If you’re not already concerned with your gut health, you should be! Your gut is the host to a population of trillions of bacteria and the diversity of this population and prominence of certain strains are the hallmarks of a healthy gut. When your gut is in good health, you’ll experience benefits like a heartier immune system, a healthier weight, a happier mood (with lower risk of depression and anxiety), sharper memory as you age, and an overall better quality of life thanks to a lower risk of serious illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes. It’s truly the key to a healthy mind and body.
Though I approve of probiotic supplements—particularly under certain circumstances and to target a specific problem—they aren’t magic bullets! (For more on supplements, see my blog post 5 of the best supplements for your health.) You need to take a much more holistic approach in order to improve your gut health naturally. First, I’ll cover the DO’s and then come the DON’TS. (Sorry, you knew these were coming!)
Eat more fiber-rich foods
I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a solid chance you aren’t meeting daily fiber targets of 25-38 grams per day. The majority of Americans consume about half that amount.
Fiber from a range of sources—including veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds—serve as fuel for the bacteria in your gut, which helps them flourish. And eating more fiber from diverse sources leads to more diversity among the bacteria species in your gut, which is a signature of a healthy microbiome. (1)
In order to load up on fiber, you need to elevate plant-based foods on your menu. At lunch and dinner aim for:
2+ cups nonstarchy veggies (think: cucumbers, spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, etc).
Plant-based fats from foods like avocados and olives (or their oils) and nuts and seeds (or their butters).
Right-sized portion of carbs from ingredients like fruit, starchy veggies (such as butternut squash and sweet potatoes), or whole grains, like quinoa, oats, barley, and brown rice.
Portion amounts vary depending on your needs and goals, but ½ cup to 1 cup is the right range for most people.Pulses—the umbrella term for beans, legumes, and lentils—to replace the carbs or some of your meat. These foods have a combo of protein and carbs (not to mention are rich in fiber and other nutrients) so they can work as either element of your meal.
Amp up your polyphenol intake
Polyphenols are compounds found in plenty of healthy, plant-based foods, such as grapes, dark chocolate, coffee and tea, blueberries, whole grains, nuts, extra virgin olive oil and more.
Repeated studies have found these super-nutrients are linked with a lower risk of a range of diseases as well as a healthier body weight. (2) Essentially, when you eat polyphenol-rich foods, your body produces byproducts that become more fuel for your gut bacteria and they’re key to improving gut health naturally.
An eating pattern that is rich in colorful plant-based foods tend to supply both ample fiber and a range of polyphenols. There's no way around this. Plants are the key to a healthy gut, mind, and body!
Consider including more fermented foods
Naturally probiotic-rich food, such as yogurt, kombucha, miso, and natural sauerkraut help enrich your gut with healthy bacteria and neutralize less healthy strains. (4) Rather than just implanting your gut with a few strains of supplemental probiotics, fermented foods provide a spectrum of them, thereby improving your gut health in a natural way.
Punch up the flavor in food
Herbs and spices happen to be rich in polyphenols. These compounds are often part of the plant’s defense system, which may be why they do such a fantastic job protecting your health. Herbs and spices that are rich in these compounds include: oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and turmeric. (5) It’s a good idea to douse meals in these seasonings! Some easy ways to boost your polyphenol content:
Add spices, like cinnamon and ginger to smoothies
Sprinkle Greek seasoning (which contains oregano) over salad, grilled chicken, and roasted veggies
Use rosemary when roasting potatoes
Eat slowly and chew thoroughly
This might sound funny, but you need to sloooow down when you eat and chew your food well. It promotes better digestion and breakdown of nutrients so your body can absorb the nutrition more readily. This can also help reduce bloating. (If you deal with bloating, you’ll also want to read my blog post on Natural remedies to improve digestion and reduce bloating after a big meal.) Taking the time to eat doesn’t just improve your gut health naturally, it also leads to better satisfaction and enjoyment from meals.
Pay attention to your oral health
Your microbiome isn’t just limited to your gut. You have an oral microbiome and a skin microbiome! Your diet plays a role in the health of your oral microbiome, but other factors are also involved, such as whether or not your breastfed as a kid (nothing you can do about this now!), and how well you’re taking care of your teeth and gums. (6) Talk to your dentist about this since it’s out of my lane, but the general advice to floss and brush are some natural ways you can improve your microbiome health. It’s worth noting that bad dentil habits can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke—something we’ve known for a long time now—and I suspect this has something to do with the impact of dental hygiene on inflammation and the oral microbiome. (7)
Overdo ultra processed foods
I know I sound like a broken record, but studies show that these foods have an unfavorable impact on your gut health. Replace these unhealthy foods with minimally processed or whole foods to improve your gut health. Foods like refined grains, chips, pizza, and fast food fall in the ultra-processed camp so do your best to limit these convenience items as much as possible. (I covered processed foods in my blog post 4 of the worst processed foods to avoid and what to eatinstead so read up!)
Overdo sugary foods
I’ve been on a crusade to help you limit added sugar for the majority of my career! There are endless reasons why this is important, and your gut health is high up on that list. A western diet that’s high in processed foods and sugary foods leads to unfavorable shifts in your bacteria, meaning that it gives rise to harmful species and kills off certain species, leading to less diversity. (8)
Overdo artificial sweeteners
While it’s far from proven, there’s some evidence that consuming artificial sweeteners (think: pink, yellow, and blue packets), can lead to an over-representation of harmful bacteria species and an under-representation of health-promoting ones so reducing your consumption may improve your gut health naturally. (9) Even if this doesn’t bear out, I think it’s smart to cut back on artificial ingredients. (Note that stevia, which I mentioned in what I'm loving lately, is a natural-based sweetener and hasn't been linked with the same outcome.) Common sense tells us that whole foods and ingredients are better than unnatural ones. (I’ve got some ideas for livening up water in my blog post Why water is the best beauty drink.)
Skimp on fiber
I already covered fiber at the get-go, but here’s a fun fact: Your microbiome will responde to dietary changes pretty quickly—within one or two days! (10) That’s pretty dramatic considering all the ways a healthier gut sets you up for a healthier life.
One big downer: There’s some evidence that a western diet that’s high in animal protein, ultra-processed junk food, and sugary food and low in fiber and polyphenols may lead to irreversible and unhealthy alterations to your microbiome. That’s why these strategies are so important. By limiting the foods that lead to an unhealthy gut and supplying the foods that have the fiber, polyphenols, and probiotics your gut needs to thrive, you can dramatically improve your gut health naturally.
Want to geek out on the science with me? Check out the references below.