Every year, 50% of Australians experience gut health problems, and as many as 1 in 7 of us experience distressing gut health symptoms. We tend to manage these health problems ourselves by eliminating certain foods or food groups – but is that what we should do?
Gut health is a fascinating, and for a lot of people, frustrating issue. Human digestion and the question ‘what should we really eat?’ is complex and the science on this subject is developing constantly.
Ten years ago, nobody was discussing gut bacteria and how you can properly feed the organisms that live in your stomach, but today supermarkets are well stocked with products that are meant to support your gut health. Whether they work or not is a different question.
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What are gut bacteria?
Our gut is colonised by microorganisms our entire lives. We have them the day we’re born, and they stay with us until we die. Most of the microorganisms in our gut are bacteria but we also play host to viruses, yeasts and other fungi. Together these microorganisms are called the microbiota.
The combination of these microorganisms tends to be stable throughout our lives but we can do things to influence them – especially through our diet.
The microbes feed on carbohydrates that don’t get digested further up in the stomach – they particularly like to eat dietary fibre. What the microbes do with the fibre is ingenious. They ferment it into what’s called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs for short) which play a number of roles:
- Work as anti-inflammatories
- Used as an energy source for digestion
- Exclude disease-causing organisms from your gut
- May help regulate your blood sugar levels
How do we damage the microbiota?
The average Australian diet is doing our gut health no favours. As mentioned above, the microbiota feed on dietary fibre so there’s a clue right there: if your diet is low in fibre, you’re not feeding the bacteria what they need.
Combine a low fibre diet with one abundant in fat and protein, which is exactly what we tend to eat, and you have a very poor environment indeed for gut bacteria to do their job.
When the microbiota is not fed what it craves, the abundance and diversity of bacteria suffer. In short, a healthy gut has plenty of different bacteria while an unhealthy gut has fewer varieties.
The long-term effects of poor gut health are experienced across the Australian population and include maladies that can significantly impact your quality of life, such as:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Diverticular disease
An unhealthy gut is also increasingly linked with the initiation, progression and exacerbation of obesity and health conditions that follow from obesity, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
What is the gut’s connection with obesity?
We know that overweight individuals tend to have poorer gut health than individuals with healthy weight. However, the cause and effect aren’t clear yet. As mentioned above, human digestion is intricate and understanding what leads to what is complicated.
Do we become overweight because our gut health is poor? Or does poor gut health lead to us becoming overweight?
Whichever way it goes, the solution is the same: by losing weight with a diet that contains adequate dietary fibre you will improve your gut health.