The analogy of a thriving garden is often made in reference to what a healthy gut would look like. To flourish, a garden needs water, regular weeding, adequate natural fertilizers and sunlight.
“Taking care of the gut requires a similar level of diligence as tending to the garden that supplies the food we eat" (Kadende-Kaiser 2020, 128; see also Mullin 2015).
The gut needs to reside inside a balanced body that receives the right mix of nutrients to allow the good bacteria to thrive. When these bacteria are well supported, they help to keep us healthy, and in fact, they do the "weeding" of the gut for us.
What does weeding the gut imply? And what does it mean in the context of supporting a healthy body, which entails a healthy weight and waistline?
Let's answer these questions by first defining the gut and its key functions. Then, we'll look at the three steps that can help to "weed" the gut and how these steps contribute to restoring gut health and laying the foundation for weight loss and fat-burning.
What is the gut, anyway?
The gut is a long tube that starts in the mouth and winds its way to the intestines before eventually reaching the rectum. It takes in and absorbs nutrients along the way, supporting digestion, producing essential vitamins and minerals, supporting detoxification, and many other functions described further below.
Your intestines are especially important to a healthy gut since they house much of the body’s bacteria, also referred to as the gut microbiome, "a veritable garden of life" as Gerard E. Mullin, a doctor from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine refers to it. Mullin writes: “Living deep in your lower intestines is a complex ecosystem of micro-organisms—a veritable garden of life…composed of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, all of which collectively constitute what’s called the human gut microbiome” (Mullins 2015).
Additionally, "[i]n any human body there are around 30 trillion human cells, but our microbiome is an estimated 39 trillion microbial cells ... that live on and in us.... We have around 20-25,000 genes in each of our cells, but the human microbiome potentially holds 500 times more" (Mun-Keat Looi in Science Focus, 2020). As well, "a woman microbiome may be more diverse than a man's and mature sooner" (Varykina Thackray in Neuroscience, 2019).
Some estimate for example that "in a 154-pound (70-kg) man, there are around 40 trillion bacterial cells and only 30 trillion human cells. Most of these bacteria live in a part of the large intestine called the cecum [the entry point of the colon, about six inches long] .... While some may cause disease, most of them carry out essential tasks to keep you healthy” (Robertson 2018, Cleveland Clinic, 2022). Below are some of the important gut microbiome functions in the body:
Controlling the storage of fat
Assisting in activating the genes in cells that are involved with nutrient absorption and creating blood vessels
Replenishing the linings of the gut and the skin by replacing damaged and dying cells with new ones.
Breaking down complex carbohydrates to support digestion
Producing essential vitamins and minerals including vitamins K, B12 and niacin
Supporting the production of short-chain fatty acids that are involved in regulating immunity and reducing inflammation
Protecting against pathogens that cause disease
Helping the immune system to protect the body from allergies and autoimmune diseases
Supporting detoxification by breaking down toxins
Modulating your nervous system (Mullins 2015, 6-7; Cleveland Clinic, 2022).
These microorganisms are also found on the scalp, the armpits, the feces (with as much as 30 percent of solid waste in the form of dead bacteria), the feet (think smelly feet), the mouth, the skin, the gut and the vagina (Mun-Keat Looi, 2020).
What are some cues that it's time to reset the gut?
Since the gut extends from the mouth to the rectum, there are lots of ways to determine if the gut needs help. The following questions can be used as a guide:
Do you experience frequent stomach aches, bloating, or heartburn?
Do you often suffer from constipation or diarrhea?
Does your poop smell really bad?
Do you have bad breath even if you brush your teeth daily?
Do you suffer from vaginal yeast infections?
Do you have brain fog often?
Do you have sensitivities to certain foods such as dairy, nuts and/or gluten?
Do you sleep poorly and wake up feeling tired?
Do you have stubborn weight and belly fat?
Positive answers to one or more of these questions can be cues that the gut needs help.
By increasing intake of prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods and complementing them with probiotic supplements if need be, can bring relief from many of these symptoms of poor gut health and remove one of the barriers to stubborn belly fat, gut imbalance.
Starting with food is always a wise approach. Research continues to show evidence that nutrients in foods are key to a healthy weight and waistline, but only if these foods are properly absorbed. The good news is that strategies that preserve the integrity of the gut also support better nutrient absorption. We are indeed, not just we eat, but what we absorb.
This are often signs that good gut bacteria are being dominated by bad ones, The good bacteria enable the body is able to retain the important nutrients from foods, while expelling unwanted calories in the feces. "Individuals with high P/B [Prevotella-to-Bacteroides] lost more body weight and body fat compared to individuals with low P/B, confirming that individuals with high P/B are more susceptible to weight loss on a diet rich in fiber [higher than 30 grams/per day] (Mads F. Hjorth et. al. 2019). Abundance of specific strains of Prevotella bacteria has been linked to inflammatory disease, particularly when host genetic risk factors and environmental exposure are present. Other strains of bad bacteria also help the body to absorb more calories, which can lead to weight gain. Keeping this balance between the good and bad bacteria in the right ratio is key to success in losing weight and excess body fat. Indeed, “…different types of bacteria in the gut microbiome can affect the success of weight loss interventions” (McNamara 2021).
