How to Support Gut Health

picture of chia seeds, avocado, nuts

I’m so excited to share today’s blog post! My amazing friend and future doctor, Lauren, over at We the Well asked if I could answer some questions all about gut health. Today’s post covers everything from fiber-filled foods to probiotics, to gut health myths, and I even share more about my own health journey and what I do to maintain a healthy gut. Thanks so much to Lauren for coming up with these thought-provoking questions and sharing so much helpful content over on her platforms. I hope you enjoy this Gut Health Q&A!

1. Gut health has become an incredibly trendy topic in recent years and for good reasons. What are your top tips for someone looking to improve their gut health and what are some things that you personally do to care for and maintain a healthy gut?

Gut health has indeed become a popular topic in the health and wellness space. The gut microbiome has more than 1000 species of bacteria. No wonder “the garden within” has become such a heavily researched topic recently. Our gut microbiome has been linked to various health outcomes, including immune health, mood, weight management, and of course digestive health. 

There are so many things we can do to support our gut health. First and foremost eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and other plant-based foods lays the foundation for a healthy gut. Also incorporating foods containing probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, sauerkraut, kimchee, and fermented vegetables. Avoiding too much sugar and processed foods will also keep our guts happy. 

Some other lifestyle behaviors can positively influence the microbiome as well. These include getting 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, managing stress levels, eating slowly and mindfully for optimal nutrient absorption, and drinking enough water. 

 I do my best to do all of the above to maintain a healthy gut, especially when it comes to eating mostly plant-based, but I definitely let stress get the best of me some days! I also incorporate some supplements, like probiotics, a multivitamin, and collagen, into my routine. 

2. We know fiber plays an important role as it relates to our gut and current studies show that the majority of Americans eating a western diet do not consume enough daily fiber. In the simplest of terms, what is fiber and how much should we consume on a daily basis?

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate found in plant-based foods that is not digested in the human body, however the bacteria in our guts feeds off of fiber. Essentially, it is the fuel for the good gut bacteria that plays a role in so many processes in the body. The recommended amount of fiber is 38g for men, and 25g for women, but most people are only getting 15-17g per day. 

3. What are some general recommendations you suggest for someone looking to incorporate more fiber into their diet and is there such a thing as too much fiber?

Fiber is only found in plant-based foods, so eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and other plant-based foods is a great way to get more fiber into your diet. You could also consider a fiber supplement, but you can definitely overdo it on fiber, especially if you are currently not eating much. Having too much fiber at once can cause gas and bloating as a side effect of being fermented in the GI system, so it’s important to build up fiber intake slowly over time, and drink lots of water throughout the process. 

4. What are some of your favorite fiber-rich foods and do you have any go-to food product recs?

My all-time favorite fiber-filled food is chia seeds! Some other great options are raspberries, apples, pears, strawberries, avocado, carrots, beets, artichokes, sweet potatoes, kale, broccoli, lentils, chickpeas, other beans, oats, quinoa, almond, and my favorite surprising source – dark chocolate. There are some great brands out there that actually have a good dose of fiber per serving. Here are some of my go-to’s:

  • Beanfields is a brand of bean-based chips that I always have in my pantry. 
  • Biena dried chickpeas – great on the go 
  • Brami Lupini Beans – great for snacking or in salads 
  • Harvest Snaps – they have so many tasty flavors. Love the Caesar and Garlic Parmesan 
  • Core Bars – contain oats and probiotics 
  • Angie’s Boom Chicka Pop Popcorn – healthy snacking during movies! 
  • Rhythm Superfoods – so many tasty dried fruit and vegetable options 
  • Flackers – made of flaxseeds and so satisfyingly crunchy
  • Dave’s Killer Bread – love this seedy bread for avocado toast  
  • Bob’s Red Mill – have everything from oats to flaxseeds to quinoa to chia seeds 
  • That’s It – bars and snacks made just from fruit, and some new options also have probiotics added 

5. What are your thoughts on supplemental probiotics and do you have any specific brands you like?

My philosophy is that food always comes first – we should have a solid foundation of a variety of healthy foods before adding in supplements. But I do believe most people would benefit from probiotics – I take them myself. Most people simply do not eat enough foods that contain probiotics or eat enough fiber to support the probiotics in the gut. So the nutrition should be addressed first, and probiotics can help along the way. Probiotics can also be helpful for those who have taken antibiotics in the past, have IBS, SIBO, or deal with other digestive issues.  

