Did you ever get a gut feeling about someone or something? As the ever-unfolding story of science continues, it turns out that we get a lot of communication from our gut to our brain. In fact, this two-way communication is hardwired in our body. Information is transmitted between the gut and the brain using neurotransmitters that travel via the nervous system and hormone like chemicals that travel via the blood stream.
But who is doing the communicating? And what are they saying? The cells in our gut lining are constantly communicating all sorts of things like the sensation of hunger when it is time to eat or the sensation of satiety when it is time to stop eating. Our gut cells tell us when we have eaten something that is tainted and this communication leads to our body’s response to get rid of the invaders either by vomiting or diarrhea and sometimes both.
A lot of research in recent years has focused on the gut microbiome. This term refers to the world of microorganisms that live in our gut. These bacteria are mostly beneficial but some are harmful – good guys and bad guys. Both are competing with each other for the food that you eat. These bacteria go to work on the pieces left after you have digested a meal. Their waste products or metabolites become another source of communication that sends signals to the brain.
What gets communicated most depends on who you are feeding with your diet. The good guys are sending signals to keep systems working correctly. When the bad guys start winning, some of those systems break down. For example, our system for knowing when to stop eating doesn’t work. Our system for controlling blood sugar gets interfered with.
Can you guess what the bad guys eat? Sugar and animal fat. So, when you eat a super sweet donut or a large piece of pecan pie or drink 12 ounces of carbonated sugar water with artificial color and flavor (soda), you get a good feeling inside. This is the communication from the bad guys rewarding you for giving them something to eat. The more you eat sweets, the more you want them. As farfetched as this sounds, studies have shown that we are influenced by our gut microbiota to make certain food choices. Knowledge of this mechanism changes the rules for those who are trying to kick the sugar habit. It’s not just about calories anymore. We have to stop feeding the bad guys.
Animal fats such as whole dairy foods (cheese, milk, ice cream) and meats are very flavorful and provide a deep sense of satiety. The thought of a double whammy cheeseburger with a large side of fries evokes a feeling of desire in us. We see TV commercials that capitalize on this very concept. These high fat meals feed the bad guys and perpetuate their ability to compete favorably with the good guys.
The good guys thrive on plant fibers. To feed them, eat food sources of fiber such as beans and peas, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. High fiber foods are called pre-biotics. These foods provide the good guys with food to eat. You have heard of pro-biotics. These are foods like yogurt and kefir that contain beneficial live cultures. When you eat these foods, you are sending reinforcements to the good guys. Deprive the bad guys of food by reducing sweets and choosing lean meats and reduced fat dairy foods. By shifting to a plant based diet with moderate amounts of leaner animal foods, you will improve the ratio of good guys to bad guys. This shift heads off a number of chronic conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Change comes easier when we take small steps.
So, healthy eating is more than just a shift to lower calorie foods. It’s true that calories are concentrated in meats, whole dairy foods, sweets and fats. But now we have another piece of the story that helps us to bring our diets back into balance. Some of the information in this article came from The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer, MD.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.