Following Your Gut

A few years ago, it’s likely that most Americans hadn’t heard the word “microbiome.” This term describes the vast collection of bacteria and fungi that live in and on our bodies — 100 trillion or so, give or take a few trillion. But lately, discussing and worrying about our microbiomes has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Mainstream magazines and newspapers have followed and fueled this trend, profiling the science as well as the extreme measures some people take to support the colonies of critters living in their intestines. And in the last year, we at have described how the right bacteria in your gut (digestive tract) may be able to help you both lose weight and control your blood glucose levels.


But supporting your microbiome can come at a price — something that not every article on the topic is quick to acknowledge. Earlier this month, U.S. News & World Report published a piece by a dietitian discussing the tradeoffs that come with trying to eat with your gut bacteria in mind. The piece notes that contrary to the hype surrounding “indigestible” foods — those that your digestive enzymes can’t break down, passing into your colon to nourish the bacteria there — your body definitely needs foods that can be digested by the body’s own enzymes. In fact, highly indigestible diets can lead to malnutrition, even if the foods being consumed are considered highly nutritious. This is because the body may not be able to break down plant carbohydrates and certain nutrients efficiently unless they are heated ahead of time (affecting followers of raw diets, especially), and because such diets may simply not supply enough calories or digestible protein for the body to maintain its functions effectively.

Another issue is that eating too many indigestible foods can lead to discomfort in many people, which can include cramping, flatulence, and difficulty feeling satisfied for very long after a meal. Many of these problems can be reduced or avoided by combining highly indigestible foods — like artichokes, asparagus, beans, or cabbage — with more easily digestible grains and animal proteins.

Of course, for most Americans don’t follow a diet in which they should be worried about eating too many indigestible foods. The standard diet for many people still consists of highly processed, salty, and fatty foods that are digested all too easily by the body. For most these people, including as many indigestible foods as possible in the diet would pose no health danger. But it may still be important for people who want to change their diets not to switch completely from fast food and junk food to leeks, kale, and lentils, but also to whole grains and lean forms of protein such as fish, chicken, or tempeh.

What’s your take on your microbiome — do you think about it at all, or more than you did a few years ago? Do you try to include fermented foods (yogurt, kimchi, fresh sauerkraut) or bacteria-friendly fiber in your diet? If so, have you noticed any positive or negative changes in your body? Do you think the microbiome has been overhyped in the media, possibly at the expense of other important things to focus on — such as portion control, exercising, or controlling carbohydrate intake? Leave a comment below!

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