Do you suffer from digestive issues, face cardiometabolic risks, or have a condition as seemingly far-removed from the gut as infertility or a mood/cognitive problem? You might be surprised to learn that these conditions could be alleviated by focusing on what you put in your gut. Gut health has emerged as a critical factor in your overall well-being, and the good news is that there are plenty of delicious and healthy foods that can help support a healthy gut. In this article, we'll explore the science behind gut health and reveal the best foods for a healthy gut that you can easily incorporate into your diet.
Understanding the importance of gut health
Gut health depends in large part upon the balance of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. These microorganisms — collectively known as the gut microbiome — include bacteria, viruses, and fungi, all of which play a significant role in your digestive, cardiometabolic, immune, and overall health. Among other roles, a healthy gut is essential for producing digestive enzymes for nutrient breakdown and absorption; converting carbohydrates to short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) — which are considered instrumental in helping to regulate the immune system; and synthesizing B-complex vitamins, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
In short, when your gut doesn’t have enough of the right nutrients and bacteria, the body can’t reproduce the cells it needs to fight off unwanted substances and produce desirable ones.
When it comes to gut health, it's not just about the quantity of microorganisms, but also the diversity. This is because different types of bacteria have different functions, and a variety of bacteria can help ensure that all necessary functions are being carried out efficiently.
How gut health contributes to overall health
A diverse gut microbiome is also associated with better health outcomes — and not just in your gut, but also across most of your other organ systems.
When your gut is healthy, the most obvious, outward sign is the absence of certain characteristics such as gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort (e.g., diarrhea, bloating, unabated constipation) and disease (e.g., inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome). Your gut microbiome’s health determines your level of “gut integrity”: when that’s compromised, connections between your cells may weaken, which can lead to a condition called “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability. Certain “bad” bacteria produce a protein called zonulin that can actually poke microscopic holes in your intestinal lining, causing inflammation and reducing your intestines’ ability to absorb nutrients properly.
Certain gut bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids which reduce chronic low-grade inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity, which can help prevent metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
While protecting your heart involves more than gut health, scientists are increasingly demonstrating connections between a diseased gut and the development of cardiovascular disorders. Firstly, certain species of gut microorganisms are associated with changing levels of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides; and having a greater diversity of beneficial microbes has been associated with healthier lipid levels. Secondly, your microbiome balance affects how you metabolize and store fat. Both of these two functions significantly affect heart health. Learn more: How does the gut affect heart health?
Other gut bacteria can also affect the levels of hormones in your body, impacting functions such as your reproductive fertility. Learn more: Are gut health and fertility connected?
The gut, housing around 70% of your immune system, contributes to a strong immune system. A healthy gut helps improve immunity by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and suppressing harmful bacteria. It also helps prevent infections by producing antibodies that fight harmful pathogens. Learn more: Does gut health impact immunity?
- Research has shown that there is a strong link between gut health and mental health. The gut and brain are connected through the gut-brain axis, a communication network that regulates mood, stress, and anxiety. A healthy gut can improve mental well-being by producing mood-regulating neurotransmitters (including serotonin) and reducing inflammation that can negatively affect mental health. Fatigue, both mental and physical, can also be impacted by gut health, particularly since gut health and energy are related through the relationship between eating, nutrient uptake, inflammation, and blood sugar. Learn more: Can a healthier gut improve your energy levels?
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How lifestyle changes can improve your gut health
While genetics and family history do, unfortunately, play a significant role in gut health, and thus in overall health, there are many lifestyle changes you can adopt that can make a big impact on how your gut microbiome functions. Chief among these are:
- Exercise has numerous health benefits, including in the gut. For example, exercise can improve lipid profiles by increasing the amount of high-density lipoprotein (the “good cholesterol”). In addition, exercise improves glucose regulation and can improve mental health. Exercise is also an imperative component, along with diet, in weight management — which plays a major role in gut health and, in turn, cardiometabolic health.
