If you listen to the health chatter on the TV news, in magazines and on the internet you will have heard about the importance of gut bacteria to health. Gut bacteria seem to be responsible for everything from gastrointestinal health to mental health to reducing high blood pressure. Modern “western” diets which are typically low in fibre and high in processed foods are being linked to the rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes because of the deleterious effect they have on gut bacteria.
I have been researching and thinking about the microbes in my gut for over a year. I started to read the research, then switched to a mostly plant based diet, deliberately increased the amounts of probiotic and prebiotic foods that I am eating and generally trying to be nice to my gut bugs.
This time, I have put my body (and dignity) forward in the interests of science and bought a uBiome Test kit to check out what is actually living in my gut. It took 3 weeks to get the package from the US and then another 6 weeks to get the results.
The results are very comprehensive and frankly a bit of science-jargon-babble. I am a scientist and I found the data a bit overwhelming and not easy to interpret. I think they could provide a bit more help in unraveling the numbers.
Atkins – only Generation X’ers and before will remember this one!
There are so many variations on how to eat healthily! The array of information available these days is overwhelming. Even with my background in food science I find it hard to keep up.
Food as more than fuel
In my late teens and in my early 20’s, I was anorexic and for a short time bulimic. I ate very little. I weighed about 47 kg and got annoyed if I went over 50kg. My BMI was less than 17. (A Healthy BMI is between 19 an 24) I exercised hard and stayed very fit but perhaps not healthy. I used to replay the words from the Ford Pills Diet ad over and over in my head. It was on TV when I was only 7 but it obviously had left its mark!
Before intermittent fasting was a “thing”, I used to fast all day Saturday, with the idea I could eat what I liked on Sunday. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, dizzy and light headed. I had frequent hypoglycaemic events not because I was diabetic but because I didn’t eat often enough. I was an absolute pain in the neck when it came to eating out!
I did a Food Technology degree at University and on reflection, this was no doubt my way of becoming a “food expert” and validating what I was doing. After Uni, I went on to work in the food manufacturing industry for a few years before moving into laboratory equipment sales. It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to work with food in one form or another. Apart from my day job I had a side hustle – being a fitness instructor. More reasons to exercise and stay thin.
Once I was married, I would cook hugely elaborate meals. My husband also enjoyed cooking and we would often spend almost the entire weekend planning, shopping, preparing and cooking fabulous menus which I didn’t eat much of. Food was always on the agenda as a hobby, and as a fuel.
I am pleased to say that as I have gotten older I have become more sensible with my diet although it is still a balancing act of energy in vs energy out.
I still enjoy cooking and now that I am cooking only for myself (and I’m past the wine and wedges phase) I make it an intentional act to cook a decent meal a few times a week. There are always leftovers, so I have enough for those nights when I have less time. I plan my weekly meals (let’s say that again: I aim to plan my weekly meals because sometimes I don’t!!) – mainly because it means I don’t waste so much food or have to face the decision of what to cook each night.
I remain interested in nutrition and have considered returning to study in this field. When I was doing my first degree, issues like antioxidants and gut bacteria weren’t even on the horizon. Coconut oil was a BAD thing!
Nowadays, I also look out for foods that will have a protective factor against the diseases of older age. There is some talk (but little evidence) that turmeric will reduce the inflammation that contributes to arthritis and dementia. I am now taking turmeric tablets. It can’t hurt, and it might help. In a previous post I spoke about good mood food, food that feeds your gut bacteria and is thought to contribute to positive physical and mental health.
Finding the right food balance.
In the end I think we all know that no fad diet will work. There is no magic bullet. If you want to lose weight you need to use more energy than you consume. If you want to be healthy you need variety. You need to be flexible and not place any unnecessary restrictions on what you can and can’t eat. Get your advice from reputable sources that don’t have a vested interest and are not trying to sell you something. I have not fact checked any of the websites I have linked to in the above list – so do your own research. I think you need to be careful if someone is making money out of selling you a fad diet.
The best dietary advice I have heard recently is summed up in seven words from Michael Pollan:
The little imaginary fellow on my other shoulder keeps telling me how bourgeois this line of reasoning is. A great many people on our Earth will find this concern about he best way to eat to stay healthy ridiculous because they have NO food.. We should be grateful we have the food in the first place and do our best not to waste it and distribute it more equitably – but that’s a whole other topic for a different blog post!
What you eat controls the bacteria in your gut. The bacteria in your gut controls your mood and can now be linked directly to symptoms of anxiety and depression
We all know that eating a healthy diet is really important in keeping yourself physically fit but mounting medical research is showing that it could also be the key to good mental health.
Recent studies have shown that there is a direct link from a Western diet – i.e. one that is high in processed foods, sugar, soft drinks (either with or without sugar) to poor mental health.
Conversely, a “Mediterranean” diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, some dairy and healthy oils has been found to be protective and even curative for some mental health conditions. Adding pre-biotics in the form of fermented foods helps even more.
Our gut is inhabited by a whole host of bacteria – “good bacteria”. This is our gut biome or gut microflora. There are in fact more bacterial cells in your gut than cells in your entire body! (They are much smaller than our own cells so they don’t take up much room!) These microbes produce chemicals that affect our mood and act directly on our brain. When we eat a diet high in refined foods, we leave nothing for the bacteria that live in our lower gut to eat. They starve and die off. The diversity of our gut microflora is reduced and hence the good mood chemicals are not around to keep us mentally healthy.
So if you are feeling a bit low or anxious, diet may be a good and relatively easy starting point. First steps are to cut the CRAP
If you want to know more have a look at the links below.
Firstly, a great podcast that gives some of the science and places to get more information