College students and athletes alike are frequently interested in gaining muscle, getting leaner, building strength and making better food choices for academic and athletic performance. However, student-athletes are not knocking down my door with a particular interest in constructing a stronger environment for robust bugs for healthier digestive tracts. Why should you care about the makeup of your gut flora?
A collection of “good” bugs in your gut can build a tougher immune system. Ultimately this means more days on the field or court and fewer days missed in the classroom. In fact, 75% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract. The more varieties of “good” bugs, the stronger defense from infection, chronic disease, inflammation and abnormal gastrointestinal (GI) functions.
Your intestines are a playground for more than 500 species of microorganisms which promote regular GI function, and everyone houses a unique blend of bugs. Pile all your intestinal bacteria on a scale and find out it makes up 2.2 pounds of your entire body weight. The bacterial make up of your gut, also known as the microbiome, is established at birth and remains relatively unchanged throughout the years. However, recent studies indicate your gut microbiome can be altered by food intake, environment (stress) and particular medications. Additionally, it plays a key role in the regulation of metabolism and synthesizing vitamins.
Let me begin by breaking down the terminology. Here are the ABC’s of Bacteria:
(1) Probiotics are living microorganisms, often referred as “good” bacteria, which provide health benefits;
(2) Prebiotics are the food that feed “good” bacteria
(3) Symbiotics are products that contain both probiotics and prebiotics, working together as a team.
Your microbiome can change, for better or for worse, in just a few days depending on your food choices. Foods high in fiber and whole grains alter the PH of the stomach and create a desirable environment for healthy guts. However, sugary foods contribute to inflammation and feed the bad bacteria. Focus on establishing a balance of good bacteria for better health, athletic and academic performance. Consider the following food components the fuel to build a stronger gut!
1. Fruits and Vegetables: Particularly asparagus, artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic, greens, berries, broccoli, avocados and bananas.
2. Whole Grains predominantly oatmeal, barley and cereal.
3. Fermented Foods like Kefir (fermented milk), sauerkraut, Kombucha (fermented tea), fortified fruit juices, tempeh, soybeans, miso and various selections of cheese which contain live bacteria. Don’t forget your yogurt which contains live cultures as well. Note: Yogurts that contain high protein and low sugar are preferred choices.
4. Foods of Honorable Mention: Walnuts, chopped almonds and legumes don’t necessarily fit into a category above but they feed the “good” bugs of the gut.
5. Food First although supplements can be helpful too, aim to eat a variety of probiotic and prebiotic foods and your gut will thank you.
Factors that negatively impact your microbiome include stress and medication. Antibiotics are known to alter the balance of bugs in your tummy. If you are frequently taking medication for infections and colds you will need to focus on replacing those good bacteria.
How do you incorporate “good” bugs into your eating plan? Start at breakfast and grab a bowl. Spoon in a generous dollop of Greek yogurt, top with banana slices, sprinkle with walnuts and dust with whole grain cereal – voila! – synergy of an athletic team.
The Bottom Line: Increase your gut microbiome by eating a diverse diet focusing on nutrient dense plant based foods to include nuts, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Also consider fermented foods to broaden your gut flora for an assorted culture of good bacteria for good health. You are on your way to becoming a healthier YOU!
Christine Turpin, RD, CSSD, LDN, CSCS
Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics
Jonega, Janice V., PhD, RD. “Probiotics and Allergy.” The Health Professional’s Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerances. N.p.: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013. 425-50. Print.
Zanteson, Lori. “Gut Health and Immunity – It’s All About the Good Bacteria That Can Help Fight Disease.” Gut Health and Immunity – It’s All About the Good Bacteria That Can Help Fight Disease. N.p., June 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.