The small and large intestines never seem to make it into the spotlight, but they are a pair of hardworking organs. Collectively, they are responsible for completing the digestive process and absorbing the good stuff in food for the benefit of the body, and for absorbing water and eliminating waste. It’s a pretty important job description, but the hot lights of stardom don’t come easy to, well, the rear end of the digestive system.
There are a couple of categories of foods that the intestines really groove on. Broadly speaking, they love pro- and prebiotics, and fiber. Probiotic foods have beneficial bacteria that feed your intestinal flora—the healthy bacteria inside your gut—and prevent harmful microorganisms from disrupting the digestive tract and making you sick. Prebiotics basically feed the probiotics, making this healthy bacterial colony even healthier. Finally, fiber acts like a big scrubber for the whole system.
Intestinal flora and fiber: see? Not so sexy. But before you allow your attention to be diverted by the more glamorous cardiovascular system, or the spotlight-grabbing immune system, remember that it’s the intestines that provide food and water to the whole body. Without them, the other systems wouldn’t be able to do their thing. So let’s take a look at what you can do for the lowly gastrointestinal system. Give your intestines a little love with the following foods.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: when we talk about yogurt, we mean real, unadulterated yogurt with live, active cultures. Skip the sugary, flavored yogurts, and go for plain. If you like yogurt with fruit in it, you can throw some fresh or frozen fruit into your cup of healthy, plain yogurt. A Tufts University review found that yogurt with active cultures can help with lots of gastrointestinal woes, including lactose intolerance, constipation, diarrhea, colon cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease. A daily serving of yogurt is a huge thank you gift to your intestines.
Miso paste creates the cloudy part of miso soup, that little bowl of tasty broth with a bit of tofu and seaweed that you get at the beginning of your meal at a Japanese restaurant. Miso is made by fermenting grains or soybeans with salt and a specific type of fungus. That fermentation process yields a helping of the probiotics that your intestines love. There are several types of miso, either brown, reddish, or white. Generally, darker miso has a richer, slightly sharper flavor. It’s a salty, silky paste that you find in little tubs in the refrigerated section of a good grocery store. You can use miso to make soup simply by dropping a spoonful of it in hot water along with a few vegetables, tofu, and/or seaweed. You can also use it as an addictive, salty spread. Try a little bit smeared on freshly cooked, plain vegetables. You won’t need butter or salt. When you’re using miso, add it at the end of the heating process, so that you don’t wipe out all that active culture goodness.
In a case of what’s old becoming new again, natural sauerkraut is enjoying a comeback as of late. We’re talking about real sauerkraut: cabbage that has been fermented with real bacteria, not cabbage that has been marinated in vinegar. It comes with the goodness of cabbage plus the probiotic boost of the bacteria from the fermentation process. It is important to get the right kind of sauerkraut. Avoid the shelved brands that use vinegar to simulate that sour, fermented flavor. Instead, you can try to make your own. (There are plenty of recipes online, and the whole process is really interesting!) Or, look for a natural brand in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Sauerkraut has got some serious history. According to Natural News, “The Roman army traveled with barrels of sauerkraut, using it to prevent intestinal infections among the troops during long excursions.” The colony of lactic acid bacteria that results from sauerkraut’s pickling process is another healthy bacteria source for the gut.
Raw Garlic, Leeks, and Onions
Moving from probiotics to prebiotics, we come to the onion and his cousins. These are great on the family dinner table as long as everyone partakes! These pungent ingredients provide nutrition for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. They do their work by altering the colon’s pH level, which your intestinal flora loves, and which helps the body to better absorb minerals. These three stinkers can also help to prevent constipation. True, raw onions and garlic can be off-putting for some people. If you’re one of those, then give leeks a try. They are much milder, and are a good substitute for raw onions in most recipes. (But don’t try to go the other way and add onions where leeks are called for. Onions may overpower a recipe designed for leeks.) Leeks look like gigantic spring onions. Leeks make a nice addition sprinkled on top of salads or even soups. However you prepare them, first slice leeks in half and soak them for several minutes in a bowl of cool water. This loosens the sandy soil that can collect where its strap-like leaves come together tightly near the bottom.
Artichokes pack a one-two punch for the intestinal team, being not only an important prebiotics source, but also a great source of dietary fiber, with 10.3 grams in one cooked artichoke. At around 25 calories, a whole, steamed artichoke seems almost too good to be true, intestinally speaking. The potential downfall is the fact that each succulent artichoke leaf is a perfect little scoop for untold hundreds of calories of butter, hollandaise sauce, or other dietary hazards. They’re the whole food answer to dip-shaped tortilla chips, and potentially just as dangerous. If you can talk yourself out of melted butter, you might try a simple, light vinaigrette as a dip instead.
One cup of raspberries has 8 grams of soluble fiber, which is almost twice as much as a typical apple. (Not that we’re suggesting you shouldn’t also eat apples.) As an added bonus, they are rich in vitamin C, and contain the potential cancer-fighting ellagic acid. According to the University of Illinois Extension, they may lower blood cholesterol levels and slow the release of carbohydrates into the blood stream of diabetics. Add fiber-rich raspberries to your list of intestine-friendly foods. Remember, though, that your body needs a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. If you wanted to get all your fiber from raspberries today, you’d have to sit down and eat about a pound of them.
Split peas and other legumes are loaded with soluble fiber, which helps in the process that removes cholesterol from the body. A cup of cooked dried peas is crazy with fiber, plus a good helping of protein. Interestingly, split peas are also a very good source of tryptophan, the essential amino acid in turkey that people point to as the reason for post-Thanksgiving dinner drowsiness. (That Turkey Day drowsiness is more likely associated with the giant mounds of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy that sit alongside the turkey on the Thanksgiving plate. But we digress.)
Yes, it’s true that avocados are high in fat. But it’s mostly monounsaturated fat, which is important to the health of your digestive tract for a variety of reasons. One reason is that it helps provide the right environment for converting beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is critical for the health of your gastrointestinal tract’s lining. One medium-size avocado contains 15 grams of fiber. Fifteen grams! So whip up a batch of guacamole (with plenty of raw onions, of course) and dig in.
There you have it: 10 ways to give your intestines a big round of applause. Though they may not get the press coverage of their fellow body parts, it’s important to roll out the red carpet for the intestines, giving them the care and attention they so richly deserve every day.