The importance of gut health has been a trending topic in health news over the past few years, but what exactly is gut health and why is it relevant to your overall wellbeing? A healthy gut refers to the richness of beneficial types of bacteria in your gut, or gastrointestinal tract. The gut plays an important role in the digestive system of the body, which enables food to pass from the mouth, into the stomach, and then to the intestines to process nutrients and release them into your bloodstream. A healthy gut, rich in beneficial bacteria and microorganisms, plays an important role in your digestive system and keeps all your organs functioning well, including your kidneys.
When combined with getting enough exercise and sleep, adopting the five strategies for healthy eating below can help you keep your gut healthy.
1. Eat many more whole foods than processed foods. Processed foods include many convenience meal items, like packaged cereal, boxed mac 'n cheese and frozen pizza. These meals are loaded with artificial ingredients, and although their nutrition labels might say they include healthy nutrients, the nutrients are often artificially added in ways that are more difficult for your body to process.
Whole foods are foods that are not processed at all, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans, or foods that are only lightly processed, like whole grain bread or pasta, milk, cheese and tofu. When you cook at home using whole foods, you generally save money, prepare more than a single serving, and enjoy meals good for your gut and kidney health. Check out our many delicious recipes on the American Kidney Fund's (AKF) Kidney Kitchen® for tasty meals you can cook using whole food ingredients.
2. Shop at farmers markets and look for organic produce. "Conventionally grown" produce — what you typically find on supermarket shelves — comes from large farms that use pesticides. Fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides contain fewer types of beneficial microorganisms than organic foods, which are grown without any pesticides on farms that are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
You can find organic food at organic grocery stories, in organic sections at supermarkets and at farmers markets (even if a farm is not certified organic, farmers who sell produce at farmers markets is often grown with fewer or no pesticides). By eating organic foods, you will consume more of the healthy bacteria that will keep your gut flora — bacteria cultures — diverse and balanced. Remember to wash your produce before eating it!
3. Choose foods that are high in fiber. Fiber helps your body process the food you eat, absorb nutrients and eliminate toxins and waste successfully. Fiber is found in most fruit, vegetables and whole grains, but these foods are not all created equally. Fresh greens, veggies and fruits, especially those with edible skins like potatoes, carrots and apples, are usually high in fiber. Keep in mind that the skins of fruits and vegetables are often high in potassium, though, so make sure to monitor your potassium levels and take your potassium binder if your doctor has prescribed one for you. Fortunately, AKF has many resources about monitoring potassium on Kidney Kitchen.
4. Consume natural probiotics. Probiotics are wild bacteria and yeasts that are good for you. Eating foods that contain probiotics can enrich your gut flora to help these healthy, diverse bacteria thrive in your gut. What type of foods are we talking about? In short, fermented foods. Sauerkraut is a great example of a fermented food, as are some types of pickles, kombucha beverages, miso, kimchi and yogurt. Remember — when eating fermented foods, it is important to pay attention to how much salt they contain. Rather than buying prepackaged probiotic foods, consider using recipes from Kidney Kitchen like our Shiitake, Soba Noodles and Miso Bowl or Sauerkraut and Egg Noodles. These recipes are low in sodium but still delicious!
5. Preserve summer and fall harvests to enjoy in the winter. Depending on where you live, there may be no farmers markets operating during winter months, or there may only be farmers markets with limited offerings like meat and cheese. By canning and preserving tomatoes, peppers, herbs and homemade pickles, you will be able to enjoy the beneficial bacteria in these foods all winter long.
For more meal ideas, browse the "Find Recipes" page on Kidney Kitchen!