That’s because these bacteria aren’t just passively hanging out in digestive organs: They have the ability to break down food remnants (such as fiber) and turn them into usable sources of energy, to synthesize vitamins, to crowd out pathogenic bacteria, and to produce molecules that impact gut function. As many as 1,000 different bacterial strains live in our intestines, and each of us has our own unique mixture of microbes. Many factors, including genetics, environment, and age, help to shape our microbiome — and among the most important is diet.
While our knowledge of the human microbiome is still far too limited to make specific dietary recommendations, the following suggestions may help to nourish a more complex gut environment by fueling beneficial bacteria:
- Eat a wide variety of high-fiber plant foods every single day including: vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
- Incorporate prebiotic foods. These foods are rich in the types of fiber that beneficial gut bacteria thrive on. Best options include onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, asparagus, beets, cabbage, beans, lentils, soybeans, whole wheat, oats, and bananas.
- Enjoy fermented foods. Fermented foods get their tang from lactic acid-producing bacteria, which can survive your harsh digestive tract and actually populate your gut, at least temporarily. While these foods aren’t necessarily probiotics, they may help to support a healthy digestive system. Yogurt with live and active cultures is an easy source, but there are plenty of other delicious options such as kefir (a fermented yogurt drink), kombucha tea, unpasteurized miso, tempeh (fermented soybean cake), and fermented vegetables with live cultures such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi (look for these in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, since shelf-stable jars don’t contain live bacteria).
Long story short: Pile on the fiber and give the bugs on board in your gut something to chew on.
This article first appeared in the August 2016 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.