Confused about gut health? HFG dietitian Melissa Meier spotlights popular misconceptions about the world inside your tummy.
Worldwide Google searches of the phrase ‘gut health’ have increased almost 10-fold in the last decade. But it’s not just another health fad — there’s a growing body of strong scientific evidence that proves just how important a healthy gut is for your overall health and wellbeing.
This intense focus on the digestive system, however, has led to a flurry of misinformation about what good gut health is, and how to achieve it. So, let’s set the record straight on some common gut health fallacies.
Cutting out all FODMAP foods is the only way to manage Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Reality: Not true
Bloating, gas and discomfort are the pesky symptoms of IBS, which affects one in five Australians. Fortunately, a low-FODMAP diet can help relieve the pain — but it’s also important to understand that ‘low-FODMAP’ doesn’t mean ‘no-FODMAP’.
Put simply, FODMAPs are naturally occurring compounds in food that are poorly digested and ferment in the bowel. This fermentation produces gas that is painful for those with IBS.
However, instead of avoiding FODMAPs for good, people living with IBS should use the low-FODMAP diet to identify their triggers and manage their discomfort thresholds. The idea is to follow a strict low-FODMAP diet for up to six weeks, then to systematically test each type of FODMAP, before liberalising your diet. The ultimate goal is to have a nutritionally adequate, balanced and varied diet that’s not overly bland or restrictive.
Fustered by FODMAPs? Don’t be! FODMAP stands for:
e.g. legumes, onion & garlic
e.g milk & yoghurt
e.g. pears, apples & honey
e.g. mushrooms, stone fruit & some artificial sweeteners
Bowel cancer doesn’t affect young people
Bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer in Australia, with more than 15,000 new cases confirmed each year. While your risk significantly increases after your 50th birthday,11 per cent of cases occur in people under the age of 50 — and that number is rising.
The good news is there’s plenty you can do to prevent bowel cancer — and it’s never too late, or early, to get started.
To reduce your risk ...
Do more …
Consume whole grains like rolled oats, wholemeal bread and brown rice
Eat high-fibre foods such as fruit, vegetables and nuts
Include dairy foods in your diet such as milk, yoghurt and cheese
Cut back on …
Processed meat like bacon, salami and sausages (or eliminate them)
Excessive amounts of red meat like beef, pork and lamb
What you need to know about … bowel health screening
You can slash your risk of dying from bowel cancer by 25 per cent simply by participating in regular screening. Screening is recommended even if you don t have a high risk of bowel cancer — you should have a Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) every two years after the age of 50. This is a non-invasive, simple test done in the privacy of your own home that detects blood in your stool. Only one in 29 people who have a positive result will also be diagnosed with bowel cancer, which is confirmed by colonoscopy.
A low-fibre diet causes constipation
Reality: Not always
Feeling knotted up inside? While constipation is not usually serious, it can be seriously uncomfortable— so it’s important to find a solution.
It’s true that a low-fibre diet can lead to constipation, so increasing your intake of fibre-rich whole grains, fruit and vegies can definitely help. But there are many other causes of constipation that aren’t food-related — and some might surprise you. They include:
Water is drawn into the bowel to help soften bowel motions. Without enough water, stools can become dry and hard to pass — so aim for eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated.
Blood flow is directed away from your gut during times of anxiety. This can slow down digestion and exacerbate constipation.
Anti-depressants, diuretics and iron supplements can cause constipation. Speak to your doctor to find a suitable alternative.
Getting moving gets things moving! Gentle physical activity is all you need to maintain and stimulate the muscles of the bowel.
When you feel the urge, head to the loo. Ignoring this cue, or putting it off, can cause the stool to dry up and become harder to pass.
Are you pooing properly?
It’s not really a big dinner party conversation topic, so it can be hard to know what’s normal and what’s not. Some people go once a day, while others go three times a day, and some just three times a week. As long as you don’t experience any of the following, you’re probably okay.
Discomfort or pain
The feeling of not fully emptying your bowels
A recent change in bowel movements or habits
A change of colour in stools, or blood in your stools
If you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s important to seek medical advice.
You can’t eat nuts, seeds or corn if you have diverticular disease
Reality: Once true, but not anymore …
Diverticular disease affects about one-third of Australians over the age of 45. It’s a condition where small pouches form along the lining of the bowel.
Diverticulitis can occur when these pouches become inflamed or infected, resulting in symptoms such as pain, bloating and nausea. In severe cases, diverticulitis can become a medical emergency and need immediate attention.
It was once thought that nuts, seeds and corn should be avoided by people who have diverticular disease, because these could get trapped in the pockets along the bowel and lead to diverticulitis.
However, research has since proven otherwise. Nowadays, foods like nuts, seeds and corn are regarded as being integral to diverticular disease management — because they’re high in fibre.
Medical specialists normally recommend high-fibre diets for those with diverticular disease, as they help to prevent constipation. During episodes of diverticulitis, a short-term low-fibre diet is recommended.
Giving up gluten is the best way to cure bloating
While gluten often gets the blame for unwanted belly bloat, it’s actually rarely the culprit (unless you’re in the small minority of people diagnosed with Coeliac disease or gluten intolerance).
For everyone else, there are many other factors more likely to be causing belly bloat — so it’s crucial you don’t abruptly cut gluten from your diet. Here’s what you should consider instead to beat the bloat:
For sensitive tummies
Bloating is a common symptom of IBS, which the low-FODMAP diet can relieve to some extent. Be sure to consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian if you’re thinking of giving this diet a go.
Constipation can sometimes lead to bloating, which, as previously mentioned, can be alleviated by physical activity. So, aim to incorporate at least30 minutes of exercise into each day.
Too much of a good thing
We’re often told to eat more fibre — but consuming too much, too quickly can often cause unpleasant symptoms like bloating. This is especially the case with high-fibre foods like beans, chickpeas and lentils. So, take it easy and build up slowly.
In some cases, bloating is caused by swallowing too much air, leaving you feeling like you’ve swallowed a balloon! Eating too quickly, chewing gum and drinking carbonated drinks can all contribute to a build-up of air — and therefore bloating.
Because processed meats, packaged snack foods and condiments are high in sodium, they encourage your body to retain fluid. Opt for no-added-salt or salt-reduced products, and swap packaged for fresh food wherever possible.
15% of Australians experience IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
Melissa is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with a love of healthy, delicious food. She is passionate about helping others to lead healthier lives and teaching people to use nutrition to better their health.