We are what we eat, so the saying goes. But in fact, research shows that dietary habits influence our risk for chronic health conditions and disease. One of the diseases that has been proven to be linked to diet is colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer has been on the rise for the past 30 years, and rates have more than doubled among young adults under age 50. Numerous factors can raise an individual’s risk of colorectal cancer, but experts are uncertain what is causing this increase in younger adults. Many theories now focus on the diverse bacteria that lives in our digestive tract.
Let’s talk about your gut. No, not the extra fat you may carry around your belly, we mean the complex digestive system that processes what you eat and drink every day. Your gut bacteria, also known as your microbiome, is like a forest – full of diverse species that can be helped or hindered by the foods and beverages you consume.
Unfortunately, the typical American diet is high in processed or red meat, fat and added sugars and low in fruits and vegetables. Eating this way promotes the growth of harmful bacteria in your gut. Alternatively, a diet high in vegetables, fiber and fish can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and create a healthy environment in your gut.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
Start small. Here are three ways to boost healthy bacteria in your microbiome:
1. Eat Less Sugar
Some families of “bad” bacteria thrive on sugar in your diet. Natural sugars are only found in fruit or milk and are easily identified on nutrition labels. If the product has no fruit or milk products listed in the ingredients, all of the sugars in the food are from added sugars.
Pro Tip: Review nutrition labels before purchasing a food and avoid products with five grams or more of added sugars. Did you know one 12-ounce can of soda contains almost 10 teaspoons of sugar?
2. Limit Red and Processed Meat
Red meat refers to pork, lamb, venison, beef and goat. Processed meat is animal protein that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. Both processed and red meat contribute to the growth of harmful bacteria in your gut.
Pro Tip: Leave the meat out of one meal per week then gradually leave meat out of one meal per day. You can also swap your red meat for a lean “white” protein like chicken, turkey, shellfish, fish or rabbit, or a vegetarian protein like beans or nuts.
3. Add Vegetable Fiber
Most Americans do not eat enough vegetables or the fiber that comes with them. Vegetable fiber helps remove waste products from our gut that can promote harmful microbiome bacterial growth.
Pro Tip: Try vegetables in different colors, which provide nutrients that may protect gut health. Peppers and other vegetables can come in yellow, orange, green, red and purple!
Stephanie Gall, DCN, RD, CD, is the Clinical Nutrition Manager at the University of Vermont Medical Center
Get Started with Gut-Healthy Recipes
Recipes from: R. Leah Pryor, Executive Chef, University of Vermont Medical Center
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
1 serrano chile, thinly sliced
13.5 ounce can coconut milk
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
4 (4-ounce) salmon filets
7 ounces baby bok choy, end trimmed and stalks separated
½ cup roughly chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chives
1 cup basil leaves
1 lime, juiced
Step 1: In a large sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add ginger and serrano chile and cook, stirring often, until they soften, about 2 minutes. Add coconut milk and brown sugar, and whisk together until combined and sugar dissolves. Bring mixture to a gentle simmer.
Step 2: Add salmon fillets and turn the heat down to low. Cover and cook until salmon is just cooked through and opaque, about 6 to 8 minutes. Carefully remove the fish and place each filet in its own bowl.
Step 3: Add bok choy to the coconut milk broth and turn the heat to medium-low. Cook bok choy until the leaves are wilted and stems are tender, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Step 4: Divide bok choy evenly alongside the fish and ladle the coconut milk broth over each portion. Top with cilantro, chives, basil and a good squeeze of lime. Serve and enjoy!
Serves 4 to 6
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar, maple syrup or agave
1 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons coconut oil, warm/liquid form
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 head red cabbage, shredded
4 rainbow carrots, one of each color, shredded
1 golden beet, peeled and shredded
¼ cup red onion, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
¼ cup cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
2 tablespoons peanuts, rough chopped
2 tablespoons scallions, sliced thinly
Step 1: In large bowl place rice wine vinegar, sweetener of your choice, sesame oil, coconut oil and lime juice, whisk well.
Step 2: Add cabbage, carrots, beets, onion, ginger and cilantro. With tongs, gently toss slaw until well incorporated.
Step 3: Garnish with sesame seeds, peanuts and scallions.
Serve and enjoy!