One of the most fascinating new areas of nutrition research is demonstrating that our guts may be as individual as our fingerprints.
At the forefront of it is UK genetics professor Tim Spector. He’s obsessed with the microbes in our gut and their link to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, depression and even Alzheimer’s.
In work that’s taking us ever closer to the idea of personalised nutrition, he’s shown that genetics don’t mean a lot when it comes to the way our bodies use food.
For example, even if twins eat a starchy meal such as pasta, one might metabolise it way faster than the other. Moreover, identical twins only share about 37% of the same gut microbes — just a tad more than the rest of us do.
All of which flies in the face of any idea that there’s a perfect way to eat.
So if our gut composition plays such a big role, and genes don’t have much to do with it, what does and how can we improve it?
Tim Spector says the one common factor to a healthy diet, a healthy gut and a healthy body is diversity.
In particular, he advocates increasing our fibre intake by eating plenty of plant foods, fermented foods and polyphenol-rich foods, while avoiding processed food. Foods high in polyphenols feed our gut bugs and include dark chocolate and red-skinned fruit such as berries, plums and cherries.
One of the benefits of fibre is that it breaks down into chemicals which activate immune cells, and these can protect us against seemingly unrelated conditions such as high blood pressure.
On the other hand, low-fibre diets have been linked to excess weight, heart disease, cancer (including breast cancer), type 2 diabetes, depression, irritable bowel syndrome and frailty.
Practically, that means being discerning when we shop in the central aisles of a supermarket and ignoring the products on display in the end-of-aisle specials.
While most of us think we have this fibre thing nailed, recent Australian stats indicate that we don’t. Less than 20% of women over 50 eat enough of it.
One way to encourage more plant fibre in our diets is to have at least one meat-free dinner a week. It doesn’t have to be hard — a can of beans or lentils can become a soup, salad, stew or curry.
We can also make it easier on ourselves by planning ahead, for example, roasting extra vegies or making a big vegie dish on the weekend to use throughout the week.
Diversity means mixing up our vegies, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and so on rather than buying and eating much the same things each week.
Remember that salads can be incredibly versatile. Hetty McKinnon is the queen of interesting salad recipes so consider her books for inspiration.
Dessert? Think fruit. Poached, baked, or just chopped up. With plain yoghurt or nuts, seeds and spices.
Of course, it still pays to listen to your body. Don’t be eating things that don’t work for you in the quest for diversity.
Finally, if you’re after more ways to add beneficial bugs to your life and your gut, the professor suggests getting outside more or getting a dog.
PS. Tim Spector has just published a book called Spoon-Fed: why almost everything you’ve been told about food is wrong.
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