If you enjoy a festive roast, platters of processed meats, biscuits, cookies and plenty of sugary treats on your dinner table this holiday season, try to restrict the feasting to just the one day. That’s the way nutritionists say you’ll be able to prevent those foods from killing off the gut microbes living in your digestive tract — as well as reduce chronic digestive health issues, such as acidity, bloating and indigestion.
Gut microbiota, as the millions of beneficial microbes living in the intestine are called, play an important role in human health. In general, they improve the immune system and impact both how food is digested and how you feel, but they’ve also been linked to obesity and inflammatory diseases such as IBD, psoriatic arthritis, diabetes, atopic eczema, coeliac disease and arterial stiffness. Scientists now know that what you eat can heal or hurt these microbes. Turns out that if you’re groaning in pain after every dinner, it really is something you ate.
“These bacteria contribute to metabolic functions, protect against pathogens, educate the immune system, and through these basic functions, they can directly or indirectly affect most of our physiologic functions,” says Ghiwa Haddad, a Nutritionist at The Retreat Palm Dubai. “Therefore disorders of the microbiome are associated with many and diverse disease processes, the microbes in our gut hold the key to our general health and well-being.”
“The health of our microbiome also plays a role in the digestion and absorption of foods we eat, and the nutrients these foods provide once they’ve been broken down, so lifestyle and dietary habits are a huge influencer.”
Researchers from the University Medical Centre Groningen in the Netherlands found that plant-based diets and certain foods including legumes, bread, fish and nuts are associated with high levels of friendly gut bacteria. In the process, they help to synthesise essential nutrients and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), the main source of energy for cells lining the colon. On the other hand, a higher intake of meat, fast foods or refined sugar was associated with a decrease in beneficial bacterial functions and an increase in inflammatory markers.
“The food we eat plays an essential role in maintaining the diversity and proper functioning of our gut microbiota,” agrees Farheen Dinda, Clinical Dietitian at the Dubai Health Authority. “The balance of our gut can be disrupted by several factors, and this can promote inflammation — a potent risk factor for physical and mental disorders.”
Prebiotics and probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics are two of the most widely studied elements in the field of gut microbiota, Dinda explains.
Prebiotics, often referred to as fermentable fibre, are naturally present in vegetables and fruit such as garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, bananas, plums and apples; in grains and cereals such as bran, and in nuts like almonds. “For this reason, vegetables, fruits and cereals should be part of a balanced and healthy diet,” Dinda says.
“A diet rich in fibre derived from plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes can affect the microbiota directly and indirectly. A lack of fibre builds a mucus-degrading microbiota that attacks or eats up the mucus lining the intestinal wall, which is our first line of defence against infection. On the other hand, a plant-based diet encourages the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria, which do not eat mucus and therefore help maintain the integrity of the gut wall,” she adds.
Probiotics are slightly more well known. The World Health Organisation defines these as live microorganisms, which confer health benefits on the host when administered in adequate amounts.
Probiotics are found in traditionally fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, soy products like tempeh and miso, and dairy items such as yoghurt, buttermilk and kefir. They can balance out a gut microbiota affected by poor diet, infections, antibiotic treatments or other factors such as stress. The most common probiotics studied belong to two genera, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, but other microorganisms including enterococcus and streptococcus, among others, have also been studied.
Intestinal diseases alone represent a significant cost burden to healthcare systems around the world, the WHO says. In Europe alone, some 3 million people in Europe are affected by IBD and it has a direct healthcare cost valued at up to €5.6 billion (Dh23 billion). Obesity, on the other hand, exhibits an even bigger public health concern, with over 50 per cent of the European population considered overweight or obese, and allied costs of €81 billion (Dh331 billion) each year.
So what should you be eating to beat the bloat? Bolte, from UMC Groningen, recommends diet characterised by nuts, fruits, greater vegetable and legume intake than animal protein, combined with moderate consumption of animal-derived foods such as fish, lean meat, poultry and fermented low-fat dairy. Also a lower intake of red meat, processed meat and sweets, is beneficially associated with the gut ecosystem in our study.
In short, take your cues from the Mediterranean diet this festive season and beyond.