The Milky Way is home to 100,000 thousand million stars. There are so many, it’s difficult for the human brain to comprehend and visualize. But if we’re talking numbers, our own bodies can beat the galaxy. Our guts contain trillions of bacteria, all of which play a vital role in maintaining overall health and well-being.
Research suggests that gut health may be able to influence everything from anxiety to bloating to serious digestive conditions, which is why it’s so important to take it seriously. There are many things that can have an impact, like high levels of stress and lack of sleep, but diet also plays a big role.
Here, we’ve helped to pick out some of the best vegan foods and recipes for optimal gut health. But first, let’s take a look at what the gut actually is.
What is the gut?
While it’s commonly referred to as simply “the gut,” this term refers to the gastrointestinal tract. It includes several organs, including the esophagus (the long tube that carries food to the stomach from the throat), the stomach itself, and the small and large intestines.
The whole system is packed with microorganisms (not to freak you out, but these are tiny living creatures), and most of them, around 90 percent, are bacteria. These microorganisms are what experts mean when they refer to the “gut microbiome.”
Overall, the gut microbiome is bigger than our brains and weighs roughly two kilograms—that’s about the same as a standard-size brick.
Types of gut bacteria
There are many different forms of bacteria, but our gut has five main types: Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, Proteobacteria, and Verrucomicrobia. They have an important role to play in the day-to-day function of our bodies. They help to break down food, for example, providing us with important nutrients.
But the role of gut bacteria is far bigger than just digestion. Too much “bad” bacteria can increase the likelihood of painful and uncomfortable conditions. In 2020, research suggested there may be a link between a genus of bacteria called Brachyspira and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example. There is also evidence to suggest that people who suffer from Crohn’s disease have higher levels of another type of bacteria called Klebsiella pneumoniae.
On the other hand, Bifidobacteria is a form of good bacteria. Some of its strains may help to protect against bad bacteria and relieve painful IBS symptoms, like stomach pain and bloating. Lactobacillus acidophilus is another helpful genus of bacteria, it can help the body to absorb nutrients and keep “bad” bacteria under control.
Research suggests that other types of good gut bacteria can also have a big impact on mental health. Lactic acid bacteria, for example, can produce Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, which can help to calm us down. It regulates nerve cell hyperactivity, which is associated with anxiety and stress.
What is gut health?
Gut health refers to keeping a good balance of this bacteria in the gut. By supporting “good” bacteria in its role of keeping the “bad” bacteria under control, we can help to support many aspects of our overall well-being.
One of the best ways to support gut health is through diet; consuming nutritious food supports good bacteria, and helps to keep everything balanced and healthy. But supplementation is also becoming more popular.
Probiotics supplements for gut health
To add more “good” bacteria into your gut, one option is to take probiotics supplements. But scientists are still learning about their benefits.
There is research to suggest, however, that probiotics supplements may help to restore the balance of bacteria in your gut. This balance can be threatened by the use of antibiotics, for example, and supplements, which are often vegan-friendly, may help to counteract their impact.
However, it’s important to be careful when buying probiotics, as their production is not regulated or overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“It’s not clear if probiotics that can be bought at pharmacies and health food stores are high-quality products,” warns Harvard Health in a blog post. “It’s even possible that some lower-quality products may not even contain the probiotic bacteria that are listed on the label.”
If you want to take probiotics in supplement form, the best course of action is to consult with a health professional first.
Best foods for gut health
You don’t have to take supplements to support your gut. You can eat foods, many of them vegan, which contain probiotics. In fact, eating a diet rich in plant-based whole foods is one of the best ways to support gut health.
According to registered dietitian Jennifer Navaroli Hunter, MPH, RD, LDN, this is partly because plant-based whole foods are high in fiber, which the healthy gut bacteria feeds on. She recommends consuming a “rainbow” of plant-based foods, like berries, kale, chickpeas, oats, and brown rice, for optimal gut health. “Obtaining a diverse color of these foods also increases our diversity of these nutrients,” Hunter tells VegNews.
