Q&A with Dr. Fogarty: Kick the Trends and Get the Skinny on Gut Health

In this blog series, we ask Dr. Fogarty, a nutrition and exercise expert from the UK, to weigh in on the science behind how eating a vegetable-based rainbow diet  can help you live a longer, healthier life.

Mark Fogarty earned a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom where he has been researching, publishing and lecturing on natural nutritional intervention in the context of exercise stress for over a decade.

Spinaca Farms: “Gut health” is such a huge buzz-term right now and people are flocking to health food stores to stock up on probiotics, etc. Can you start by telling us what “gut health” really means on a physiological level and why it is so important?

Dr. Fogarty: One thing I would like to point out is when we say “gut health” we’re not speaking about our stomachs but our small intestines. The stomach plays a simple role in digestion—all it does is create a low pH environment by which we breakdown proteins. Once that happens the contents of the stomach empty into the small intestine and this is where the magic really happens as this is where the macronutrients we’ve eaten are absorbed in their simplest form.

So, when you say gut health I think about the cells that line our small intestine and perform the duty of efficiently absorbing all the nutrients we need while also getting rid of the stuff in our food we can’t use. A very highly specialised duty.

That said, when you think of the food production industry today, it is very different to what it was not so long ago—there are a lot more shortcuts in cooking today. I understand there is a need for this, but I also believe we expose ourselves to lots of things that perhaps our gut cells aren’t necessarily programmed to recognise. It’s possible that this sort of exposure leads to an inflammatory response. If this reaction occurs over a prolonged period of time the function of these cells begins to become compromised. This leads to some of the things we associate with poor gut health. The big risk here is the absorption of key macronutrients and micronutrients can become compromised which may increase the risk of malnutrition, obesity, diabetes and worse things like intestine and bowel cancer.

Spinaca Farms: What are your thoughts about taking probiotics regularly? And are all probiotics created equal? If not, which are better?

Dr. Fogarty: For me, the use of probiotics has a place but I’m not sure how convinced I am about regular use. Let’s start by talking about bacteria.

Our small intestine is an absolute mind-boggling breeding ground for bacteria. There are something like 100 trillion bacteria that live in our guts and we’re still learning about them and what they do. What we do know is that some of the bacterial cultures play a key role in digestion, particularly for things like vegetables. We also know that some bacterial cultures don’t play a positive role and may lead to our immune system targeting them since our immune system sometimes isn’t that specific. So when the immune cells respond to an attack there is an element of inflammation in the surrounding healthy cells.

As I’ve noted above, inflammation in our guts cells is something to be avoided. The idea with probiotics is that they help establish a health bacterial profile, but as we know when the environment for bacteria growth is good they’ll pretty much look after themselves.

So, let’s say you have an illness and have to take a course of oral antibiotics, although that helps kill the infection, evidence suggests they also wipe out our health gut cultures. These can take almost two years to re-establish themselves. This is where the probiotics might be golden to really help kickstart a healthy gut culture with the right sort of bacteria.

I think those found in food (yoghurts/milkshakes) are perhaps more effective than the supplement type just because I believe the cell recognises food better than a pill, but I haven’t seen evidence that one is maybe better than the other. I think simply incorporating certain foods into a weekly balanced diet gives a good gut health profile without having to spend money on supplements. But, if you’ve already got bad gut health then they can help redress the balance for a short period.

Spinaca Farms: From a nutritionists standpoint, what advice do you have for us so we can improve our gut health and keep it healthy through diet?

Dr. Fogarty: I’ve hinted at this one already but vegetables seem to play a great role in helping improve gut health. We talked about probiotics but there is also a group of foods called prebiotics. Prebiotics are found in fibre foods which ferment in our intestine and produce an environment perfect for a healthy gut bacteria profile.

Fructans are high fibre carbohydrate-based foods like garlic, onions, leeks, beans, and wheat. Fructan fibres can survive for some time in your GI tract and healthy gut bacteria feed on them help promote a positive colony. One catch here is heat breaks down fibres so like I said a few weeks ago go easy on the cooking.

Apparently, most of us only get about half or our daily intake of these types of fibres—particularly Fructans, but in a recent study published in nature, we can increase our gut health bacteria population by increasing our intake of Fructan-based food. The suggestion, however, is to increase slowly over time as jumping in the deep end with fibre can lead to a bit of bloating and gas which is not polite at all!

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