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What you need to know about gut health

Lately, it seems like everyone is talking about gut health – perhaps while sipping a glass of kombucha, or talking about something called the ‘microbiome’.

But if you don’t know your prebiotics from your probiotics, don’t despair. Much of the research into gut health is relatively new, with experts still unravelling new information about this complex topic.

‘There’s definitely been an influx of research in recent years,’ says Dr Elena George, from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN). ‘There’s been a lot of nutrition research going on in gut health and what that’s told us is there’s a whole lot happening inside our gut, and it’s not really as simple as we might have thought.’

Micro-what?

First up, let’s backtrack: what is the microbiome?

‘The gut microbiome refers to the trillions of bugs that live in our gut. They’re bacteria and yeast,’ Dr George explains.

She says scientists are beginning to get a better understanding of not only the different types of bugs in our gut, but the balance between them – and how all of this determines how healthy we are.

‘We know now that the balance between the bugs can become disrupted, and that’s called dysbiosis,’ Dr George says. ‘That’s when there are more bad bugs than there are good bugs and then that’s when we have seen associations with many of our common diseases.’

The dangers of poor gut health

Poor gut health has been linked to many different diseases or conditions, including Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity and mental health issues.

Obviously these are problems we’d all rather avoid. So how can we ensure our gut health is up to scratch?

Dr George says gut health is not only determined by what we eat and drink, but also by the amount of physical activity we do, our lifestyle and other environmental factors. ‘But diet and physical activity are interesting because we can all do something about them,’ she says.

Prebiotics vs probiotics

Back to those bugs for a minute. Dr George says there are two things we can start by focusing on to improve our gut, and they are prebiotics (feeding the good bugs already in our systems) and probiotics (live bugs that are also good for us, and can be added to our bodies via food or drink or supplements).

‘I guess the simplest, cheapest, easiest way that we can improve our gut is by eating foods rich in prebiotics,’ says Dr George. ‘This means eating foods that are rich in fibre that will pass all the way through the digestive system and feed the good bugs. This type of fibre is the best prebiotic.’

Foods to steer clear of, at least most of the time, include processed foods and high salt or high sugar foods.

'Probiotics can be taken as a supplement or they’re found in foods like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles or kombucha and they are all fermented foods.'

Dr Elena George,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

What to eat for a healthy gut

When it comes to prebiotics, Dr George says you should make a beeline for vegetables including Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, green peas and sweet corn. Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and red kidney beans also get the tick of approval.

Then there’s fruit such as watermelon and white peaches, dried fruit, including dates and figs, and grains such as barley, rye bread, pasta and couscous.

‘What we’re basically recommending is that you focus on a plant-based diet, so your vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts,’ Dr George explains.

Meanwhile, probiotics are encouraged. ‘Probiotics can be taken as a supplement or they’re found in foods like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles or kombucha and they are all fermented foods,’ Dr George says. ‘Now that doesn’t mean that all fermented products are probiotics, so you need to check the food label and see what live and active cultures they contain.’

Another thing to remember is that taking antibiotics normally wipes out some of your gut microbiome. ‘So taking a high dose of probiotics after an antibiotics course could be a really good way to restore some of those bugs as well,’ Dr George adds.

A healthy gut can also help manage, or improve, some of the symptoms associated with food intolerances.

The key things to remember

The take-home message is to choose a range of fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes. And the happy news is that, while the science is new, what we are learning further supports the Australian Dietary Guidelines and confirms our best guesses around what to eat for health.

Lastly, if you’re on the leaner side you might not think you need to worry about gut health. But that’s not always the case, Dr George says.

‘Our research tells us that promoting a healthy gut microbiome is really important for all of us – whatever age, shape or size we are.’

Considering studying to become a nutritionist? Find out what it’s really like.

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Dr Elena George
Dr Elena George

Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University.

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