‘Lord, not another article on food!’, you might well exclaim. Well, read on. It’s only a short blog, and I think that some of the insights are useful and different.
Let me say at the start that I’m not an expert. I just read a lot, especially about the emerging science of the microbiome (the 2-3 kg lump of hundreds of bacterial species that inhabit your large bowel and which do an astonishing amount of work to keep us healthy).
But I do spend a lot of my time with patients chatting about food, and I thought I would summarise my current ‘world view’.
The following principles are not so much about the quality of your food, though the bulk of what you eat should be fresh, low chemical and ideally zero-antibiotic.
You are always eating for two
What do I mean by this? The microbiome needs feeding, and feeding it well should be your priority. These bacteria – especially the ‘good’ bacteria – eat soluble and insoluble fibres. Without fibres, bacterial numbers shrink. Fewer bacteria might mean they do less of the good work or even let other ‘baddies’ move in and take their space. It’s a competitive compost heap, down in your large bowel.
So the broadest range of non-starchy vegetables, of all the different colours, and with maximum variety, is your first objective. That doesn’t mean you need to have a broad range of veg with every meal – one or two should be fine, but make sure that you then have different veg the next day, and so on. What you don’t want to do is only have broccoli every day, even if you eat lots of it.
That is the primary reason for eating lots of vegs (fibre). The traditional reasons your mum told you (“you need to eat veg for the vitamins and minerals”, or to ‘scrape’ your gut clean) are either secondary or just plain wrong. Remember that gut bacteria can produce specific vitamins – you can get enough vitamins directly by the food you eat, but also by feeding the bacteria with the food you eat.
Once you have taken care of your microbiome, then what else you eat is for you
You eat carbohydrates (spuds, rice, bread, etc.) for energy. Important, don’t just eat the same carbs all the time, have variety, please!
You eat protein foods to build and repair the machinery of your body. Kids need a lot, and adults who work out a lot do too, but everyone else – probably not as much as you think.
You eat fats because without them you die. Fats are essential as raw material for all kinds of crucial processes and functions in the body. Some fats are better than others, for sure, but you do need them.
Fats, per se, do not make you fat
I think ten years ago the above would have been hugely challenging, but one can say this now. It is consuming excess energy that makes you fat. So a low-fat diet, but with excess carbs, will make you fatter just as happily as a diet of excessive fat.
Don’t mix carbs with high fat/protein meals
Ideally, if you want to eat fish or meat (and don’t worry about it being too lean, remember) then don’t have it with big carbs. Salads or non-starchy veg is better. The stomach and digestive process evolved to specialise. Digesting meat requires a different approach to digesting carbs.
Don’t drink with a meal or for one hour after a meal
Hydrate ten minutes before. This is especially important for protein meals. Why dilute the acid your stomach lining is producing to digest the meat or fish? Sure, a glass of wine is fine, but a large glass of water with your steak? No!
Use probiotics or fermented foods
To correct an upset stomach (recent travel, antibiotics, illness), but not as a replacement for Principle 1.
Vitamin and mineral supplements should be used judicially and selectively
Multi’s are probably not necessary, except for people with terrible diets. Low Vitamin D is a big thing in this country.
Mindful chewing and eating
You know what I mean. Your gut has its own brain – let it work properly. Enjoy food and try and let go of any guilty feelings about eating. They don’t achieve anything positive.
Ignore the old wive’s tale, “You’ve got to have three square meals a day”
Your mum drummed it into you? Well, ignore her. Depending on how well you can cope with not eating (and it’s a significant emotional and physical thing for some people) your body likes getting a break from food from time to time. The metabolic benefits (5/2 diet, intermittent fasting, etc.) are important.
For example https://thefastdiet.co.uk/
Eat when you feel hungry. Otherwise don’t. Ideally, keep food consumption within a 12-hour window of the 24 hour day.
Fruits are great, but...
But either as a meal on their own or as a snack. Don’t eat lots of fruit with other food, especially fat or protein meals. So no fruit salads after a steak, please.
There are now tests available to analyse how good your microbiome is. Hard data, if you like. Google “microbiome testing UK”, for example. We can only expect these tests to get cheaper, better and more useful (in terms of prognosis and treatment) over the next few years.