Gone are the days of eating white bread. Many people are aware that whole-grain has more nutritional heft than white, fluffy, overly milled breads, but it’s not always easy to pick a good loaf when you’re at the grocery store.
Sometimes, a refined loaf of bread can masquerade as something more nutritious. Patrol the bread aisle and you’ll see terms like whole wheat, multigrain, seven-grain, 12-grain, all-natural, organic and enriched, to name a few. Who wouldn’t throw up their hands trying to decide what to buy?
Dietitian Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD, helps break down which bread is healthier and what you should stay far away from.
Look for ‘100%’ on labels
When browsing the bread aisle at your grocery store, look for the term “100% whole-grain” or “100% whole-wheat” on the package.
“If you’re wondering which is better, either one works,” says Jeffers. “Whole wheat is a whole grain.”
Although different grains offer different benefits, many whole-grain breads are primarily made with wheat. If you’re looking for a nice mix of grains, check your ingredient label. Primary ingredients should be listed first in order of the amount within the loaf (wheat, oats, flax seeds, barley, buckwheat, etc.).
“Be cautious of terms like ‘wheat’ or ‘multigrain’ that don’t mention a percentage,” she warns. “They sound healthy, but they’re probably made with partially or mostly refined white flour. Wheat flour is 75% white flour and only 25% whole-wheat.”
“Enriched” is another clever term that means the maker of the bread has added nutrients to an otherwise nutrient-free white bread. When you see that word on a label, put it down and look for something else.
Unless you find that 100% on the package and whole-wheat listed as the first ingredient on the label, the bread is simply a refined loaf of bread with synthetic nutrients added to replenish those natural nutrients lost in the milling process.
Good bread makes your body happy
The benefits of eating 100% whole-wheat or whole-grain far surpass just the taste. Eating whole-grain foods within an overall healthy diet helps to lower your risk for many diseases, including:
Whole-grains are also rich in protein, fiber, B vitamins and many other nutrients that help to lower blood pressure, reduce gum disease, strengthen the immune system and help control weight. The Whole Grains Council reports that benefits are greatest with at least three servings per day, but every whole grain helps.
Say ‘no’ to substandard bread
Most other bread is made with grains that have been finely milled. The resulting flour is whiter and lighter — in more ways than one.
Not only does this refined flour look whiter and bake fluffier, but it also falls short of many of the nutrients essential to optimum health. Whole-grains begin as a whole grain kernel: bran, germ, endosperm.
The milling process mechanically removes the bran, which is the fiber-rich outer layer of the grain and contains B vitamins and other minerals. Milling also removes the second germ layer, which is rich in Vitamin E and essential fatty acids. In the end, what’s left is the starchy center, which is ground into flour for various baking purposes.
“Refined flour lacks all of those wonderful nutrients and high-starch foods like white bread can quickly raise your blood sugar levels, putting you at risk for diseases like diabetes,” she says. “That’s why you should consider nothing but the best: 100% whole wheat or whole-grain bread.”
Big changes like cutting out all carbs or training for a marathon are great—but you don’t have to remake yourself to have a dramatic impact on your health. Try a few of these baby steps to get you started in the right direction.
Add a fruit or veggie to every meal
Not ready to give up a bad habit yet? Start by creating an easy good-for-you habit instead. “Less than one in three individuals gets even two servings of fruits and vegetables per day,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT, author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet. “By adding one serving to each meal, you can get in at least three servings per day and be ahead of the curve. A half of a banana on your breakfast cereal, a small side salad with your sandwich at lunch, and adding 1/2 cup of cooked veggies into your pasta can pack in more fiber, antioxidants, and nutrients—all which have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers.”
Work on your hips
“If you have a sedentary job, focus on some hip opening exercises to start and end your day,” suggests trainer Jonathan Hertilus, ACE, owner of BFF Bootcamp in Nutley, NJ. “For instance,” says Hertilus, “hip bridges can be done anywhere—even in bed—as soon as you wake up or right before you go to sleep.” Just a few minutes of hip exercises can do wonders to keep your back and core muscles engaged.