Therefore, since dietary choices play a critical role in maintaining this balance, let's discuss the steps to a healthy gut, which in turn is key to supporting a healthy weight and waistline. Below are three of those diet-related steps.
Three steps to better gut health
Step1: Limit or avoid processed foods
A majority of processed foods, especially those that lack adequate fiber content, are filled with added sugars, excess salt, artificial sweeteners and/or additives and preservatives that harm the gut (Walsh 2021). Bread, pasta, cake, cookies and muffins are examples of these processed foods with little to no fiber in them. Recent research on 1,425 people in the Netherlands showed that those who consumed a diet high in processed and animal-derived fatty foods had greater levels of destructive bacteria that produce toxins that harm the gut (Curley 2021). Those bacteria “are better able to chop food into [the] smallest pieces that get digested, add calories to our body and thereby tend to increase our weight (Kamaroff 2021).
Others link consumption of processed sugar and other processed foods to reduced diversity of beneficial bacteria (namely the bacteroidetes and firmicutes), low grade inflammation, increased intestinal permeability, metabolic endotoxemia and the onset of metabolic disorders (which is often linked to abdominal fat accumulation), along with other diseases (Marialetizia Rastelli et.al. 2018, Reeta Satokari, 2020). Processed foods also tend to more directly spike blood glucose and insulin levels, and when this happens on a consistent basis, fat accumulation follows because insulin is a fat-storage hormone. "We also know that sugar is partly to blame for challenges with our waistlines, appetites, blood sugar control, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance" (David Perlmutter, 2013, see also Mark Hyman, 2014)
Step 2: Make your diet mostly plant-based and unprocessed
Your microbiome thrives on diverse fibers and polyphenols from a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and whole grains along with nuts and seeds (Robertson 2018; Walsh 2021). Some foods that are especially helpful in this regard include: Jerusalem artichokes; leeks; onions, raspberries, beans, asparagus, garlic, bananas, pears and watermelon. While processed foods feed the unhelpful bacteria in the large intestine, these unprocessed foods do the opposite. They feed the good bacteria which in turn “effectively layer the intestinal junctions acting as a barricade which allows only nutrients to slip through. This prevents inflammation,” which is “one of the major driving factors of fat accumulation" (Probiotics Council).
Step 3: Eat probiotics and prebiotics-rich foods and supplements
Probiotics are “a combination of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in your body" (Cleveland Clinic 2020). We can support the production of these probiotics in the gut by consuming a range of fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut or almond milk kefirs and others.
Why fermented foods? “From a culinary point of view, fermentation is that act of transforming and preserving foods through bacteria, fungi, and enzymes…From a biological point of view, [it is] any process by which nutrients are converted to energy in the absence of oxygen…” (Mullin 2015). The result is foods that are packed with probiotics, friendly bacteria that greatly benefit us in many areas of our health!
In my book I share my experiences fermenting, especially raw vegetables such as red and green cabbage, as well as recipes of a few of my favorite fermented foods and drinks (Kadende-Kaiser 2020, Chapter 4). I also recommend you check out other resources on fermentation, including Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey (2014) and Chapter 6 in The Microbiome Cookbook by Pamela Ellgen (2016). Both provide simple recipes on how to ferment fresh vegetables – and how to culture milk into yogurt and kefir if you do not have dairy sensitivities. Nut milk and nut milk kefir is also easy to make.
Probiotic supplements are available as well with a wide range of strains of beneficial bacteria between different brands. The label on each box of probiotic supplements usually indicates the number and/or types of strains in them. I choose those with at least 10 beneficial strains of bacteria.
Probiotics have been attributed to several benefits that can support weight loss and general health and wellness, including:
Producing acetate, propionate, and butyrate, which are short-chain fatty acids;
Inhibiting the absorption of dietary fat and increasing the fat that are excreted in your feces;
Releasing appetite-reducing hormones glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and peptide YY (PYY) that may also help burn calories and fat; and
Increasing levels of fat-regulating proteins, including angiopoietin-like 4 (ANGPTL4) that may lead to decreased fat storage (Palsdottir 2020).
Prebiotics are fibers that the probiotics thrive on. These too can be found in many of the whole foods that we eat! Apricots, artichokes, almonds, pistachios and legumes, plus polyphenol-rich foods like blueberries, strawberries and apples are particularly good sources of prebiotics (Walsh 2021).
Years ago, when I was living in the southern African country of Malawi, I found a passion in gardening as I transformed a dusty and barren backyard into a thriving garden in less than two years. Doing this is what set in motion a health and wellness journey that gets better each year. Instead of a health decline, expected with age, I find myself in better shape than I was 10, and even 15 years ago. Key to my success: A focus on healing my gut. Gardening gave me an outlet to connect with who I am at the core, and by doing so, I was able to understand better why I was hurting, and what I needed to do to restore myself to better health. What I learned through this process evolved further into a passion for health coaching. Supporting others to embrace the steps that continue to help me feel better, weight less, and keep my waistline in check as I continue to fit into size 4 outfits (small), things I could not imagine 15 years ago remain a motivating factor for me to keep on keeping on.
