Beneficial bacteria is key to a healthy digestive system and a whole lot more besides. “As well as helping us digest food, the bacteria in our gut have been linked to everything from gene expression to helping our immune systems, so it’s well worth making an effort to get a good balance,” says Jo Travers, registered dietitian and author of The Low-Fad Diet.
Good gut bacteria thrive on a varied diet. “The more diverse your diet, the more diverse your microbes and the better your health at any age,” adds Tim Specktor, professor of Genetic Epidemiology.
It's also a good idea to make sure you include foods beneficial bacteria love to eat, which range from fibre-packed veggies to probiotic dairy products. Here are eight to get you started.
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Upping your fibre intake is essential. “Gut bacteria eat fibre so the more of their favourite food there is available, the happier they will be”, says Jo.
These prebiotic foods provide sustenance for the microbes and help balance the system. Pulses such as green peas are ideal because they contain both the soluble and insoluble types of fibre.
Recipe: scallop, bacon and pea salad with warm potatoes
With Christmas not long over, you might not want to look at another Brussels sprout for a very long time, but you wouldn't be doing your gut health any favours.
The cruciferous vegetable is packed with good bacteria-friendly goodies, from soluble and insoluble fibre, to sulphur compounds that help prevent the overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria such as H. pylori.
Recipe: honey-glazed Brussels sprouts with blue cheese and walnuts
Bananas are a source of inulin, a soluble fibre that acts as a sort of fertiliser for good bacteria.
On top of the inulin, unripe bananas contain high levels of virtuous resistant starch, while the ripe fruit are rich in pectin, both of which boost levels of good bacteria in the digestive system and promote robust gut health.
Recipe: lightning-fast banana balls
Several recent studies have revealed that almonds may possess powerful probiotic properties.
The nuts have been shown to increase levels of good bacteria in the gut, thanks to their high fibre content, and may even decrease levels of microbes that cause food poisoning. It's worth pointing out that almonds are fairly high in fat, so aim to eat them in moderation.
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Recipe: apple, almond and raspberry energy bars
As well as filling your diet with healthy prebiotic foods, it's advisable to increase your intake of probiotics.
These foods contain live cultures that repopulate or add to the good bacteria in your gut. Bio-yogurt is the obvious choice. These cultured dairy products are teeming with Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and other strains of beneficial bacteria.
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Recipe: Greek yogurt pancakes with honey and raisin sauce
Kefir is similar to bio-yogurt, but the lookalike product has a thinner consistency and is fermented for longer, resulting in higher levels of good bacteria.
In fact, a typical serving of kefir contains up to four times as many health-promoting microbes. You can buy kefir ready-made in your local supermarket these days, and you also have a go at making it yourself by snapping up a starter kit.
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Miso is made by fermenting soy beans and contains a variety of beneficial bacteria and enzymes, making it a stellar probiotic food.
Like many preserved foods, miso is high in salt, but you only use it in small quantities, so the risk of overdoing the sodium is fairly low. Try miso in Asian-style soups or as a marinade for salmon or tofu.
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Recipe: mushroom chilli broth with miso
Fermented vegetables have potent probiotic properties. You want to look for lacto-fermented products as vegetables pickled in vinegar don't count.
Properly lacto-fermented preparations such as sauerkraut and kimchi are bursting with good bacteria cultures, and while you don't want to go overboard – these concoctions can be high in salt and sugar too, and may contain nitrates – your overall digestive health should benefit from the occasional indulgence.
Recipe: how to make kimchi
Recipe: how to make sauerkraut