I'm A Gut Health Expert. This Is My Go-To Easy Weeknight Dinner
I like to say the gut is your internal garden. And like any garden, it requires careful attention to the health of the soil and the produce you want to grow in it. In the case of your gut, we’re talking about the microbiome—the almost 100 trillion little critters in your digestive system, which can be good or bad for your health. Like weeds, the "bad bugs" need to be de-weeded while you promote the growth of the "good guys."
Gut balance starts with maintaining the health of the microbiome while nourishing your one-cell-layer-thick gut lining with the key nutrients it needs to function optimally. When you support your gut with balanced meals, you’ll feel the health ramifications throughout your body with improved digestion, mental clarity, clear skin, and boundless energy.
My gut-focused dinner always starts with a prebiotic-rich salad that takes less than five minutes to make. Anyone who can’t cook can still easily make a salad. All you need is a cutting board and a chef’s knife. It’s just as important to note what is included in this meal as it is to note what is left out (gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and added sugar—all foods that damage the gut lining and feed the unfavorable bugs in your gut’s microbiome).
Dark leafy greens, in this case romaine, are rich in insoluble fibers and cleansing chlorophyll. The prebiotic fiber feeds the favorable gut flora and helps clear the path by pushing food down the digestive tract to keep you regular. The pumpkin seeds are nutritional powerhouses wrapped in a tiny package. They contain a variety of very important minerals—like manganese, copper, zinc, and magnesium. Zinc, along with its roles in boosting immunity and testosterone production, is also needed to maintain a healthy stomach lining and proper acid secretion, which is very important for protein digestion. Pumpkin seeds also add1 a healthy dose of fiber, free-radical scavenging antioxidants, and phytosterols (which have an added benefit of helping to lower your cholesterol levels).
The salad dressing includes extra-virgin olive oil, which is rich in anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fatty acids and phenolic antioxidants. The best type to buy is extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) because it is extracted without the use of harsh chemicals and is the purest, most standardized form. Beware of "refined or light" olive oils, which may have been extracted using solvents and possibly diluted with cheaper (unhealthy) vegetable oils, like soybean or canola. I usually go for an organic version and love to find a peppery artisanal EVOO to add to salads.
The benefits of organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar with the "mother" are extensive. That murky disc at the bottom (the "mother") is rich in protein, enzymes, and probiotic bacteria. Among its potential benefits include reducing acid reflux, improving protein breakdown and digestion, seeding the gut with healthy Lactobacillus, and killing Candida to promote a healthy balance of gut flora. It also benefits the skin and immune health.
Romaine Pumpkin Seed Salad
An important part of eating for a healthy gut is to feel relaxed and unrushed. That’s why I like this salad recipe--because it literally takes me five minutes to make. When it’s this easy, there’s no reason to not add a gut-balancing salad to every dinner.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
- 1 head of Romaine
- 1 cup dry-roasted pumpkin seeds
- Himalayan sea salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Dried basil or herbes-de-Provence, to taste (optional)
- Ground organic turmeric, to taste
- ⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ⅓ cup Bragg organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar
- Cut the romaine into 1-inch discs perpendicular to its long axis. Turn each disc flat and cut into quarters.
- Break up and throw the chopped romaine into a large salad bowl.
- Sprinkle with the dry roasted pumpkin seeds.
- Add the Himalayan sea salt, ground pepper, and spices to taste. Stir them in.
- Mix in my "quick-and-dirty" salad dressing (recipe below); serve and enjoy as part of this Happy Gut meal (if you want my full kick-start guide to a happy gut, you can find it here).
- In a small mason jar, combine the olive oil and cider vinegar.
- Put the top on the jar, and shake vigorously to mix.
- Use the amount desired in your salad, then cap the jar and save the extra for another day.
Every good salad deserves a main dish. This gut-pleasing curry can be made with any meat of your choice or, alternatively, a vegetable medley, to turn this into a vegetarian dish. The turmeric (specifically, its curcuminoids) and ginger are anti-inflammatory for the gut, keeping it healthy while the combination of spices creates a palate-pleasing burst of flavors. Curcumin (in turmeric) has many additional benefits2, including antioxidant, anticancer properties, reducing inflammatory bowel disease activity, and preventing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
When sourcing meats that are both gut-healthy and mind-body conscious, look for hormone-free, free-range, antibiotic-free, and grass-fed when applicable. Protein is made up of amino acids—the building blocks of connective tissue—which are very important for tissue repair and maintenance. But they also serve as the precursors for important neurotransmitters that help you feel happy, satisfied, and relaxed—all keys to a healthy gut.
In the end, the functional gut-healing effects of nutrients are just as important as the enjoyment of the eating experience. This curry is not only healing, but it will be memorable to your taste buds.
Chicken or Lamb Curry
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Serves 2 to 4
- 2 tablespoons organic, refined coconut oil (divided into 1-tablespoon measures)
- 1 pound boneless, organic free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free chicken breasts or lamb, cut into ¼-inch strips
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 3 scallions (green part only), thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon dried cilantro
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon coarsely ground mustard
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¾ cup coconut milk
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the coconut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Sprinkle the chicken or lamb with the salt and add to the skillet in a single layer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer the partially cooked chicken or lamb to a clean bowl and set aside.
- Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of coconut oil to the pan. Add the sliced scallions. Blend together all the spices in a separate bowl, then add to the skillet. Cook until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Stir in the coconut milk. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the partially cooked chicken or lamb. Cover and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve and enjoy with the salad.
Remember that digestion begins in the mouth. So slow down, chew your food thoroughly, and make it a community affair by sharing these recipes with your friends and family over relaxed dinner conversation.
Vincent M. Pedre, M.D., medical director of Pedre Integrative Health and president of Dr. Pedre Wellness, is a board-certified internist in private practice in New York City since 2004. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Biology at Cornell University before attending the University of Miami School of Medicine and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He has appeared on the Martha Stewart Show and ABC and is the author of Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program to Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain. Dr. Pedre is a clinical instructor in medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is certified in yoga and medical acupuncture.