Quality is really key when it comes to probiotic supplements, or else you’re simply wasting your money on “dead bugs,” a term that always stuck with me after listening to a talk on probiotics. A good indicator of quality is refrigerated probiotics because the bacteria can die once a certain temperature is reached. However, the supplement industry has also developed some special casing that keeps the bacteria stable, so just because it isn’t refrigerated doesn’t mean it’s poor quality. Some of my favorite brands are Klaire Labs, Metagenics, and Pure Encapsulations. These brands are all third party tested for authenticity and quality, and are typically pretty potent and effective. 

6. Diet culture is all around us and with each year a new trendy diet emerges. What are your thoughts on fad diets like F-Factor and prebiotic supplements like inulin?

It can be hard to ignore all of the diet culture chatter and the promise of health and vitality by following the next best diet. But there really is no replacement for a healthy, balanced lifestyle. It’s very simple, it’s just not easy because it does take commitment, planning, and sometimes even involves making hard decisions in the present for a better future. 

Any diet that suggests to replace real, whole foods with packets or packages of food is probably one you would want to steer clear of. It’s okay to rely on convenience foods every now and then, but intentionally adding excessive fiber into your diet in an effort to suppress appetite for the sake of weight loss is not only depriving yourself of essential nutrition, it can even be downright dangerous. 

I like to encourage people to think about fueling themselves with nutrition so that they have the energy to take on life with enthusiasm. It’s a mindset shift from a place of deprivation – always trying to be smaller and eat less to a place of abundance – having all the fuel and vigor you need to be the best version of yourself. 

7. Are there any fun food myths worth debunking or confirming as it relates to gut health?

 For some reason, bone broth has gotten this health halo when it comes to “healing the gut.” Maybe it’s because of the collagen in it, but there is no actual scientific evidence that this is the case! If you like it, go for it, but I would definitely recommend eating more fiber before sippin’ on bone broth if you have gut issues! 

8. There’s no one size fits all approach when it comes to food and nutrition and as a society, we are finally starting to recognize that health is an individual journey rather than a distinct final destination. As a registered dietitian, I’m sure you feel pressure to eat healthy all the time but we know health is more than just the foods we eat. What has your personal journey with food been like and how do you maintain balance?

I’ve definitely had quite the journey with my health! I’ve always been interested in health and nutrition from a very young age. My dad had somewhat of a health transformation when I was in middle school, and it was very inspiring to me – I started packing my own lunches for school and doing little exercises in my bedroom. Fast forward to college I started counting my calories, using the rec center, and definitely was being pretty restrictive, which of course backfired for me (and for most everyone else who diets). I ended up feeling out of control around food and would even binge eat sometimes.

My weight went up and down, fluctuating 30 pounds or maybe even more. Eventually, I just stopped trying to be so perfect and have the perfect diet, and that’s when things finally fell into place. I knew what foods made me feel best, and I genuinely enjoyed my big salads and roasted veggies with dinner. The difference was I stopped beating myself up after the dessert or chips with lunch. My weight eventually came back down to a healthy place I’m comfortable at, and I still hover in that same range today. What became more important was how I felt and the type of person I was to those closest to me. At this point, I know in order to be the best version of myself (not anyone else!), there are certain things I need to do to take care of myself and support my health. 

Some of the ways I stay balanced are meal planning and prepping at the beginning of the week, stocking my pantry and freezer with healthy items, drinking lots of water daily, getting in some movement 3-5 days a week, limiting added sugar, leaving booze for the weekends (for the most part ;)), making time for relationships, maintaining time boundaries with work, getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night, keeping a tidy home, and plenty of skincare. Of course, I’m not always perfect and these things don’t always happen! But thankfully they’ve become pretty second nature to me, and I’m happier and healthier when I am maintaining balance. 

I hope y’all enjoyed this gut health q&a! Please let us know what other topics you’d like us to cover.