This is just a warning that things in this post are going to get a little bit icky but I promise that what I share with you is going to be very interesting and relatable.
I am a person that has always struggled with my gut. Ask any member of my family and they will tell you that I used to rarely go to the bathroom and often times I looked like I was six months pregnant. I suffered with shocking abdominal pain and discomfort. I recently learnt that this has a lot to do with the microbes that are living in my gut.
The ‘gut’ has been the buzz word in the health world as of late. Even as a nutrition student I wasn’t completely sure about what the gut does for our health and how to feed it. I was listening to a podcast last week hosted by Ella Mills and her husband Matthew Mills (the team behind ‘Deliciously Ella’) where they interviewed the queen of the gut Dr Megan Rossi. Megan is a Registered Dietician with a PhD in the area of Gut Health. She investigates nutrition-based therapies as a Research Associate at King’s College in London. She also works as a Dietician, in the media and has just opened up a Gut Health clinic in London.
Now before I get into explaining what the podcast was all about I am going to give you some facts about your gut. In our bodies and on the surface of our skin live trillions of microscopic organisms called “microbes”. These microbes are in the form of bacteria, fungi and even little microscopic animals. Together they form a community called a “microbiota.” Our microbiota helps our immune system to develop effectively teaching it to distinguish between good microbes and bad pathogens that cause disease.
Each person has their own unique microbiota. From the time we are born it evolves quickly and reaches maturity within the first two to five years of our life. The microbiota develops based on what we eat, where we live, how we are born (natural or caesarean) and who we live with. Even when our microbiota stabilises and is mature it can still undergo small changes. Change can be brought about as a result of a rapid change in our diet and by taking antibiotics (that actually kills the bacteria in our gut).
Research into the gut is still in its infancy but the findings have currently linked it to obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and allergies. It also influences the way our brain functions and is linked to conditions such as depression, anxiety and stress. These links are what started the emphasis of taking care of our gut.
Processor Felice Jacka, director of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, recently conducted a study linking diet and depression. All the participants in the study were suffering from severe depression. The study was conducted over 12 weeks. The researchers selected 31 participants to embrace a Mediterranean diet and reduce their intake of sweets, refined cereals, fried foods and sugary drinks. They then selected a further 25 participants to receive social support involving weekly visits from the researchers. Only 8 per cent of those in the social support group showed improvement in their symptoms compared with one third of the participants in the Mediterranean group that reported a significant improvement in their mood and symptoms.
"The immune system, brain plasticity, and gut microbiota seem to be central not just to our physical health, but also our mental health. And diet, of course, is the main factor that affects the gut microbiota." - Professor Felice Jacka, director of Deakin University's Food and Mood Centre
Professor Jacka did mention that it is important that people do not replace therapy and drug treatments with the Mediterranean diet.
“There are a number of things you can do to support the health gut. One of the key things is to enjoy a diverse diet rich in fibre. This includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds- variety is key!” – Dr Megan Rossi.
The participants in the Mediterranean diet group enjoyed six servings of vegetables, five servings of wholegrains, three servings of fruit, two servings of unsweetened dairy, one serving of raw, unsalted nuts, and three tablespoons of olive oil every single day. During the week they also had three servings of lean red meat, two servings of chicken, up to six eggs, and at least two servings of fish. They were allowed two glasses of red wine with dinner and sweets, refined cereal, fried food, fast food and soft drink were limited to three servings a week.
The gut (gastrointestinal tract) is the home for about 95 per cent of those microbes so what we feed them matters. A healthy gut requires a diet filled with fibre rich complex carbohydrates.
The variety incorporated in the study’s Mediterranean diet was for the purpose of providing the microbes with a variety of different nutrients to feast on. Megan recommends that if you don’t usually have that much fibre in your diet to take it slow. Like any change, it is more sustainable if it has been brought about as a gradual process. It will also give your body a chance to adapt to the extra fermentation going on. It is important that you increase your fibre a bit at a time and to ensure you drink plenty of water. This will help to minimize any unwanted gut symptoms that can result when increasing your fibre intake (gas and running to the toilet).
The microbes we have in our bodies we have for life so it is important that we take care of them. Megan recommends that we try to aim for about 30 different plant based foods a week! Now before you start freaking out it is not as hard as it seems. Plant based foods are everything from whole grains, different types of rice (wild, basmati), quinoa, freekah, beans, lentils, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Creativity is key here. Every type of mushroom, type of rice, type of potato will give you different benefits. A mushroom soup that contains enoki, cremini, portobello and porcini mushrooms will possess all different kinds of microbes. Try going for both yellow and red capsicums. Try different types of rice and nuts. Each different type of these foods, even though similar, give you an extra beneficial compound.
I have made a list of 30 plant based foods that I have incorporated into my diet in the last week. I challenge you right now to get a piece of paper and a pen (or go into the notes on your phone) and write down 30 plant based foods you have had in the last week. For each different food you get a point. Also remember almonds and almond butter are one food and chickpeas and hummus are one food… no cheating.
Gel’s 30 plant based foods last week:
Orange sweet potatoes
Purple sweet potatoes
You don’t have to go full vegetarian or vegan to enjoy vegetables or collect some points. It is about taking little sustainable steps. We want people to jump on board with us not dive off the edge never to be seen again. Megan used the example of making a bolognaise sauce. Perhaps instead of having 100 per cent mince, what if a third of it was lentils. Those lentils will give you an extra point! Think about how many different vegetables you can put into a soup, a curry or even a dip (ever considered putting beetroot into your hummus?)
I am going to leave you with a little quote from Megan about what she asks herself before she eats… “Is there something on my plate that is going to feed my microbes?”
I hope this post inspires you to treat your microbes every day with a little feast full of different nutrients. My personal goal is to try some new microbes every week … this week for me is papaya and red rice!