It’s virtually impossible to read anything online these days without stumbling over the words microbiome and gut health. But rather being ‘just another wellness trend’, good gut health is believed to improve everything from mental health issues like anxiety and depression; to general immunity; to getting a good night’s sleep.
The thing is, it’s not about popping a pill and thinking you’re good to go. Gut health is made up of a myriad of good health choices that you make every day. One of the main ones is ensuring you’re eating enough plants. Foods like legumes, vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts are all a critical factor in ensuring good gut health. We asked leading nutritionist and dietitian Millie Padula, who’s also an ambassador for Inside Out Nutritious Goods, to talk us through why a plant-based diet is key.
By Millie Padula, nutritionist and dietitian
What exactly is plant-based eating?
A plant-based diet is exactly that; a diet that is based around the consumption of plant foods. Despite being used interchangeably with the term vegan, the two are actually different. Vegan eating patterns exclude the consumption of animal products in their entirety, where-as plant-based dietary patterns may include animal products in small amounts.
When we typically think of plant foods, it’s fruits and vegetables that spring to mind. However, lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole-grains and derivatives of these such as Inside Out’s Oat & Almond Milk are all also part of the plant family and make up a large portion of a plant-centric diet.
Vegan styles of eating appear to be very ‘on-trend’ for young people. Vegan diets are flaunted over social media as being the gold standard for health. However, the main thing to remember when you are talking to your children about different dietary patterns is that the best diet is the one that is enjoyable, sustainable and focuses more on food inclusion that food restriction.
As a dietitian, I steer away from putting ‘labels’ on eating patterns (especially for young individuals). I believe you should too. Always encourage the consumption of plant-foods (because they are incredibly nutritious), but be mindful of not demonising other foods in the process. Doing so can create poor relationships with food and disordered eating patterns, especially in young tweens and teens.
The link between plant-based eating and gut health
Plant-based diets are scientifically proven to be one of the most beneficial when it comes to our health and wellbeing. This is because plant-foods contain a wealth of nutrients that support brain, heart, muscles, nervous system and most profoundly, our gut!
The one compound that all plant foods have in common is their fibre content. You may recognise fibre as the nutrient that keeps you going to the toilet regularly, but it’s so much more than that.
Fibre isn’t absorbed and digested like other nutrients. Most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, but fibre passes through the small intestine essentially unchanged. It enters the large intestine where it’s fermented by all of the healthy gut bugs that reside there.
After fermentation, the fibre in food keeps making its way down the digestive tract where it is later excreted via a bowel motion. Prebiotic fibre is a special type of fibre found in garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes, oats, wheat-based products, cashews, pistachio nuts, chickpeas, lentils, nectarines, peaches and dried fruit. These foods work to feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut, also known as the probiotics.
Prebiotics for the win
The greater number of probiotics we have in our gut, the greater the health outcomes. I recommend Inside Out’s Unsweetened Oat Milk as it contains prebiotic fibre and is a great addition to a nutritious diet. It’s an excellent non-dairy alternative, particularly if your kids have gut issues that are impacted by eating dairy.
When fibre is fermented it generates what we call a ‘short-chain-fatty-acid’. This is a compound known to have positive effects on inflammation levels, disease risk, immunity and our ability to absorb nutrients from food. In other words, if we don’t fill our gut with the right types of food, it will greatly impact our blood nutrient levels. In turn this affects our energy levels, sleep quality, skin, bone and muscle strength, mood and mental health.
Teen gut health key to mood
These are great angles when you talk to your child about teen gut health and eating more plants. Don’t focus on weight, focus on physiological and psychological benefits.
It’s also important to recognise that 70% of your immune cells and 95% of your serotonin (one of our happy hormones) live in the gut. So nourishing your gut health with plant foods helps strengthen your immune system and improves mood.
Lastly, you don’t need to rely on any supplements or so-called ‘gut-healing’ powders and potions. Thankfully, your child can get everything they need to support and optimise teen gut health through a variety of plant foods. Be careful who you take information from online. Always seek dietary advice from a dietitian or nutritionist and medical advice from a doctor.
Take home tips for you and your family
- Fill your diet with a variety of plant foods. The more variety, the greater variety of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Aim to fill 50-75% of your plate at most meals with plant-based foods.
- Plant-based meat alternatives, AKA ‘fake-meats’ tend to be high in saturated fat, salt and/or sugar. Keep these to a minimum where you can.
- If you are trying to incorporate more plants in your diet, start by substituting a portion of the meat in your favourite meals with a plant-based alternative. For example, try half lentils and half minced meat in your next meatballs dinner or sausage rolls lunch.
- Keep in mind that a little bloating after eating prebiotic fibre or high fibre meals is normal. This is the fermentation process doing its thing and is actually really healthy. If the bloating is painful and persistent, please seek professional guidance.