In the last few years, we have learned enormous amounts of new information about our microbiota*, the community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live inside our gut (and on every part of our bodies). There are so many bacteria living in (and on) our bodies, that cell-wise, they out-number us ten to one. The vast majority of these bacteria are beneficial for us, and without them, we would quickly become very unhealthy. We used to think that the bacteria in our gut did nothing more than occupy space and keep dangerous bacteria at bay, but we are learning that they do much more than that. They help our digestion, work with our immune system, and produce substances that are beneficial for us. They even help determine what foods we love, the cravings we have, and how we feel!
Modern life has not been good for our microbiota. Our obsession with hygiene, the use of antibiotics and other drugs, alcohol, coffee, processed food, and lack of fruits and vegetables are just some of the things that have wreaked havoc with our microbial community. Of course antibiotics are necessary in certain situations, but they are prescribed far too quickly, for ailments like colds, flu, and others. These are caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics. We now know, that taking a single course of antibiotics may devastate our microbiome for more than a year. Additionally, enormous amounts of antibiotics fed to animals prophylactically, to help them grow and stay healthy in cramped conditions are a huge problem.
Of course modern medicine has come up with a pill for an unhealthy balance of bacteria too: probiotics. You may have heard about probiotics, either as an additive to foods such as yoghurt, or as capsules containing bacteria known to be beneficial. There are thousands of different species living in our gut, many of which are still unidentified, because we cannot yet grow them in the lab. As yet, we know very little about how all these bacterial species interact. The benefits of probiotics (which contain a single, or just a few species) in an otherwise healthy person, are probably limited. Some scientists believe that, unless there is proper “food” available to these bacteria when they arrive in our gut, they may not survive for more than a few hours.
The best way to take care of our gut bacteria, which are taking care of us, is to make sure that we feed them right, and limit the things we swallow that harm them. A whole foods, plant-based diet is the best way to feed them right. It is the un-digestible plant fibers that they thrive on, so that they can keep us healthy. The foods they love are called prebiotics and the chart below shows you some of the foods that you may want to eat more of.
We are finding that meat eaters, omnivores, and plant-based eaters have very different gut microbiota. This may not only explain the differences in the health of these populations, but also why our tastes change as we transition to a plant-based diet. Even enthusiastic meat eaters end up loving their new diet, and they no longer crave or even like the foods they once loved. By eating a varied, plant-based diet, we can keep this mysterious community of gut inhabitants happy, which hugely benefits our own health in the process.
*The collective genes of our microbiota are called our microbiome.