Foods for the microbiome. Happy gut, happy life.
We’ve all heard the cliché you are what you eat, which, of course, is true. But only partially. It’s more accurate to say you are what’s eating you.
We think of ourselves as a single person walking around in our body all by ourselves—but we’re not. We’re a person plus about 30 trillion microbes. While this may pose some logistical problems when you’re booking a table at your favorite café, your army of microorganisms has a huge part in digesting whatever you eat there. And in keeping your gut healthy. And keeping you happy. Bacteria play an essential role in the care and feeding of our bodies. Maybe we ought to start treating them like they matter and learn more about the care and feeding of our microbiome.
Which Is a Thing
There’s a $461 billion industry dedicated to helping you host your indigenous germs. Determining best practices is mostly a matter of hit and miss since a lot of the information out there is old or poorly qualified. Science is working hard to get all up in your tubes to figure out what is really going on up there so they can tell you what to do about it. So far, there are three practices they are mostly sure of: getting beneficial biotics into your gut is a good thing; killing them outright with antibiotics is a bad thing; your bacteria love a healthy host.
Before we go on, a little disclaimer: the author is not a scientist and in fact not really all that smart. While his journalistic chops are slightly more than adequate to research microbiome health, they aren’t good enough to grant him a medical license so maybe you should go see a doctor if you’re worried about your bacterial self. In fact, just go to a doctor anyway.
Because 30 Trillion Members of Your Intestinal Tribe Prefer an Environment That’s Medically Sound
Your good bacteria have a vested interest in your body being healthy. They don’t have a newsletter or anything, so you might not be aware of it, but when you eat right, stay hydrated, and exercise they have a party. Well, more like an orgy. Studies show changes in your diet cause temporary shifts in your gut biome as soon as 24 hours later. When the dietary change is positive—when you eat healthy—your in-house team gets all jiggy with the incoming micronoobs and the biome diversity deepens. This is important since the diversity of your gut biome is directly related to fighting off inflammation, disease, obesity, and an impressive list of other human frailties.
What should you eat to tune your microbiota? They love fiber. But not just any fiber. They’re big fans of inulin, a long-chain carbohydrate that takes longer for our intestinal army to break down. So they have to hire out. Which promotes the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobactera, solid contributors to overall health. Inulin is found in foods like chicory and sunchokes. But don’t fret if your local produce department doesn’t carry them. Fruits and vegetables in general supply your germs with fructo-oligosaccharides, which are also very good.
Too technical? This hassle-free guide from the National Institute of Health will help you out. Sort of. It is maddeningly difficult to find a simple list of foods for the microbiome, telling you what to eat and what not to eat. Of course, Oprah has one, and so does every yogurt and kombucha blog on the planet. But for charts and articles that are science first, all you get are very general gut guidelines which kind of come down to diversity in your diet equals diversity in your guts (unless you eat the wrong kind of diverse foods in which case your gut will spontaneously explode in a Michael Bay approved fireball [not backed up by science]).
However, there are some macro-truths accepted by scientists and non-scientific bloggers or suppliers: your habits play almost as big a role as your diet in keeping your viral horde healthy. Anti-biotics are especially bad for you since they are anti biotic. That’s the opposite of probiotics. Sure, you’re killing the virus that makes you sneeze all day but you’re also killing the gut bacteria that fight diabetes, obesity, psoriasis, and a million other ailments. Lately, doctors often avoid prescribing antibiotics for this reason–and because the old adage what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger works ok on you but is wildly successful with diseases.
Can You Just Tell Me What to Do Already?
Purposefully introducing foods for the microbiome into your diet is a successful way to curate your colon. Kombucha, live culture yogurt, and kefir are excellent sources of living bacteria. Other brewed foods like kimchi and miso are also good and look, everybody knows this. But the thing about biodiversity in your belly is about eating some of those lesser-known fermented foods like dark chocolate, fresh peas, and green olives–which means the triple dirty martini I’m about to have after researching all of this is actual medicine.
Foods For the Microbiome, OK, Maybe Pickles?
Look, there are delicious, comforting foods we eat all the time which are probiotic. Crème Fraiche is heavy cream left in a warm dark spot on your counter overnight or a few days to let the bacteria multiply. Why is sour cream sour? Why is buttermilk tangy? Why is a slather of good French butter on sourdough toast is a probiotic dream? Fermentation, friends.
But fermented foods are as old as history and in culinary cultures other than the North American highly pasteurized one, food with living cultures is carefully cultured. If you’re a foodie, hunting down hip new fermented foods to improve your intestinal flora and fauna could be your new hobby. If you live anywhere near a Japanese grocer, find a container of natto, fermented soybeans, which not only contain probiotics but deliver a large dose of menaquinone-7 which has shown to increase bone density in post-menopausal women. Try the following unusual fermented foods to feed your flora and your fauna.
- Sour Corn — A southern delicacy; fermented corn kernels in a salty brine.
- Nem Chua — Fermented pork from Vietnam.
- Bagoong – Fermented salted fish or shrimp from the Philippines.
- Toddy — not the hot winter drink; we’re talking about fermented palm sap, also called palm wine, popular in parts of Africa, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
- Kiviak — As many as 100 small auks (like a puffin with attitude)–beaks and their feathers intact–are sewn inside a seal skin sealed with seal fat, then buried under a pile of rocks for three or four months.
- Hákarl — I’m writing this down here for the sake of journalistic completion, but if you come across a container of this fermented shark meat, I’m not advising you to eat it, I’m just saying it exists.
- Surströmming — This reminds me that this monstrosity is a thing in Sweden. Again, I’m just saying the reports from the field are not reassuring. Look it up. I’m not linking to it or to the videos of people eating it (don’t click that) for the first time or just being in the room when someone opens a can.
Ok, But Wait — HOW DO I DO THIS?
Make pickles. It’s easy, and it’s comforting while you worry about your duodenum exploding; plus they taste amazing. Also, do your research. The National Institute for Health isn’t finished figuring out the human microbiome. They’re learning new stuff all the time, which is why their guidelines are very non-committal. But their data is airtight. Here’s a good starting point. In the meantime, eating yogurt and green olives–and even beer–are surefire ways to introduce new citizens into your gut’s Gotham City. Just don’t eat the Suströmming. Seriously. That stuff is why aliens won’t land here.
This post is not intended to substitute for medical advice or prescribed medication. Especially if you have special health needs or a special diet, consult a physician before undertaking any new diet or exercise plan.
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