Gut-Check: Keeping Nebraska “Gut Healthy”
A Healthy Gut Foundation Impacts Entire Body System
Gastrointestinal (gut) health can be influenced by one’s daily food and dietary choices. This is important because gut health impacts nearly every area of a person’s body.
Heather Rasmussen, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, explores how dietary patterns, supplement consumption, and various foods impact gut health.
“We identify and define supplements, foods, or dietary patterns that can benefit gastrointestinal health and provide this information to the general public to improve the overall health of individuals,” Rasmussen said.
Ultimately, this work advances science in the area of gut health with the goal of providing recommendations to help people make better choices.
“We provide evidence for healthy dietary recommendations,” Rasmussen said, “and encourage individuals to eat foods with a variety of beneficial components to help stay disease-free and healthier overall.”
Creating a Healthy Gut Foundation
Creating a healthy gut foundation is critical because gut bacteria can influence the entire body system and thus overall health.
“Gut health can be beneficial or detrimental to overall health,” Rasmussen said.
Health care providers formerly defined a “healthy gut” as one that is merely “disease free.” Now, she says a healthy gut encompasses may other factors.
“A healthy gut is really a combination of many factors, such as the health of microbiota (gut bacteria), the health of the immune system, and whether the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is promoting well-being in the brain,” Rasmussen said. “Specific foods, dietary patterns, and sometimes supplements, such as a prebiotic, impact these areas, and we work to identify those that best modify overall gut health.”
While every individual has a unique microbiome that processes food differently, establishing healthy dietary patterns creates a foundation for improved overall health.
Food Choices Impact Overall Health
Consuming nutritious, healthy foods positions individuals to have better systemic health (overall health of all bodily systems), Rasmussen said. Conversely, there is evidence that poor gut health contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and brain health issues such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Consuming a healthy dietary pattern consisting of a variety of foods that contain substances to promote gastrointestinal health is essential to a healthy life,” Rasmussen said.
A healthy diet is based on eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes, Rasmussen said. Following a diet including these foods sets the foundation of the gastrointestinal tract. One example of this type of dietary pattern is a Mediterranean diet, and adoption of this pattern could serve as another foundational starting place to improve and change gastrointestinal health.
However, Rasmussen said everyone has a different GI tract, so food impact varies widely from person to person. Most importantly, she suggests starting small and gradually expanding a person’s intake, especially supplements, to see how the body reacts. Healthful dietary patterns and certain supplements, such as prebiotics, contain fiber, so gradual introduction would help minimize temporary gastrointestinal side effects.
Rasmussen also said establishing a personal self-awareness of one’s GI tract is critical to understanding GI health. Paying attention to changes in the GI tract is important as it helps recognize and identify potential gut health issues needing to be addressed.
Sustainability is the Future of Gut Health Research
What individuals eat impacts much more than their individual bodies. The resources they consume also impact the world around them. Sustainability is key to the future of gut health research, and this is achieved by keeping both individuals and the environment healthy.
“What is good for the gut is good for the environment,” Rasmussen said as she explained the value of fruits, vegetables, and legumes for the gut and the environment. “We will continue to work to marry these two areas and offer suggestions for a healthier individual and a healthier environment.”
Rasmussen said furthering research investigations in this area is critical as the importance of diet and gut health is increasingly recognized among consumers, health care professionals, and researchers. Connections between gut health and disease will be further explored and more concrete evidence of how gastrointestinal health impacts systemic health will be gathered to better inform dietary recommendations.
While the possibilities for gut health research seem endless, Rasmussen is committed to contributing to the body of literature surrounding this topic and helping the next generation of registered dietitians understand the complexities of gut health as she leads the dietetic internship program at the university.
For more information about gastrointestinal health and the research Rasmussen is conducting, please visit https://cehs.unl.edu/nhs/nhs-faculty-and-staff/ or the university’s Food for Health Center at https://foodforhealth.unl.edu/researchers.