Is a Plant-Based Diet the Key to Better Gut Health?

Gut health has become a focal ‍point ‍in‍ contemporary health ⁢discussions, with mounting evidence highlighting its‍ critical role⁣ in overall well-being. Often dubbed the ‘second ​brain,’ the ⁣gut is intricately ⁤linked to various bodily functions,⁢ including digestion, metabolism, immunity, mental health, and sleep. Emerging ⁢research suggests that a diet abundant in minimally ⁢processed⁣ plant foods may be the optimal​ fuel for the trillions of beneficial microbes residing in our gut. This article delves into how plant-based diets can enhance gut health by fostering a ‌diverse and thriving microbiome, exploring the key components such as fiber, plant diversity, antioxidants, and polyphenols that ‍contribute to⁣ a flourishing gut environment.⁤ Discover ⁤the science behind the‌ gut microbiome and the profound impact of plant-based nutrition on maintaining a healthy⁣ digestive system.

How eating plant-based can be good for our gut

Plant-based diets gut health
Image Credit: AdobeStock

Gut health is a hot topic at the moment, with new research emerging all the time about the importance of a healthy gut for overall health. You may have heard the gut being referred to as the ‘second brain’ because of its connection to many of the body’s important functions.

Increasingly, research is showing that a diet rich in minimally processed plant foods provides optimal fuel for the trillions of beneficial microbes which live in the human gut. Here are some of the ways that plant-based diets support a flourishing gut microbiome and overall digestive health.

What is the gut microbiome?

The gut is home to over 100 trillion microorganisms1, including good and bad bacteria, collectively known as the microbiota. The environment they live in is called the gut microbiome, an incredibly diverse environment that is connected to our overall health in surprising ways.

Our gut is involved in everything from supporting digestion and metabolism to immunity, brain function, mental health and sleep.

Gut bacteria is unique to each individual, but a varied microbiome and lots of good bacteria are important markers of a healthy gut for everyone. There are many factors which contribute to the overall health of our gut, but diet has been found to play an important part.2,3

Does eating a plant-based diet impact our gut health?

Research has shown that those eating a diet rich in whole plant foods have more diversity in gut bacteria than those who eat a diet high in meat, dairy and processed foods.4 One study review published in 2019 found that a plant-based diet directly helps to create a diversity of gut bacteria – a key factor that influences overall gut health.5

Mediterranean diets – which are rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds – have also been linked to a more varied gut microbiome and are associated with living longer.6,7

Let’s look at the components of plant-focused diets that can lead to better gut health.

Flatlay of plant-based foods
Image Credit: AdobeStock

Fibre

Fibre, which is only found in plants, does more than just keep our bowels moving. It is a prebiotic which acts as a food source for friendly gut bacteria, as we cannot digest it inside our small intestine.

By feeding microbes and allowing them to thrive and multiply, fibre helps to develop a thicker mucus barrier and inhibits inflammation in the gut.8

Most adults in the UK don’t get enough dietary fibre.9 We should aim to eat 30g of fibre-rich foods everyday from sources such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Good sources of fibre include beans, peas, lentils, sweet potato, pasta, chia seeds, flaxseeds, nuts, broccoli and pears.

Why not try this Spicy Red Lentil & Chickpea Soup or this Broccoli and Beans and Spaghetti Bake to fill up on fibre?

Diversity of plants

We’ve all heard the importance of getting our five a day, but have you heard of eating 30 plants a week?

The American Gut Project, a crowd-sourced citizen study, analysed the impact of eating a wide variety of plants on gut health. It found that people who ate 30 or more plants each week had a more diverse gut microbiome than those who ate 10 or fewer.10 This challenge is all about variety and you get ‘plant points’ for every new plant you try.

Eating 30 different plants per week may seem like an overwhelming task, but if you build meals and snacks around fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, herbs and spices, you may be surprised at how quickly you can hit this target.

Eating different colours or variants of the same plant such as red, green and yellow peppers also count as individual plant points.

Alternatively, try Dr Greger’s Daily Dozen challenge to help you pack in the plants everyday.

Have fun experimenting with different ingredients and recipes to find new flavours you like and improve your gut health at the same time. Try this vibrant Nutty Tempeh Salad or this Parsnip, Kale and Kidney Bean Hotpot to get more plant points in.

