What are the best foods for your gut bacteria?

January 14, 2021

The trillions of microbes in your gut, known as your microbiome, play an essential role in health, metabolism, and weight.

In general, the more diverse types of bugs you have in there, the better. 

Building on this idea, the latest findings from our PREDICT study highlight 15 “good” and 15 “bad” microbes that were strongly associated with positive or negative markers of health, responses to food and diet.

So what do our findings reveal about the foods that are good for your gut bacteria? And how can you choose foods that can help your “good” gut bugs thrive?

Here’s what we know about diet and the microbiome

  • Each of us has a unique mix of microbes living in our gut, which play a key role in our health
  • We’ve identified 15 “good” and 15 “bad” gut microbes linked to health and specific nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns
  • Food quality (amount of processing) is as important as the food source (plant or animal) 
  • Your gut microbiome can change rapidly when you alter what you eat - but there is no “one-size-fits-all” microbiome diet
  • Knowing how best to boost your microbiome starts with understanding what’s living in your gut
  • The ZOE Program enables you to discover your unique microbiome and get personalized recommendations for foods to help your “good” bugs thrive

Can you change your gut microbiome by changing your diet?

Each of us has a unique mix of microbes living in our gut. We’ve found that unrelated people share on average around 30% of their microbiome, and even identical twins only share about 34%.

There’s a growing body of research highlighting the fact that the composition of our gut microbiome is influenced by the food we eat, which makes sense. After all, our food is their food. 

This is great news, as it suggests that you might be able to build a healthier microbiome by changing the way you eat.

When it comes to your gut microbes, it is a case of “build it, and they will come”. If you were a landlord and added a nice gym to your apartment building, you might expect more gym lovers to come and live there. Similarly, you can change the tenants in your gut by modifying what you give them.

If you eat the foods that your “good” bugs love, you’re more likely to encourage them to settle down and thrive in your gut.

But to do that, you need to know which foods are associated with which bugs. Here’s where our PREDICT study comes in.

Matching microbes to meals

Our latest findings — published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine — shed light on the complex interactions between gut microbes, diet, and health.

This is possible thanks to the large quantity of detailed information we’ve gathered about diet, health markers and in-depth microbiome analysis from more than a thousand participants.

Now, for the first time, we have uncovered links between specific nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns with specific “good” and “bad” microbes. 

Here’s what we found.

Which foods are best for your microbiome?

Some of the associations we found between specific foods and microbes weren’t surprising and matched up well with the results from other research groups.

For example, people who eat a lot of yogurt tend to have high levels of a bug called Bifidobacterium animalis. This makes sense, because this microbe is found in live yogurt. 

However, there were also some surprises. We found that coffee drinkers were highly likely to have a specific type of Firmicutes bacteria in their guts, while tea drinkers had virtually none. Reassuringly for wine drinkers, we also found a link between red wine and certain "good" microbes, which is possibly due to the high levels of polyphenols that bacteria like to eat.

Intriguingly, dark chocolate was strongly associated with the "good" microbes we identified but milk chocolate was linked to "bad" bugs. 

Read more about the health benefits of coffee here.

“Healthy” and “unhealthy” foods

More broadly, we discovered correlations between wider food groups and clusters of "good" and "bad" microbes. 

We already know that eating a diet rich in a range of plants is known to be good for your microbiome diversity. So it’s no surprise that we found a strong association between eating a diet rich in minimally processed plant-based foods and having more of these "good" gut bugs. 

Conversely, people whose diets contained more unhealthy animal products (e.g. sausages, bacon, and creamy desserts) tended to have more "bad" microbes.

However, it’s too simplistic to say that all plant-based foods are “healthy” and all animal ones are “unhealthy”. 

Highly processed plant-based foods (e.g. pies, baked beans, sauces and fruit juices) were associated with "bad" microbes. More healthy animal-based products (e.g. oily fish, eggs and yogurt) were linked to "good" bugs. 

Why does this matter? This emphasizes the importance of overall food quality and processing—not all foods are created equal after all. 

Go with your gut

The good news is that what you eat can change your microbiome composition. But how do you know what to put on your plate?

We all have unique microbiomes, so there is no one best “microbiome diet” that suits everybody. Importantly, there’s no one single food—or single microbe—that will make or break your microbiome. 

The microbiome is a complex community, and your regular dietary habits over time are what determines the mix.

Finding the foods that work best for your unique body and your community of gut bacteria starts with understanding which bugs are living in your gut right now, and which foods will help them thrive. 

That’s why when you join the ZOE Program, you’ll take an easy poop test at home so we can analyze your gut microbiome using the same techniques we use in our research. That way we can tell you which bugs you’re hosting alongside an understanding of how your body responds to foods. 

These are recommendations you can use to fuel your body (and gut bugs) better, as Angie discovered when she took part in the ZOE Program:

“ZOE has informed choices I make while food shopping…Understanding my biology is being aware of the complex bacterial universe inside my gut and tailoring my diet to ensure the beneficial bacteria prosper, and the less beneficial bacteria do not thrive.”

You can read Angie's full story here.

Want to learn more about your unique microbiome and discover your responses to food? Join the ZOE Program today and start your journey towards a healthier gut. 

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