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You Need Way More Nutrients for Good Gut Health

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It’s no secret that the rise of serious diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems are due to the unhealthy diets that have become commonplace in America. But it might not just be our diets—75 percent of the world’s population consumes only five animal species and 12 plant species, and this loss of dietary diversity over the past 50 years or so may be a contributing factor to the influx of diseases, according to a lecture given at IFT15: Where Science Feeds Innovation in Chicago this week. (Find out Why the Most Nutritious Foods Aren’t As Healthy As They Used to Be.)

Diet is the principal regulator of what healthy bacteria make up our microbiome—the ecosystem of the human GI tract, explained lecturer Mark Heiman, vice president and chief scientific officer at MicroBiome Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company focused on improving the human microbiome. Climate change plus our current farming practices have lead to less nutritionally diverse produce, plus most of us only eat a limited diet—in fact, rice, maize, and wheat alone make up 60 percent of the calories people consume around the world, Heiman said. (And we eat things packed with these 7 Ingredients That Are Robbing You of Nutrients.)

“Like any ecosystem, the one that is most diverse in species is the one that is going to be the healthiest,” Heiman said. “In almost every disease state that has been studied so far, the microbiome has lost diversity.”

Previous research has shown that the nutrients your gut absorbs directly affects your neurological signaling, resulting in mood swings and mental health problems like depression. (Find out more in Is Your High-Fat Diet Messing with Your Mood?)

Heiman’s research, though, has found that people with pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes had a different mix of gut bacteria than healthy people. When these 30 participants were given a cocktail of missing nutrients—including beta glucan and antioxidants—their microbiome shifted to a healthier bacteria makeup and they saw benefits including feeling more satisfied from their meals, improved glucose control, and relief from constipation.

Heiman did a similar study on obese mice: He gave them nutrients from heirloom soybeans—early versions of the now-common produce that were popular before modern farming and therefore more nutritionally rich. These nutrient-rich supplements not only improved the obese mice’s gut bacteria but also decreased their weight gain and colon inflammation.

While you probably can’t find more nutritionally-rich versions of the produce you’re already eating at your local store, you can help improve your microbiome (and, therefore, disease risk) another way: Think about your diet right now and how you could add more diversity to your plate, Heiman suggested. This is the best season to stock up, since farmer’s markets are packed with All the Juicy and Fresh Produce You Can Eat in July. Plus consider these 8 "Ugly" Nutrient-Packed Fruits and Vegetables, and try and pack nutrients in wherever you can (here are 10 Super Greens to Add to Smoothies and Juices). The more colorful your plate, the more diverse your nutrient intake, and the happier your microbiome will be.

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