The Goods The Goods

The keys to maintaining a healthy gut

Registered dietitian Christy Brissette shares the superfood combos to reach for to keep your tummy happy.

CBC Life

November 10, 2017

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

What foods do and do not work for our bodies can can vary greatly from person to person, but we all tend to experience some tummy troubles now and then. There's lots of advice out there on how to beat bloat and what superfoods we should be consuming. But when it comes to maintaining a healthy gut, most of us don't know where to begin caring for our digestive system. That's why registered dietitian Christy Brissette stopped by The Goods to talk about the ins and outs of what makes healthy gut bacteria and what superfood combos we should be pairing together for optimal health.

When we discuss a healthy gut, what we're really focusing on is the diversity of bacteria in your gut or intestines. That's called your gut microbiota. Everyone's gut microbiota is different, like our unique fingerprints, and it is largely affected by diet along with age, environment, genes, and medications. Your gut health is closely tied to all kinds of different aspects of your bodily health too, potentially affecting your digestion, immune system, metabolism, and even your mental health.

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Not only that, but healthy gut microbiota is also beneficial to your metabolism as it increases the absorption of glucose in your gut and regulates how it is stored in your body. The bacteria in your gut do this by taking unabsorbed sugars from your diet and converting them into short chain fatty acids, which can be further used as energy for your brain, muscles, and other bacteria, rather than deposited as fat stores.

Christy knows that there is a lot of misinformation out there surrounding digestive health, so she weighed in on some myths and confirmed some surprising facts about our guts with a little game of true and false.

True or false? When it comes to gut health, probiotics are better than prebiotics.

FALSE! Most people have heard of probiotics, but prebiotics are just as important. Probiotics are the actual healthy bacteria themselves, and the prebiotics act as fuel for the healthy bacteria to thrive. That fuel is necessary if you want to get benefits from the bacteria. You can get prebiotics in foods that are rich in fibre, like whole grains including whole wheat, oats, barley, as well as onions, garlic, bananas, apples, and asparagus. You can find probiotics in fermented food like kimchi and sauerkraut. You'll definitely want to get a variety of these foods in order to have a healthy gut flora.

True or false? Kale is the best green vegetable for gut health.

FALSE! Kale gets all the buzz. While it is good for your gut health overall, other leafy greens like broccoli, cabbage, and brussel sprouts are just as good. All of these cruciferous vegetables contain something called glucosinolates. Your stomach breaks down these glucosinolate compounds, that then activate receptors in your intestine that help to populate your system with good bacteria, which strengthens your immune system. It also helps prevent something called leaky gut. What happens is that your intestinal wall acts a barrier to keep the good things in and the bad things out. By eating those leafy green vegetables, you're ensuring that that wall remains healthy and intact.

True or false? There are up to 20-million bacteria living in your digestive system.

FALSE! There are actually 100 trillion bacteria in your gut. If we put that into perspective, that's more than the number of cells in the rest of your body combined. Or to put it another way, each of us is walking around with up to 4.5 pounds of bacteria in our guts.

True or false? Daily exercise is bad for gut health.

TRUE! This is a bit of a trick question. Regular exercise is fantastic for your overall and gut health, but exercising every single day, especially if it's really intense exercise, doesn't give your body a chance to recover and rest. So you want to make sure that you incorporate rest days along with your exercise days. If you put stress and inflammation on your body due to over-exercising, the amount of good bacteria in your gut might be reduced.

Christy also had some recommendations for the superfoods we can be eating to help achieve optimal gut health.

Superfoods are foods that go beyond giving us energy, vitamins and minerals. They're also loaded with phytochemicals, compounds that help prevent and fight disease and slow down the aging process. When most people think of superfoods, they think of exotic ingredients like goji berries and spirulina. These foods can be pricey and aren't so easy to find. Christy loves the power of "everyday superfoods" – things like blueberries, almonds, spinach, sweet potatoes and oats which are foods that you can find more easily and that are packed with incredible health benefits. They taste great and they don't blow your food budget.

Sweet potato and avocado

Eating a sweet potato with avocado can help you absorb more of the beta carotene in the sweet potato, an antioxidant that gives you beautiful skin. Sweet potatoes are high in fibre and are low on the glycemic index. That means they help regulate your blood sugar levels. Their bright orange colour is a clue they're an excellent source of beta carotene, an antioxidant your body turns into vitamin A. From amazing eyesight to beautiful skin and anti-aging benefits, vitamin A has tons of health benefits.

Avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, the same heart-healthy type found in olive oil. They also contain vitamin E, another antioxidant that works to keep your brain sharp and fight off the effects of free radical damage: think aging, pollution or not-so-great eating habits.

Lentils with bell peppers

Lentils are a fantastic plant-based protein. They're rich in fiber to help you stay full longer and for healthy digestion. They are also rich in iron, a nutrient that can be more challenging for vegetarians and vegans to get enough of. Plant-based foods like lentils contain a type of iron called non-heme iron that your body doesn't absorb as well as the type of iron found in meat and fish. Bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that can strengthen your immune system and helps create collagen, keeping skin looking radiant.

These two superfoods are better together because the vitamin C in the bell peppers can help increase your body's ability to absorb the plant-based iron in the lentils. Christine recommends all of her vegetarian clients pair iron-rich foods like beans with foods high in vitamin C to get this boosting effect. That iron is key to keeping your red blood cells loaded up with oxygen so you can fight fatigue and function at your best.

Bananas and almond butter

Bananas are an excellent source of potassium, an electrolyte that helps regulate your heart rate and blood pressure. It works against the effects of sodium so it's fantastic for heart health. Almonds are packed with fiber, protein and healthy fats to help round out a meal or snack. Combining bananas with almond butter makes for a fantastic post-workout snack. The banana helps replenish your potassium levels because you lose potassium in your sweat. Along with plenty of water, potassium is important for helping you rehydrate after exercise.

The banana also contains carbohydrate to help you refuel. You don't want to go low carb after exercise, because having a healthy source of carbs spares the protein in the almonds so it can be used to repair and build your muscle rather than getting burned up for energy. That means a leaner, svelte look and more energy to get through your day.

Walnuts and grapes

Walnuts contain an amazing mix of protein, fibre and healthy fat. They're rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that fights chronic disease and aging. Grapes are rich in filling fibre and high in antioxidants that help protect the heart. Put them in the freezer for a healthy snack when your sweet tooth kicks in.