The importance of gut-health is on the rise, with market research firm Schieber, dubbing it the next ‘mega trend’ in the wellness world.
Similarly, analysing Google Trends shows us that “gut health”, “leaky gut” and “bloating” are amongst the most commonly searched terms when it comes to proactive health management.
But with the rise in popularity of another seemingly exciting wellness trend, what is the truth behind gut health? We spoke to Dr Megan Rossi, to firm up some facts and bust some myths about the worlds latest obsession. Dr Megan Rossi is a Registered Dietitian (RD) with a PhD in the area of gut health from the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at The University of Queensland, Australia. Following her studies, she decided to move to London to continue her research at Kings College.
She spends her week split between researching at Kings, with private patients at an established Harley Street clinic and working closely with the food industry to advise and consult. Healthy food chain, Leon, have recently recruited Rossi to devise and consult for them on a gut health range.
But when it comes to gut health, how to do you spot a fad from something you should adopt? It appears, there are quite a few things we need to be in the know on…
“One of the misconceptions is the need to take special gut boosting supplements – such as probiotics. There are studies and good evidence to support that when travelling abroad, specific probiotics can decrease your risk of traveller’s diarrhea and similarly if you’re taking antibiotics (and also in IBS cases with studies showing up to 21% having reduced symptoms whilst taking probiotics). But overall, for the general health person there isn’t anything else ‘study wise’ that suggests you need to take these daily.”
So it seems that whilst having a good probiotic on hand for trips abroad, it really isn’t somewhere we should be prioritising our health focused spending. And whilst we’re on the topic of unnecessary spending, it appears that food intolerance testing really isn’t worth it’s buck either.
“People are spending hundreds of pounds getting food intolerance tests, however, at this stage there is no blood test that can diagnose a food intolerance – don’t waste your money!.”
Another health supplement on the rise is ‘medicinally claimed’ Charcoal. But Rossi advises that there isn’t any evidence to charcoal benefitting our diets, and in fact it could be having an adverse effect.
“Charcoal is really absorbent – and in terms of toxins, it’s meant to absorb all of the bad things in the gut. However if you take charcoal, it could even be biting into a few of the other good nutrients; by the time it makes its way to the large intestine, where gas and some other potentially negative compounds are produced, it’s often already saturated with nutrients it’s absorbed along the way. I don’t recommend people take it.”
But of course, another fad or no-fad question on everyone’s lips is – gluten. What about gluten, as an intolerance or just in general when it comes to gut health? With the rise of the UK “free from” market growing rapidly and expected to be worth £550 million by 2019.
“Gluten has been demonised in the past couple of years especially, but overall there are only 2 main ‘issue categories’ when it comes to gluten: Those with celiac disease, which is 1-2% of the population and those suffering with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is what a lot of people think they have. Research suggests however that it only affects between 1-7% of the population. If you have coeliac disease strict avoidance is crucial, whereas for non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, some sufferers maybe able to have small amounts.”
Generally a lot of gluten-free foods tend to have way more sugar, less fat and less fibre, making them less nutrient dense, which also lays claim to a recent Harvard study showing an increase in diabetes, with those on a gluten-free diet. We are of course focusing in here, largely on the gluten-free aisle – where sugar is often in place of gluten. A lot of gluten-free home cooked dishes are much less of an issue.
“Whole grains are so important to gut health, so unless you have to avoid them, then don’t” says Rossi.
The road to a happy tummy however, doesn’t end there. If probiotics should be less of a priority – what should we be prioritising when it comes to our tums? The key it seems, is plant-based diversity;
“What’s more important is having a really diverse plant-based diet* – it really is the best way to improve your gut health rather than taking a probiotic. Try to get as many different plant-based foods in your diet each week, aiming for around 20-30 different foods. Variety is key, because each vegetable contains different nutrients that the gut thrives on.”
“Obtain important dietary fibres from fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes and instead of supplementing on pre-biotics, (another popular health supplement of the moment) which help to grow good bacterias in our guts. Load up on onion, garlic, legumes, chicory, figs and blackberries.”
(*I’m not saying you should have meat or not have meat – but encouraging that the main proportion of the diet is plant-based.)
It’s equally evidential, that a plant-based approach isn’t just sustainable from a gut health perspective, but from a wider planetary one too. Whole grains are much better for the environment, with 1 bushel of wheat producing 20 pounds more whole wheat flour, than refined wheat flour.
As is cutting down on meat consumption. Meat eaters produce double the amount of greenhouse gasses and whilst this isn’t an article about going vegan, it’s clear that small changes have a big impact, which are better for both the gut and environment.
So what if you already eat a plant-based rich diet, yet you’re still experiencing uncomfortable symptoms? Rossi strongly advises keeping a detailed 7 day food diary, focusing on what you’re consuming and how it’s making you feel. Our own bodies really can be our best guide, but ruling out more sinster issues such as coelaic disease with your GP is important. Megan also recommends seeing a dietitian or registered nutritionist to ensure you are not cutting out any important food groups and putting yourself at risk of a nutritional deficiency.
There are of course a lot of incredible gut health brands out there, focusing on ancient grains and fermented foods – of which Rossi is a fan of. Despite there being no hard scientific evidence, there are so many ancestry examples of how good this food can work in harmony with your gut… Thank goodness for that, as I don’t think I could ditch my Kombucha love affair just yet. Dr Rossi herself even starts her morning with a Kombucha shot and a bowl of kefir-fermented granola mix.
But when it comes to your gut, it isn’t just foods and supplements we should be paying attention to. There is something a lot closer to home and it won’t cost you a thing either. A really important part of the guts’ function, is it’s connection to our brain and our thoughts, and much further than the thoughts of the foods we crave. The gut and the brain really do talk to each other.
“The community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites that colonise our gut- termed our gut microbe, is in constant communication with our brain and may even impact our thoughts and happiness. What is more, research suggests that boosting our gut health through eating more plant-based foods could positively benefit depression and anxiety- which affect so many of us.”
“As many as 30% of us will experience gut symptoms at some stage and often stress plays a role, so for a sustainable gut-health lifestyle, de-stressing is so important.”
And thankfully, the rise in popularity of meditation and mindfulness, seems aptly timed. Gut health centric brands would be wise not to ignore the powerful link between the gut and the brain.
So there you have it, ‘doctors orders’ – up your veggies and de-stress your mind for the ultimate happy tummy.