Lose a little weight
Setting a goal to lose 40 pounds or more to get out of the “overweight” category can be daunting. So aim for smaller, more attainable goals, which can make a big difference in your overall health. “Small steps can be very powerful,” says Jill Crandall, MD, professor of endocrinology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and an attending physician at Montefiore Health System.” For people who are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, which includes many adults who are overweight and have a family history of diabetes, modest changes can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by over 50 percent.” Dr. Crandall suggests focusing on losing about 7 percent of your overall weight—or about 15 pounds for a 200-pound person.
Lighten your load
Cleaning out your purse or backpack could go a long way toward preventing neck, back, and shoulder pain. When you are carrying things, balance your load, and avoid backpacks or purses with more than 10 percent of your body weight,” suggests Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, a chiropractor in Griffin, Georgia.
Be careful with condiments
You might want to take a second to consider before you slather your next salad in ranch dressing. “Ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayo, and salad dressings can all be a major source of calories, sodium, fat, and added sugar,” says Palinski-Wade. “Opt for condiments on the side, rather than on your meal and read those labels!”
Skimp on the sugar—and pump up your probiotics
More and more studies show that sugar wreaks havoc on your health, including slowing your metabolism, impairing brain function, and increasing your risk of heart disease and cancer. But there are other health issues you can keep at bay with a little less sugar and a little more healthy bacteria. “Decreasing intake of sugar and processed food as well as taking probiotics can help decrease yeast infections,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, MBA, OB/GYN, director of minimally invasive gynecology at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Straighten up your sleep habits
A bad sleep posture could make for more aches and pains when you’re awake. “Most of us don’t really think much about posture while we are asleep—but really, posture while you are asleep is at least as important as when you are awake because the muscles that protect your joints are quite loose while you are asleep,” says Dr. Hayden. “I recommend sleeping in a side posture whenever possible. Make sure your pillow is firm and just high enough to keep your head level with the mattress so that your head is neither pushed up nor down. Use a body pillow to hug, throwing your upper arm and upper knee over the pillow so that the pillow supports the weight of the extremities while you are asleep. This prevents you from inducing torque into the lumbar spine and offloads the weight of the upper extremity from the structures at the base of the neck. This simple approach to rest keeps your body straight and as stress free as possible while you catch those zzzs.”
Drink half your weight in water
We should all be drinking more water, but the old saw about eight glasses of eight ounces of water doesn’t work for everybody. The better formula? “Take your weight in pounds and divide by two, and you will get the number of ounces of water you should drink every day,” says Mitzi Dulan, RD, founder of simplyFUEL. “Start your day with a big glass of ice water. Ice cold water can boost your metabolism slightly because it takes energy for your body to get it to room temperature—drink six glasses of 16 ounces of cold water and burn an extra 100 calories per day.”
Stop the midnight snacking
“Avoid eating after 8 p.m.,” says Dulan. “Often times, late-night eating is really boredom eating. This helps your body focus on burning the fat during the night instead of trying to work to digest the food you just ate before nodding off.”
Shut off your electronics an hour before bedtime
Those last hours before bed may seem like the perfect time to catch up on some work or binge watch a little of your favorite show, but experts say that the light emanating from your screens could be disrupting your sleep. That wavelength of light disrupts melatonin production, and tricks your body into thinking it’s daylight, according to Mark Buchfuhrer, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Sleep Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. The fix? Skip the screens and tuck into a good book, do relaxed stretching, or find another way to unwind in the last hour before your bedtime.
Trade refined carbs for whole grains
“Most people eat plenty of grains, but most Americans consume only one serving of whole grains per day,” says Palinski-Wade. “By swapping out a few refined grains for whole grains, you may reduce your waist circumference and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you use white bread for a sandwich, switch to rye. If you like rice, opt for brown rice over white rice. A simple switch can add up significantly.”