Losing weight can be complicated, with lots of moving parts. But by rebuilding the gut, we are a step closer to a healthier weight and waistline: “By mapping your gut ecology, you can shed weight, rejuvenate your health, and feel vibrant (Mullin 2015, xvii). All it takes is to rethink what we bring home when we go food shopping. The gut will do its share of keeping us healthy, but we must support it by giving it what it needs to thrive. Then we will benefit with a more balanced body inside, out and all around!
“Do gut bacteria inhibit weight loss?”, by Anthony L. Komaroff. February 12, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/do-gut-bacteria-inhibit-weight-loss#:~:text=The%20gut%20bacteria%20help%20break,be%20harder%20to%20lose%20weight. Accessed November 14, 2022.
“Gut Microbiome Could Make Weight Loss Easier for Some,” by Damian McNamara. September 17, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/news/20210917/gut-microbiome-weight-loss. Accessed November 14, 2022.
“Fast Foods Harm Your Gut Microbiome: What You Should Eat Instead,” by Christopher Curley. April 22, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/fast-foods-harm-your-gut-microbiome-what-you-should-eat-instead#What-to-eat-for-a-healthy-microbiome Accessed November 15, 2022.
“Best Bacteria for Losing Weight,” by the Probiotics Council. https://probioticscouncil.org/best-bacteria-for-losing-weight/. Accessed November 15, 2022.
“Prevotella-to-Bacteroides ratio predicts body weight and fat loss success on 24-week diets varying in macronutrient composition and dietary fiber: results from a post-hoc analysis,” by Mads F. Hjorth, et al. International Journal of Obesity. May 17, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41366-018-0093-2. Accessed November 15, 2022.
“Probiotics,” The Cleveland Clinic. 2020. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14598-probiotics. Accessed November 15, 2022.
“How Your Gut Bacteria Can Influence Your Weight,” by Ruairi Robertson. February 13, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gut-bacteria-and-weight. Accessed November 14, 2022.
“How Probiotics Can Help You Lose Weight and Belly Fat,” by Hrefna Palsdottir. November 20, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/probiotics-and-weight-loss. Accessed November 14, 2022.
“Poor Gut Health Might Be the Reason You're Not Losing Weight—Here Are 5 Things You Can Do About It,” by Karla Walsh. September 21, 2021. https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/poor-gut-health-might-reason-214351709.html. Accessed November 14, 2022.
“Dietary Alteration of the Gut Microbiome and Its Impact on Weight and Fat Mass: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” by George Kunnackal. Genes (Basel). March 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5867888/. Accessed November 14, 2022.
“12 Fiber-Rich Foods to Help with Good Gut Bacteria,” by Laurie Herr and Gretel H. Schueller.
November 15, 2022. https://www.eatingwell.com/article/283531/top-fiber-rich-foods-for-good-gut-bacteria/. Accessed November 17, 2022.
The Body Ecology Diet: Recovering Your Health and Rebuilding Your Immunity, by Donna Gates and Linda Schatz. Haye House, Carlsbad, CA. 2011.
Belly Fat in Midlife: Practical Steps to Revitalize Your Changing Body, by Rose M. Kadende-Kaiser. Season of Health, Burlington, North Carolina. 2020.
The Gut Balance Revolution, by Gerard E. Mullin. Rodale Inc., New York. 2015, 5.
Fermented Vegetables, by Kristen K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey. Storey Publishing, North Adams, Massachusetts. 2014.
The Microbiome Cookbook, by Pamela Eligen. Ulysses Press, Berkeley, California. 2016.
The Probiotics Revolution, by Gary B. Huffnagle with Sarah Wernick. Bantam Dell, New York, 2007.
Boost Your Health with Bacteria, by Fred Pescatore and Karolyn A. Gazella. Active Interest Media, El Segundo, California. 2009.
"Like a Lot of Things, Women's Gut Microbiomes Appear to Mature Earlier than Men's". Neuroscience. May 21, 2019. https://neurosciencenews.com/female-microbiome-maturity-14051/. Accessed December 3, 2022.
"High Intake of Sugar and the Balance Between Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gut Bacteria" by Reeta Satokari, May 8, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7284805/. Accessed December 5, 2022.
"Gut Microbes and Health: A Focus on the Mechanisms Linking Microbes, Obesity, and Related Disorders" by Marialetizia Ratelli et.al. May 2018: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29687645/. Accessed December 5, 2022.
"Large Intestine (Colon) by Cleveland Clinic, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22134-colon-large-intestine. Accessed December 6, 2022.
Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar by David Perlmutter. Little, Brown and Company, 2013, 103.
"The human microbiome: Everything you need to know about the 39 trillion microbes that call our bodies home" by Looi Mun-Keat, July 14, 2020. https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/human-microbiome/. Accessed December 7, 2022.