Alumni expert view: good gut health and how to improve it

The impact of COVID-19 has affected how we access and consume food in the UK, and many people have found themselves reaching for more snacks and treats. Broadly speaking, a diet consisting predominately of highly processed foods, such as many ready meals and takeaway foods, is bad for your gut microbiome. Thus, good nutrition is important to keep healthy and strengthen our immune systems, especially when recovering from illness.

Herts alumna Saskia Inniss (BSc (Hons) Nutrition, 2018) gives her expert view on the benefits of good gut health and how to improve it with your diet. Saskia is currently doing a PhD on nutrition in disease where her clinical research looks at the nutritional status of patients with Crohn's disease and whether this is linked to treatment outcomes.

How healthy is your gut? 

Bacteria and other microbes, such as viruses and fungi, are often thought to be bad for your health. But, in fact, your body contains trillions of microbes that are not only beneficial for your health, but are vital in helping your body regulate the functioning of your metabolism, hormones and immune system. Collectively these microbes are called the microbiome. The majority of the microbes forming the microbiome are in your gut. Ensuring you have a good variety of these gut microbes is key to good gut health, including the optimal digestion of food and release of hormones that make you feel hungry and tell you if you have had enough to eat. It is unsurprising, therefore, that a healthy gut microbiome is important in helping you maintain a healthy weight.

So, how can you make sure you have a diverse range of gut microbes? There are many different factors that influence the type of bacteria found in your gut. Some factors, such as your genetic make-up, are outside your control. Other factors, such as the use of medication, you may be able to control. However, one of the most important factors in ensuring a healthy gut microbiome is likely to be entirely under your control; it is your diet.

The food that you eat not only feeds the trillions of microbes in your gut microbiome, but it also changes the types of microbes found in your gut. Research has shown that changes in your diet can alter gut microbiome composition in as little as 24 hours.

What should I eat to promote a healthy gut microbiome and good gut health? 

Generally, a diet consisting predominately of highly processed foods, such as many ready meals and takeaway foods, is bad for your gut microbiome. Whereas, a diverse diet with a high intake of plant-based foods, such as fruit and vegetables, is good for your gut microbiome.

Animal products and highly processed foods, particularly those rich is saturated fats, can reduce the growth of “good” gut bacteria and promote the growth of unwanted bacteria in your gut. Some research even suggests that the changes caused to your gut microbiome by eating highly processed foods can increase your risk of certain diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and even cancer.

Most of us know that highly processed food is not good for our health. However, what type of diet should you be eating to improve your gut microbiome and your gut health? When it comes to improving your gut health with your diet, there is no “one size fits all” solution. However, there are some broad principles that can be followed to promote good gut health:

  • eat a wide range of plant-based foods
  • eat more fibre. High fibre foods, including wholemeal bread, beans, nuts, fruit and vegetables are extremely important for your gut health. Around 90% of people in the UK do not consume the recommended amount of daily fibre
  • include more probiotic and prebiotic foods in your diet. Probiotic foods contain healthy bacteria, and prebiotics feed healthy bacteria. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods such as live yoghurts, tempeh and pickles. Prebiotics come from plant-based foods such as onions, garlic and spinach
  • prioritise healthy fats. It is important to understand that promoting gut health is not about having a low-fat diet, but rather making sure you are eating the right kind of fats. Unhealthy fats, which are typically found in more processed foods, such as fried foods, cakes and dairy products, should be avoided. However, good fats including those found in nuts, avocado, oily fish and olive oil, are recommended for a healthy gut.

In addition to a healthy balanced diet that includes the food groups mentioned above, an active lifestyle and plenty of sleep will also help improve your gut health.

Your gut microbiome is an amazing thing; and, yours is unique to you. It is well worth looking after. Making small changes to your diet is enough to start promoting good gut health. Remember, it’s never too late to start!

Image of Alumna Saskia Inniss Saskia Inniss