On Your Health

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Healthy Gut, Healthy Life? How the Microbiome Diet Can Impact More Than Your Weight

It’s no secret the foods we eat affect our weight. There are many different diets claiming certain foods will help lose weight, but thanks to research conducted in the last few years, scientists are learning the food you eat can impact not just your weight, but your overall health and well-being.  

How? Your diet affects the colony of microbes (aka bacteria) found in your gut, which has the potential to influence your sleep, weight, food allergies, your likelihood for developing certain diseases and more. This colony is called your microbiome. But, just what exactly is a microbiome and how can you ensure yours is healthy and balanced? 

What is the microbiome? 

The microbiome is made up of many trillions of bacteria living in and on your body. Everyone has a unique microbiome. Your geography, health status, stress level, age, gender and everything you eat can affect the composition of your microbiome and the types of bacteria found in your body. 

While some bacteria are harmful and can lead to infection, the bacteria found in your microbiome are crucial for regulating key bodily functions. These helpful bacteria can be found in your mouth, lungs, nasal passages, skin and brain, but your large intestine (colon) contains the highest concentration, with more than 100 trillion microbes calling your gut home. 

Until recently, researchers were aware of the microbiome but didn’t fully understand the role it plays in regulating aspects of our health. Now we know our diets have a large impact on the types and abundance of bacteria found in the gut. By changing the foods you eat, you can influence your microbiome’s balance.

The benefits of balance 

When your microbiome is balanced, your entire body benefits. “A healthy microbiome means having optimal digestion. If someone has been having a problem with digestion, such as IBS, a balanced gut microbiome can improve that condition and get the GI tract back on track,” says Pam Patty, a registered dietitian at INTEGRIS. “Research has also shown a balanced microbiome leads to optimal cognitive function, a robust immune system and a strong defense against allergies,” she says. 

Two of the main benefits of a balanced microbiome are possible weight loss and a boosted metabolism. The microbes in your gut are powerful because they can dictate what you eat, your cravings and how hungry you feel. Lean people have been found to have more diverse microbiomes than those who are overweight. 

A microbiome lacking in diversity can cause low-grade inflammation in your gut and throughout your body, contributing to weight gain or difficulty losing weight. 

Besides helping with weight loss, friendly bacteria and a balanced microbiome have many other potential health benefits, including: 

  • Promoting better sleep
  • Influencing mood 
  • Supporting bone development
  • Producing crucial vitamins, minerals and other nutrients 
  • Manufacturing natural antibiotics 
  • Reducing fatigue
  • Clearing acne and eczema 
  • Reducing joint and muscle pain

Unbalanced levels of gut bacteria can increase your risk of irritable bowel syndrome, infections, diabetes and heart disease.

How the microbiome diet works

Gut microbes respond quickly to a change in diet. In fact, the lifespan of a microbe is only about 20 minutes, meaning the composition of your microbiome can be changed quickly by eating foods healthy bacteria thrive on. 

Prebiotics (foods that feed beneficial bacteria) and probiotics (foods that contain beneficial bacteria) are the building blocks of the microbiome diet. Adding just one to three servings of these foods to your everyday diet can feed and nurture your microbiome. 

Typical western diets heavy in sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemical preservatives and refined carbohydrates have the opposite effect and nourish bad bacteria which can cause inflammation and weight gain. When bad bacteria flourish, they kill off helpful microbes and throw off the balance of your microbiome.

In addition, a limited diet can also reduce the diversity of microbes in your gut and throw off their balance. 

Finally, “A lot of medications can also cause harm to the microbes (antibiotics, for example) that can lead to an unbalanced microbiome,” Patty says. “This can result in decreased vitality of the immune system and reduced ability by the body to stay healthy when it’s exposed to environmental challenges.”

The microbiome diet works by introducing probiotics, prebiotics and a wide assortment of healthy foods microbes love, in order to create a balanced, diverse microbiome that keeps you healthy and allows your body to function normally. 

Prebiotic Foods

The microbiome diet 

The microbiome diet promotes eating enough, but not too much, and consuming mostly plant-based foods. Your body needs adequate amounts of foods to keep gut bacteria alive but not overwhelmed with nutrients, as this can lead to imbalances in the species of bacteria found in your microbiome. Eating mostly plants rather than animal products helps reduce the populations of bacteria associated with obesity. 

Follow the guidelines below to choose microbiome-balancing foods. 

Consume probiotics 

Probiotics feed the bacteria in your microbiome and help improve its diversity and makeup. Researchers found both food forms and probiotic supplements promote overall health maintenance. Probiotic microbial strains cannot flourish in your gut without continued supplementation, so a daily dose is recommended. 

Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and Greek yogurt naturally contain higher levels of healing probiotic bacteria than supplements, making these great options for a microbiome-friendly diet. Other foods high in probiotics include cheeses made with raw milk (such as cheddar, gouda, swiss and parmesan), kombucha, olives, pickles, tempeh, miso and natto. 

Get enough prebiotic fiber

In addition to probiotics, it’s important to consume prebiotic fiber which gives gut microbes the energy they need to grow and multiply. Prebiotic fibers are indigestible, so they can make it into the intestine fully intact. Then they are fermented and broken down by healthy microbes, creating compounds called Short Chain Fatty Acids that have many positive effects on your health. 

Foods heavy in prebiotic fiber include raw or cooked onions, raw garlic, raw leeks, raw asparagus, chicory root, bananas, tomatoes, radishes, berries, apples with skin, nuts, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, raw dandelion greens, flaxseeds and chia seeds.

Choose other gut-healthy food options

The microbiome diet doesn’t intend to vilify certain groups but encourages you to choose gut-healthy options that help bacteria thrive. Try fruits such as berries, cherries, coconut, grapefruit, kiwi, nectarines, oranges and rhubarb. For healthy fats, choose nuts, seeds, avocado, fish, flaxseed oil, sunflower oil or olive oil. When it comes to meat, choose beef, chicken, low-mercury fish, lamb or shellfish, as long as they aren’t heavily processed. 

“Dairy products have been a source of probiotics for centuries, when they are fermented to create yogurt, kefir and various cheeses,” Patty says. “Meat can also be fermented to provide probiotic benefits. I would recommend checking out the Cultures for Health website which provides tutorials on how to ferment a variety of foods.”

Diversify the foods you eat

Having diverse gut bacteria has been associated with leanness, as well as protection from many diseases. 

You can add diversity to your diet by choosing a wide variety of foods, especially those high in plant-based prebiotic fiber. The American Gut Project found those who ate more than 30 different plant types per week had more diverse microbiomes than those who ate 10 or fewer types of plants per week. 

“Eating a variety of foods in various states of raw and cooked can provide your body with a balanced gut microbiome. You don’t necessarily have to strictly follow a ‘microbiome diet’ to achieve a healthy gastrointestinal tract,” Patty says. “The challenge comes when someone eats a diet high in convenience foods that have processed because they no longer contain the nutrients the gut microbes need in order to thrive.” 

Prebiotic and Probiotic Foods