Blueberries and raspberries on a worktop
Image Credit: Annemarie Grudën on Unsplash

Antioxidants and polyphenols

Antioxidants are compounds that can neutralise or remove harmful free radicals from the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells, proteins and DNA through a process called oxidation. Plant foods contain high amounts of antioxidants – around 64 times more than animal foods.11

Oxidative stress can damage the gut lining and lead to inflammation, disrupting the gut microbiome and resulting in digestive issues. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds are packed with powerful antioxidants that fight oxidative stress and inflammation in the gut and body.

Some antioxidants, like polyphenols, can act as prebiotics, providing fuel for the growth of beneficial microbes in the gut. This helps to maintain a diverse and balanced gut microbiome.

Polyphenols, compounds found in plant foods, are often nicknamed the barrier of the gut because they strengthen the gut barrier and provide a crucial line of defence.

A strong gut barrier is the key to a healthy guy, preventing ‘leaky gut’ and reducing the risk of gut-related issues. Fruit, vegetables and other plants like tea and coffee are abundant in polyphenols and antioxidants. The more polyphenol-containing foods we eat, the better our gut health will be.

Good sources of antioxidants include blueberries, strawberries, leafy greens, dark chocolate, legumes, herbs and spices. The general rule is the more colourful, the better! Get plenty of antioxidants with this Berry Good Smoothie Bowl or this Roast Butternut Squash and Spinach Salad.

While each person’s microbiome is unique, one thing is clear from the research – plant-based diets high in a diverse range of whole foods, fibre, polyphenols and antioxidants help create an environment where good bacteria thrive.

Eating more fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes while limiting processed foods is a recipe for optimal gut health. Check out our whole food plant-based recipes for inspiration.

References

1. Guts UK. “Introduction to Gut Bacteria.” Guts UK, gutscharity.org.uk. Accessed 12 June 2024.

2. Prados, Andreu. “A Recent Review Explores the Impact of Dietary Components and Dietary Patterns on the Gut Microbiome.” Gut Microbiota for Health, 18 May 2017, gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com. Accessed 12 June 2024.

3. Deng, Feilong, et al. “The Gut Microbiome of Healthy Long-Living People.” Aging, vol. 11, no. 2, 15 Jan. 2019, pp. 289–290, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed 12 June 2024.

4. Sidhu, Shaneerra Raajlynn Kaur, et al. “Effect of Plant-Based Diets on Gut Microbiota: A Systematic Review of Interventional Studies.” Nutrients, vol. 15, no. 6, 21 Mar. 2023, p. 1510, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed 12 June 2024.

5. Tomova, Aleksandra, et al. “The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota.” Frontiers in Nutrition, vol. 6, no. 47, 17 Apr. 2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed 12 June 2024.

6. Merra, Giuseppe, et al. “Influence of Mediterranean Diet on Human Gut Microbiota.” Nutrients, vol. 13, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2021, p. 7, mdpi.com. Accessed 12 June 2024.

7. Martinez-Gonzalez, Miguel A., and Nerea Martin-Calvo. “Mediterranean Diet and Life Expectancy; beyond Olive Oil, Fruits, and Vegetables.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, vol. 19, no. 6, Nov. 2016, pp. 401–407, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed 12 June 2024.

8. Zou, Jun, et al. “Fiber-Mediated Nourishment of Gut Microbiota Protects against Diet-Induced Obesity by Restoring IL-22-Mediated Colonic Health.” Cell Host & Microbe, vol. 23, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 41-53.e4, cell.com. Accessed 12 June 2024.

9. British Nutrition Foundation. “Fibre .” British Nutrition Foundation, 2023, nutrition.org.uk. Accessed 12 June 2024.

10. McDonald, Daniel, et al. “American Gut: An Open Platform for Citizen Science Microbiome Research.” MSystems, vol. 3, no. 3, 15 May 2018, journals.asm.org. Accessed 12 June 2024.

11. Carlsen, Monica H, et al. “The Total Antioxidant Content of More than 3100 Foods, Beverages, Spices, Herbs and Supplements Used Worldwide.” Nutrition Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, 22 Jan. 2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed 12 June 2024.

Notice: This content was initially published on Veganuary.com and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Humane Foundation.

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