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Feed Your Flora

The keys to a healthy gut are right in your kitchen. Learn which ingredients make the cut and why.


We’ve only recently come to realize just how important our gut—the charmingly blunt term for the whole of our digestive system—is to our health. You’ve heard of the Human Genome Project? Well, there’s also the Human Microbiome Project. Launched in 2008, its goal was to map out billions of bacteria that live in and around our bodies. Turns out that the more diverse the population in our gut is, the better off we are, although a diet of processed foods can threaten that diversity and kill off the beneficial bacteria. The bottom line: when your gut is not functioning as it should, it can lead to inflammation, poor absorption of nutrients, and a whole host of problems, including weight gain. So how do you get your gut back on (ahem) tract? That answer is complicated, but making sure you have enough good bacteria on board is key. You’ve probably seen foods like yogurts or kefirs and even supplements labeled “probiotic,” which means they can supply some of these beneficial bacteria. Other foods are known as prebiotics, which means they provide nutrients that keep your existing gut flora well-fed and happy.

Fermented foods are natural probiotics and incorporating some of these gutfriendly foods into your diet just makes good sense. After all, I think it’s always better to eat your way to good health whenever possible. Nearly every culture (and most of those that boast especially long-lived populations!) eats some form of fermented food. In Germany, it’s sauerkraut; in Korea, kimchi. In Japan, natto, a protein-rich fermented soybean dish, is part of the typical Japanese breakfast, and in Ethiopia, fermented teff is used to make injera, a spongy bread. In Italy, we eat vegetable pickles known as giardiniera before a heavy meal to get those digestive juices flowing. Giardiniera translates as “from the garden” because it’s traditionally made with whatever vegetables are in season. I use cauliflower, carrots, celery, and peppers in mine, but feel free to improvise!
Tempeh is another fermented food. Like natto, it’s made from soybeans, and it has an earthy, slightly nutty flavor. It’s an easy way to add probiotics to your weeknight stirfry. Again, use whatever vegetables you have handy, but don’t leave out the carrots, which contain arabinogalactans, a natural prebiotic. My goes-with-everything garlic vinaigrette is an easy way to up your intake of this key ingredient, which not only prohibits the growth of bad bacteria but also contains inulin, a plant fiber that feeds your microbiome and repairs your gut wall.  It’s a complicated topic that we’ll be returning to in future issues, but in the meantime, experiment with different fermented foods to find the ones you like best. Your gut will thank you!

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