According to official CDC figures, more than 14.8 million Americans have digestive diseases, and more than 245,000 die every year from complications associated with them. As such, gut health is a top priority for a lot of people.
Ultimately, good gut health comes down to the microbiome – the menagerie of bacteria that live in the small intestine and colon. When these are healthy, the gut is also healthy. When they are not, the gut is not.
The best way to improve gut health is to consume more vegetables. Vegetables are prebiotics, meaning that they contain compounds that help good bacteria thrive while crowding out those that could harm your health.
In this post, we explore the best vegetables for gut health and how you should eat them.
Leafy greens encompass a range of vegetables (including, strangely, some that don’t look particularly leafy). Options include:
- Swiss chard
- Brussels sprouts
- Mustard greens
- Lamb’s lettuce
Like other vegetables, leafy greens are high in cellulose fiber. This substance promotes the growth of bacteria that regulate blood sugar levels and encourages the formation of healthy stools.
With that said, some green leafy vegetables may be better than others. Research shows, for instance, that sulfoquinovose, a sugar in cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts), enhances good bacteria concentrations in the gut and limits the growth and division of harmful species. Every time people consume these goods, it shifts gut colonies in a positive direction, reducing the risk of serious disease.
Consuming more leafy greens is relatively easy, as long as you incorporate them into an existing dish you enjoy rather than adding them separately. For instance, you might want to add spinach to a pasta dish or roasted broccoli to mac and cheese, instead of serving them on the side. You can also add cabbage and other greens to soups or simply blend them into sauces.
Beans And Lentils
Legumes are another group of vegetables that are excellent for gut health. Like leafy greens, they are prebiotics, meaning that they contain compounds that encourage the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestine.
Eating more beans is associated with a host of benefits, including lower blood sugar levels, better cholesterol levels, and longer life. But they also contain high concentrations of resistant starch, a special form of starch that can make its way to the colon undigested.
This starch provides nutrition for good bacteria that release beneficial compounds into the bloodstream, such as short-chain fatty acids. These, in turn, improve blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Beans also improve gut health by bulking up stools and making them softer. Bigger stools reduce straining, potentially slashing the risk of diverticulosis (a condition where the colon forms spurs), and hemorrhoids.
Garlic And Onions
Some people shy away from garlic, onions and other vegetables in the allium family because of their pungent smell. However, they may be among the best for gut health.
Garlic and onions are both good options because they contain high quantities of indigestible sugars for bacteria in the colon. Furthermore, research shows that certain compounds in allium vegetables may be antibacterial and reduce the severity of symptoms caused by Clostridium difficile. Garlic and onions produce these naturally to defend themselves as they grow, but they may benefit us, too.
Further evidence suggests that allium-family vegetables are also highly beneficial for fighting chronic diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Scientists are now looking to concentrate and isolate the substances responsible and then market them as treatments for people with these diseases.
Sweet potatoes are another food that encourages gut health. These root vegetables (which, critically, are not members of the nightshade family like regular potatoes) contain plenty of high-quality insoluble fiber to reduce cholesterol, balance blood glucose levels, and encourage healthy, regular bowel movements.
Sweet potatoes are particularly high in oligosaccharides, a type of long-chain sugar molecule. The small intestine can’t break down these, but good bacteria in the colon can.
The wonderful thing about sweet potatoes is that you can eat it every day. In fact, there are examples of populations on the Japanese island of Okinawa doing just this. Historically, islanders got more than 60 percent of calories from sweet potatoes and were among the longest-living in the world. While they are exceptionally high in vitamin A, the body can regulate how it absorbs because it is in the form of beta carotene.
Radishes are a salad ingredient, but the average person doesn’t eat a great deal of them. And that’s a shame, because they potentially offer tremendous gut health benefits.
Radishes, for instance, are high in fiber. Just a small half cup provides between 1 and 2 grams – around a fifth of average daily fiber consumption.
Interestingly, radishes contain a type of fiber that protects the gut from damage called lignin. This compound actively absorbs some of the waste compounds generated during digestion, helping stools move more slowly and steadily through the colon.
Further research shows that radish juice is particularly beneficial for the digestive system. People who drink around a glass per day are much less likely to develop gastric ulcers.
Lastly, if you have gut health issues, you might want to try eating more asparagus. While this stem vegetable makes your pee smell funny, it also contains high concentrations of inulin, a type of prebiotic that encourages the growth of healthy bacteria, such as Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
The best way to eat asparagus is to grill it in some butter and then serve it with your regular evening meals. It also tastes delicious on its own.
In general, you shouldn’t focus on consuming an abundance of any one particular vegetable. Rather, try to eat a variety to encourage the development of a diverse ecosystem of gut bacteria. Focus on beans, leafy greens, root vegetables and, if necessary, supplements.