5 gut-friendly foods to keep your digestive system healthy and happy
How to lower the risk of stomach, bowel and colorectal cancers, plus boost your brain activity. Bonus
You may think you can eat anything and not have to worry about possible negative effects on your health. It's true that most people in their late teens and early 20s have incredibly fast metabolisms, and don’t have to work that hard to work off the calories.
But weight considerations, or protein-loading are not the only concerns when it comes to food. Each year, the World Gastroenterology Organisation looks at a particular illness that affects our digestive health. For 2019, it focused on gastrointestinal (GI) cancers – cancers that happen in the digestive system. Four of the seven most common cancers affect this part of the body, according to the World Cancer Research Fund’s global cancer statistics for 2018.
For many years, diseases such as bowel cancer were thought to only affect old people. But a recent study in Europe, using data from more than 143 million people, found a rise in cases of bowel cancer between 1990 and 2016, with the biggest increase in people aged 20-29. Another study found a similar trend among young adults in wealthy countries like Britain and Australia.
While you may not be able to prevent GI cancers, there are plenty of studies that suggest healthier eating can lower the risk.
What’s more, by keeping our guts happy, we can make our brains happier, too.
“They communicate with the gut and brain neurons and can influence behaviour.” Diet, Lassale says, is a key modulator of gut microbiota – communities of microorganisms found within our bodies.
Lassale says poor diet can influence mental health by causing damage to the brain. On the other hand, a diet rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components, such as those found in oily fish, fruit, vegetables, and nuts, can affect the brain by protecting it from stress and inflammation.
With all this in mind, here are five things you should eat to keep your digestive system happy.
Although fermented foods have existed in many cultures for thousands of years, they have only recently begun to get the recognition they deserve. In a May 2018 article on the Harvard Health Blog, Dr David Ludwig said fermented foods “can give your body a dose of healthy probiotics, which are live microorganisms crucial to healthy digestion”.
Fermented foods contain bacteria called probiotics, which improve our digestion and help protect our bodies against bacteria that may make us ill.
Good choices of probiotic-rich foods include kimchi, miso, sauerkraut (German pickled cabbage), some yogurts, kombucha, and a drink called kefir, which is like a very runny yogurt.
White rice may be the basis of many Hong Kong meals, but because its outside “coating” – the bran and the germ – has been removed, it is quite low in fibre. Fibre is essential for your digestive system.
It helps food move through your intestines (so you can poo easily), but it also feeds the good bacteria in your gut – the ones that aid digestion, reduce inflammation, and help your body fight off diseases.
Lean meat and fish
Many types of fat are hard to digest, so as tasty as French fries are, or as much as you might love your grandma’s siu yuk, it’s best to save these fatty foods for special occasions. Dr Linda Lee, of Johns Hopkins University in the US, wrote in a post for the Hopkins Medicine website that high-fat foods can trigger contractions in the colon – which can cause discomfort.
“Red meat also promotes colon bacteria that produce chemicals associated with an increased risk of clogging the arteries.” It’s better to stick to lean proteins, such as fish and poultry.
All the greens
Again: fibre! Your intestines don’t work very well without it, so make sure your meals include leafy, green vegetables like gai lan, spinach, and broccoli, as well as beans like chick peas and lentils.
Fruit – both fresh, like apples and bananas, and dried, like raisins and prunes – is another good source of fibre. Finally, drink plenty of water, as it helps the fibre pass through your system.
This millennial-favourite toast topping is also very good for your gut. Avocados are high in fibre, and other nutrients, such as potassium, which are good for digestion. But, as Lee wrote in her post, they have a lot of fat, so don’t eat them too often.