Take breaks when you’re traveling
Whether you travel by car or plane, taking frequent breaks to walk and stretch is essential. When flying by air, it can reduce your risk of developing a dangerous blood clot in your leg, called a deep vein thrombosis. “I coach our patients who are driving long-distance to get out of the vehicle periodically and walk around it a few laps,” Dr. Hayden says. “Find a bumper that is the right height to put one foot on it. Step back about two feet, square the pelvis, and lean toward the foot that is on the bumper. This has the effect of a hurdler’s stretch, and it will help stretch those gluteals on which you have been sitting as well as the quadriceps and many of the extensor muscles in the back. Always stretch both sides—if you leave one side tight, you may find yourself walking in circles!”
Cut down on the cocktails
Those studies that show red wine’s positive health benefits may encourage us to raise a few more glasses, but there are really good reasons to limit your alcohol intake, including increased risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, and obesity. Cutting back on the booze can decrease the risk of many different kinds of cancer, including breast cancer, according to Dr. Shepherd. For women, one drink a day seems to be the healthy max, while men can have two.
“Everyone asks me to recommend one exercise that everyone can do to improve their overall health,” says Pat McGuinness, personal trainer at the MAX Challenge in Montclair, NJ, and regional director of programming for New York Sports Clubs. “My answer is always squats! Everyone can do them—modifications are easy—and leg muscles make up more than 60 percent of our total body composition, which means you get more bang for your buck!”
Walk for five minutes every hour at work
Studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on your health. If you can’t get a standing desk to help you limit your time on your seat, make sure you take a five-minute walk break every hour. That can help you minimize the impact of sitting on your health, and ensure you get even more than the doctor-recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week. That can help you reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, according to Dr. Crandall.
Swap soda for fruit-spiked water
Whether it’s diet or sugar-filled, study after study shows that soda isn’t the best beverage—unless you want to gain weight, increase your risk of developing diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, and reduce your bone density. But you don’t have to sacrifice flavor if you give up your soda. “Infuse water with fruit for a tasty alternative that’s sure to impress and refresh,” says McGuinness.
In the quest for healthy eating, bread seems to be a food staple many struggle with.
And with so many choices lining the grocery store shelves, it can be difficult to know the nutritional difference each bread has to offer, and if the choice you are making is actually benefiting you in the way you hope.
Registered dietitian Andy De Santis breaks down each option and reveals which type of bread you should be reaching for if you want maximum health benefits.
Multigrain bread is often made from white flour and includes some added grains.
In order for a bread to be labelled “multigrain,” it must contain at least two different grains that each represent at least two per cent of the total product, De Santis says.
Grains can include barley, oats, wheat and flax, among others.
Multigrain is also low in fat, introduces more fibre into our diet, and includes 26 per cent of the daily recommended intake of manganese, Livestrong reveals. It also provides 12 per cent of your daily selenium intake, which is nutritionally essential for humans, the National Institute of Health says.
This type of bread is made with whole-grain flour.
“Technically speaking, whole-grain flour must include all parts of the original seed (bran, germ, endosperm) and be very minimally refined.
Make sure to look for the term “100 per cent whole-grain” on the label, the Cleveland Clinic warns, or “100 per cent whole wheat.”
Be cautious, however, of terms such as “wheat” and “multigrain” that don’t list a percentage on the package. This, the clinic says, often means the bread is made with partially, or mostly refined, white flour.
Eating whole-grains has been found to reduce inflammation in the body, which can help fight type 2 diabetes, a 2017 study out of the Technical University of Denmark found.
People have also been found to eat less when they consume whole-grains because it causes satiety and can help in weight loss, the same study found.
Any type of bread that is made through fermentation using yeast and lactobacilli (naturally occurring bacteria) is a sourdough bread. That naturally occurring bacteria is what actually gives the bread its taste.
