The human digestive tract is home to tens of trillions of microorganisms, collectively referred to as the gut microbiota.
While we often think of microbes like bacteria and fungi as “germs,” these microbes living in the gut are not only harmless, but exist in a mutualistic relationship, one that is beneficial to both the microorganisms and humans. Emerging science is revealing that the food we eat may improve the gut microbiota and, in turn, reduce our risk of disease.
The remarkably diverse community of beneficial bacteria inhabiting the digestive tract influences the body through various complex roles such as assisting in nutrient absorption, vitamin production, digestion, elimination of toxins, production of chemicals, and impact on immune response. Continual research is being performed on the role of the gut microbiota in the development of health conditions like obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, and autism.
Nutrition appears to play a critical role in the delicate balance of the gut’s complex ecosystem.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming whole grains versus refined grains improves gut microbiota with impacts on both immune and inflammatory response. These findings are particularly interesting in light of the current trend toward gluten-free eating, which includes the elimination of many grains, including whole grains that contain gluten.
Individuals with Celiac disease and gluten intolerance must remove all foods containing gluten from their diets as the only form of treatment for these conditions. However, a growing number of people choose to avoid grains for other reasons such as weight management or a perceived sense that grains are unhealthful.
There have even been fad diet books published touting grain-free lifestyles.
Whole grains include all of the nutritious components of grains, including the outer layer, which is rich in fiber and micronutrients. Refined grains are processed grains that have had this outer layer removed, rendering it lower in essential nutrients and fiber.
While enriched white flour, for example, does have micronutrients added to it, the fiber content typically remains low.
The current United States Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people choose whole grains instead of processed, refined grains in portions within their daily energy allowance, which is about three servings for women and four servings for men daily.
A serving of grains is the equivalent to one half cup of rice, a slice of bread or one quarter cup of dry oatmeal.
Here are some suggestions for switching out refined grains for whole grains to help feed a healthy digestive tract:
• Choose whole grain bread with a minimum of three grams of fiber per slice to make toast and sandwiches.
• Use brown rice or quinoa in place of white rice.
• Experiment with ancient grains such as freekeh, barley, teff, bulgur, amaranth, farro and millet.
• Make homemade pizza with whole grain dough for the crust.
• Swap out traditional pasta with whole wheat or quinoa pasta.
• Don’t let the food label fool you. Foods called “multigrain” may not actually contain a significant amount of whole grains. Look for the term “whole” as in “whole wheat” or “whole oats” in the first ingredient.
• Make your own baked goods using whole wheat flour and rolled oats instead of purchasing packaged items made with enriched white flour.
LeeAnn Weintraub, a registered dietitian, provides nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and businesses. She can be reached at RD@halfacup.com.
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