How to have a happier belly

Following on from my previous post about the role of the microbiome in our health, here are some easy and practical tips to improve your gut health and help you feel better:

1. Diversity is queen

For somebody with IBS, it can be a scary thought to move away from your ‘safe foods’. However, by eating the same foods on a regular basis will be having a negative impact on your microbes, which is likely to make your condition worse in the long-run. I would suggest starting small with any changes, experimenting when you feel comfortable to do so in case of an adverse reaction. When I first changed my diet, although I experienced some negative side-effects, the uplift in my mood and energy levels were completely worth it. The following tips will help you to incorporate more variety into your diet:

  • Freeze-dried fruit and veg. Freeze-dried food can be a great option when travelling as these products tend to have long shelf-lives – usually around a year and can be stored at room temperature. Freeze-drying is a way of removing the moisture from food whilst keeping the nutritional value (different to dehydrating which removes a lot of the vitamins). Many products also come in powder forms so if there’s a fruit or vegetable you’re not keen on, it can be a good way to add small amounts of that food to your diet without having to buy the fresh version and wasting most of it (beetroot for me!). FD products can be hard to find in normal supermarkets but are widely available on amazon and most whole-food stores.
  • Frozen fruit and veg. One of the easiest ways to provide yourself with more options for mealtimes is to stock up on a variety of frozen fruit and veg. Not only are they as nutritionally beneficial as their fresh counterparts, but they are often cheaper and help to reduce food waste. I tend to consume frozen fruit for breakfast most days, and by opting for frozen I am able to eat a different fruit(s) everyday, and can chose what I would like that day based on what I am in the mood for, rather than adhering to ‘use by’ dates. Most supermarkets offer blends of different fruits such as berry or tropical mixes, that include varieties that you may be less likely to purchase fresh such as cranberries, papaya or blackcurrants.
  • Nuts and seeds. Tim Spector, a microbiome expert includes nuts and seeds in his list of ‘microbiome boosting-foods’. Fortunately, as they are so widely available now it’s easy to stock up on many different flavours. Butters are also a great way to incorporate these into your diet and make them into more of a meal, whether that’s on toast, rice cakes or a piece of fruit. A quick search on Amazon alone gives you 10+ different types, so it’s worth stocking up on a variety on consuming them on rotation.
  • Herbs. Speaking from experience, it’s very easy to stick to the herbs you know and like. For years, I didn’t experiment beyond salt, pepper, garlic and cinnamon. However, herbs have many beneficial features including anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and fortunately, dried herbs also keep many of these health benefits. Purchasing a wide variety of dried herbs can be a great way to add nutrients to your meals whilst keeping dinners interesting.

2. Incorporate good gut-bacteria foods daily

Alongside opting for variety, adding fermented foods with beneficial bacteria daily into your diet can make a huge difference to your microbiome and general well-being. These may include:

  • Yoghurt. Widely available and delicious, it’s a great addition to most breakfasts or as a creamy sauce. It’s best to opt for sugar-free, not reduced fat and those with live and active cultures. This rules out many brands that are specifically marketed at helping the gut, as many of these contain high-levels of sugar and low levels of probiotics, such as Activia and Yakult. Plain, full-fat greek yoghurt is a great option for dairy-eaters, and more recently there are a variety of coconut or nut yoghurt alternatives available for those avoiding lactose.
  • Kombucha. If you’re feeling adventurous, it could be worth trying to grow this yourself (it’s on my to-do list!). Kombucha is a great alternative to fizzy and diet drinks and has been reported to reduce stress and anxiety due to the B and C vitamin content. Home-made kombucha is likely to have stronger benefits than shop-bought options (if made correctly), however there are some great options on the market as it grows in popularity. Just look out for the sugar levels, as some can be rather high.
  • Kefir. Kefir is a probiotic fermented milk drink that contains many strains of beneficial bacteria and yeast. It is said to be more beneficial than yoghurt but is generally less well-known. Milk based kefir is now available in most supermarkets, but for those who struggle with dairy it does seem to be harder to find. I have previously tried the Chuckling Goat but found personally for me the dose was too high I’m assuming due to my lactose intolernace. I would like to try it again in smaller doses and see if I have better success. More recently I have found a coconut kefir option that looks promising.
  • Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is fermented raw cabbage that has recently grown in popularity. There are many positive studies demonstrating the healing effects of sauerkraut such as reducing cancer cells in animal studies and preventing diseases in the stomach. Most shop bought options have very little beneficial bacteria as they are pasteurized, you can usually tell by whether they include vinegar or added sugar, or are stored at room-temperature. Sauerkraut that contains good bacteria needs to be refrigerated, it’s also worth looking out for words on the label such as ‘probiotic’, ‘raw’ or ‘live’.
  • Kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional fermented food from Korea consisting of a variety of vegetables. It’s not the easiest to find high-quality versions, so have a look at specialist health-food stores. This is another one that can be reasonably easily made at home.

3. Fasting

In the past few decades, snacks have become a part of today’s society. It’s accepted in society that most people have a snack between meals ‘to keep them going’. However, this can negatively impact our microbiomes, causing unnecessary sugar spikes and increasing inflammation levels. It is also worth having a look at the labels on the food in snack aisles and seeing the amount of sugar they contain. I was horrified when I realised some of the ‘health bars’ I had been consuming had more sugar than a Krispy Kreme donut…

Fasting can mean different things to different people, some fast for several days at a time whilst others count a few hours. If you are new to fasting, I would recommend starting to cut out snacks as a starting point, it can be strange adjusting to the feeling of hunger again, but you will find your meals much more fulfilling and enjoyable. You may also need to eat more with your meals to keep you going, particularly natural sources of fat.

Another option is to time carefully when you have breakfast and your final meal of the day, and to ensure you have at least 12, 10 or 8 hours between dinner and breakfast. It’s best to work with your natural circadian rhythm, so if you feel hungry first thing in the morning, eat then and eat your dinner earlier. Or if you are naturally a later riser and don’t feel hungry until 10 or 11am, eat your breakfast and dinner later. Other people find it beneficial to skip breakfast all together, this works wonders for my Dad and said he feels a noticeable difference in his energy levels.

Everybody is different, so it’s best to experiment and see what works best for you and your body.

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