The nutrition found within the bread depends on the type of flour that was used to make it, Healthline explains – wholegrain versus refined.
On average, however, its benefits resemble that of many other breads. But because of the fermentation process, the bread is considered to come with additional benefits.
For example, it makes it easier for your body to absorb the good amount of minerals like potassium, phosphate, magnesium and zinc – four nutrients often hindered by the presence of phytic acid in other breads (which is minimally present in sourdough bread), Healthline says.
Wholemeal is the British version of saying whole wheat, De Santis says.
Whole wheat, however, does not mean whole-grain. In Canada, whole wheat flour has some of the germ and bran removed (which contains nutrients and fibre), he adds.
According to the Telegraph, one slice of wholemeal bread provides about 15 per cent of an adult’s daily recommended fibre intake.
A product that is labelled “rye bread” contains at last 20 per cent rye flour, which may or may not consisted of the whole rye grain, De Santis says.
Eating rye bread can make you feel more full, which is great if you’re looking to lose weight, Livestrong says. It can also help with managing blood sugar.
This is not an official designation used on Canadian food packages, De Santis says.
“GI is short for Glycemic index, a measure of how much and how rapidly a given food increases your blood sugar after you eat it,” he says. “Less refined usually means lower GI.”
And the winner is… According to De Santis, the healthiest option is whole-grain bread.
“Because whole-grains have been very minimally refined and have not had any healthy components of the seed removed, they are the best for us,” he says. “If we look at the scientific research, we understand that those of us who eat whole-grains tend to be at a lower risk of a variety of chronic diseases.”
Whole-grains are high in B vitamins like niacin and thiamin, minerals like zinc and iron, protein and antioxidants like phytic acid and sulfur compounds, Healthline says.
This type of bread can also lower your risk of heart disease between 22 per cent and 47 per cent, depending on the amount you eat, according to several studies. Whole-grains also lowers the risk of stroke and helps with digestion.
Breads to avoid
If you want the maximum health benefit from your bread, stay clear of breads that have had much of the original grain removed during processing, De Santis says.
This includes white bread, which is considered the least useful to us.
“Although they have some nutrients added back after process (i.e. enriched), they are still lower in fibre, nutrients and other healthy compounds that are contained within the whole-grain,” he says.
And despite the negative reputation bread has in general, De Santis says he fails to see a “downside” to any type of bread.
“The only real drawback I can see of eating too much bread is eating too many calories in total – if you happen to be a bread lover – and missing out on the benefits of enjoying other healthy whole-grain foods like oats.”
By Dani-Elle Dubé National Online Journalist, Smart Living Global News January 22, 2018
Your food and beverage choices can have a big effect on your energy levels throughout the day, an expert says.
As our energy levels decrease because of our overstressed lifestyles, many people look for a quick fix to combat fatigue.
Energy drinks mask the symptoms of fatigue and dehydrate the body. The majority of energy drinks contain excess sugar, high levels of caffeine and other stimulants.
Relying on caffeine and energy drinks makes us feel worse in the long run by causing our system to crash.
Continued fatigue decreases the immune system, making us more susceptible to depression and illness.
So what to do? Exercise, sleep and reducing stress are important in fighting fatigue. But our eating habits also directly affect energy levels. And nutrition can affect energy levels throughout the day.
Here are some tips on healthy ways to boost your energy:
The body needs water – multiple glasses a day.
Being hydrated is an easy and inexpensive way to increase energy levels. You don’t need vitamin water or sports drinks; they only add extra unneeded calories. Keep a fresh water source with you at all times and drink throughout the day. Add lemons, limes or oranges for taste variety.
This is the meal that sets the stage for the entire day. Studies show that breakfast helps keep you alert, starts your metabolism for the day and keeps you satisfied until lunch.
But a healthy breakfast is the key. Good options include whole-grain cereals, breads, fruit and lean protein instead of doughnuts, pastries and white breads. A hard-boiled egg sliced into a whole wheat pita, oatmeal with fruit, and whole-grain toast with natural peanut butter are all healthy choices.
