When asked “how do you know if your gut is healthy?”, registered dietitian, Mpho Tshukudu delved into a bowel-movement checklist: one of the simpler ways that we can assess our gut health. Mpho was one of the keynote speakers at the One Health Summit on 27 August 2020, themed “Your Gut’s Instinct”, where experts from around the globe gathered to present scientific research on the role of the gut in maintaining health.
How do you know if your gut is “healthy”? Mpho explains that there’s a lot you can tell from your poop. Questions to ask yourself include:
1. What does your poop look like? It should not float, and it should not be the texture of pellets, but rather, “it should be soft, like raw sausage.”
2. How often are you going to the loo? It’s important to note that everyone’s body is different, and that defecating from three times a day to three times a week is “normal”.
3. There should not be a bad smell. Even our farts should not smell bad, explains Mpho.
4. And most importantly, ask yourself how you feel. Are you uncomfortable? Do you experience bloating, incomplete evacuation or a significant amount of flatulence? If you’re struggling with constipation, diarrhoea, bloating or general tummy discomfort, this could all indicate that your gut is unhappy – or not working optimally.
Mpho’s refreshing take on achieving good gut health is simple and encourages South Africans to include their heritage foods in daily meals. “After suffering from numerous food allergies, I started taking a closer look at my Anglo-Euro-centric diet. I noticed that as we acculturated to Western foods and a city lifestyle, we moved further away from our traditional foods.” This is what dietitians term the Nutrition Transition. “Many of my clients were also being diagnosed with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and abdominal fat,” says Mpho. She set out to solve this problem by taking a closer look at our gut health.
The clear messaging from Professor Rob Knight, founding director of the Centre for Microbiome Innovation in California, was that a healthy gut equates to better overall health. He explained that the gut and its microbiome can impact “your whole lifespan and health outcomes.” Research indicates that intestinal microbiota (the microorganisms that live in our gut) may affect health conditions including pain, autism, obesity, cardiovascular risk, anxiety, depression and multiple sclerosis.
So, how do we heal our guts? At the summit, Mpho explained that some South African women use laxatives or other herbal preparations to ease discomfort. She advised that lifestyle approaches, including paying attention to what you eat, is the preferred treatment plan. As a food-first approach, Mpho suggests the following ways to improve gut health (which also supports immunity – bonus!).
· Include prebiotics in your diet: onion, ginger and garlic as well as spices like black pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and turmeric.
· Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains, lentils, beans and vegetables will improve digestion and decrease flatulence and discomfort (think fermented sorghum and millet!). The discomfort is mostly from legumes though (beans and lentils). Mpho also explains that your body builds up a tolerance to digesting legumes and that it’s important to eat them regularly (at least 3-4 times a week).
· Have more fruit with a high polyphenol content, like pomegranates, figs, blackberries and baobab.
· Eat more vegetables and don’t shy away from traditional leaves like morogo, which is rich in nutrients and fibre. Mpho recommends using morogo in pesto and adding it to salads, soups and smoothies.
· Reduce meat consumption and replace some meat proteins with more plant protein, like nuts and legumes.
· Many South Africans are lactose intolerant, but tolerate fermented dairy foods, like maas and yoghurt, more easily. “Choosing a yoghurt containing a blend of bacterial strains, including a particular strain of bifidus bacteria, helps to promote digestive comfort and wellbeing when consumed daily,” says Mpho. Activia yoghurt is an example, containing billions of live Bifidus ActiRegularis cultures, and has been shown to help improve digestive comfort.
If you’re looking to shake up your breakfast, Mpho recommends using a yoghurt with billions of live bifidus cultures (like Activia), topped with healthy homemade granola using local grains (popped sorghum) and nuts (like marula), add a grating of naartjie zest (it’s in season). She also recommends serving it with a dollop of homemade stewed apple sauce with lemon, cardamom, cinnamon and aniseed. Simple, enjoyable and gut healthy.