We spend a good portion of our lives trying to prevent bacteria from coming onto and into our bodies. We scrub down with antibacterial soap. We load up with antibiotics when we’re sick. But some of the most exciting health and nutrition science emerging over the last few years pertains to the benefits of bacteria in our bodies—especially our gut.
Bacteria outnumber human cells 10 to 1 in the body, and on average, we each carry enough bacteria on and in our person to fill a large soup can (3 to 5 pounds per person). Sounds gross, but consider this: many of those microbes are actually protecting you. Yes, once in a while, a few of the hundreds of millions of bacteria in each of us make us sick. But most of the time, they live in harmony with us, and help us to digest food and synthesize vitamins in ways our own bodies cannot.
As it turns out, the more biodiverse and plant-based our diets are, the more “good bacteria” we’ll build up, making us healthier. Consider the Hadza tribe in Tanzania, whose rich and biodiverse microbiome has made them one of the healthiest and longest-living people groups on the planet, according to studies. The key to their healthy gut bacteria? A diet comprised of seasonal fruits, nuts, beans, roots, honey, and only a small amount of meat.
So how should you eat to help diversify your microbiome? Start with these five foods that support beneficial bacteria.
A new study out of the University of Connecticut published in Cancer Prevention Magazine has found a correlation between a diet containing lots of walnuts and a reduction in the development of colon cancer in mice. Researchers think that walnuts act like a probiotic, literally transforming the gut microbiome into an ecology that is more protective against tumors—specifically colon cancer.
This is probably the gut health food most of us know about already, thanks to those commercials with Jamie Lee Curtis. Each serving of pure Greek-style yogurt contains probiotics, healthy microbes that build up in your stomach to fight off harmful bacteria. But beware of the many companies that have begun marketing heavily processed “Greek” yogurts—and only go for the ones with just two ingredients: milk and cultures.
Bacteria gotta eat too. That’s where artichokes come in—they contain prebiotics, a type of fiber that passes through the stomach undigested to ferment in the gut. This not only strengthens the good bacteria, but wards off the bad.
Kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods and drinks
Fermentation creates lactobacilli, the immune-boosting bacteria that work as probiotics and allow many nutrients and vitamins to be digested more easily. The fermentation boom is absolutely everywhere, so look for the “kraut mob” or kombucha bar nearest you—or try your hand at making your own.
And for dessert … Don’t adjust your screen, you read this right. Healthy bacteria love to chow down on dark chocolate and ferment it into anti-inflammatory compounds that are good for your heart. Enjoying a couple artichokes followed by a few chocolate squares creates a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet for your gut microflora.
At the end of the day, the more diverse and natural our diets, the better off our gut health will be. And while scientists are still working out precisely what benefits healthy bacteria provide and how, they’ve already proven that the most helpful things in life sometimes are the smallest—and grossest.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho