Why does it matter?
Over the past decade, research has brought to light how your ‘gut microbiome’ plays a role in almost every aspect of health, including digestion, immunity, fat storage, and heart health.
Studies suggest a healthy gut may even help clear up skin conditions, such as eczema and acne, and may make you less susceptible to stress, anxiety, and depression—a finding that’s earned the microbiome the nickname “the second brain.”
Like most things in life, it’s all about balance: You want the “good” bacteria (like lactobacillus) to outweigh the “bad” bacteria. If this balance is thrown off, it can lead to a compromised immune system, inflammation, more fat storage, and other adverse effects.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as simply letting the good bacteria flourish. There’s a lot out of your control that affects your microbiome—such as where you live, where you were raised, and some aspects of your personal lifestyle. But there is one major way to influence your gut health that’s 100-percent in your control: what you eat.
Certainly, there are foods you should be eating (think: yogurt and fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut) to boost gut health. But there’s another important piece of the puzzle: cutting back on particular foods is also crucial to ensure a happy homeostasis for those microscopic critters. Here are the top three:
1. Conventional Meats and Poultry
At some point, we’ve all taken a course of antibiotics, which are designed to do pretty much what it sounds like: kill bacteria. But antibiotics don’t discriminate—they go after good and bad bacteria alike. While you shouldn’t perhaps refuse the meds your doc prescribes, research shows consuming antibiotics when unnecessary can do serious damage to your gut flora.
If you’re eating meat from livestock that’s been treated with antibiotics, you may be getting extra antibiotics without realizing it. While the use of some antimicrobial drugs in livestock to treat diseases is approved by the FDA, concerns arise when they’re used to help animals gain weight or when drugs intended for human consumption are given to animals, which has been linked to antibiotic resistance in humans.
The best way to avoid antibiotic-raised meat? Eat less meat and buy organic.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
If you thought fake sugar was a miracle sent from heaven to make all things sweeter sans calories, think again. Research suggests that sucralose—the main ingredient in Splenda—can significantly alter the balance of bacteria in the microbiome. In one small study, after consuming artificial sweeteners for just one week, many of the participants began to develop glucose intolerance—the first step on a path to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and a host of other health issues.
And there are plenty of ways to sweeten things up without resorting to the fake stuff. Bad bacteria feed off sugars, a diet high in real sugars has also been linked to an off-balance microbiome, so you’ll still want to cut back on any kind of sweet stuff, Alpert says.
3. Genetically Modified Soy
While fermented soy is good for you, it may be wise to cut back on soy products that have been genetically modified (GM)—and if you’re eating them in the U.S., they most likely have been, as 94 percent of soybeans in America are GM. GMO food is a point of contention in the national health conversation, but that’s another story altogether. The point here is that the herbicide used on GMO crops in the U.S. (a.k.a. Roundup) has been shown to kill off many species of beneficial gut bacteria in animals. While research in this area is still ongoing, there aren’t many good reasons to choose to eat GM soy – or any other GM food. It also contains phytic acid, which messes with digestion and has been linked to gastric issues, such as gas and bloating.
You can get your bacteria back on track by cutting back on the above items, adding in beneficial foods for your gut, and taking a probiotic supplement.