can starve beneficial microbes and promote precursors to cardiovascular-disease-promoting chemicals. Eat reasonable servings—just a couple times a week for fish, eggs, and dairy and once a week or less for red meat.
4. Integrate Live Fermented Foods Daily
Make kimchi, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kefir (but not kombucha) everyday foods.
The process of fermentation essentially mimics what happens inside your gut. Microbes start feasting on the food, jump-starting the digestion process. So when you eat the food, you’re also eating the microbes and potentially some beneficial byproducts of their digestion, too. In the case of kimchi, sauerkraut, and lacto-fermented vegetables like pickles, you’re also getting dietary fiber. It’s a symbiotic win-win!
Commonly available fermented foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, lacto-fermented pickles, kefir, yogurt, tempeh, gochujang, and kombucha. I include all of these except kombucha in my weekly rotation, since most commercial kombuchas are high in added sugar, which is inflammatory and spikes blood sugar. This means that kombucha falls under the special occasion category for me.
ULTRAPROCESSED FOOD, DEFINED
The Brazilian researcher Carlos Monteiro popularized the term ultraprocessed food to define the manufactured foods that are ubiquitous in modern diets.
“Ultraprocessed products are made from processed substances extracted or refined from whole foods—e.g., oils, hydrogenated oils and fats, flours and starches, variants of sugar, and cheap parts or remnants of animal foods—with little or no whole foods. Products include burgers, frozen pasta, pizza and pasta dishes, nuggets and sticks, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, cereal bars, carbonated and other sugared drinks, and various snack products.”
With ultraprocessed food, it’s about moderation. Having a little won’t harm you, but these products are engineered in a way that overwhelms your body’s satiety mechanisms due to the ubiquitous trifecta of high salt, fat, and sugar. And because ultraprocessed foods tend to be energy dense (read: high in calories), they displace other food sources, like vegetables and whole grains, which are essential to health.
Shopping tip: The process of heating or sterilizing food so that it is shelf stable kills beneficial microbes. Look for refrigerated fermented foods to ensure you get the probiotic benefits of the live microorganisms.
5. Eat Something at Every Meal that Feeds your Microbiota
Our microbes eat what we eat.
Humans have co-evolved with microbes in a mutually beneficial relationship. When we feed beneficial bacteria the foods they like, they thrive and so does our health. Beneficial bacteria thrive on dietary plant fiber (which includes microbiota-accessible carbohydrates [MACs] and prebiotics). The more variety of plants in your diet, the bigger the variety of beneficial microbes. A meal without plant fiber might feed you, but it leaves nothing for your friendly microbes.
6. Reduce Added Sugar
Unless you’ve fed your microbiota adequately, don’t eat any sugar at all, including sweeteners like honey and maple syrup.
When I say “added sugar,” I am talking about any refined substance that’s used to sweeten food. That means cane sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey, evaporated cane syrup, agave nectar, and more.
Simply put, if a sweet food is refined to where it can be scooped into a cup or poured into a batter and turned into a treat, then I consider it sugar. (I do not consider dried Medjool dates added sugar, as they contain fiber and minerals when eaten in their whole form. However, I do consider date sugar and date syrup to be “sugar.”)
Sugar wreaks havoc on your gut microbes. It can cause bad bacteria to outnumber good bacteria, and sugar-loving yeasts can not only set up camp in your digestive tract, they send signals to your brain to feed them—aka eat more sugar! Eating sugar is also a major factor in the development of many chronic illnesses that are linked to the gut like type-2 diabetes, hormone imbalances, and metabolic issues. Excessive amounts can also contribute to inflammation.
I like a saying from the field of toxicology, “the dose makes the poison.” While this is not true for every substance, I do think it’s a useful way to think about sugar. A little sugar occasionally as part of a balanced overall diet is not a problem. It’s when the doses outpace our body’s ability to process it that problems arise. If you do eat added sugar—which I think is absolutely fine in moderation—make sure to eat it alongside fiber-rich plants so your beneficial microbes are well fed.
7. Source High-Quality Ingredients
For instance, local, organic, non-GMO, and antibiotic-free.
This is a controversial guideline since it requires the means and access to buy these frankly more expensive foods, but one I feel compelled to suggest if you have the financial resources and time to seek out high-quality ingredients. The best-case scenario is to buy with these qualifications, since pesticides on vegetables and even trace antibiotics in conventionally raised meat have a deleterious effect on gut microbes.
Fiber: Let’s Talk Numbers
As humans, we have gone from eating somewhere between 100 and 150 grams of fiber a day to the measly 10 to 15 grams of fiber that characterizes the Western diet. No wonder our gut microbes are struggling—we are literally starving them of 90 percent of the food they need to survive. Most experts recommend trying for between 30 and 40 grams of fiber per day. I don’t count grams of fiber myself, and of course, it varies from day to day. I do try most of the time to eat foods and dishes that are mostly plants. The great thing is, you’ll likely feel better and feel a difference in your body simply by eating more plants without needing to tally up the numbers from each meal you eat.
Our communities of microbes are different than those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors; consequently, we might lack the right microbes to digest a lot of fiber. If you are not used to eating a lot of vegetables and other plants, you might experience some bloating or gas as you increase your fiber intake. That’s because those fiber-loving microbes are finally getting what they need to thrive—and that means they’re going to produce chemical byproducts (read: gas). These symptoms should go down as you adjust to eating more plants. Drinking a lot of water also helps (see the next guideline for more on that).
8. Drink a Lot of Water and Limit Alcohol
We know that lots of water is good for health. But for the microbes in your gut, why does it matter?
Well, water is absorbed by the fiber in plant foods, and if you increase fiber without increasing water, you’re likely to get backed up. Not only is this uncomfortable, frequent bowel movements are essential to maintaining a healthy balance of good and bad microbes.
Excessive alcohol consumption can cause a spectrum of gut-related issues, including increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut), dysbiosis, and inf lammation. Chronic alcohol use may disrupt circadian rhythm, which in turn can disrupt the gut microbiota. Alcohol also seems to encourage pathogenic bacteria, which produce endotoxins, a type of chemical that increases inflammation locally and—if it passes through the intestinal barrier—throughout the body. Of course, sugary cocktails are a double whammy of added sugar and alcohol.
And while this isn’t entirely gut-specific, I want to make a note about alcohol use: Rather than advocate that people cut out alcohol entirely or limit to a single glass of wine a day, I say: start by paying attention to how you engage with alcohol. Are there times when you drink more than you wish you had? Do some drinks make you feel worse than others? How many drinks equal a “normal” night? Do you hate how often you’re hungover, or wake up with a sense of guilt or shame about what happened the night before?
This is an incredibly personal area—like almost everything we put into our bodies—so rather than be proscriptive, I urge you to listen to how your body feels, and think about what role alcohol plays in that relationship.