Sleep: When your body doesn’t get enough quality sleep, it can negatively affect your gut and cardiometabolic health, as well as your mood. Too little sleep can negatively affect insulin resistance, which is a key driver of diabetes.
- Chemical overload: Put simply, the consumption of drugs and other chemical substances, including alcohol, can significantly impact your gut and overall health. So, too, can certain prescription and over-the-counter medications. Scientists have established that antibiotics can lead to gut dysbiosis, killing both pathogenic bacteria and good gut bacteria — although the importance of factors such as drug type, dosage, route of ingestion as well as stress and environment are still being studied. Speak to your medical professional about how your medications might be affecting your gut.
The best foods for a healthy gut
In addition to the above lifestyle factors, the importance of what you eat can have a significant impact on your gut health. Eating a diet rich in gut-friendly foods can help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and improve overall gut health. But avoiding certain foods that can cause “bad bacteria” to grow faster than “good bacteria,” among other negatives, is also vital — so we’ll start with the foods to avoid for a healthy gut:
Avoid highly processed foods: Highly processed foods (such as crackers, sugar-sweetened beverages, chips, deli meats, and premade microwavable dinners) can cause large fluctuations in blood sugar, resulting in fatigue due to sugar crashing. In addition, food processing negatively impacts nutrition and can lead to long-term changes in dietary behavior which can lead to increased gut inflammation. In short, the less processed the food, the better. Put another way, stick as much as possible to fresh, whole foods.
Avoid saturated fats and trans fats, which wreak havoc on our bodies, raising levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, also known as “bad” cholesterol). High LDL levels increase a person’s risk for atherosclerosis, which can eventually result in the development of coronary artery disease and heart failure.
Limit your consumption of red meat. It turns out that not all gut-produced metabolites are beneficial. While SCFAs are predominantly associated with beneficial impacts, one metabolite, TMA (found in red meat, poultry, and eggs) is converted in the liver to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a molecule that is highly associated with atherosclerotic plaques and elevated risk for cardiovascular disease. Red meat also contributes to high cholesterol levels, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Limit your sodium intake: While this dietary factor may not affect gut health per se, it is of vital importance for cardiometabolic health. A 2018 review confirmed numerous previous studies concluding that excessive sodium intake is associated with several adverse effects on health outcomes, most notably elevated blood pressure, putting you at higher risk for CVD as well as cerebrovascular diseases (e.g., stroke), kidney diseases and type 2 diabetes.
Now that we’ve covered what it’s best to limit or avoid, here are some of the best foods for a healthy gut.
1. Prebiotics: Fuel for your gut's beneficial bacteria
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that humans cannot digest, but they serve as food for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. They help improve gut health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and suppressing the growth of harmful bacteria. Fiber also serves a vital role in promoting gut health by regulating bowel movements and preventing constipation.
Fruits such as apples, berries, and pears are excellent sources of fiber. They contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which work together to promote gut health. Bananas are also a particularly good source of prebiotics. They contain a type of fiber called resistant starch, which passes through the small intestine undigested and is fermented by bacteria in the large intestine.
Vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, and sweet potatoes are also rich in fiber. They contain a type of fiber called cellulose, which helps promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Onions and garlic are also rich in prebiotics. They contain a type of fiber called inulin, which helps promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, and barley are also good sources of fiber. They contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps regulate bowel movements and promote gut health. Certain whole grains contain a type of fiber called beta-glucan, a key ingredient in Eden's, which has been shown to improve gut health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria.
Legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas are also rich in fiber. They contain a type of fiber called resistant starch, which serves as food for the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Nuts and seeds are not only a good source of fiber, they are also high in healthy fats, protein, and certain vitamins and minerals (including magnesium, zinc, and vitamin E). Some of the best nuts and seeds for gut health include almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts.