Like dairy yogurt, vegan yogurt is also a good source of probiotics. And fermented plant-based foods, like kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut, are also great dietary additions for gut health. This is because the fermentation process helps to promote the growth of good bacteria. But according to registered dietitian Jennifer Hanes, MS, RDN, LDN, you need to be mindful of which type you buy.
“Look in the refrigerated section,” she advises. “Shelf stable products will likely have been cooked, which kills the probiotics, or were made using brining or vinegar, which doesn’t necessarily have the probiotics in the first place.”
Hanes also states that many plant-based foods are high in resistant starch, which is also beneficial to gut health. Essentially, resistant starch helps food to get through the digestive system without being broken down, so that when it reaches the large intestine, bacteria can use it as fuel.
“It’s found in high amounts in oats, beans, and green bananas,” Hanes notes. “You can also increase the resistant starch levels in potatoes, whole grains, and rice by cooling them in the refrigerator for four hours after they are cooked.”
Worst foods for gut health
Just like we can eat foods that support gut health, we can also eat foods that don’t. “Foods such as red meat and processed foods (such as bacon, processed lunch meat, and soda) lack fiber, nutrient diversity, and may not be beneficial for gut health in the long term,” notes Hunter says.
Processed meats are particularly risky for the gut. This is because they contain nitrates and nitrites, two types of preservatives. While they are naturally occurring and can also be found in fruits and vegetables, nitrates and nitrites present a risk in processed meat. This is because they can become carcinogenic when they come into contact with protein (inherent in meat) and heat (through cooking).
When they reach the gut, a nitroso compound can be formed, which can cause cancer. For that reason, the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen.
Not all plant-based food is good for the gut either. Refined carbohydrates, like white pasta, French fries, and white bread, for example, are vegan, but they have no dietary fiber. It’s fine to eat them in moderation, but too much may have a negative impact on gut health. (Alternatives like wholemeal pasta and wholegrain bread, however, do contain good amounts of fiber.)
Vegan gut-healthy recipes
If you’re feeling inspired to take control of your gut health, we’ve gathered a few recipes to help you do just that. And all of them are 100-percent vegan with plant-based whole-food ingredients.
1Gut-Healing Vegan Broth
Forget bone broth, this vegan alternative is tasty, nutritious, and requires only gut-healthy plant-based ingredients, like garlic, ginger, and red cabbage (no bones, marrow, or connective tissue here). You’ll need to set aside just over an hour to make it, but your body will thank you. This is also a great comforting recipe to pull out as the weather gets colder, so add it to your list of cozy winter warmer dishes.
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2 Prebiotic Strawberry Mousse
This fruity recipe is ideal for days when you’re craving something sweet and indulgent. The main ingredients are a tub of prebiotic yogurt (prebiotics help to promote good bacteria growth), chickpea aquafaba, and frozen strawberries. Top with pistachios for a bit of extra crunch.
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3 Vegan Miso Soup
As a fermented food, research suggests miso is beneficial for gut health. This recipe combines miso paste, with Kombu (edible kelp), mushrooms, tofu, bok choy greens, and more, to make a delicious and nutritious soup. Enjoy by itself at lunch time, or, if you’re planning a dinner party, this a great starter choice.
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4 Vegan Potato Sauerkraut Pancakes
Again, as it is fermented, sauerkraut is considered to be a gut-friendly ingredient. You can just enjoy it by itself out of the jar, but if you prefer something with a bit more substance, add it to this crunchy and creative potato dish.
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5 Coconut Chickpea Curry
Chickpeas are a great plant-based gut-healthy ingredient, as they’re high in fiber. They’re a little bland on their own, but they are incredibly versatile and can form the basis of many tasty recipes, like this creamy vegan coconut chickpea curry, for example.
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