By Dana Shultz and Mary Hartley, RD
Belly up. It’s time for a discussion on two important health topics that just so happen to be incredibly unsexy: Gut bacteria and fermented foods. Yep, here we go.
These two terms often conjure up images of grotesque stomachs and intestines and the most detestable foods you can imagine. But if you can get past the questionable terminology, fermented foods and healthy gut bacteria are extremely important to our health.
According to a recent article from NPR, a new study has found that diet can promote beneficial bacteria in the stomachs of older people, and as a result, promote healthy aging.
Scientists looked at the diets of 178 elderly people, some of whom lived on their own and the rest lived in assisted living centers or nursing homes.
Researchers found that those living on their own had more varied gut bacteria and scored better on tests measuring frailty and cognitive function because they had more diverse diets rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables grains and poultry. Conversely, those living in assisted living centers subsisted on more of a “mashed potato and porridge” style diet that offered less variety and nutritional value.
Ilseung Cho, a gastroenterologist at the NYU School of Medicine, explained what this research means. “What we’re only now beginning to realize is that there’s very close interaction between the bacteria within GI tract and human health and disease.” DietsinReview.com’s Registered Dietitian, Mary Hartley, RD, couldn’t agree more.
“It makes sense that bacteria are important since the human body has about ten times more gut microorganisms than it does cells,” Mary explains. ‘Gut microorganisms have all sorts of functions that have yet to be discovered.’
According to Cho, beneficial bacteria not only aid digestion, help our bodies produce vitamins, and likely support a strong immune system, but they also compete with harmful bacteria in our guts, which is why having a variety of the good kind in our guts is crucial.
Mary supposes that certain types of bacteria that the gut exerts may influence genes that either promote obesity or leanness by affecting the way the body digests food and breaks it down. “Some of the health effects we see with certain diets may be due to changes in gut bacteria. Vegetarians, for instance, have different gut bacteria from meat eaters,” she explains. “And the gut bacteria of breast fed infants is not the same as bottle fed infants.”
Benefits of Fermented Foods
So how can we promote healthy gut bacteria? Besides eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, one simple way is to eat fermented foods. In addition to their digestive benefits, the bacteria from fermented foods confer primary immunity all throughout the body.
Fermentation is a method of preserving food that introduces essential microorganisms into food and then into the GI tract. As Mary explains in her article “The Case for Fermented Foods,” during fermentation bacteria or yeasts break down carbohydrates into easy-to-digest carbon dioxide, alcohols and organic acids. And when the living bacteria enter our bodies and reproduce, they become our intestinal flora, or what Mary refers to as her “internal compost pile.”
Fermentation is also beneficial because it changes indigestible lactose into digestible lactic acid. And in grains, it destroys phytic acid – a substance that blocks the absorption of calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. So in a sense, fermentation does the dirty work our bodies aren’t cut out to do. And furthermore, the bacteria in the gut actually produce nutrients as the food is digested, including B-vitamins, vitamin C and K, antioxidants, and even omega-3 fatty acids.
What Fermented Foods to Look For
As for what fermented foods and beverages we should be consuming, Mary recommends a variety of vegetables, meats, dairy products and even beans. Think brined vegetables like sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, beets, kimchi, and olives; pickled meats, fish and eggs; yogurt, cheese, kefir, sour cream, and buttermilk; and miso and tempeh.
And for fermented grain products, think beer and wine, as well as the refreshing and often fruity fermented tea called kombucha – a personal favorite of mine. And to get the most benefits from your fermented foods, Mary strongly recommends making sure they are not pasteurized.
So that’s it: Fermented foods and gut bacteria in a nutshell. Admittedly, I’d only scraped the surface of these two topics in the past. But having a better understanding of their importance now, I feel much more confident knowing exactly why I’m benefiting from fermented foods, and how a varied, nutritious diet really is benefiting my body. Because the things I eat do more than just give me a slim waist and healthy skin – they keep my gut healthy and help me age more gracefully, too.