By now, most of us have heard about the "good bugs" and "bad bags" that live in our gut, and the mounting evidence that micro-organisms influence our health.
As medical scientists have increasingly turned their attention to our digestive tract, so too have marketers and shoppers.
First bottled probiotics arrived in Australian supermarkets and pharmacies, then commercial spins on ancient fermented products such as kefir and kombucha. Now prebiotic supplements – a type of fibre that fuels beneficial bacteria – are appearing in our aisles.
So what do all these trillions of bacteria, yeast and other microbes that make up our microbiome actually do, and why are they so important?
Australian nutritionist and cookbook author Jacqueline Alwill says the microbial community in our gut can affect many aspects of our health, including weight, sleep, mood and immune system.
There's always time to make changes in your diet and reap the benefits.Kathleen Alleaume, nutritionist
"Having a healthy gut lining can stop inflammation in your body, as the gut plays a role in micronutrient absorption," she says.
But what, if anything, can we do to keep our gut health in balance? Alwill, who is an ambassador for the new Dairy Farmers A2 Goodness milk range, says it's important to realise the gut encompasses the entirety of our digestive tract, from our mouth right through to our large bowel.
"Gut health isn't just about the latter end of our digestive tract and the gut microbiome, but maintaining the health of the digestive tract overall," she says.
Barley soup with lots of vegies is a rich source of fibre. Photo: Marina Oliphant
"This is why chewing your food, your oral health, ensuring healthy levels of stomach acids and the intake of plenty of fibre-rich foods is so important – each of these affects different parts of our gut to create an overall positive impact on gut health."
Sydney nutritionist Kathleen Alleaume says what we eat has a huge influence on our gut bacteria. She works with Uncle Tobys to promote the brand's new Super Blends Prebiotic Fibre Turmeric and Coconut oats.
"You can shift [your gut microbiome] by switching to a plant-based diet," Alleaume says. "There's always time to make changes in your diet and reap the benefits."
Here Alwill and Alleaume share their top tips for boosting your gut health.
Your gut will love Adam Liaw's salt and pepper Brussels sprouts. Photo: William Meppem
Eat a diet rich in fibre: Fibre is a complex carbohydrate that can be found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and wholegrains, Alwill says. It plays many roles, such as helping to lower cholesterol levels, slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and create a feeling of fullness. "Think about crowding your plate or snacks with these foods, aiming for about half a plate full of vegetables before adding protein, to up your intake," Alwill says.
Focus on prebiotics: Prebiotics are a type of dietary fibre that fuel beneficial bacteria. They include fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) and inulin, which can be found in foods such as garlic, onion, leek, asparagus, artichoke, prunes, Brussels sprouts and legumes. "There are also supplements for these, but we encourage people to acquire prebiotics through dietary sources," Alwill says.
Up your probiotics: Alwill suggests eating more probiotic-rich foods, such as cultured and fermented foods, which contain beneficial microbes. These can help restore gut health after a course of antibiotics, and reduce bloating, boost immune function and support skin health. "Yoghurt, some milks, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha and tempeh are all good options that can easily be worked into your meal plan," she says.
Avoid processed foods: Alleaume recommends steering away from highly processed foods and refined starches, and towards wholegrain cereals and breads instead. "If you're generally eating a healthy balanced diet you are getting a wide range of vitamins and minerals and fibres," she says.
Think plant-based: Fibre is generally found in foods such as wholegrains, seeds, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables, which are often found in Mediterranean-style diets, so it helps to steer towards plant-based foods. "Plant-based food doesn't necessarily mean you have to be a vegetarian or vegan," Alleaume says. "It just means making the base of your meal mainly plant food … and making meat a side affair."
Exercise! Alwill says you should aim for 30 minutes daily of any kind of movement: "Exercise exerts a positive benefit on your gut health, improving the production of short-chain fatty acids." These are compounds produced by microbes in our gut that provide fuel for the gut lining, stimulate immune cells and regulate gut hormones and blood glucose.
Rest and digest: Focus on sitting and being present with your meals, mindfully chewing each mouthful rather than eating on the go while starting at a screen, Alwill says. "This has a positive effect on the breakdown of our food, absorption of nutrients and messaging to the brain for satiety."
Warm up with healthy porridge and pears. Photo: Supplied
Pumpkin porridge with poached pear recipe
The prebiotic fibre in this recipe helps to nourish the good bacteria in the gut as part of a healthy varied diet, while pears, pumpkin and blueberries contain vitamin C to help keep your immune system fighting fit.
- ½ cup wholegrain rolled oats (or 1 sachet of Uncle Tobys Super Blends Prebiotic Fibre Turmeric and Coconut oats)
- 1 pear, peeled, quartered and cored
- 1 tsp pure maple syrup
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ cup butternut pumpkin, peeled, chopped
- ⅓ cup skim milk
- 1 tsp crushed walnuts, to serve
- ¼ cup blueberries, to serve
- To prepare the pear, place water, maple syrup, lemon juice and cinnamon in a medium saucepan, and stir over a medium-heat and bring to a boil. Add the pear and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes or until pear is tender. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a small microwave-safe dish, cook the pumpkin for 1.5 minutes in the microwave or until tender. Once softened, mash with a fork until it forms a smooth texture. Set aside.
- Place rolled oats and 1½ cups of water into a thick-based saucepan. Bring to a boil, stir, then boil for 5 minutes until oats are thick and creamy. Add a dash of skim milk after cooking. (Alternatively, cook the Uncle Tobys Super Blends Prebiotic Fibre Turmeric and Coconut Oats as per packet instructions with skim milk.) Set aside.
- To serve, fold porridge mixture through pumpkin puree. Top with the poached pear. Garnish with walnuts and berries.