Updated: Mar 11, 2020
Not too far in the distant past, all it took to make a healthy dinner here in the United States was an ample portion of meat, a pile of potatoes, and maybe a few crisply cooked green beans to give the plate a bit of color. How times have changed.
Like virtually all areas of human health and medicine, nutritional science has evolved and advanced at a break-neck pace, especially in the last decade or so.
From determining the calorie content and nutritional value of everything you put on your plate, to discovering how specific eating habits can either protect or erode your health, nutrition experts have given Americans a lot of helpful information to digest.
Most recently, nutrition scientists and medical experts have begun exploring the vast ecosystem of microbiota that live inside your gut. What they’ve found could change your life. Here’s what you need to know.
As vast as the milky way
Bacteria are everywhere, including in your body. In fact, you have so many different clusters of microorganisms living in different areas of your body that if you could collect them in a single mass, they’d weigh three pounds.
Distinct types of bacteria live on or in different areas of your body — the bacteria on your skin, collectively known as your skin microbiota, are very different from your oral microbiota, which is those that live inside your mouth.
Your gut microbiota forms an enormous system of microorganisms that’s extensive and diverse. It contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1,000 different species of known bacteria with more than three million genes. That’s more than 150 times the number of genes you have in your own body!
So why should you care about the hidden universe of microbiota living inside your gut? Because you have the power to shape the kind of bacteria that are living there, and the bacteria that do wind up living there play an important role in your current well-being and long-term health.
Dysbiosis, or an imbalanced gut microbiota that has too much bad bacteria or not enough good bacteria, can manifest itself in a variety of ways. You may suffer from chronic indigestion, gas and bloating, diarrhea or constipation, or fatigue, for example, or you may develop an inflammatory bowel disorder like Crohn’s disease. For some people, an imbalanced gut makes it harder to lose weight.
Both dysbiosis and a lack of diversity in good gut bacteria have also been linked to many serious health problems, ranging from Type 2 diabetes and depression to chronic inflammation and colon cancer.
You are what you eat
It happens all the time — modern science confirms what your grandmother always told you, before she even had the research to back up her advice. In this case, the simple adage “You are what you eat” turns out to be exactly right.
About one-third of the microorganisms in your gut are common to most people, but a full two-thirds of your gut bacteria are specific to you. To put it another way — your personal gut microbiome is as about as unique as your fingerprints.
You began collecting gut bacteria long ago, right after you were born. Your collection grew as you were exposed to more and various types of bacteria through your environment and your diet. You probably also depleted your gut bacteria at some point if you’ve ever taken an antibiotic to treat an illness.
But here’s where it gets interesting: While many of the bacteria in your gut are good, meaning they’re there to support your digestive system and keep you healthy, there are also a few “bad apples” in the mix that can wreak havoc on your digestion or make you unhealthy if they’re allowed to take over.
Feed the good, starve the bad
If your gut microbiota is like a vast universe inside your body, your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is the proverbial real estate that houses that universe. By making an effort to populate that space with as much good bacteria as possible, you can limit the bad bacteria’s ability to proliferate, take over, and throw your system out of whack.
So how can you influence the makeup of your gut microbiota? It’s as simple as centering your diet around foods that only feed the good bacteria. General recommendations for someone with a minor imbalance and a relatively healthy GI tract include:
Boosting fiber intake
A high-fiber diet helps feed the microorganisms that enhance immune system function, reduce inflammation, combat chronic illness, and regulate mood. To get more fiber in your diet, eat more whole grains, beans and legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
Eating prebiotic-rich foods
Prebiotics are a special type of dietary fiber that feeds the beneficial bacteria. You can get prebiotics from Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, whole wheat, apples, spinach, beans, bananas, oats, almonds, and soybeans.
Including probiotic foods
Probiotics are a form of good bacteria that occur in fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi, and water kefir. By eating fermented foods, you can directly increase the number of good bacteria living in your gut.
Remember, although these recommendations are exactly what the doctor ordered for some people, they’re not right for everyone. Someone with severe gut dysbiosis may benefit from a completely different diet. Dr. Kotarski offers free consultations and comprehensive microbiome testing so you know exactly how balanced (or imbalanced) your gut microbiota is.