2. Concentrate on “better carbs”
An unbalanced intake of macronutrients such as carbohydrates can promote both inflammation and oxidative stress leading to high blood glucose levels and ultimately to conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, leaky gut syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. So while it’s vitally important to consume enough “good carbs” (like the aforementioned ones that are high in fiber, such as most vegetables and fruits), why not focus on those that are also low in sugar (clinically called low-GI, or low-glycemic, foods). Essentially, the best low-GI carbs are:
- whole grains over refined ones
- fruits instead of sugary snacks
- vegetables with lower amounts of added sugars
You may find some foods that list their GI index on their food label. More commonly, you’ll need to look it up.
- High-GI carbs include white potatoes, white rice, and white bread.
- As for fruits, a grapefruit or an apple has a lower GI index than watermelon or most fruit juices.
- Typically, the lower the GI of a fruit or vegetable or a grain, the higher the fiber content: a win-win. Examples: broccoli is both lower-GI and higher fiber than corn; whole wheat bread is lower-GI and higher fiber than white rice; a sweet potato is lower-GI and higher fiber than a white potato.
3. Go ahead and enjoy healthy fats
Swap out the bad fats (see previous section) with healthy fats, especially polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) — which are strongly associated with heart health benefits, important immune-regulatory functions, and may even enhance fertility.
- Fatty fish (such as salmon, trout, anchovies, sardines, and herring) are the best sources of PUFAs, especially those beneficial omega-3 fatty acids you may have heard so much about; followed by vegetable oils.
- Olive oil, avocados and certain nuts and seeds contain MUFAs.
3. Don’t forget lean proteins - but choose wisely and in moderation
Specific amino acids from proteins are critical in immune cells that combat pathogens. Protein can come from animal or plant sources, including lean meats, seafood, eggs, beans, yogurt, and nuts and seeds. As stated previously, proteins containing the least amount of saturated fat are preferable.
4. Get good polyphenols and other vital micronutrients from plant foods
- Polyphenols and other phytonutrients have been shown to reduce oxidative stress, support the liver to promote efficient biotransformation and detoxification, and modulate gut microecology — processes which help to boost overall immune system function. Quite a number of them have been linked to reductions in risk of major chronic diseases. (However, the effects of interplay between polyphenols and specific gut microbiota functions remain largely uncharacterized.)
Certain vitamins have been shown to beneficially modulate the gut microbiome by increasing the abundance of presumed commensals (vitamins A, B2, D, E, and beta-carotene), increasing or maintaining microbial diversity (vitamins A, B2, B3, C, K) and richness (vitamin D), increasing short-chain fatty acid production (vitamin C), or increasing the abundance of short-chain fatty acid producers (vitamins B2, E). Others, such as vitamins A and D, modulate the gut immune response or barrier function, thus indirectly influencing gastrointestinal health or the microbiome.
- Fortunately, many of the same foods listed previously — e.g., fruits, vegetables — that represent good sources of prebiotic fiber also tend to be rich in vitamins, minerals and various polyphenols. Learn more about specific polyphenols and the foods that contain them in our Polyphenols 101: Your ultimate guide.
5. Feed your good bacteria with probiotics
Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. They are often referred to as "good" bacteria because they help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. In a 10-week study undertaken to determine the influence of dietary intervention on the microbiome and immune system, a fermented food diet (rich in probiotics) was found to increase microbiome diversity and decrease markers of inflammation. While their most medically accepted indication is for relief of gastrointestinal distress (e.g., symptoms such as diarrhea), studies in both animal models and humans have shown that probiotics can elicit several benefits to the heart, including reduced blood pressure; generally stimulate the immune system; may reduce visceral fat; and can contribute to improved glucose metabolism.
Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi — which are also rich in nutrients (vitamins B and K, especially). Among them, the fermented foods that have the most demonstrated gut and health benefits are:
- Fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir): These foods improve lactose digestion, and have a demonstrated ability to ease both diarrhea and constipation (which is attributed to their inhibiting colonization of harmful bacteria in the gut); thus, they are considered potentially beneficial for those individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other GI disorders. These foods also appear to be supportive of measurements of cardiometabolic health, including blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.
