“Nutrition Newbie” is a series focused on basic nutrition information and tips.

Special Blog Post By: Luiza Naslausky, Nutrition Education Coordinator, Santa Clara County

oatmeal

Our bodies are inhabited by a vast number of microbes, bacteria and other microorganisms that have colonized the different nooks and crannies throughout our body. Collectively these microbes are known as our human microbiota, and over the past decade, we have made tremendous discoveries about these microbes and what they do for our health and well-being.

For example, today we now know that our gut microbiota, which is composed of over 100 trillion microbial cells, influences human metabolism, nutrition and immune function. A deteriorated microbiota, on the contrary, has been shown to have an impact not only in the intestinal tract but also in allergies, inflammation, diabetes, obesity and even mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. Gut bacteria can affect your mood and your behavior! Who knew these little guys in our intestine could have such a broad impact?!

Although it is still too soon to define what exactly a healthy microbiota should be, we have learned that more diversity is better than less. It would appear that what is true for other parts of nature is also true inside our bodies: a diverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem. Unfortunately, diversity in the Western population’s gut is significantly lower than in less-industrialized populations. The factors that may have a negative impact on microbiota are: the extensive use of antibiotics in health care and in the food system, a diet rich in processed food, the rise in c-sections, and a decline in breastfeeding.

We will focus more on the diet factor for now. As you know, the American diet is high in processed foods, which are digested in the stomach and small intestine. This low-fiber diet leaves little fuel for the microbes in our large intestine, which may have a negative impact in our overall health. “When deciding what to put on your plate, we need to be mindful about what is going to feed the microbes waiting at the end of our digestive system,” says Justin Sonnemberg, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

A breakfast of eggs, bacon, white bread and pulp free orange juice is not going to provide much fuel to your microbes. Imagine if after that you have for lunch a white bread sandwich, chips and soda, followed by a dinner of meat, potatoes and overcooked vegetables. At the end of the day, you are not really nurturing your microbiota and then not benefiting from the compounds created by them during fermentation.

The good news is that our microbiota is very responsive to dietary changes, so making smart food choices can be an extremely effective way to improve health.

Here are some of the things you can do in order to develop a robust microbiota, with more genetic diversity, healthier species and fewer pathogens:

  • Eat a diversity of fruits, vegetables and legumes. Variety is important since you want to make sure you are eating different types of fibers.
  • Consume whole grains and nuts since these are also rich in fiber.
  • Consume fermented food like yogurt (unsweetened), kefir, sauerkraut and kimchee since they contain probiotic bacteria.

Remember that the less a food is processed, the more your microbiota will benefit. For example, al dente pasta feeds the microbes better than soft pasta does; steel-cut oats is a better choice than rolled oats; raw or lightly cooked vegetables offer more fuel to microbes than soft, mushy, overcooked vegetables. In the end, how a food is prepared matters as much as its nutritional value.

Keep in mind that if eating more fiber is a big change in your diet you might feel some intestinal discomfort. So in order to minimize symptoms like uncomfortable bloating, it may help to increase fiber slowly to then give your microbiota a chance to adapt.

Here’s a recipe to get more fiber in your diet!

Oatmeal Pudding*

Servings: 4
Total Cooking Time: 30min

Ingredients:

4 cups of water
1 ¼ cups of steel cuts oats
Pinch of salt
1 cup of raisins
1 cup of pistachios, chopped
1 tablespoon of unsalted, cultured butter
½ teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of honey, if needed
Plain, unsweetened yogurt or kefir

Instructions:

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the oats and the salt. Cook for around 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the raisins, pistachios, butter, cinnamon and honey during the last 5 minutes. Serve with yogurt or kefir if desired.

*Recipe adapted from the book The Good Gut: Taking control of your weight, your mood, and your long-term health by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg.

***Catch up on our past Nutrition Newbie posts.