Your Gut Microbes Are Picky Eaters: 4 Foods An MD Swears By To Make Them Happy
Did you know that your microbes are actually picky eaters? Sure, there may be some fiber-rich foods that are deemed "gut healthy," but according to gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., MSCI, each plant has its own unique blend of fiber that matches a specific set of microbes in your body. And because there are trillions of those guys in your gut, you'll need tons of different sources of fiber in order to make all those microbes happy.
In other words, you can't just eat pounds of kale and expect your gut to remain in tiptop shape.
"Think of plants like they're your friends," Bulsiewicz shares on the mindbodygreen podcast. "Make the superfoods your best friends, but don't forget about your other friends throughout the week." Here's this gastroenterologist's running list of the best superfoods to fuel those picky microbes, plus why you should add all of them (and more) to your plate:
Perhaps the most underrated legume there is: Peanuts actually have prebiotic properties, says Bulsiewicz. "Not in the same way fiber does," he explains. "It won't produce short-chain fatty acids, but it can alter the microbiome and make it healthier."
Peanuts also contain resveratrol, an antioxidant-like compound that's the subject of some exciting longevity research. One study found that resveratrol activates sirtuins1; sirtuins, as we know, are key players in the game of cellular aging. For instance, they can help delay the shortening of telomeres, which is what spurs the natural process of aging. Add peanuts' rich protein content to the mix, and you've got yourself quite the gut-healthy, longevity-enhancing snack.
Consider Dr. B another doctor on the broccoli sprout bandwagon: These little sprouts are perhaps the healthiest cruciferous veggies out there, he says, due to their higher concentration of the necessary components to boost the production of sulforaphane. "The best place to get sulforaphane is not the broccoli; it's the sprouts," Bulsiewicz explains.
In case you're unfamiliar with sulforaphane, it's an incredibly gut-healthy antioxidant that has an ability to stabilize free radicals by activating the protein Nfr2, which in turn activates certain antioxidant genes in your body. Sulforaphane also supports your body's detoxification processes: One study even showed that sulforaphane from broccoli sprouts activated enzymes in the body that picked up pollutants from the bloodstream and flushed them out via urine.
Ah, sourdough—quarantine's most beloved kitchen pastime (in addition to banana bread, of course). According to Bulsiewicz, sourdough reigns supreme on the gut-health front due to its fermentation process—a process that research has shown can actually assist digestion2.
"Fermentation transforms our food," he says. "With sourdough, it's being facilitated by healthy microbes—bacteria and yeast." That's why some people with gluten sensitivity might actually fare well with a slice of sourdough: That fermentation transforms the bread and causes the gluten to diminish substantially, Bulsiewicz notes.
Omega-3 fatty acids play a significant role in gut health. They have incredible anti-inflammatory properties, so much so that researchers consider them prebiotics3 that feed your healthy gut flora.
In terms of foods that boast omega-3 fatty acids, salmon seems to gain most of the fanfare. But Bulsiewicz reminds us that salmon don't actually produce omega-3s: "They store it in their fat because they consume algae." That said, algae (popularly referred to as seaweed or kelp) is the real star here. "Sea veggies have unique forms of fiber and unique forms of fat," continues Bulsiewicz. "They are a great source of iodine, and you're getting a unique source of nutrition that's hard to replace."*
No matter what plant-based foods you're eating, make sure there are lots of 'em.
Bulsiewicz loves his plant-based superfoods, sure, but he believes a diverse plant diet is more important. In fact, "a diet of average foods is superior to a diet that emphasizes one or two superfoods," he says. Meaning, if your diet only consists of peanuts and broccoli sprouts, your gut microbiome might not be up to par, no matter how many benefits those superfoods may boast.
As we mentioned, each plant contains a unique blend of fiber that works for specific microbes in your gut—so you want to make sure you're benefiting from the strengths of all those plants. But it doesn't have to be that difficult to keep front of mind.
Take it from Bulsiewicz, whose go-to breakfast is a simple morning smoothie; he adds banana, oat milk, wild blueberries, arugula, broccoli sprouts, ground flax, hemp seeds, and chia seeds to create a diverse, plant-based morning meal. "It doesn't require that much effort, and your microbes are absolutely thriving."
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Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.