A Beginner's Guide to Gut Health

In this guest blog post, Dr Megan Rossi, founder of The Gut Health Doctor explores the science and facts behind gut health - could it be the missing key to your health and happiness?

We all know the mantra of getting your 5-a-day alongside a balanced diet of protein, carbs and fats, but are you also eating for the 40 trillion bacteria in your gut?

Ever since I lost my grandmother to bowel cancer in 2009, I have devoted my life's studies to understanding the power of the gut. Thanks to my own and peer-led research, which is ongoing to this day, we have uncovered that your gut is integral to way more than just gut disease, but your mental and physical wellbeing. And those 40 trillion bacteria? They have thousands of responsibilities and are connected to pretty much every organ and function of your body.

Want to assess your own gut health? Take our quick quiz to give you helpful insight into the current state of your gut health.

Keeping the community of gut bacteria living inside you (your gut microbiota) healthy and happy has been linked with a lower risk of conditions like certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It also contributes to protecting your mental health and optimising your metabolism, energy, immunity, hormones and much more.

In fact, here's a small taster of some of the things your gut can do for you:

  • Trains your immune cells to fight infections and keep you resilient.
  • Strengthens your gut barrier, so you experience fewer nasty gut symptoms such as bloating, gas and stomach pain.
  • Communicates with your brain to help stabilise your mood and increase your overall feelings of wellbeing.
  • Balances your blood sugar, and plays a part in warding off serious health problems such as heart disease.
  • Impacts your appetite, so you find it easier to maintain a happy and healthy weight.
  • Regulates your hormones, including estrogen and testosterone, so you experience more energy and less hormonal swings.

But your gut microbiota can only look after you if you look after it in return, and it's something that many modern diets and recommendations often ignore. You can eat as many apples and protein bars as you like, but it will not result in optimal health. When we eat for the needs of our gut, they will thrive in return, and we will flourish. And it's much easier, cheaper and tastier than you may think!

To achieve that, you can follow these key principles that I have developed with the aim of creating an easy, science-backed way of eating. No calorie-counting, no bank-busting specialist ingredients and absolutely no concessions to taste.

Here are the key principles:

1. Aim for 30+ plant points a week:

  • Data from a work-leading study demonstrated that people who eat at least 30 different plant-based foods a week had more diverse gut microbes than people who ate fewer than 10, even if the latter ate more plants in total.
  • Add 1 point for each type of plant you eat, except for herbs and spices which count as ¼ of a point. If you eat carrots twice in a week, it still only counts as 1 point, but if you eat carrots once and courgette another day, you get 2 points.

2. Spotlight the Super Six:

  • When it comes to the plants you eat, you want to eat from across the six different plant groups: vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes (beans and pulses), nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices.
  • Researchers at the University of Bergen found that eating across the Super Six can add up to a decade of healthy years to your life. For example, a young person going from eating no legumes at all to eating 200g per day (the equivalent of a good serving of mixed bean chilli) could expect to live two-and-a-half years longer than they would have done if they didn't eat legumes. This is because each of these food types are vital for our bodies' proper functioning, and yet most of us skip at least two of these Super Six most days.

3. It's about INclusion not EXclusion

  • Research has shown that adding 'good stuff' has a much greater effect than just cutting out the 'bad'. This concept of inclusion rather than restriction is key to my food philosophy and a more enjoyable and sustainable diet, long-term.
  • Firstly, unnecessarily cutting out food groups (like gluten) can have unexpected consequences like starving your gut bacteria. For example, a study of nearly 200,000 people by Harvard University in the US, found that those who consumed the most gluten had a 20% lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared with those who had the lowest gluten intake. Many gluten-free foods also contain less protein and more added sugar compared to the gluten-containing versions.
  • Secondly, the more you restrict the more likely you are to overeat those banished foods when you do get the chance (restricting and binging cycle). Researchers from the University of Toronto found volunteers who had been told they weren't allowed chocolate for a week had more cravings than those who could eat whatever they fancied. Those with restrictive tendencies in the 'no chocolate' group also ate more chocolate than those who weren't restrictive, when they were given the opportunity.

Following these principles will allow the trillions of bacteria that line your gut to flourish because each type of bacteria (and there are thousands of different types!) like a different kind of plant food. Although I'm not suggesting that we all go vegetarian, as fermented dairy like cheese and yoghurt and oil fish are good for the gut too (I include meat in my diet as well). And as each bacteria does a different job, including producing vitamins, hormones or chemical messengers; training our immune system; helping regulate our appetite or deactivating toxins, each brings its own unique health benefits. So it's crucial to nurture as many different ones as possible. Limiting our diet limits our bacteria and that limits our health. This new gut-friendly diet might seem daunting, but the key is simply increasing diversity.

Try these easy 10 hacks to get you started:

  1. Scatter a nut and seed blend over your porridge
  2. Use oats in your pancakes
  3. Throw some frozen veg (cauliflower is a great one) into your smoothies
  4. When buying frozen veg, pick a mixed veg selection rather than peas or carrots on their own
  5. Bags of mixed salad leaves - with rocket, spinach and lettuce - mean three times the diversity of a single leaf
  6. Same for frozen fruit - try a mixed berry bag rather than just raspberries or strawberries
  7. Blend up basil with cashews, olive oil and parmesan for a DIY pesto, rather than buying shop-bought
  8. Making a bolognese? Replace half the meat with cooked lentils
  9. Roast and blend lots of different veg for a tasty pizza or pasta sauce
  10. Know that tins are your friend: mixed beans are a great option to throw into a soup, curry or even with your baked beans

Dr Megan Rossi is a scientist, clinician and best-selling author with a mission to inspire and transform everyone's gut health using the latest science.

She is founder of The Gut Health Doctor, The Gut Health Clinic and Bio&Me. You can also find her on Instagram.

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