Feeling Hangry? The Science Behind Gut Health and Mood

Explore the current science surrounding gut healthy and brain function.

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Gut health is a trending topic, but the ins and outs of the microbiome are still mysteries to many eaters. Research presented at the recent Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Boston helps explain how diet can affect brain function.  

Gut Health

Making smart dietary choices to promote a healthy environment in the intestines (or “gut”) involves boosting beneficial bacteria. Keeping your gut heavily populated with good bacteria allows for optimal nutrient absorption, immune function and reduced risk of disease; it may also help your mental health. Eating foods that motivate healthy bacteria to flourish (aka prebiotics) and good-for-you microorganisms (aka probiotics) will help ensure a happy and healthy microbiome.  

Link to Behavior

Researchers at the University of Illinois are taking a closer look at how the inner workings of the intestines can influence behavior. Their findings support that consistent intake of tummy-pleasing foods like fiber, prebiotics and probiotics may have beneficial effects on stress, anxiety and depression. While research is ongoing, gravitating toward some gut-pleasing foods in your kitchen certainly isn’t a bad idea.

What to Eat

The most-important nutrients to promote gut health include fiber, prebiotics and probiotics.

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition supports that intake of dietary fiber has a favorable impact on the microbiome. Fiber-filled foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts are best choices since they are filled with other important nutrients as well.

Prebiotics found in oats, flaxseed, onions, bananas and greens will ferment within the digestive tract, promoting beneficial activity of healthy bacteria.

You can also ingest healthy bacteria directly from foods filled with probiotics; yogurt, kefir, cheese and other fermented foods like kombucha are some popular examples.

According to researchers, gut health can improve quickly after diet changes are made, but consistency is key, so it’s imperative to make diet changes you can stick to.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of  Dana White Nutrition, Inc. , which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition.

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