Don’t forget protein
Not consuming enough protein during the day can be a primary reason for fatigue. Protein-based foods provide the body with fuel to repair and build tissues. Protein takes longer than carbohydrates to break down in the body, providing a longer-lasting energy source. You can find protein in poultry, fish, lean red meat, nuts, milk, yogurt, eggs, yogurt, cheese and tofu.
Keep your carbs smart
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel. Pick whole grains like cereal, brown rice and whole wheat bread, and avoid sweets, which cause energy to plummet. Many processed carbohydrates contain little to no fiber. Always read the nutrition label.
Snacks are important
If you let yourself get too hungry between meals, your blood sugar falls, and you get lethargic. Keep your blood sugar and energy level steady during the day by consuming snacks. Choosing the right snacks prevent peaks and valleys in energy.
Combine complex carbs with a protein and/or fat for lasting energy. The protein and fat slow the breakdown of sugar into the blood, preventing fatigue. Snacks also can prevent overeating at mealtimes. A few examples of smart snack choices are yogurt with fruit, mixed nuts, veggies with hummus, pears with almond butter, whey protein shake or blueberries with a cheese stick. Plan ahead!
Omega-3 fatty acids
Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, combat depression and improve mood and memory. Try to focus on omega-3 fats from food rather than supplements. Excellent sources include salmon, tuna, walnuts, flax seeds, leafy greens and hemp seeds.
Almonds, walnuts and Brazil nuts are rich in magnesium, a mineral important in converting carbohydrates into energy. Other good sources of magnesium include whole grains and dark green vegetables.
Don’t skimp on calories
Skimping on calories decreases your metabolism and causes you to feel lethargic. Keep your energy levels high and increase metabolism by meeting your caloric needs each day. Whole foods are preferred over supplements to obtain protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals instead of one or two single nutrients. Consume a variety of foods for overall health but also to keep your energy levels high.
By Tiffany Barrett, Special to CNN November 28, 2012
A magic bullet solution does not exist, but there are some things that can encourage your body to burn a few extra calories.
Don’t listen to the Internet. There’s no such thing as a miracle calorie-burning food that will allow you to vegetate on the couch while melting off the pounds. If there were, gyms would go out of business instantly. According to registered dietitian Ellie Krieger, however, there are a few things that can help one’s metabolism work more efficiently, though this should not be considered a replacement for hard sweaty work.
In an article for the Washington Post, Krieger sifted through the “overhyped, over-extrapolated half-truths” that dominate millions of articles and podcasts to identify those items that might actually have metabolic value. She ended up with four – green tea, cayenne pepper, protein, and whole grains – but benefiting from them isn’t as simple as chowing down.
Green tea gets a lot of well-deserved attention, for it contains polyphenols (specifically, one called epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG) and caffeine that increase the calories and fat your body burns. Studies show that a minimum of 250 milligrams of EGCG must be consumed in order for it to work. This translates to three cups daily of the highest-quality green tea, which isn’t too difficult for tea-lovers. Just be sure to buy the good stuff.
Cayenne pepper is a tough one because studies recommend consuming 10 grams a day; this works out to nearly 2 tablespoons. As anyone who’s eaten cayenne pepper knows, it’s nearly impossible to ingest that much, even if it’s spread out over three meals. But a small amount can help a bit, too:
“A 2011 Purdue University study looked at more palatable quantities of cayenne and found that even about half a teaspoon in one meal worked to increase energy expenditure, but only by 10 calories, which, incidentally, is the number of calories in one peanut.”
Protein is notable for automatically burning 20 to 30 percent of its own calories through the process of digestion. Krieger compares this to fat (0 to 3 percent) and carbohydrates (5 to 10 percent), though these are still crucial components of a well-rounded diet and should not be neglected in favor of excess protein.
