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Ava V. Simpson | Eat smart for balanced gut health

Published:Monday | August 22, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Fruits, vegetables and nuts
Ava V. Simpson

The topic of gut health is much more topical today than decades ago and is not something we should shy away from. It affects millions of people. Are you affected? Is your gut healthy?

More and more research has revealed that critical to overall health is gut health. Many countries that have done research in this area report that millions of people suffer daily from the effects of poor diet on the gut.

First, let us look at some of the maladies related to poor gut health. We just feel sick and many times there is discomfort from gas, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. Poor gut health is also implicated in many other pathologies. The choices we make related to food and lifestyle can directly contribute to our gut health.

So what are we doing to contribute to this poor gut health? And, yes, the answer is poor diet. You might be thinking poor diet again, however, many maladies can be attributed to poor diet.

Let us take a look at what constitutes poor dietary intakes. It involves high consumption of very refined foods, processed foods, high intakes of fatty foods, intakes of lots of simple sugars and sugary foods.

We are also guilty of consuming diets low in soluble and insoluble fermentable fibres, for example, yam, bananas and oats, and not drinking enough fluids throughout the day. We have promoted fibre intake for regularity of the bowels for some time, however, there is now a greater emphasis on the amount and type of fibre we consume daily. It is therefore important to balance the choices of fruits, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, staples, legumes and nuts to maintain health.

What can we do to improve our gut health?

The flip side of the coin of what should be eaten include consumption of more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and cereals, nuts in moderation, legumes, starchy roots and tubers and lots of water throughout the day. I like to think that our Creator gave us exactly what is good for us; think of the foods that are grown in Jamaica - the wide variety of fruits, vegetables, staples, herbs and other agricultural products, some considered among the best in the world.

The 'Grow What We Eat, Eat What We Grow' campaign was launched by the Jamaica Agricultural Society more than 10 years ago and still remains very relevant today. I know the focus for this campaign may be otherwise, but from a healthy-eating perspective, it should be encouraged. What if we all had our little plots or pots of tomatoes, cucumbers, callaloo, carrots, pakchoi, string beans, spinach, peppers and okras? The list is not exhaustive in detailing what can be grown or what is already growing in some people's backyard gardens. We would have more money to buy other foods while we enjoy the nurturing and maturing of our crops.

As dietitians, sometimes, before we advise about food choices, the first response we get is that it is expensive to eat healthy, even before the information in the advice has been processed or any dietary changes attempted. What we need is a re-engineering of our thought processes to think and practise healthy eating.

We could exchange many of our choices of juices/fruit-ades/drinks for plain water. Jamaica, I am told, has world-class standard potable water in most taps across the islands. Water does not have to cost us any additional money and we could save quite a bit if we do not purchase all the fruit-ades/drinks that are our current practice.

Let us examine these figures a little closer. How much does a bottle of juice or drink cost? Let us use an average price of $100 per drink. For 365 days we could save $36,500. The savings accrued could be even greater if we consider improvements in productivity from fewer visits for health care and medications as a result of poor diet.


The low FODMAP diet


A group of researchers at Monash University first recommended that a diet low in Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols (FODMAP) would improve symptoms of Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder affecting many.

What are FODMAPs?

FODMAPs are found in many of the foods we eat. These sugars or short-chain carbohydrates, are poorly absorbed in the small intestine and pass into the large intestine where they are fermented by bacteria, produce gas and attract water.

FODMAPs, though widely found in many foods, can be controlled by paying attention to food choices, with many reporting significant improvements in symptoms of many gastrointestinal disorders. The relief from symptoms of these gastrointestinal disorders will be well worth the investment of making good, healthy food choices.

Last year, the Ministry of Health launched the Food-Based Dietary Guidelines for Jamaica. The eight guidelines for healthy eating are as follows:

1. Eat a variety of foods from all the food groups daily.

2. Eat a variety of fruits.

3. Eat a variety of vegetables daily.

4. Include peas, beans and nuts in your daily meals.

5. Reduce intake of salty and processed foods.

6. Reduce intake of fats and oils.

7. Reduce intake of sugary foods and drinks.

8. Make physical activity a part of your daily routine.

My mother, of blessed memory, constantly repeated to us, 'Prevention is better than cure'. These I consider words of wisdom. Tomorrow the words of wisdom may be: 'Following the food-based dietary guidelines will help to keep you and your gut healthy'.

- Ava V. Simpson, MSc., is a registered dietitian/ nutritionist and senior lecturer at the University of Technology. Simpson is also president of the Jamaica Association of Professionals in Dietetics and Nutrition; Email: