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Nutrition Month: How Does my Gut Health Affect my Overall Health?

Have you heard of Gut Health and our “Microbiome” or the “Microbiota”?

Microbiota are tiny micro-organisms that live in or on the human body. They include various bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

(Isn’t that a comforting thought?). Note: the “Microbiome” refers to the genetic material (genes) of the microbiota.

“Gut Microbiota” refers to the micro-organisms that live in our gut (also known as the gastrointestinal tract). There are TRILLIONS of micro-organisms (that outnumber our human cells about 10 to one!!!) in our gut; and they play a very important role in our overall health!

Why is the Gut Microbiota important?

Our microbiota consists of beneficial micro-organisms, as well as those that are potentially harmful. There are also some micro-organisms that are pathogenic (i.e., promote disease). If there is a disturbance in the balance of these micro-organisms, the body may be more susceptible to diseases such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, allergies, asthma, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or Celiac Disease, to name a few.

What are the functions or benefits of a healthy, diverse Microbiota?

  • They make (or “synthesize”) certain vitamins such as Vitamin K, and B vitamins.

  • They affect mood, hormones, and energy level.

  • They stimulate the immune system to help protect us.

  • They offer protection from pathogenic micro-organisms that may be ingested.

  • They help digest nutrients that we are unable to easily digest – such as certain carbohydrates and fibres. The bacteria in our large intestine break down these fibres by fermentation; and as a result, produce substances called “Short Chain Fatty Acids” or SCFA. These SCFA are thought to play an important role in the prevention of certain cancers, bowel disorders (such as Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease), and chronic diseases.

  • They help keep our Gastrointestinal Tract functioning well.

What can you do to promote a healthy Microbiota?

  • Follow a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes a wide variety of foods – especially plant-based foods!

  • Consume adequate amounts of fibre (25 – 38 grams per day).

  • Limit your consumption of highly processed foods, and processed meat.

  • Limit your consumption of foods that are high in sugar and unhealthy saturated fats or trans fats (a.k.a. junk food).

What are Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Fermented Foods?

Prebiotics can be thought of as food for the probiotics. Prebiotics are found in foods that contain carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables, legumes / pulses, and whole grains.

Probiotics are living micro-organisms such as bacteria, meant to provide health benefits. Foods that contain probiotics include: yogurt, kombucha (a fermented tea beverage), sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, miso (made from fermented soybeans), Kefir (a fermented milk product), tempeh (also made with fermented soybeans), and kimchi (fermented vegetables).

What factors can have a negative effect on the Microbiota?

  • Antibiotics

  • Gut infections

  • Stress

  • Environment, and of course…

  • An unhealthy diet!

Why is fibre important?

  • Fibre “feeds” or provides fuel to our gut microbiota. (As mentioned, whatever fibre we are unable to digest, is digested by our gut bacteria – which then produce beneficial compounds such as Short Chain Fatty Acids - SCFA).

  • SCFA play a very important role in maintaining a healthy gut barrier, which acts as a “first line of defense” to protect us from any harmful substances or organisms that enter the gut.

  • SCFA also play a crucial role in immune function; act as anti-inflammatory compounds; and provide fuel to the cells in our gut to give us energy.

How do I include more fibre in my diet?

  • Choose more whole grains (rather than refined white grains)

  • Aim for ½ plate of vegetables for lunch and supper

  • Include legumes (pulses) such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and hummus, etc. (Think: Meatless Monday…)

  • Include nuts and seeds (both of which contain heart-healthy fats and fibre)

  • Try to include a variety of plant-based foods for different types of fibre.

The Bottom Line:

  • Try to follow more of a Plant Based Diet, by including a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (now known as “pulses”) such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and hummus etc.

  • Get adequate amounts of fibre: 25 grams per day for women, and 38 grams per day for men.

  • Limit your intake of highly processed food and “junk” food.

  • Try the “Plate Method” when meal planning:

½ plate of non-starchy vegetables (essentially any vegetables other than potato, sweet potato, or corn).

¼ plate of Grains & Starches (such as potato, sweet potato, corn, quinoa, brown rice, barley, etc.)

¼ plate of Protein (legumes or pulses, fish, skinless poultry, lean meat, tofu, nuts &seeds, etc.)

A healthy, balanced diet that is rich in unprocessed foods and high fibre carbohydrates will stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and therefore promote a healthier gut microbiota. This in turn can help strengthen the immune system, and promote better health overall.

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