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Food Effects on the Microbiome

Other than choosing whether or not to smoke, our eating habits are the single most powerful lifestyle influence affecting our quality of life and longevity. Diet is not only about what you eat – it also includes how we eat.

Many, if not most of us, have learned the fast paced, western society way of eating. We gobble our food down, and then look for more sensory enjoyment even if we don’t need the calories. We have become a nation overfed and under nourished.

How can we lose weight, improve health, reduce inflammation, and still fill our plate, not feel deprived, avoid skimpy portions and hunger pains? It all starts with real foods, prepared in a simple way free from added fats and sugars. In our western fast-paced society we have gotten use to what Michael Pollen calls “food-like substances” in his documentary, In Defense of Food. Food-like substances are the rattly, crinkly, packaged foods.

Highly processed foods do not have all the nutrition necessary to properly digest them, so they borrow from body stores to provide for the deficiency. Then the body has another challenge of actually absorbing the nutrients because the little hairs in the intestinal tract, called microvilli, are matted down by white refined flours, sugar, greasy and high fat foods, so that the little hairs cannot do their job of collecting and absorbing the nutrients. Thus, our gut also becomes compromised. You see, it is like a domino effect and the situation continues to get worse.

The raw fact is, we are only as healthy as our gut, or intestinal tract, is healthy. How can we get the little-hair guy to stand up and swim? It all starts with real whole, plant foods. These contain fiber and water, which work together to clean up the intestinal tract. Fiber acts like a broom in the intestinal tract to sweep up the gooey trash that has been hanging around and water pushes the fiber on through the tract so the little guys can stand up again.

But that is not all, there’s more! Whole, plant foods also have all the nutrition buzz words you hear about, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, etc. These empower the body to heal, repair, and fight off disease and illness.

If you want to improve gut health, fruits, grains, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts and seeds are all important foods to include to heal the body.

Your gut provides a home for trillions of bacteria with more than 2,000 known species of gut bacteria. The contributions of the gut microflora influence nutrient uptake, metabolism, body clocks, detoxification, immune responses, inflammation, and our mental health!(1)

The proper balance and diversity of gut bacteria is necessary for favorable immune responses and optimal health. Too much of either unfriendly or friendly bacteria triggers strong immune and inflammatory processes.

Beneficial bacteria release useful byproducts that protect our health and lower risk for colon cancer, atherosclerosis, and inflammatory conditions. They protect against infections, release neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and improve our quality of sleep.(2)

Unfriendly gut bacteria release toxins and inflammatory agents that disrupt the gut barriers and thus contribute to the development of conditions such as atherosclerosis, hypertension, allergies, diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s, celiac, ulcerative colitis), lung problems, anxiety, and depression.(3)

We all have our own unique genetics, environmental, lifestyle, and dietary factors to which we are exposed. We cannot change our genetics, but we can change environmental, lifestyle and dietary factors in such a way as to encourage good bacteria and reduce unwanted bacteria.

Diets high in whole plant foods; fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, and low in added sugar and saturated and trans fats (i.e., hydrogenated fats) stimulate the proliferation of beneficial and anti-inflammatory bacteria.(4) Liberal amounts of raw fruits and vegetables are particularly useful in building healthy gut microflora.(5)

In contrast, a low nutrient, high calorie Western diet (rich in sugar, animal products, salt, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates) is linked to more disease-causing bacteria.(6,7)

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation due to the refining process and the ensuing inflammation created by refined grains, starches, sugars which feed unfriendly bacteria. But carbohydrates in their whole form, with fiber and nutrients intact make important contributions to gut health. Beyond fiber, whole grains, starches, and legumes contain resistant starches that reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic diseases, improve insulin sensitivity, potentially reversing insulin resistance also known as metabolic syndrome.(8,9,10) Plant foods, such as asparagus, artichokes, barley, rye, lentils, onions, chicory, garlic, leeks, and bananas provide the gut with prebiotics; non-digestible carbohydrate that feed good bacteria and assist in the formation of probiotics.

Pesticide residues on food have the potential to harm friendly gut bacteria.(12) Glyphosates are used to spray most of our grain products for easier harvesting. But glyphosates do not treat our gut very well and have been linked to leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune diseases. Buying organic foods can reduce pesticide residues and glyphosates. If organic food is not available, soak plant produce briefly in a 10% salt rinse (use 1 part salt to 9 parts water). Pesticides found in meat, dairy, and fish cannot be reduced.

Artificial sweeteners reduce the number of good bacteria in your gut and encourage insulin resistance.(13) This is true of aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. If too much stevia extract is used it can also adversely affect gut bacteria.(14) But using the stevia plant instead of the extract has no adverse effects.