Digestive Tract Health

Submitted by Dave Draeger, CDM, CFPP,

Director of Dietary and Dining Services

Gut health (once thought to be associated with just eating yogurt) has evolved into a complex process.  Gut bacteria can be tied to obesity, diabetes, depression and colon cancer.  An ever increasing population suffers from Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Inflammatory Bowel Disorder, Celiac Disease, Diverticulitis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  Clostridium Difficile associated with antibiotic use is also common.  Although each condition has unique symptoms and treatment plans, the digestive tract is negatively affected.  Flatulence, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting and heartburn may be indicators of poor gut health.  Difficulty processing food and eliminating waste may lead to serious health conditions.

Research into digestive tract health has advanced to include microbiomes.  Microbiomes are bacteria, viruses and microorganisms living in the body.  The gut microbiome concentrates on bacteria localized in the digestive tract.  All bacteria play various roles in human health.  Gut health is universally important and undergoes changes in the life span.  Gut bacteria is involved in regulating health and optimizing gut health may have immediate benefits.  Consuming certain food groups and individual foods can improve digestive tract health. Here are some ideas:

  • Increasing fiber in the diet has many benefits.  Fiber is the portion of the plant that cannot be digested.  Fiber can be found in oat, beans, dried peas, legumes, barley, wheat bran, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  It is suggested that average American take in 28 grams of fiber per 2000 calories.
  • Prebiotics feed the good bacteria in our gut.  They are fermented by the current bacteria to help grow and thrive.  Prebiotics include complex carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables and nuts.  Commons foods include almonds, apples, bananas, and sweet potatoes.  Not so popular ones would be sunchokes, asparagus, garlic and onions.
  • Resistant starch is a carbohydrate that is difficult to break down in the small intestine so the bacteria in the larger intestine can better utilize it.  Green bananas provide this benefit.  Cooling and eating pasta, rice and potatoes is also productive.  The cooling process leads to chemical changes in the starch.  Cold salads, entrees, and sides are popular.  Those leftover mashed potatoes may not seem so bad after all 😊
  • Probiotics are well known due to the yogurt industry promoting “contains live cultures.”  Probiotics are actual strains of bacteria that you can consume.  Yogurt is economical, widely available and can be consumed anytime.  Kefir, which is a fermented dairy beverage, appears to be gaining acceptance.
  • Fermented foods also may offer some benefits.  Pickles, olives and sauerkraut are typical in American cuisine.  Tempeh, which is fermented soybean, and Kimichi, which is a Korean seasoning, could lure your interest towards fermented food.

Trying different foods and recipes is always challenging.  Adding gut healthy foods to preexisting recipes is easy.  Packing high fiber and prebiotic foods for snacks makes getting extra intake simple.  Some foods are easier to incorporate than others – pick your favorites for improved gut health.