The gut is important to our overall health, even though it can be complex at times.
When asked “How do you know if your gut is healthy?”, registered dietitian Mpho Tshukudu delved into a bowel-movement checklist: one of the simpler ways we can assess our gut health.
Tshukudu was one of the keynote speakers at the One Health Summit 2020, themed “Your Gut’s Instinct”, where experts from around the globe gathered to present scientific research on the role of the gut in maintaining health.
How do you know if your gut is healthy? Tshukudu explains that there’s a lot you can tell from your poop. Questions to ask yourself include:
1. What does your poop look like? It should not float, and it should not be the texture of pellets, “it should be soft, like raw sausage”.
2. How often are you going to the loo? It’s important to note that everyone’s body is different, and that defecating from three times a day to three times a week is “normal”.
3. There should not be a bad smell. Even our farts should not smell bad, explains Tshukudu.
4. And most importantly, ask yourself how you feel. Are you uncomfortable? Do you experience bloating, incomplete evacuation or a significant amount of flatulence? If you’re struggling with constipation, diarrhoea, bloating or general tummy discomfort, this could all indicate that your gut is unhappy – or not working optimally.
Tshukudu’s refreshing take on achieving good gut health is simple and encourages South Africans to include their heritage foods in daily meals. “After suffering from numerous food allergies, I started taking a closer look at my Anglo-Eurocentric diet. I noticed that as we acculturated to Western foods and a city lifestyle, we moved further away from our traditional foods.” This is what dietitians term the nutrition transition.
“Many of my clients were also being diagnosed with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and abdominal fat,” says Tshukudu. She set out to solve this problem by taking a closer look at our gut health.
The clear message from Professor Rob Knight, founding director of the Centre for Microbiome Innovation in California, was that a healthy gut equates to better overall health. He explained that the gut and its microbiome can impact “your whole lifespan and health outcomes”. Research indicates that intestinal microbiota (the microorganisms that live in our gut) may affect health conditions including pain, autism, obesity, cardiovascular risk, anxiety, depression and multiple sclerosis.
So how do we heal our gut? At the summit, Tshukudu explained that some South African women use laxatives or other herbal preparations to ease discomfort. She advised that lifestyle approaches, including paying attention to what you eat, is the preferred treatment plan. As a food-first approach, Tshukudu suggests the following ways to improve gut health (which also supports immunity – bonus!).
Include prebiotics in your diet: onion, ginger and garlic as well as spices like black pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and turmeric.
Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains, lentils, beans and vegetables will improve digestion and decrease flatulence and discomfort (think fermented sorghum and millet). The discomfort is mostly from legumes though (beans and lentils). Your body builds up a tolerance to digesting legumes and it’s important to eat them regularly (at least three to four times a week).
Have more fruit with a high polyphenol content, such as pomegranates, figs, blackberries and baobab.
Eat more vegetables and don’t shy away from traditional leaves like morogo, also known as African spinach, which is rich in nutrients and fibre. Use morogo in pesto and add it to salads, soups and smoothies.
Reduce meat consumption and eat more plant protein, such as nuts and legumes.