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gut health 101

23rd August 2017 by Jess

We are what we eat, or rather, we are what we digest. Our nutritionist Jess explains how even the best diet in the world is nothing without the ability to absorb it properly.

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Optimal gut health has become a prominent focus in 21st century health. The old saying “we are what we eat” doesn’t quite hold true; instead, it should read, “we are what we digest”. If you have the best diet in the world yet can’t absorb it or can absorb only a fraction, you’re only going to reap a small percentage of its goodness.

Jess, graze nutritionist
gut illustration

what is the gut?

The gut, also known as the gastrointestinal tract, is the long tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the back passage. Altogether, your gut is a huge chemical factory that helps to digest and process food, produce vitamins, regulate hormones, excrete toxins, produce healing compounds and keep your body healthy.

The surface area of your small intestine, where food is absorbed, is about the size of a tennis court. That area also houses about 60 percent of your immune system.

It's important to have a healthy functioning gut as every single nutrient that is processed and assimilated in the gut, then goes on to serve a specific function in the body.

From our immune system, to our sleep quality, through to our skin health health and ability to concentrate and enjoy a good level of memory recall, these functions all require nutrients, and they come from our food which is processed and filtered in our gut.

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gut-related health problems

Intestinal health could be defined as the optimal digestion, absorption, and assimilation of food. But that is a big job that depends on many other factors. For example, the bugs in your gut are like a rain forest – a diverse and interdependent ecosystem. They must be in balance for you to be healthy.

Too many of the wrong ones (like parasites, yeasts or bad bacteria) or not enough of the good ones (like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria), can lead to serious damage to your health.

When we have poor gut health and improper gut function with too many bad critters hanging out in the gut compared to healthy bacteria, health problems can arise such as obesity, diabetes, allergies, skin issues, sugar cravings, weight imbalances, autoimmunity, depression, mood swings, cancer, heart disease, fibromyalgia, eczema, and asthma.

These sup-optimal health issues are our body’s way of communicating that it needs some focus and TLC in one way or another.

Having a healthy gut becomes central to your entire health and connected to everything that happens in your body, that’s why I almost always start treating my nutrition clients’ chronic health problems by fixing their gut first.


how your lifestyle affects your gut health

Optimal gut balance begins with your diet, which directly affects that balance. You want to eat a diet with lots of fibre, healthy protein, and healthy fats.

Good fats, including omega 3 fats and monounsaturated fats – such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocados or almonds – improve healthy gut flora, while too many inflammatory fats, like vegetable oils, promote growth of bad bugs that cause weight gain and other health issues issues. Balancing these two fats is key to a healthy gut.

Lack of sleep and chronic stress also contribute to gut imbalance. In fact, your gut flora listens to and becomes influenced by your thoughts and feelings. So be sure to get 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep and remember to practice your favorite stress reduction activities daily.

7 Ways to Optimise Gut Flora

The best way to grow a healthy inner garden and make your gut bugs happy begins with your diet. Here are 7 ways to build healthy gut flora starting with your next mouthful:

  1. Eat whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods. One of the best ways to maintain gut health involves cutting out the sugar and refined carbs and upping gut-supporting fibre since processed foods often contain ingredients that either suppress 'good' bacteria or increase 'bad' bacteria.
  2. Serve 75% of your plate as vegetables and plant-based foods in their whole form (versus juices since the juicing process removes the fibre). Your gut bugs really love these high-fibre plant foods.
  3. Eat good fats. Omega 3 fats and monounsaturated fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil will help with decreasing inflammation, giving healthy gut bugs a chance to flourish.
  4. Remove inflammatory fats. Cut out bad, inflammatory fats like vegetable oils. Replace these with healthier oils like extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil.
  5. Add fibre-rich foods. Nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains feed healthy bacteria and provide prebiotics which feed our healthy bacteria.
  6. Add fermented foods. Sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and miso contain good amounts of probiotics so your healthy gut bugs can be fruitful and multiply. Vegetables from the sunflower family (artichokes, radicchio, lettuce, tarragon, chicory and salsify) and the lily family (leeks, chives, shallots, onions, garlic and asparagus) are particularly helpful to gut bacteria.
  7. Meditate, sleep and enjoy regular gentle exercise. These three vital R&R steps are vital for a healthy gut. Gentle, non-stressful exercise is therapeutic even for serious gut diseases due do it’s anti-inflammatory effects.

These recommendations are not miracle cures. They are the actions that lead to normalized gut function and flora through better diet choices, increased fibre intake, the use of nutrients that repair the gut lining, and the reduction of bad bugs in the gut with herbs or medication.

top down Jason's vegan nourishment bowl

Probiotics vs prebiotics

Prebiotics are foods that ‘fertilise’ our existing gut bacteria and encourage the development of a diverse community of microbes. These foods are complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and wholegrains.

Probiotics are foods, or food supplements, that contain live bacteria thought to be beneficial to us. This includes live yoghurt, some cheeses and fermented foods.


Soluble vs insoluble fibre

There are 2 different types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Both are important for health, digestion, and preventing diseases.

Soluble fibre attracts water and turns to gel during digestion. This slows digestion. Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables. Some types of soluble fibre may help lower risk of heart disease.

Insoluble fibre is found in foods such as wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains. It adds bulk to the stool and appears to help food pass more quickly through the stomach and intestines.

So how much fibre should we be getting?

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), who looked at the role of fibre in maintaining good health, published these new recommendations in July 2015:

  • adults 16 years and over: 30g per day
  • 11-16 years: 25g per day
  • 5-11 years: 20g per day
  • 2-5 years: 15g per day
shop snacks that are a source of fibre


  5. Lembo AJ. Constipation. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 19
  6. Threapleton DE, Greenwood DC, Evans CE, et al. Dietary fibre intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2013;347:f6879. PMID: 24355537
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By Jess, graze nutritionist.

Our nutritionist extraordinaire, Jess trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and is a registered practitioner with the British Association for Applied Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She's the creator of our health badges, to help you choose the snacks and boxes that are right for you. Check out everything from Jess on our blog, with recipes and tricks to help you keep making better choices, or go to Jess's blog at for even more.

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