Consumer interest in gut health continues to grow and is one of the top health trends for 2016. Did you know we have 10 times more bacterial cells inside of us than we do human cells, and most of those are in the gut? I call it the gut ecosystem.
Eating a variety of nutritious foods with fibre is my top recommendation to promote digestive health. Whole grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables are great sources of fibre. Women should aim for 25 grams of fibre per day and men should aim for 38 grams per day. Start slowly, adding more fibre every few days, and drink plenty of water. This will help prevent the gas, cramping and bloating that can occur if you add fibre too quickly.
What are Prebiotics?
Prebiotic foods contain non-digestible ingredients and when consumed provide a beneficial environment in the gut for good bacteria, including probiotics, to thrive. The most common prebiotics in our diets are forms of dietary fibres because they resist digestion in the small intestine and reach the large intestine (colon) where the majority of the gut ecosystem -- known as the microbiota -- exists. When dietary fibres, as well as resistant starch and polyphenols (micronutrients) in the diet resist digestion in the small intestine and reach the colon, they become available for use by the microbiota to promote good bacteria and suppress the growth of bad bacteria. This combination of factors including prebiotics in our dietary pattern has a cumulative effect on the microbiota in the colon.
The Prebiotic Potential of Sorghum
I was first introduced to sorghum during my undergrad at the University of Guelph when we were studying celiac disease; then it popped back into my pantry three years ago. Sorghum is a gluten-free whole grain that has shown prebiotic potential. Dr. Nancy Turner, associate professor and director of TAMU Space Life Sciences Training Program at Texas A&M University, explains, "Our research team has shown that sorghum brans containing polyphenols are capable of modifying the microbiota in a manner that supports intestinal health. Some of the changes in the host include reduction in markers of inflammatory processes."
For my clients, I always highlight the important relationship of gut health to immune health and brain health. Inflammation is a leading risk factor for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Fortunately, consumers have become more aware that healthy habits, including helpful food choices, can decrease inflammation in their bodies, thereby lowering the risk of these chronic diseases.
Dr. Turner also identifies interesting emerging research, noting "In addition to the data published by my graduate student Lauren Ritchie, we have other studies yet to be published that demonstrate protection against colon cancer in an animal model of the disease, as well as improvements in metabolism and microbiota in overweight subjects. Because of the consistency in the responses between these different studies evaluating several disease processes, it appears that consumption of sorghum brans containing high levels of polyphenols is beneficial in the maintenance of intestinal health."
The beneficial effect of certain sorghum brans on intestinal microbiota is derived from the mixture of fibre and polyphenols they contain. The burgundy-coloured plants are one of the most common sorghum varieties for human consumption. At the Louisiana State Agricultural Center, research is being conducted to identify the best processes to achieve the highest prebiotic components as the sorghum bran is further processed into fractions and flours.
Adding More Prebiotic-Rich Sorghum to Meals and Snacks
So how do we get more of the prebiotic-rich sorghum into our meals and snacks to promote digestive health? Here are three easy ways to add sorghum to your day:
1. Warm Sorghum Breakfast
Get your digestive track off to a great start in the morning by combining ¾ cup of cooked whole grain sorghum with ½ cup of berries, 2 teaspoons of pumpkin seeds, 1 teaspoon of slivered almonds and 2 tablespoons of 2% Greek yogurt for a delicious prebiotic and probiotic breakfast.
2. Sorghum and Bean Salad
Load up on the prebiotics in this vegetarian salad. In a bowl, add one can each of rinsed and drained black beans and kidney beans to 2 cups of cooked sorghum. Mix with ¾ cup of diced orange peppers and two sliced green onions. In a separate bowl, combine ½ cup of olive oil, ½ cup of balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon of lime juice, then salt and pepper to taste. Whisk thoroughly. Pour dressing on sorghum mixture, toss and serve.
3. Popped Sorghum
You can also pop sorghum in the same way as corn. However, the sorghum kernels are much smaller and lighter than corn. These delicious bits of crunchy fluff can be served at your next movie night or as a garnish for almost anything, including soups and entrées.
It's important to make positive lifestyle decisions including healthy food choices to promote digestive health. Research suggests that prebiotic-rich, gluten-free sorghum grains are an excellent option as part of your overall healthy dietary pattern!
