5 best foods to boost gut health and digestion

·5-min read
Photo credit: CasarsaGuru - Getty Images
Photo credit: CasarsaGuru - Getty Images

Bacteria often gets a bad rep, but some types of bacteria are in fact essential for your gut health. Thanks to a wealth of new research in this area, it is now known that the good bacteria in your gut affects a number of key functions including your digestion, weight, mood and even your general wellbeing.

Your body contains trillions of microbes, commonly referred to as good bacteria, most of which are found in the digestive tract. These bacteria have several important roles to play which include the ability to break down foods and convert them to energy, to make certain vitamins (vitamin K, biotin and folate), to crowd out the 'bad' bacteria (too much of which can cause problems), and to provide an immune response against any pathogens entering the gut.

But which foods should you eat to ensure you're ticking all the good bacteria boxes? We spoke to registered dietitian and gut health specialist Megan Rossi about the best foods to eat for a happy, healthy gut.

5 best gut-friendly foods to eat

To maintain a diverse and thriving population of good gut bacteria, research suggests that diet has a very important role to play in keeping these trillions of bacteria fed and nourished. Ensure you include the following five foods in your diet and your gut will thank you:

Photo credit: Adam Smigielski - Getty Images
Photo credit: Adam Smigielski - Getty Images

1. Dark chocolate

Great news for chocolate lovers, dark chocolate is good for your gut health. The higher the cocoa percentage the better when it comes to chocolate's gut-friendly properties, so opt for a bar containing at least 70 per cent cocoa solids.

"Cocoa's polyphenol content is s special plant compound that is a favourite food of good gut bacteria," says Dr Rossi. "Regularly eating foods high in polyphenols is associated with optimal gut health and promotes widespread health benefits including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels."

Tip: Polyphenols can also be found in apples, blueberries, plums, hazelnuts, red wine and turmeric.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

2. Legumes and pulses

Prebiotics such as legumes and pulses provide a source of food for the good bacteria and help it to flourish. What's more, healthy levels of bifidobacteria are linked with improved digestion and prevention of gut inflammation. "These cheap but nutritious store-cupboard staples are an excellent source of prebiotics (galactooligosaccharide or GOS) which promote the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria, such as bifidobacteria," says Dr Rossi.

Examples of legumes and pulses include:

  • Black beans

  • Kidney beans

  • Lentils

  • Peas

  • Chickpeas

  • Peanuts

Tip: soak and thoroughly rinse canned legumes and pulses to lower 'anti-nutrients' such as lectins (which can inhibit the absorption of vitamins and minerals), and to make them better tolerated by individuals with more sensitive guts, particularly if you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Photo credit: Arletta Cwalina / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Arletta Cwalina / EyeEm - Getty Images

3. Flaxseeds (or linseeds)

Don't be fooled by these unassuming little seeds; flaxseeds come with a wealth of gut health benefits. "They are a good source of omega 3 which is thought to play a role in gut health, but they are an excellent source of dietary fibre which helps to soften stools and make them easier to pass," says Dr Rossi.

In fact, national dietary guidelines recommend trialling flaxseeds for the management of constipation-predominant IBS and a recent study found that flaxseed improved gut bacteria. A large systematic review in 2017 also showed promising results for flaxseed and body composition.

Tip: it's important to drink plenty of water alongside flaxseeds (1 cup of water per tablespoon), as flaxseeds need water to work. Gradually introduce flaxseeds into the diet starting with half a tablespoon, as a rapid increase can aggravate gut symptoms.

Photo credit: Arx0nt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Arx0nt - Getty Images

4. Whole oats

Naturally low in gluten, oats are a gut-friendly source of complex carbohydrates. "Unlike many other grains, oats are well tolerated by those with gut issues such as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and IBS, which is thought to affect up to 6 per cent and 15 per cent of people, respectively," says Dr Rossi. "Whole oats are also a rich source of dietary fibre including, beta-glucans and resistant starch, both known to increase the growth of good bacteria associated with decreased gut inflammation." Oats also support good bowel regulation.

Tip: opt for the large whole oats instead of ground oats, as the former contain more resistant starch to feed your good gut bacteria.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

5. Kefir

A type of fermented milk, kefir is a potent and diverse dietary source of good 'live' bacteria which contains up to 30 different strains of bacteria and yeast, says Dr Rossi. "Specific bacteria from kefir has also been shown to inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria such as salmonella and e.coli," she explains.

What's more, compared to regular milk, kefir is better tolerated by people with lactose intolerance as the bacteria it contains helps to break down the lactose.

Tip: other fermented foods rich in good bacteria include live unsweetened yoghurt, sauerkraut, tempeh and kimchi. However, it's important to note that many of the commercial products don't follow the traditional processing and skip the fermentation step (such as sauerkraut made with vinegar) and therefore don't contain any live bacteria.

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