Gut-boosting foods can help improve digestion. Image by: Getty Images
Did you know that 70 to 80 percent of your body's immune cells live in your gut? Healthy foods that promote optimum digestion are important for your overall well-being. Here are five foods to add to your diet to boost your gut health.
How it works: This sweet treat is the latest scientific darling when it comes to gut health. Traditionally championed as a soothing balm for sore throats, a 2014 research study revealed that honey kills disease-causing bacteria in the gut, but leaves healthy bacteria, such as acidophilus, alone. "Studies have also found that honey may be effective in helping to repair gut cells and fight inflammation because of its phytochemicals," says Desiree Nielsen, a Vancouver-based registered dietitian, and the author of Unjunk Your Diet .
How to eat it: Research has suggested that heating honey could deteriorate its healthy effects. To reap its benefits, Nielsen recommends spreading unpasteurized honey on whole-wheat toast, or eating a single spoonful daily.
How they work: Fermentation is a traditional food preservation technique that produces lactic acid and probiotic cultures or live bacteria. Fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut help to support a healthy community of bacteria in your gut, says Nielsen.
How to eat them: "Heating will kill live bacteria," says Nielsen. These foods should be eaten raw, or cooked with as little heat as possible. To guarantee the highest level of live bacteria in your fermented foods, make your own. "It's inexpensive and easy," says Nielsen. "You can make sauerkraut in three days; literally all you need is cabbage, salt, and a really clean jar."
How they work: Oatmeal, peppermint and ginger are great for soothing a sore gut. Peppermint helps relax the smooth muscle of the gut, so it can lessen the symptoms for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers. Ginger, famous for relieving nausea and upset stomachs, is also helpful in expelling excess gas. "Research has found that ginger's active components help improve stomach emptying," says Nielsen. Oatmeal – a soluble fibre – is a gentle solution for people with irritable digestive systems who experience cramping and pain with insoluble fiber like wheat bran. In the digestive system, soluble fiber draws in water. It swells, making it easier to pass bowel movements. "Soluble fiber doesn't cause as much distress," says Nielsen.
How to eat them: Try a strong cup of soothing peppermint tea. "Take two or three tea bags of peppermint tea and steep them like you would a normal cup of tea," says Nielsen. You can also make a tasty ginger tea by boiling fresh ginger and adding a little lemon, or try candied ginger.
Cooking oats improves their digestibility. "Cooking increases the speed at which water can enter the oats, and causes them to swell making them more digestible," says Nielsen. Enjoy a warm bowl of oatmeal at breakfast, or add oats to baking, or homemade energy bars.
How they work: What do asparagus, bananas, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes have in common? They all contain prebiotics. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that your body can't digest or absorb. After you eat prebiotics, they travel to your colon, and become food for the good bacteria that live there. In other words, prebiotics feed the probiotics living in your digestive tract. "Prebiotics help the growth of beneficial gut flora," says Nielsen.
How to eat them: Don't worry about diminishing the prebiotic content with heat. These foods can be eaten cooked or raw, and will still keep their full prebiotic benefits.
How they work: Tasty and crunchy, pumpkin seeds are high in zinc, an important nutrient for digestive enzyme production and immune system function. Not only will zinc keep your gut's cells healthy, but it also could bolster your immunity at the same time.
How to eat them: Nielsen recommends buying your seeds raw to ensure their freshness and nutrition content. Eaten raw, or briefly roasted in your oven, pumpkin seeds make a fast, portable healthy snack. You can also add pumpkin seeds to homemade trail mix, energy bars, or sprinkle them on salads.