Easy Food Swaps to Benefit Your Gut

If you’re thinking about taking steps to improve (or simply take care of) your gut health, your kitchen is a great place to start making changes. When you eat, you’re not just feeding yourself – but also your gut microbes. They will polish off your leftovers – essentially whatever foods or nutrients escape digestion and make their way to your large intestine. Their favourite nutrient is fibre, a type of carbohydrate found in plant foods like fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.

Unlike humans (who can’t digest fibre), microbes are able to use fibre for energy. And beneficially, when your microbes consume fibre, they produce compounds which help to keep the lining of your gut healthy.

What’s good for your microbes is good for you
Eating a high fibre diet isn’t just good for your microbes, it’s also a smart move for your health as a whole. After looking at all the evidence around carbohydrates and health, researchers recently concluded that eating 25 to 29 grams of fibre each day can significantly lower the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. In the UK, the average intake is 18 grams, and the recommended target is 30 grams, so as a population, we could benefit from focusing on eating more high fibre foods. (If you want to learn more about fibre you can do so here).

Diversity matters too
It’s not just about fibre though – having a diverse and varied diet is important for your gut microbes too. Many plant foods (in their whole form) contain naturally occurring compounds known as polyphenols, which help to keep the plant healthy. Much like fibre, polyphenols are not digested, which means they arrive in the large intestine where they interact with your gut microbes. Studies show that polyphenols promote the growth of beneficial microbes and prevent harmful microbes from growing. As different plants contain different polyphenols, eating a wide variety will help you get a variety of these beneficial nutrients to your gut. Examples of polyphenol rich foods include vegetables, fruits, cereals, tea, coffee, dark chocolate and happily, red wine.

Smart, simple swaps
In this post I’m going to share some easy food swaps that you can make in your kitchen to boost your intake of fibre and polyphenols. As you’ll see, small changes can add up over the day to make a big difference to your intake of these nutrients.

I want to emphasise that making changes doesn’t mean spending lots of money on expensive cereals or fermented foods – some of these swaps may save you money, and importantly, may even help the planet. Happy microbes, happy wallet, happy planet. Given supermarket visits can be a bit limited at the moment, I’ve also tried to include some things which are (I hope!) are relatively accessible.

A note on fibre and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Whilst most of us can benefit from eating more fibre, if you have an existing gut condition like IBS or Crohn’s then eating more fibre may aggravate symptoms. Adjust your fibre intake according to what is comfortable for you, and remember that managing symptoms may mean following a different set of advice to what’s recommended for those without a gut condition.

Breakfast swaps

Swap This
2 slices of white toast
2 grams fibre

For This
2 slices seedy, wholemeal toast or rye toast
5.6 grams of fibre

Benefits
Swap white bread for wholegrain and you’ll get more fibre and polyphenols. Top with peanut butter or a banana for an extra 2-3g of fibre.

Swap This
Glass of OJ
0.2g fibre

For This
Whole orange or whole apple
3-4g fibre

Benefits
Fruit which has been juiced loses its fibre, so eat the whole fruit to get all the benefits.

Swap This
Smoothie with milk and fruit

For This
Smoothie with kefir and fruit

Benefits
Smoothies are an easy brekkie option. Switch up milk for kefir – a fermented milk drink similar to yoghurt. It’s made with beneficial bacteria which may reach your gut.

Swap This
Cornflakes and milk

For This
Porridge with 1 tbsp seeds and large serving frozen raspberries

Benefits
Oats are a fab source of fibre – half a cup of rolled oats contains 4 grams. Top with seeds and frozen fruits and you could score half your daily fibre needs in one bowl.

At Lunch

Swap This
Cheese and crackers
Per 4 crackers, 0.8g fibre

For This
Cheese and oatcakes
Per 4 oatcakes, 4g fibre

Benefits
Swap crackers for oatcakes to get more gut friendly fibre, which should also keep you feeling fuller longer

Swap This
Iceberg lettuce

For This
Spinach, or dark leafy greens like rocket

Benefits
Dark leafy greens contain higher levels of polyphenols than paler leaves

Swap This
Chicken or tomato soup
0.2g fibre per can

For This
Bean or lentil soup
4.8g fibre per can

Benefits
Beans and pulses are fibre heroes – if you can’t find a bean or lentil soup, do a DIY job by adding half a can of drained beans to a veggie soup.

Swap This
Mayonnaise

For This
Tahini dressing

Benefits
Tahini or sesame seed paste is rich in two types of polyphenols. Try whisking tahini with a little pinch of salt and some warm water and lemon juice to make a smooth pourable dressing.

Swap This
Salad dressing

For This
Olive oil and lemon juice

Benefits
Olive oil (especially extra virgin olive oil) contains polyphenols which promote the growth of beneficial microbes.

At Dinner

Swap This
Spaghetti bolognese with meat sauce

For This
Spag bol with half meat and half lentils

Benefits
Replace half the meat in your spag bol, stew or curry with a can of lentils and you’ll add 14 grams of fibre.

Swap This
White pasta
Per main meal portion : 2.2g fibre

For This
Wholemeal pasta
Per main meal portion : 6.5g fibre

Benefits
Per average portion, you’ll get an extra 4 grams of fibre by swapping from white to wholewheat pasta. Top your pasta with plenty of herbs for additional polyphenols.

Swap This
Mash
Per portion: 2g fibre

For This
Baked potato with skin
Per average potato: 4g fibre

Benefits
Bake your spuds whole with the skin on for more filling fibre

Swap This
Carrots
Per portion: 1.7g fibre

For This
Peas
Per portion: 4.8g fibre

Benefits
All veggies are a source of fibre, but peas boast more fibre than other veggies. Try smashing with mint and a bit of olive oil for a quick toast topper

Snacks

Swap This
Crisps
Small bag : 1.1 g fibre

For This
Popcorn
30g bag: 3.3 g fibre

Benefits
Savoury slightly salty snack? Swap crisps for popcorn for a wholegrain boost

Swap This
Milk chocolate
Small 30g bar: 0.63g fibre

For This
Dark chocolate
30g portion: 3.6g fibre

Benefits
Dark chocolate is a surprisingly good source of fibre – you’ll get 10% of your fibre needs from a small bar.

Swap This
Cheese sticks
0g fibre

For This
Hummus and carrots
4g fibre

Benefits
Hummus is made from chickpeas and garlic – both of which have benefits for your gut microbes. Keep a pot of hummus in the fridge for an easy snack option.

Swap This
Biscuit x 2
0.5g fibre

For This
Handful of nuts or your own trail mix
3g fibre

Benefits
Make up a jar of nuts and dried fruit to dip into for an easy fibre rich snack – add some dark chocolate buttons if you want to satisfy a sweet tooth

Swap This
Yoghurt
0g fibre

For This
Yoghurt plus a large handful of frozen fruit e.g. mango or blueberries
3g fibre

Benefits
Even fruit yoghurt contains very little fruit so add your own for a fibre boost. Frozen fruits are ideal – and they contain similar levels of nutrients to fresh fruit.

References
Reynolds, A., Mann, J., Cummings, J., Winter, N., Mete, E., & Te Morenga, L. (2019). Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The Lancet. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31809-9

Manach, C., Scalbert, A., Morand, C., Rémésy, C., & Jiménez, L. (2004). Polyphenols: Food sources and bioavailability. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(5), 727–747. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/79.5.727

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