“Diversify” isn’t just a mantra for financial portfolios. It’s a great motto for your diet, too. Cooking and eating a wide variety of whole foods, some of life’s great pleasures, support your good health on every level — including your gut’s “bugs.” No need to be squeamish about these critters. The billions and trillions of bacteria that live in your digestive tract, known as your microbiome, play a critical role in the function of your immune system and risk of disease. A diverse microbiome, with lots of “good” bacteria species, is essential for good health. But new research suggests that the relatively limited selection of plant and animal foods that we eat today, compared with 50 years ago, has made our microbiomes less diverse and less resilient, which has, therefore, made us more prone to disease.
A plant-heavy diet of real foods, as opposed to packaged ingredients, is ground zero for developing a balanced microbiome. Within that framework, it’s wise to break out of your usual patterns and try new foods. Work quinoa, millet, and amaranth into your weekly menu rather than relying on just brown rice, for instance. Change up your veggies by adding some dandelion greens, purple sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, or whatever is “off the beaten path” for you. Make an effort to try one new thing every time you go grocery shopping. Throw some fermented foods like “live” sauerkraut and kimchi into the mix for a probiotic boost. And then let the good times roll in your microbiome. When your beneficial “bugs” thrive, you thrive!
Gluten-free? Make sure you vary your carbs.
If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you’re used to being very careful about what you eat. But are you eating a wide variety of gluten-free grains and other foods? Preliminary research suggests people on gluten-free diets may be at increased risk of exposure to arsenic and mercury, toxic metals that can harm your health.
In the study, those who reported following a gluten-free diet had much higher levels of arsenic and mercury in their bodies than those who didn’t follow a GF diet. More research is needed — the sample size was small — but it aligns with other recent studies about the world’s most popular gluten-free grain: rice. Rice can accumulate high levels of heavy metals from the soil and water it grows in, and because the grain is gluten-free and versatile, rice and rice flour are common in GF packaged foods and recipes.
There’s no need to avoid rice totally, but be intentional about varying your grains by putting quinoa, gluten-free oats, teff, and millet in your regular rotation. Legumes like lentils and beans are another excellent source of whole, fiber-rich, gluten-free carbohydrate — and protein. Also remember that the GF label on packaged foods does not mean “good for you.”
Eat whole foods rather than processed most of the time, and you’ll be able to avoid not just toxic metals but also added sugar and junky additives and oils. Rather than popping a GF pizza or burrito in the oven, keep a pot of well-spiced beans on hand. Add some sautéed vegetables with fresh herbs, and you’ve got yourself a nutritious, gluten-free meal.