Foods that affect gut health - Part 1
Gut health is the cornerstone of overall health. This has been known for thousands of years, even Hippocrates once said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Today in the US gastrointestinal issues have become the new normal. Every year there are an average of 54 million ER visits related to GI issues. In 2015 GI disorders cost $136 billion for the US economy (1). From immune system to autoimmunity, to mental health – scientists keep discovering more and more ways gut function affects our overall well-being.
One of the most important factors influencing our gut health is something we do multiple times a day – eating. Food is not just empty calories, it provides building blocks for our body, it’s information, too. Our gut is the gate through which food enters our system, responsible for breaking it down and absorbing nutrients, while shielding us from dangerous pathogens and toxins. Some foods promote gut health and help make its job easier, others, to the contrary, make the job that much harder. That results in imbalance of gut microbiome, disrupted mucosal lining, increased intestinal wall permeability – also called leaky gut, when the intestinal wall tight junctions change and no longer serve as an effective barrier for foreign proteins, toxins and pathogens to get into the bloodstream. When bacteria and toxins enter the bloodstream, that can trigger a reaction from the immune system when it encounters foreign invaders. This can result in symptoms, such as food sensitivities, fatigue, digestive issues, skin problems, headaches and systemic inflammation (2).
So let’s talk about which foods are most detrimental to gut health, and what we can replace them with:
1. Sugar. Studies have shown that high sugar consumption can change the quality of our gut microbiota even within one day. It can also contribute to gut inflammation and leaky gut (3). Pathogenic gut bacteria and yeast love sugar. In fact, as they thrive on high sugar diet, they actually influence the cravings we get for even more sugar, thus creating a never ending feeding loop (4). Sugar can hide in many forms, including high fructose corn syrup in soda and soft drinks, white refined flour products, sweets and desserts. You can even find it in unexpected places, such as processed foods like ketchup, salad dressings, yogurts, cereal, granola bars and more. Reading labels and nutrition facts can be very helpful when deciding which products it’s best to skip. Choose foods that don’t list added sugars in the ingredients, drink more water and fewer sweetened beverages, leave desserts for an occasional treat vs. regular snack, replace with healthier sugar alternatives – honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar.
2. Artificial sweeteners. Sucralose, acesulfame-K and sucralose are marketed to us as a healthier alternative to sugar. But is that really the case? Actually, studies show that artificial sweeteners change the composition of our gut microbiome, which in turn affects weight gain, glucose metabolism, increase diabetes risk and chronic inflammation (5). Also, consuming artificial sweeteners can actually stimulate appetite, making you feel hungry and eat more (6). Healthier alternatives for artificial sweeteners include stevia, monk fruit extract, xylitol, erythritol. Xylitol and erythritol are sugar alcohols, so it’s important to know that consuming too much at one time can cause gastrointestinal upset. A relatively new sweetener that’s good as a sugar substitute is yakon syrup, made from the yakon plant in South America. It’s high in fructooligosaccharides, the soluble fibers that feed good gut bacteria, and it can help with constipation issues.
3. Foods high in herbicides and pesticides. Suffix “-cide” is defined as “substance that kills”, in the case of herbicides and pesticides – killing unwanted plants and insects. The question is, how do they affect us when we consume these compounds sprayed on the foods we eat? Let’s take glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the US. It prevents plants from making certain proteins that are needed for plant growth by stopping a specific enzyme pathway, the shikimate pathway. Originally scientists believed that this particular enzyme is not applicable to humans, however, later studies have shown that it is utilized by our intestinal bacteria (7). Therefore, consumption of glyphosate will have a direct negative effect on our gut microbiome by killing good bacteria and essentially acting like an antibiotic. In fact, in 2003 Monsanto registered glyphosate as an antibiotic. One of the most common practices where glyphosate is used in farming is called dessication, where it’s sprayed on the crops prior to harvesting in order to make sure they yellow consistently and speed up harvesting time. Glyphosate can cause leaky gut, block absorption of nutrients, increase gut inflammation, negatively affect the liver, and even contribute to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. (8).
Pesticides have similar effects on the human gut. One of the most commonly used group of pesticides, organophosphates, negatively affect gut flora, which in turn can worsen gut permeability, absorption of nutrients, metabolism and promote obesity and insulin resistance (9). Foods with the highest levels of glyphosate include various grains, such as wheat and oatmeal, legumes, and genetically modified foods, such as soy and corn. Per lab tests, Cheerios cereal was found to have the highest amount of glyphosate among foods tested. That's an alarming fact, considering how popular this product is among families with children. For a list of products tested to contain glyphosate you can check this link. Foods with the highest levels of pesticides include strawberries, spinach, kale, apples and more. For the full list refer to The Dirty Dozen list by Environmental Working Group (10). To reduce exposure to pesticides and herbicides in your diet, opt for organic grains and produce as much as possible. Also, EWG publishes The Clean 15 list every year, which includes conventional non-organic produce with the least amount of pesticides and herbicides detected (11).
4. Genetically modified foods. Foods that have been genetically engineered to contain traits not naturally acquired have been in spotlight for years. Their long term effects on human health are still unknown, although scientific research has indicated potential concerns re. carcinogenicity, reproductive effects and overall toxicity (12). One important reason to avoid genetically modified foods is because they’re designed to withstand the effects of glyphosate, thus consuming them you’re guaranteed to consume that herbicide, too. I’d like to mention separately one specific type of GMOs – BT corn. It was designed to include a gene from soil bacteria called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which produces the Bt toxin, essentially turning corn into a pesticide. When insects consume this toxin, it literally attacks them from the inside by punching holes in their intestines. Scientists believe that BT toxin could affect human microbiome similarly, resulting in leaky gut, gastrointestinal issues, autoimmune diseases, food allergies and other chronic health issues (13). Corn is widely used in various processed foods and drinks, as well as fed to farm raised animals. To avoid BT corn exposure, choose organic, pasture raised meat, eggs and dairy, minimize processed foods and drinks that contain high fructose corn syrup.
5. Conventional meats, eggs and dairy. The quality of these products is directly influenced by the way they’re raised. Conventional farms use cheap grains, such as genetically modified corn and soy to feed their animals. That results in meat, dairy and eggs that are not as nutritious and more toxin-laden than pasture raised animals. For example, grass fed beef is overall less fatty than farm raised, but it’s higher in the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats vs omega 6. It’s also higher in vitamin A and E (14). Grass-fed milk has double the omega-3 fat content as conventional milk. Pasture raised eggs are also higher in vitamin A, E and omega-3s, as well as lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. Fun little fact: omega 3 fats actually help your gut to stay healthy by promoting good bacteria growth and increasing gut biodiversity (15). Another major difference is the use of antibiotics in conventional farming. It’s one of the main contributing factors in the growing antibiotic resistance in our nation and worldwide. Every time you consume conventionally raised products you consume a small dose of antibiotics, which negatively affects your gut flora and builds antibiotic resistance in your body, too. Numerous studies have demonstrated that resistant bacteria originating in livestock can also be transmitted to humans. This has become such an important health issue that our government has been repeatedly asking farmers to limit the use of antibiotics in their cattle (16). Choose meat, dairy and eggs that are organic, grass fed and pasture raised in order to enjoy better nutritional quality and limit your exposure to antibiotics, pesticides and toxins.
There are many more foods that adversely affect gut health, it’s simply impossible to talk about them all in one post. It’s also impossible to implement all these changes at once. Take it one step at a time, change one ingredient at a time. Little by little, that progress will build up into a new, healthier you. Choose progress over perfection. Every small change you make today can have a profound effect on your health and quality of life. To be continued…