Whole grains are similar to protein in that their digestion burns more calories than when you eat refined carbohydrates. Plus, you get the added benefit of fiber, which is sadly lacking in the typical American diet and is desperately needed for healthy guts.
A new study suggests that a gut-healthy diet may play a powerful role in preventing one of the most feared diseases in America.
Mounting research continues to show the links between the health of the gut and that of the brain. Now, a new study from Lund University in Sweden finds that unhealthy intestinal flora can accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The report, published Feb. 8 in the journal Scientific Reports, demonstrates that mice with Alzheimer’s have a different gut bacterial profile than those that do not have the disease.
The gut microbiome is highly responsive to dietary and lifestyle factors. This suggests that a gut-healthy diet may play a powerful role in preventing one of the most feared diseases in America.
“Alzheimer’s is a preventable disease and in the near future we will likely be able to give advice on what to eat to prevent it,” study author Dr. Frida Fak Hållenius, associate professor at the university’s Food for Health Science Centre, told The Huffington Post. “Take care of your gut bacteria, by eating lots of whole-grains, fruits and vegetables.”
In the new study, Hållenius and her colleagues revealed a direct causal association between gut bacteria and signs of Alzheimer’s in mice. When a group of bacteria-free mice were colonized with the bacteria of rodents with Alzheimer’s, they developed brain plaques indicative of Alzheimer’s. When the bacteria-free mice were colonized with the bacteria of the healthy rodents, however, they developed significantly fewer brain plaques.
Beta-amyloid plaques between nerve cells in the brain are a central marker of the disease. These sticky protein clumps accumulate between the brain’s neurons, disrupting signals and contributing to the gradual killing off of nerve cells.
“We don’t yet know how bacteria can affect brain pathology, we are currently investigating this,” Hållenius said. “We think that bacteria may affect regulatory T-cells in the gut, which can control inflammatory processes both locally in the gut and systemically ― including the brain.”
The contributions of microbes to multiple aspects of human physiology and neurobiology in health and disease have up until now not been fully appreciated.
The gut microbiome is intimately connected with the immune system, since many of the body’s immune cells are found in this area of the stomach, Hållenius added.
Anything that happens in the digestive tract can affect the immune system, she explained. “By changing the gut microbiota composition, you affect the immune system of the host to a large extent.”
The findings suggest that Alzheimer’s may be more more preventable than health experts previously thought. The composition of bacteria in the gut is determined by a mix of genetics and lifestyle factors. Diet, exercise, stress and toxin exposure all play a huge role in the gut’s bacterial makeup.
Now, the researchers can begin investigating ways to prevent the disease and delay its onset by targeting gut bacteria early on. And in the meantime, anyone can adopt a plant-based, whole foods diet and probiotic supplementation as a way to improve the health of their microbiome.
“The diet shapes the microbial community in the gut to a large extent, so dietary strategies will be important in prevention of Alzheimer’s,” Hållenius said. “We are currently working on food design that will modulate the gut microbiota towards a healthier state.”
The study is far from the first to show a connection between gut bacteria and Alzheimer’s. In a 2014 paper published in the journal Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, researchers listed 10 different ways that the microbiome may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, including fungal and bacterial infections in the intestinal tract and increased permeability of the blood-brain barrier.
“The contributions of microbes to multiple aspects of human physiology and neurobiology in health and disease have up until now not been fully appreciated,” that study’s authors wrote.
World-first study reveals how diet can treat major depression.
Improving dietary quality successfully treats major depression, a large new study finds.
The three-month study recruited people with major depressive disorder.
One group were given support from a clinical dietitian.
A control group were given access to social support, which is also beneficial for depression.
Those in the dietary group saw great improvements in depressive symptoms.
At the end of the study one-third of people who had changed their diet were in remission from depression.
This compared to only 8% in the social support group.
Professor Felice Jacka, the study’s first author, said:
“We’ve known for some time that there is a clear association between the quality of people’s diets and their risk for depression.
