How to boost gut health for the whole family

The gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of microscopic organisms. Scientists call this the gut microbiome,1 and it plays a big role in a person’s health.2

“Our gut microbiome is mostly bacteria, but there are also some fungi and viruses and other little critters that live in our gut,” says Bonnie J. Kaplan, Ph.D., a research psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. These helpful microbes coexist and balance out the potentially harmful microbes in a healthy body.1

Why is a diverse microbiome important?

Scientists believe diversity plays a role in digestion, metabolism and inflammation.2 The more diverse the gut microbiome is, the better, explains Kaplan. Some of these microbes can be helpful — they keep the immune system strong and the body running smoothly. A healthy gut may reduce the risks of inflammatory diseases.3

Many factors can throw off that balance though, from infectious illnesses to certain diets to certain medications. According to the Cleveland Clinic, when that balance is off, some people may experience symptoms like:2

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Heartburn

It’s important to promote the diversity of organisms inside the gut — from birth to old age. Here are 3 ways to help keep those trillions of organisms in balance — at least most of the time.

1. Fill your family’s plate with fiber

Fiber-rich foods are good for overall health and digestion. These foods contain compounds that help increase the number and diversity of gut bacteria.3,4

Good sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Aim for half or more of the family's total grain intake to come from whole grains, eat whole fruits whenever possible, and vary the veggies you serve (and eat).5

To get the recommended amounts, look at everyone’s plate. “Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables,” says Kaplan. “The other half of your plate can be protein and complex carbs such as whole grains.” Another way to get the same benefits? Put together a plate that is filled with as many colors as possible — from purple berries to greens to brown grains. The more colors on your plate, the more you'll be adding different nutrients for your brain and body.

Increase the family’s whole grain intake by switching from white rice to brown rice (or other whole grains such as quinoa), and from white bread to whole grain bread.6 It’s also a good idea to limit processed foods, since they tend to affect the diversity of organisms in your gut.3

2. Add legumes to your diet

Another easy way to boost your family’s fiber intake is to eat more beans, lentils, chickpeas and edamame. Not only are they a good source of fiber — they are also high in protein.

If you don’t usually eat legumes, consider starting with lentils. Lentils cook quickly for easy side dishes. You can add cold lentil leftovers to a salad or use them in soups. You can even mix lentils into homemade burgers. A cup of lentils provides folate (a B vitamin needed to produce healthy red blood cells), 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber.7,8

Canned beans are also a convenient option. For example, you can add them to soups, salads or tacos. Just be sure to rinse canned beans with water to remove added salt before using them, Kaplan suggests.

3. Eat fermented foods

Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi — fermented foods such as these are another way to help promote the health of the gut microbiome. Because these foods contain live bacteria, they increase the number and diversity of microorganisms in your gut.2 They also help boost the immune system, keeping you and your loved ones healthier.9

Aim to eat fermented foods once a day if you can, Kaplan suggests. Top rice with kimchi or drink kombucha (a tea-based beverage). Or try yogurt mixed with fruit, nuts or whole grain granola — all of which will also boost your fiber intake.

Dr. Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, suggests making smoothies with kefir, a fermented milk drink, combined with bananas and blueberries. Just be sure to look for yogurt, kefir and other fermented foods without added sugar, recommends Kaplan.

The organisms in the gut are important for physical and mental health. By making a few diet and lifestyle changes, you can help keep your microbiome in balance — and set your family up for a healthier life.

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