Using diet and nutrition to support, balance and improve your gut health

18 November 2021

For many of us, the pandemic has played havoc with our diet, our nutrition, gut health, and weight. Indeed, figures from Public Health England over the summer suggested that as many as four out of 10 of us put on weight during the successive lockdowns.

This has made a recent 'vlog' (or video blog) by Clarissa Lenherr, Harley Street nutritional therapist, on ways to use diet and nutrition to improve our gut as well as general health and wellbeing especially topical.

Looking after your gut health

Clarissa Lenherr, nutritional therapist, discusses ways to use diet and nutrition to improve our gut as well as general health and wellbeing.

Understanding how our gut works

Clarissa starts the vlog by explaining what the gut is, as this in itself can cause confusion. As she highlights: "A lot of us think about our gut, our digestive system and we immediately look towards our stomach."

In fact, our gastro-intestinal system is much more than just our stomach. For example, it includes 'microbiomes' (essentially a collection of organisms) that reside in our gut and contribute to many different aspects of our health, Clarissa explains.

These microbiomes include yeast, viruses, and bacteria (both friendly and less so). "The ideal is that we really want to have a good balance where we have more friendly bacteria so that there is no overcrowding by opportunistic bacteria," she adds.

Warning signs of gut ill health

So, what are the warning signs that your gut health perhaps needs a bit of TLC? Chronic conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease can be a sign of poor gut health. Irritable bowel syndrome, sensitivity in the digestive system and conditions such as coeliac disease can also be warning signs.

Other warning signs to watch out for can be bloating, changes in our bowel movement (constipation, diarrhoea), flatulence, heart burn or acid reflux. "It's these stomach-related symptoms that you can feel; these can be signs that perhaps your digestive system needs a little bit of support," highlights Clarissa.

Stress can also have an impact. "When we're stressed we turn our resources away from the digestive system. This can slow the digestive system, leaving food to linger in there, not be broken down as quickly and as effectively. This can lead to a lot of bloating, gas formation, sensitivity, even cramping and pain," she adds.

Mindless eating, eating on the go or eating too quickly, the over-use of certain medications, such as antibiotics and, of course, viruses, pathogens, bacteria from food poisoning or travelling can all cause problems, too.

How to use diet and nutrition to improve your gut health

How, then, can better diet and nutrition help? Clarissa in her vlog outlines four key ways.

1. Try to get at least 30g of fibre per day into your diet

As Clarissa puts it: "Fibre feeds bacteria in the gut. It helps to keep our bowel movement consistent, making it easy to go and potentially reducing the onset of constipation. In addition, it keeps us full, energised, and can even contribute to weight management."

However, the average British person only consumes between 17-19g of fibre a day. "Make some simple swaps", Clarissa therefore advises. "Swap your white to brown carbohydrates, which have more fibre. Swap white rice to brown rice; white breads to wholemeal breads, rye and pumpernickel; white pastas to wholemeal pastas."

Occasionally have a vegetarian meal or dedicate one day a week to vegetarian foods. "Also, use pulses in that vegetarian cooking; so beans, chickpeas and lentils, which are a good source of vegetarian protein but really high in fibre as well," Clarissa says.

"In addition, chuck nuts and seeds onto your breakfast bowls, your salads, your soups. Finally, lots of fruits and veg, but ideally when you can keep the skins on your fruits and vegetables because that is going to give you a lot of fibre as well."

2. Include pre-biotic fibres in your diet

These are, Clarissa points out, hard to digest but the bacteria in our large intestine love and thrive on this fibre, which can also be beneficial for our hearts. Raw garlic and onion can be good options here too, "but perhaps when you're not socialising so much", cautions Clarissa. Jerusalem artichokes, black seeds, apples, dark chocolate may be good too.

3. Check out fermented foods

Fermented foods, such as live yogurt, kombucha (a fermented, lightly effervescent, sweetened black or green tea drink), kaffir (a fermented dairy product), tempeh (a plant-based protein made out of soya bean), kimchi and sauerkraut, all contain bacteria that has been created through the fermentation process, Clarissa advises. These bacteria can, in turn, help to support the balance of friendly bacteria in our gut and enhance our health and wellbeing.

"So, instead of relying on pro-biotic supplements, eat fermented foods a couple of times a week," she recommends. "Introduce these gradually, low and slow, because they can be stimulatory in the gut initially; find the ones you really like and make them part of your dietary intake."

4. Get into the habit of 'mindful' eating and slow chewing

"Mindless eating can really trigger digestive symptoms," warns Clarissa. "If you can, slow down your eating process; dedicate time to your eating; put your knife and fork down; savour each bite; actually look at the food you have cooked or paid for.

"Really enjoy that moment. Let your salivary enzymes in the mouth be secreted from smelling your food and really wanting it, rather than eating and being distracted the whole time, which can also often lead to over-eating and a lack of satisfaction from our food.

"Chewing is really important, which is why I say put the knife and fork down between each bite," she adds.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.