We are no longer faced with limited choice when it comes to meals. Instead, we have copious, readily-available food all year round. Although this is a very privileged situation to be in, it may be that such bounty has led us to eat what we want and not necessarily what our bodies need.
This attitude to eating can have a negative effect on all aspects of our health if the foods we want to eat do not marry up with what we need to eat. Every part of our body needs different nutrients to function at its best. For example, we now know that our gut's microbiota (commonly known as gut bacteria) has a huge impact on the rest of our body, mentally and physically.
What if our gut bacteria called the shots?
Imagine for a moment that your gut could speak, so that when you are wandering the supermarket aisles for food, your gut has a say in what you choose. What would it be picking off the shelves and tossing out of the trolley?
Anthony Hobson clinical scientist at The Functional Gut Clinic says: "To keep the gut healthy we need to keep our gut bacteria, or 'microbiome', healthy. The microbiome is like the ultimate zoo with thousands of different types of organisms all needing feeding in different ways. This is why eating a diverse diet helps gut health."
"Even if you can't tolerate 'normal' amounts of some hard-to-digest foods like fibres and fruit sugars then try to take very small amounts mixed with foods you are good with, as this may make it tolerable for your digestion and be enough to feed those good bacteria, keeping our gut well balanced. If diet isn't working then simple tests such as hydrogen and methane breath testing can be carried out to find out exactly what's going on."
It's important to note here that every gut will be slightly different. However, in general, the following foods have been found to enhance gut health and overall health.
The foods your stomach wants in the trolley
High-fibre foods including wholegrains, root vegetables and pulses are all gut-friendly. Fibre is one of the nutrients us Brits often lack, which is important for the health of our digestive tract. It helps to keep us regular, bulks up our stools and also acts as a prebiotic (which means it provides a food source for friendly bacteria). One study on mice even found that not eating fibre could lead to gut bacteria eating away at the protective mucosal lining of your stomach which could lead to inflammation and infection.
Foods which naturally contain live bacteria
Foods such as live yoghurts, fermented foods and some cheeses are said to be 'live' foods or probiotics. This means that the food contains bacteria which when eaten will colonise in the gut, adding to the good bacteria already present. The more good bacteria to fight off any bad bacteria the better!
A variety of colours and types of food
Many studies have shown that eating a diet made up of a variety of foods and colours is important for bacterial diversity and in turn better for immunity and overall health. So try to make sure your shopping trolley is made up of all food groups (proteins, carbohydrates, good fats) and as much colour variety as possible.
What your gut wants you to chuck out
Diets high in saturated fat have been found to contribute to changes in gut bacteria which could increase a person's risk of becoming obese and/or developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Steer clear of: fatty meats, poultry, and butter-containing products like pastries, biscuits, cakes, and desserts like ice cream.
Studies have shown that refined sugar intake has a significant effect on the health and daily function of our guts.
Steer clear of: sugary drinks, sweets, chocolate, pre-made sauces, and low-fat products.
Processed and refined foods
Not only do these foods often contain high levels of fat and sugar but they also often contain emulsifiers which act to stabilise the food. Studies have shown that these emulsifiers may be having an effect on the health of our gut bacteria which could cause inflammation in the body and this can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Steer clear of: pizzas, ready meals, processed meats and pasties.
What about probiotic supplements?
There is now a huge variety of probiotics on the shelves that we are instructed to take each day to increase our range of gut bacteria and therefore health.
But are probiotics really necessary?
At the moment the verdict is, not for everyone as long as your diet is good. There is little evidence to show that taking probiotics every day has a significant impact on the average person with a healthy diet as described above. Plus, any small effect that is seen only lasts for as long as you take them.
What is recommended, however, is that we should use probiotics while taking prescribed antibiotics. This is because antibiotics can wipe out our good bacteria as well as the bad, leaving you with little bacterial diversity at the end of the course of medicine. They may also cut the risk of getting gut infections like C. difficile when you're in hospital, and also help protect against traveller's diarrhoea. In addition, they're often beneficial to people with a variety of common medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
More reason to listen to your gut
More and more evidence is emerging which shows that our gut impacts not only how our tummy feels but also how our brains work, how our immune system can fight infection and how likely we are to develop diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, to name but a few.
Recent studies have even found that by treating the gut you are able to, in some cases, treat depression. This is because when the gut is full of good bacteria it is able to produce a hormone called serotonin which makes us feel happy.
So, perhaps we should all be listening a little harder to the cries of our gut when we next hit the supermarket.