As we begin to learn more about the impact of our gut health, we realize we may only be as healthy as our gut.
Our gut microbiome, the microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa living in our digestive tract, appears to play a significant role in our metabolism, immune and neuroendocrine responses.
Roles of the microbiome include nutrient and mineral absorption, synthesis of important enzymes, vitamins, and amino acids, and production of 70% of our neurotransmitters, like serotonin and melatonin.
Our gut bacteria are also responsible for producing compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Science shows SCFAs are the drivers of gut health. They appear to improve the gut environment by helping commensal or good bacteria grow.
SCFAs repair intestinal permeability, referred to as “leaky gut,” regulating our immune system.
Recent research has shown that the production of SCFAs can reduce our risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke while also reducing the overall risk of developing diabetes. These powerful fatty acids reduce the deleterious effects of harmful bacteria residing in the GI tract, helping to modulate our immune system and reduce negative systemic effects.
The largest driver of SCFA production is the introduction of prebiotics into our diet.
Prebiotics are fiber from foods, especially plant foods. Prebiotics feed our commensal bacteria, and the result is an increased production of SCFAs and many other benefits our microbes provide. The key to optimizing these results is getting a variety of prebiotics. A 2017 study done by Dr. Rob Knight, Director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation-Gut Project, showed that fiber was important. Still, the plant foods’ diversity was the key driver of microbial diversity and overall gut health. The research also showed that those who ate more than 30 different plant species a week had the healthiest and most diverse gut microbiome.
Different foods feed different microbes.
Each microbe has a distinct role in our health. A diverse plant intake is also responsible for providing a multitude of phytonutrients and phytochemicals as well. These benefit our microbiome but also have medicinal properties in the body. These chemicals are powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory chemicals which can act synergistically in the body playing a vital role in optimizing health and preventing disease.
There are believed to be over 25,000 known beneficial chemicals found in whole foods, and scientists are learning each plays an important role in our health, making these compounds powerful medicine.
Important phytonutrients include resveratrol, quercetin, flavonoids, sulforaphane, phytosterols, curcuminoids, bioflavonoids, carotenoids, allicin, and anthocyanins, to name a few. These whole food chemicals have an important role in optimizing our health and preventing disease through their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties and their direct role in immune health modulation. Phytonutrients and phytochemicals are concentrated in plant foods but can also be found in grass-fed, organic meats.
Unfortunately, Americans, and many other individuals around the world, have a diet lacking diversity and plant food intake.
In fact, studies have shown that we eat the same 5 animal foods and the same 12 plant foods, and we do not eat enough of them. Even worse, two-thirds of our calories come from three GMO, pesticide-laden crops – wheat, corn, and soy.
The top 5 vegetables in this country are potatoes (mostly in French fries), tomatoes (mostly in the form of ketchup and tomato sauce), onions, iceberg lettuce, and corn.
These top five are hardly the most nutrient-dense foods we could consume. Americans also do not get enough of the daily recommendation of fruits and vegetables. Optimally we should be getting in a minimum of 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables, yet most Americans average fewer than 3, with many teenagers getting fewer than 1.
Every level of our health is impacted by the food we eat.
We cannot optimize our health without optimizing our food choices and intake. While this is a process and can take time, it appears we can achieve far-reaching benefits by focusing on the quality of our food choices, the diversity of our food choices, and the amount of nutrient-dense plant foods we incorporate into our diet.
Focusing on a whole-food, plant-based diet is a great place to start.
Removing processed foods and refined carbohydrates will further fuel your health goals, but it appears incorporating quantity and diversity may be the key to achieving exponential results. Start now. Challenge yourself by introducing a new plant food every week. Add a serving of vegetables to your plate every day. These changes will get you on your path of optimized health, and your microbiome will thank and reward you too.
If you are interested in learning more about the medicinal properties of food, be sure to join us for our series. “Let Food Be Thy Medicine” on March 22.
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