This is the case across countries, cultures and age groups, with healthy diets associated with reduced risk, and unhealthy diets associated with increased risk for depression.
However, this is the first randomised controlled trial to directly test whether improving diet quality can actually treat clinical depression.”
The dietitian encouraged people to eat more of the following food types:
lean red meats,
At the same time people were discouraged from eating:
and sugary drinks.
Professor Jacka continued:
“These results were not explained by changes in physical activity or body weight, but were closely related to the extent of dietary change.
Those who adhered more closely to the dietary program experienced the greatest benefit to their depression symptoms.”
The study suggests that dietitians should be made available to those being treated for depression.
Professor Jacka said:
“Mental disorders account for the leading cause of disability worldwide, with depression accounting for the large proportion of that burden.
While approximately half of sufferers are helped by currently available medical and psychological therapies, new treatment options for depression are urgently needed.
Importantly, depression also increases the risk of and, in turn, is also increased by common physical illnesses such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Successfully improving the quality of patients’ diets would also benefit these illnesses.”
If you’re making resolutions for a healthier new year, consider a gut makeover. Refashioning the community of bacteria and other microbes living in your intestinal tract, collectively known as the gut microbiome, could be a good long-term investment in your health.
Trillions of microbial cells inhabit the human body, outnumbering human cells by 10 to one according to some estimates, and growing evidence suggests that the rich array of intestinal microbiota helps us process nutrients in the foods we eat, bolsters the immune system and does all sorts of odd jobs that promote sound health. A diminished microbial ecosystem, on the other hand, is believed to have consequences that extend far beyond the intestinal tract, affecting everything from allergies and inflammation, metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity, even mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
Much of the composition of the microbiome is established early in life, shaped by forces like your genetics and whether you were breast-fed or bottle-fed. Microbial diversity may be further undermined by the typical high-calorie American diet, rich in sugar, meats and processed foods. But a new study in mice and people adds to evidence that suggests you can take steps to enrich your gut microbiota. Changing your diet to one containing a variety of plant-based foods, the new research suggests, may be crucial to achieving a healthier microbiome.
Altering your microbiome, however, may not be easy, and nobody knows how long it might take. That’s because the ecosystem already established in your gut determines how it absorbs and processes nutrients. So if the microbial community in your gut has been shaped by a daily diet of cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza, for example, it won’t respond as quickly to a healthy diet as a gut shaped by vegetables and fruits that has more varied microbiota to begin with.
“The nutritional value of food is influenced in part by the microbial community that encounters that food,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, the senior author of the new paper and director of the Center for Genome Science and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Nutritional components of a healthy diet have to be viewed from “the inside out,” he said, “not just the outside in.”
One of the questions the study set out to answer was how individuals with different diets respond when they try to improve their eating habits. The scientists harvested gut bacteria from humans, transplanted them into mice bred under sterile conditions, and then fed the mice either American-style or plant-based diets. The scientists then analyzed changes in the mice’s microbial communities.
Of interest, the scientists harvested the gut bacteria from people who followed sharply different diets. One group ate a fairly typical American diet, consuming about 3,000 calories a day, high in animal proteins with few fruits and vegetables. Some of their favorite foods were processed cheese, pepperoni and lunch meats.
The other group consisted of people who were devotees of calorie restriction. They ate less than 1,800 calories a day and had meticulously tracked what they ate for at least two years, sticking to a mostly plant-based diet and consuming far less animal protein than the other group, a third fewer carbohydrates and only half the fat.
This calorie-restricted group, the researchers found, had a far richer and more diverse microbial community in the gut than those eating a typical American diet. They also carried several strains of “good” bacteria, known to promote health, that are unique to their plant-based diet. “Their choices as adults dramatically influenced their gut community,” said Nicholas W. Griffin of Washington University, the paper’s lead author.
