Our digestive system is a hugely important part of our bodies, and its health is rightly important to us. Without good gut health, we might be in pain, or suffer embarrassing symptoms, or worse. But it does not follow that we need to load up on foods or products that promise to improve our gut health.
Gut health, it turns out, is not a well-defined concept. That means it’s not always possible to tell whether it’s improving or whether we even have a problem with it in the first place. Two researchers from the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University recently wrote in a Lancet journal article and on the Conversation about the fact that gut health has become more of a marketing buzzword than a scientific or medical phenomenon.
After all, what do we mean when we talk about gut health? Often it’s either the absence of unpleasant symptoms like diarrhea, or the absence of medical conditions like Crohn’s disease. These conditions and symptoms are each different, so there’s not a single state of “gut health” that we can achieve to prevent all of them. Scientists are still trying to understand the details, and research is ongoing.
The microbiome is also important, but again, scientists have not managed to come up with a way to reliably tell the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy microbiome. The exact population of microbes in two healthy people’s guts may differ from each other, for example. And despite ongoing research, we still can’t test your microbes and tell you what’s wrong with you (outside of a few specific cases, like Clostridium difficile infection).
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But the idea that gut health must be important has provided a marketing boost for a plethora of products, foods, and practices that are supposed to be good for us. Probiotics, for example, are suggested to treat or prevent gastrointestinal troubles. But many fermented foods like yogurt and kombucha don’t affect the makeup of our gut microbiome, and even when they do, we don’t always know if they’re affecting it for the better.
Basically, if someone says a certain food or diet is supposed to be good for your gut health, they’re usually making assumptions they can’t back up. The scientists, Amy Loughman and Heidi Staudacher, write:
For example, there is no solid human evidence yet that intake of processed foods or refined sugar leads to negative effects on the entirety of the aforementioned gut health parameters. Neither are lists of top ten gut health foods particularly helpful or insightful; instead they simplify the complexity of diet to a handful of foods high in fibre without appreciation of important nuances.
They also point out that there are many types of fiber and that they probably aren’t all equally good for us; there is evidence that some fibers could be harmful if we eat too much of them.
A generally varied diet that includes whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will probably be good for our gut health. So will other healthy habits like exercising and avoiding smoking. As they further discuss in the Conversation article, gut health isn’t a thing you achieve by drinking kombucha or eschewing sugar: “it’s dietary patterns and overall habits, not individual foods, that shift the dial.”