Fermented soybeans (miso, tempeh, natto): Despite a relatively high sodium level, miso is associated with reduced risk factors for CVD. Beyond its nutrient content, tempeh intake is linked to benefits for gut health, brain health, heart health, and skeletal muscle health. In a pilot study, the consumption of natto was associated with the suppression of elevated blood glucose following meals.
To a lesser extent, kimchi, sauerkraut, and sourdough bread have also shown certain health benefits. However, regarding kombucha, to date there is limited research involving direct effects in humans, as most of the literature is in human cells (in vitro). Learn more in Fermented Foods: Hope vs. hype.
6. Consider taking a gut health supplement
It’s not always easy, or convenient, or even economical to adopt and adhere to the above 5 dietary categories and the best foods for a healthy gut in each. When the aforementioned guidance gets a bit challenging, a dietary supplement focused on gut health may make good sense for you; ask your healthcare professional.
Eden’s 3:1 Synbiotic Superblend includes scientifically-backed prebiotics (resistant potato starch, locust bean and guar gums, oat bran, and barley beta glucan), probiotics (B. coagulans, yeast, LGG, and LPC-37), and polyphenols (from gold and green kiwifruit, lychee, green tea, and turmeric) that complement one another and combine to support your gut functioning and comfort while also improving your heart, immune, metabolic and even cognitive health. Learn more: What is a synbiotic?
The best overall diet for a healthy gut: Plant-forward and Mediterranean
It’s becoming increasingly clear to scientists and physicians that a plant-forward diet represents the healthiest overall diet. Focusing on plant-sourced foods not only provides you with a high-fiber diet, but it also ups your intake of polyphenols and other micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals). And remember: plants aren’t just fruits and veggies: whole grains, legumes, and nuts are also plants.
Decades of research have irrefutably established that particular, plant-forward diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) that are rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats reduce a person’s risk not just for heart disease, but for diabetes, obesity, and cancer — and the list goes on. All foods eaten in this diet are derived from naturally grown and fresh foods, are rich in unsaturated fats, have moderate protein levels (typically about 20% lower than in a typical Western diet), deriving predominantly from fish (with low consumption of lean, white meats and eggs), and moderate dairy consumption. By adopting a Mediterranean diet, you're likely to consume many of the best foods for a healthy gut.
Simple meal ideas for a healthy gut
Incorporating gut-healthy foods into your diet can be easy and delicious.
- Start your day with a bowl of yogurt topped with nuts and fruit, or a smoothie with spinach and chia seeds.
- For lunch, try a salad with leafy greens, avocados, and grilled chicken, or a quinoa bowl with roasted vegetables.
- For times in between meals when you just need a small snack, try a handful of almonds or walnuts, a piece of fruit with almond butter, or a cup of vegetable soup. If you're craving something sweet, try a serving of dark chocolate or a fruit smoothie with chia seeds and honey.
- For dinner, swap white rice for brown rice, and opt for a side of steamed broccoli or roasted sweet potatoes.
- When dining out, choose restaurants that offer healthy options such as salads, grilled fish, or whole-grain pasta dishes. Ask for dressings and sauces on the side, and swap French fries for a side of steamed vegetables. If you're craving something sweet, opt for fresh fruit or sorbet instead of a dessert loaded with sugar.
Incorporating the best gut health foods into your diet can help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, improve digestion, reduce your risks of cardiometabolic and other disorders, and support a strong immune system. Start by upping your level of healthy fiber and important polyphenols and other micronutrients by eating a diet largely focused on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Secondly, up your consumption of omega-3-rich fish. Then, add in moderate amounts of lean meats, healthy fats, and probiotic-rich foods. Consider supplementing this simple, delicious diet with a synbiotic blend, such as Eden’s, specially formulated to better your gut microbiome and all that goes with it — from heart health to immunity.