All About Digestive Health (AKA “Gut Health”)
You may have heard the term “gut health” over the past few years in the news or in health and nutrition spheres. While not the most glamorous of topics (or the most elegant of phrases), it does encourage some good conversation about the importance of a healthy digestive system to our bodies’ overall health.
Our digestive system is comprised of the gastrointestinal tract along with several solid organs (liver, pancreas, and gallbladder). The GI tract, which includes hollow organs like the stomach and intestines, is what is generally referred to as “the gut.” There are many bacteria (scientists estimate up to 100 trillion!) living in this area of our bodies; together, these bacteria are often referred to as “flora” or the “microbiome.” The good bacteria help aid in digestion and other essential functions.
Because this system is so intricate—and delicate, as anyone accustomed to food sensitivities or frequent upset stomachs knows—awareness about digestive health, and tips for obtaining it, is of ever-growing interest to many.
If this topic is of particular interest to you, check out some of the links in the “further reading” section at the bottom of this post.
For now, we’ll move on to some categories of food that may aid in a healthy digestive system.
Digestive Health Buzz Words
Probiotics are simply living microorganisms that provide numerous health benefits. These “good bacteria,” which are found in a number of foods, closely resemble those that naturally live in our bodies and aid in functions such as digestion and fighting disease. There are many different groups of probiotics, each with various species and strains; the two most common groups are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Many popular probiotic foods are the result of introducing these “good bacteria” into a substance, causing it to go through a fermentation process.
Sources of probiotics:
- Yogurt – bacterially fermented milk
- Kefir – fermented milk drink, made by adding kefir grains to milk
- Sauerkraut – cabbage fermented by lactic acid bacteria
- Tempeh – fermented soybean product
- Kimchi – spicy Korean side dish, usually made from fermented cabbage
- Miso – fermented soybean paste commonly used in Japanese cuisine
- Kombucha – a fermented tea drink
- Pickles – cucumbers pickled in salty water and fermented
- Certain cheeses that contain “live and active cultures”
Fiber is a type of complex carbohydrate that is not digested by the body, therefore it adds “bulk” to the diet and aids in digestion. Fiber is found in many grain-based foods as well as fruits and vegetables. According to the Grain Foods Foundation, grains are the largest source of fiber in the American diet and provide more fiber than fruits and vegetables. They also report that 95% of Americans do not meet the daily recommended fiber intake of 25 grams per day for women or 38 grams per day for men.5
There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble fiber, which dissolves in water and slows digestion, and insoluble fiber which does not dissolve in water. Maybe fiber-rich foods contain both types of fiber, in varying levels. Both types are beneficial for digestion.
Sources of dietary fiber:
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Whole grains
- Brown rice
- Fruits and vegetables
Prebiotics are a form of soluble fiber that acts as fuel for probiotics. These compounds are fermented and metabolized as they enter the digestive system, feeding the good bacteria (probiotics) and allowing them to grow. Prebiotics and probiotics work together to improve the beneficial bacteria in the GI system.
Sources of prebiotic fiber:
- Whole grains
- Chicory root
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Apple cider vinegar
Digestive Health Recipes
Put all this new knowledge to the test by trying out the below “gut health” recipes full of pre- and probiotics, fiber, and other healthy (and yummy) ingredients!
Healthful Cole Slaw
This simple cole slaw is jam-packed with prebiotics including cabbage, apple cider vinegar, raw honey, and garlic, making it a great healthy side dish or pairing for your favorite probiotic source! Its light acidity makes it a perfect topping to balance out the richness of a burger or pulled pork sandwich!
Kimchi grilled cheese
This fun Korean-inspired sandwich spotlights a popular probiotic food: kimchi. This tangy, spicy food is typically made with fermented napa cabbage and seasoned with spices including garlic, Korean chili powder, and ginger. It has become very popular in recent years as Korean food begins to gain popularity in the U.S. In this recipe, we used a mild kimchi, which was a perfect pairing for buttery rich gruyere. (Tip: Try it in other recipes like this Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich from blogger Shared Appetite.)
Further Reading (Sources):
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