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How it affects you: If you like to cut calories by adding artificial sweetener rather than real sugar to your coffee, you may be affecting your digestion and increasing inflammation in your body. “In general, sweeteners which are partially digested (sugar alcohols) have the biggest impact on the GI system and can lead to bloat, gas, and diarrhea,” according nutritionist and dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade. What you can do: Experiment with the multitude of artificial sweeteners that are on the market and determine which affects you the least, suggests Palinski-Wade, who recommends using natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar. “This is not calorie-free, but because it is sweeter than sugar, less is needed, helping to reduce carbohydrates and calories,” says Palinski-Wade.
How it affects you: Your sweet tooth may affect more than just your waistline. Caffeine contained in chocolate may trigger heartburn and IBS symptoms in people prone to digestive disorders. What’s more, like coffee, chocolate is also a diuretic, which can result in loose stool or diarrhea. What you can do: If you need to satisfy that craving, choose dark chocolate. “It contains polyphenols that can slow GI function and increase water absorption to prevent diarrhea,” says Palinski-Wade. “Cocoa, which is found in higher amounts in dark chocolate than milk chocolate, is also a good source of fiber, which promotes healthy digestion.”
How they affect you: Beyond upping the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and leading to weight gain, refined carbohydrates, like white bread, soda, and potato chips, move quickly through the digestive tract and can result in bloating, cramping, and other GI issues. What you can do: If you can’t totally cut out processed foods from your diet, eat them in combination with foods that digest slowly, like lean protein – think chicken breast without the skin – and healthy fat – like an avocado or natural peanut butter, says Palinski-Wade. On top of that, keep portions in check, so those refined carbs don’t outweigh the good food you’re combining them with.
How it affects you: Whether we’re talking hot curry or spicy Buffalo chicken wings, foods that give your taste buds a run for their money can also trigger heartburn, particularly if you eat them close to bedtime. What you can do: "Cooling foods, specifically dairy, can help to calm the burn associated with spicy food in some people," says Palinski-Wade. "Since milk itself can be hard to digest, reach instead for Greek yogurt or Daisy Brand cottage cheese, which contain GI-friendly probiotics to aid digestion while cooling the burn felt from heavy spices."
How they affect you: Conventional wisdom says that reaching for nature’s bounty in the produce aisle is the best way to stay healthy. And while fresh produce should always be included in a healthy diet, digesting raw fruit and vegetables can be difficult for people with sensitive GI systems. Raw produce has high amounts of insoluble fiber, which move quickly through the intestinal tract and can result in loose stool, diarrhea, gas and bloating. What you can do: Cook your veggies and, whenever possible, your fruit. “Cooking helps to break down some fiber in produce, allowing it to be digested more easily, limiting gas and bloating that can occur when eating raw produce,” says Palinski-Wade.
How they affect you: Food high in saturated fat, like steak (certain cuts, like rib-eye, are fattier than others), French fries, and ice cream, is difficult for the body to digest and can make you feel uncomfortably full and increase the chances of acid reflux, according to Palinski-Wade. If you already suffer from heartburn, fatty food can make it even worse by relaxing the valve that seals off the stomach from the sphincter. The loose valve can cause stomach acid to rise into the esophagus and result in a really unpleasant case of heartburn, says Karen Ansel, nutritionist and dietitian. What you can do: If you’re jonesing for a steak, burger, or other high-fat meal tonight, remember not to combine it with alcohol, which can further irritate your GI tract, says Palinski-Wade. Whenever possible, cook meals in plant-based fats, such as olive oil, which is easier to break down than saturated fat, like butter.
How it affects you: This energy hero can quickly become your GI tract’s worst enemy. In fact, nearly 40 million people in the United States refrain from drinking coffee – or as much coffee as they would like – due to stomach irritation, according to the American Chemical Society. Coffee doesn’t just wake up our mind, it also stimulates acid production in the stomach, which can cause inflammation and result in heartburn and GERD. What’s more, caffeine acts like a diuretic, which can cause dehydration and, ultimately, constipation. What you can do: Limit caffeinated coffee to one cup, says Palinski-Wade. “If that’s not possible, limit to one caffeinated cup every two hours to allow your body time to process the caffeine.” It’s important not to drink coffee on an empty stomach, which can increase indigestion, notes Palinski-Wade. She recommends adding something that’s easily digestible – like a banana or bran cereal at breakfast – to reduce symptoms.
How they affect you: Even if you have the best intentions, many healthful fruits and vegetables, like oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tomatoes, may increase your risk for acid reflux and GERD due to their acidity. What you can do: Removing acidic foods from your diet is the best way to reduce your risk for heartburn. However, if you still want to eat these fruits and vegetables every once and awhile, don’t do it on an empty stomach, which can increase irritation and inflammation.
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