Why is gut health important?
Your gut, also known as your gastrointestinal or digestive tract, is a very complex system. We still don’t fully understand everything about it.
What we do know, however, is that it is responsible for all sorts of things in your body, and that its health has a significant impact on your overall wellbeing (not just your digestion).
There are tens of trillions of bacteria in every person’s gut. A healthy microbiome should contain a wide variety of good bacteria and should not contain high levels of bad bacteria.1
Studies indicate that the state of our gut microbiome can affect our cholesterol, immune system and risk of heart disease. It can influence our weight, our skin and even our mental health.
So, looking after the wellbeing of your gut is an important way to look after your overall health.
How can I improve my gut health?
Every gut – just like every person – is different. And every gut likes to be fed differently.
But while there is no one-size-fits-all ‘healthy gut diet plan’, there are still things that everyone can try that should help you look after your digestive system.
These 15 diet and lifestyle tips will help you on your way to a happy, healthy gut.
1. Eat more vegetables
Whatever you read about ‘gut health foods’, the best way to help your microbiome flourish is to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables.
That means at least five portions a day, but ideally more.
Fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that help your gut in a number of ways. People who eat more vegetables tend to have healthier guts.2
2. Eat more plant-based foods and meals
There is some evidence to suggest that a wholly plant-based diet can boost your gut health.3
Of course, going vegan is not for everyone, but you should still consider working more vegetarian and plant-based foods and meals into your diet. Perhaps try Veganuary or start taking part in Meat Free Mondays.
3. Eat more fibre
Did you know that around 90% of people in the UK don’t eat enough fibre? Most of us eat around 20g per day, whereas the recommended intake is 30g.
High-fibre diets are associated with greater balance and diversity in the gut microbiota.4 In layman’s terms, eating more fibre makes your gut happy.
4. Avoid processed foods
Processed foods tend to be lower in the essential nutrients that feed the gut microbiome. There is also research to suggest that some of the additives found in these foods may be harmful to our digestive system.5
Base your diet around whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and pulses. Try to limit your intake of processed foods, including meat.
5. Cut back on sugar
Too much sugar – and in particular refined sugar – can negatively impact the health of your digestive system. It can upset your bile production and your metabolism, disrupting your bowel movements.6
Eating too much sugar can also make you gain weight, damage your teeth and raise your blood pressure. Cutting down could benefit your health in many ways.7
Many processed and premade foods contain more sugar (and salt, and bad fats) than you would expect, so again whole foods are your best bet.
6. Include prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet
Probiotics are healthy bacteria. Prebiotics feed healthy bacteria. You should be able to get enough of both from a healthy diet.
Prebiotics come from plant-based foods, while probiotics are often found in fermented foods. It’s much better to get both from your diet rather than from supplements, which have not been proven to work.8
Foods containing prebiotics:
- Whole wheat
Foods containing probiotics:
- Live yoghurt
7. Prioritise healthy fats (and avoid unhealthy fats)
The types of fat in your diet can affect the health and composition of your gut flora. It’s not so much about a high-fat or low-fat diet but rather that you’re eating the right kinds.
Unhealthy fats are typically found in processed and convenience foods, fried foods, cakes and desserts and some dairy products (butter, cream, some cheeses).
Good fats can be found in avocados, certain nuts, oily fish and some oils including rapeseed and olive.
Research suggests olive oil is one of the healthiest fats you can eat. Olive oil-rich diets have been shown to encourage good bacteria in the gut to grow and flourish.9
8. Try a Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet, i.e. the typical diet of people living in the Mediterranean, is thought to be one of the healthiest in the world.
It is rich in healthy fats (olive oil featuring heavily, of course) and high in vegetables and whole grains, nuts and legumes. It contains less dairy and alcohol and very few processed foods.
Studies show that people who follow the Mediterranean diet live longer and are healthier overall – including their digestive tracts. The diet is also linked to reduced risk of a host of health conditions.10
9. Eat regular meals at regular times
Our increasingly busy lifestyles mean it’s often easier to grab something on the go or even skip meals completely. However, eating regular portions at regular times promotes good digestion.
If you frequently eat at odd hours or overeat (or undereat), you will start to notice the effects.11
10. Eat more slowly
Similarly, eating slowly and mindfully – rather than wolfing something down in a spare minute – will help take care of your gut health.
Eating slowly not only aids your digestion, it also helps you to recognise feelings of fulness, making you less likely to overeat.
Research has found that people who eat quickly are more likely to be overweight or obese and have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.12
11. Stay hydrated
Water is essential for our bodies to function. When it comes to your gut, drinking lots of water helps it keep running smoothly.
Water is absorbed by fibre, allowing it to pass through the system and help the passage of waste. If you are dehydrated you may well experience constipation.11
12. Drink alcohol in moderation
A glass of red wine now and then won’t damage your gut, but if you are regularly drinking more than the recommended 14 units of alcohol per week you risk upsetting your microbiome.
This is particularly true if you are a man drinking eight or more units in one session, or a woman drinking six or more. This is defined as binge drinking, which can unsettle your gut bacteria, encourage acid production and aggravate existing digestive disorders.11
13. Stop smoking
No doubt you already know that smoking is bad for you, but many people don’t realise that it can have a direct effect on your gut.
Smoking can damage your digestive tract, leading to problems including reflux (and heartburn), stomach ulcers and inflammatory bowel problems.11
14. Exercise more
Exercise is not just about losing weight, you know.
Exercise has been shown to enrich the diversity of the gut microbiome, encouraging healthy bacteria and a healthy gut overall.
One study found that exercising more could boost your gut enough to improve immunity, reduce the risk of certain diseases and help manage existing digestive complaints.
It also found that the effects of exercise on your gut encouraged weight loss and protected against obesity, so perhaps it is about losing weight after all.13
15. Look after your mental wellbeing
More and more, we are coming to understand the significant links between our mental and physical health.
High stress levels and other psychological problems can negatively effect your whole body, your gut included. Many people will have experienced an upset stomach during times of stress.
Stress and anxiety can slow down digestion, cause constipation and bloating or lead to diarrhoea. It can also aggravate existing conditions such as IBS and IBD.11