Gut Health 101

Words by Sara Harowitz

Photography by Cristina Gareau

By now most of us know that a healthy gut equals a happy body. Gut issues don’t only show up in the form of an upset stomach, either—they can manifest on the skin as acne, psoriasis, or rosacea, and can even have a huge impact on our mental health.

So maintaining a healthy gut is key for looking good and for feeling good—and according to Vancouver-based dietitian Whitney Hussain, many factors can play a part. “When talking about the gut with my clients, I incorporate the nutrition aspect, but there are so many other lifestyle factors to take into account,” she says via phone. “I also think about stress levels, what their meal planning and timing looks like, even what their meal environments look like: are we eating at the desk or taking the time to enjoy our food?”

Taking a holistic approach, therefore, will give our bodies the best chance at showing up for us the way we want them to. Here are a few things to consider.

What is your microbiome?

Your microbiome is essentially your inner network of microbes—bacteria, fungi, and even parasites that exist inside your body (mainly in the small and large intestines). A healthy microbiome boosts your immune system and helps you digest your food and hold onto nutrients, which is why maintaining this part of your body is so intrinsically linked to gut health.

What are probiotics?

A common way to increase the population of helpful bugs in your microbiome is with probiotics. Hussain says that unless you are dealing with a specific disease, a probiotic supplement is likely not necessary (especially since there are so many different strains of probiotics, all with different benefits). But “probiotic-rich foods can have an impact on the gut microbiome if people can tolerate them well,” she says. Probiotic yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and water kefir can be good options.

What foods are best for gut health?

“Really the plant foods are the biggest thing to incorporate more of,” Hussain advises. “Whole grains, beans and lentils—which are great plant-based proteins—and fruits and vegetables.”

She stresses the importance of eating whole, unprocessed foods, and thinks a little meal planning can go a long way in helping us eat properly. “It doesn’t have to be super overwhelming or exhausting; it could be as simple as having some fruit and vegetables in the fridge ready to snack on or ready to add into a meal that you may be having,” she says. “When you are finished grocery shopping, do your meal prep right there and then before the groceries go into the fridge. Or set aside one or two hours one day and do all your meal prep so that you don’t have to worry.”

What foods are bad for gut health?

Everyone talks about dairy and gluten as being major gut (and skin) enemies. And while that is true for many, Hussain cautions against taking a blanket approach. “I think dairy and gluten in particular have been portrayed in the media as foods to focus on, but there are a lot of different types of foods that we may be consuming that our bodies digest or ferment differently than others,” she says, citing garlic, onions, and cabbage as common digestive culprits that we often don’t realize are the cause of our issues. “For some people, it might be the amount of dairy they’re having rather than [all of] dairy itself. If I have a cup of milk I’m fine, but if I have two cups of milk and some ice cream, I’m going to be a disaster.”

Therefore, she explains, it’s more about thinking about the quantities of foods rather than necessarily cutting out certain things altogether. She also says it’s important to look at your eating habits and think about how those can affect your digestion. For instance, skipping meals can mess with your system’s natural rhythm (also called your digestive fire); so can eating lunch at your desk instead of taking a few minutes to really enjoy your meal (this helps avoid mindless overeating, too). And of course, exercise is a big one—for overall health, yes, but also specifically for helping get the digestive system moving.

It’s a common saying, but everything in moderation is really the name of the game here. Focus on whole foods that are clean and nutrient-dense, and when the craving for something sweet strikes, well, have your cake and eat it, too.