The study, published in Cell Host & Microbe, is not the first to report findings suggesting dietary shifts can induce persistent changes in a gut microbial community, said Dr. David A. Relman, a professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, who was not involved in the current research. He noted that other studies had found even more profound effects.
After the human microbiota was transplanted into the mice, the mice got to eat either like typical Americans or like the calorie restrictors.
Mice that had a microbiota conditioned by the typical American diet had a weaker response to the plant-based diet. Their microbial communities didn’t increase and diversify as much. “They all responded in a predictable direction, but with not as great a magnitude,” said Dr. Griffin.
Another aspect of the study suggests the company you keep may also enrich your gut microbiota — at least in mice. At first the animals were kept in separate cages. Then, when they were housed together, the microbes from the communities conditioned by plant diets made their way into the American-diet microbiome.
It’s not clear how that translates to humans: Mice eat one another’s droppings when they live together, so they easily share the bacterial wealth. Still, it’s possible humans have other ways of sharing bacteria, Dr. Griffin said. “We know from previous work and other studies that spouses who live together will develop microbial communities that are similar to each other,” he said.
Perhaps the best way to cultivate a healthier microbiome is to eat more fiber by consuming more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts or seeds, said Meghan Jardine, a registered dietitian who was not involved in the current study but has published articles on promoting a healthy microbiota. (She is also affiliated with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which recommends a plant-based diet.) She urges people to aim for 40 to 50 grams of fiber daily, well above levels recommended by most dietary guidelines.
“When you look at populations that eat real food that’s high in fiber, and more plant-based foods, you’re going to see they have a more robust microbiota, with more genetic diversity, healthier species and fewer pathogenic bacteria living in the gut,” she said.
According the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. That’s 40 million adults—18% of the population—who struggle with anxiety. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, with about half of those with depression also experiencing anxiety.
Specific therapies and medications can help relieve the burden of anxiety, yet only about a third of people suffering from this condition seek treatment. In my practice, part of what I discuss when explaining treatment options is the important role of diet in helping to manage anxiety.
In addition to healthy guidelines such as eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, there are many other dietary considerations that can help relieve anxiety. For example, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling.
A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. When you eat is also important. Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.
The gut-brain axis is also very important, since a large percentage (about 95%) of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut. Research is examining the potential of probiotics for treating both anxiety and depression.
Foods that can help quell anxiety
You might be surprised to learn that specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety.
In mice, diets low in magnesium were found to increase anxiety-related behaviors. Foods naturally rich in magnesium may therefore help a person to feel calmer. Examples include leafy greens such as spinach and Swiss chard. Other sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Foods rich in zinc such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lowered anxiety.
Other foods, including fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, contain omega-3 fatty acid. A study completed on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety. (This study used supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids). Prior to the study, omega-3 fatty acids had been linked to improving depression only.
A recent study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms.
Asparagus, known widely to be a healthy vegetable. Based on research, the Chinese government approved the use of an asparagus extract as a natural functional food and beverage ingredient due to its anti-anxiety properties.
Foods rich in B vitamins such as avocado and almonds
These “feel good” foods spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety.
Are antioxidants anti-anxiety?
Anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state. It stands to reason, therefore, that enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders. A 2010 study reviewed the antioxidant content of 3,100 foods, spices, herbs, beverages, and supplements. Foods designated as high in antioxidants by the USDA include:
Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney
Fruits: Apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin) and ginger.
Achieving better mental health through diet
Be sure to talk to your doctor if your anxiety symptoms are severe or last more than two weeks. But even if your doctor recommends medication or therapy for anxiety, it is still worth asking whether you might also have some success by adjusting your diet. While nutritional psychiatry is not a substitute for other treatments, the relationship between food, mood, and anxiety is garnering more and more attention. There is a growing body of evidence, and more research is needed to fully understand the role of nutritional psychiatry, or as I prefer to call it, Psycho-Nutrition.
Uma Naidoo, MD, Contributor APRIL 13, 2016, 9:30 AM