The term gut health is used a lot, but what does it actually mean? In the most basic sense, gut health encompasses:
- Comfortable digestion and optimal absorption of nutrients
- Presence of a diverse and resilient gut microbiome (the bacteria that reside in your gut and help perform a whole host of critical functions)
- Absence of, or appropriate management of digestive concerns (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome [IBS])
Supporting these basic gut health functions can come from a wide range of healthy practices, including managing stress, getting adequate sleep, staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and eating a healthful diet. Diet is especially important, as it has one of the strongest influences on gut health and the gut microbiome.
Dietary strategies to support gut health are relatively simple and include:
- Eating adequate fiber (~14g per 1,000 calories eaten) and prebiotics
- Including low sugar and probiotic dairy products
Achieving adequate fiber in your diet appears to provide health benefits, which can be achieved easily by eating a variety of fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, and high-fiber foods every day. The benefits of fiber are well established and include prevention of constipation, increased satiety, maintenance of body weight, improvements in metabolic health, support of beneficial gut microbes, colorectal cancer prevention, and, among other benefits, decreased inflammation.
What’s really interesting is that more and more research is showing that the inclusion of dairy products can help improve and support gut health. Aside from the nutritional benefits of being rich in calcium, vitamin D, and protein, dairy also has some unique properties that make it especially beneficial for gut health. Many dairy products are probiotic in nature, meaning they have live and active organisms that help support our gut microbiome. These friendly bacteria found in dairy products, such as certain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, help maintain a healthy digestive tract, prevent the growth of unfriendly bacteria, and promote the digestion of the food we eat. Fermented dairy products like kefir are some of the most studied foods in the realm of gut health, and it seems that the benefits come from not only the presence of live bacteria but also the products they produce as they participate in the fermentation process. Some of the health benefits associated with fermented dairy include reducing the risk of hypertension and diabetes, as well as inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the gut.
Overall, supporting your gut health doesn’t have to be complicated. Some of the most impactful steps you can take to support gut health are very simple and include eating a diet that is rich in fiber and that includes probiotics and/or fermented dairy products.
Jessie Hoffman, PhD, RD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at Winthrop University. She holds a Masters in Nutrition from UNC-Greensboro and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Kentucky. After completing her Ph.D., she completed her dietetic internship at Iowa State University. Her dietetic and research expertise are in gastrointestinal conditions and the gut microbiome.
Currently, her research focuses on the impact of dietary and lifestyle factors on gastrointestinal health and the gut microbiome. Additionally, Jessie is passionate about scientific and nutritional science communication and does so regularly through social media. From breaking down nutrition science to busting myths that are so prevalent in today’s society, she strives to empower individuals to become responsible consumers of social media content and experts on their own bodies.