These days, it feels like all we hear about is gut health. But what does a healthy gut actually mean? I know I’d like one, yes please — but for all the Instagram posts and supplements out there, the actual expertise and knowledge on gut health isn’t nearly as ubiquitous.
That’s why we were so excited to talk to Dawn Jackson Blatner, registered dietician nutritionist and former head dietician for the Chicago Cubs. Below, Blatner shares her signature “Five Fs of Healthy Digestion,” some tips for how to achieve them, and drops serious knowledge on why gut health is actually so important.
But first, what exactly does gut health mean?
It’s important to clarify that when we talk about gut health, we’re actually talking about our digestive health.
“Digestion is the process our body uses to take the nutrients from our food and give them to our body cells, “ Blatner explains, “and your gut is a part of your digestive system.”
Until very recently, gut health was pretty limited to the context of your regularity — that is, the frequency, predictability, and quality of your bowel movements. But today, the science of gut health is so much more well known, you might have even heard it called your “second brain.”
“Gut health is linked to so much — everything from cognition to immunity to your standard regularity,” says Blatner.
While experiencing symptoms like gas or bloating are still important and clear signs of digestion problems, we now know that’s only the start of potential symptoms tied to gut health.
“It could be sugar cravings, trouble concentrating, mood swings, sleep quality, or even low energy or skin problems….it’s not just about regularity,” says Blatner. “Our digestive health impacts our whole body. If you’re feeling a little bit off, improving your digestive health is a great place to start.”
While there are a plethora of products online promising healthier guts, Blatner says to always look to lifestyle changes first — the things you do in your daily diet and routine.
“The reason I created the Five Fs of Healthy Digestion is that there really are five very simple things you can do in your lifestyle that can make a huge impact on your gut health,” she says.
Healthy digestion tips
1. Fully chew your food
“People rush through eating, which starts your digestion off poorly,” Blatner says.
When food hasn’t been broken down to its smallest part, it goes into your intestinal tract not fully broken down, leading the bacteria in your intestinal tract to work overtime. The bloating and gas you experience after a meal is the result.
“When you experience gas, it’s not actually your gas,” Blatner explains. “It’s bacteria’s by-product from trying to help you break down the food you didn’t do such a good job of chewing.”
To avoid this discomfort, you’ll want to chew your food until it’s the consistency of applesauce. “You can notice a difference in just 24 hours by just chewing your food more,” says Blatner.
2. and 3. Get the fiber and fluid your body needs
“Your gut is very responsive to change,” Blatner says. “If you give your body the appropriate amounts of fiber and water that it needs, those things really help act as a broom or a sponge and get things working.”
Blatner recommends doing “fiber school” for a day, which involves looking up and tracking the fiber in your meals to understand how much you’re actually getting.
“Most people get about half of the recommended amount,” Blatner explains, so it’s helpful to be intentional about getting the fiber you need from fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
As for fluid, a good rule of thumb is to drink about half your body weight in ounces of water — you’ll know it’s the right amount when your urine is a very light, pale yellow.
4. Give your body friendly bacteria
Blatner shares her tips for intentionally getting enough friendly bacteria in your diet, which is less likely to just be in your meals the way fiber can be.
“Try to eat a yogurt (or cottage cheese) a day,” she suggests, “which is great for protein and that friendly bacteria.”
Other tips include using Keifer as the base of your smoothie or protein shake and adding two tablespoons of sauerkraut or kimchi to your meals. “Four servings is the entry-level to really be doing that service to your gut,” Blatner says.
Having a yogurt, Keifer, and two servings of sauerkraut or kimchi daily can get you there, but “because these friendly bacteria foods are not as commonplace, it might be a reason why people look to supplementation in this category,” Blatner says.
When it comes to fitness and aiding your digestion, “the only real guideline is to do what you like when you like it — with the intention being about 150 minutes per week,” Blatner says.
Why? “That’s the general rule of thumb for healthy muscles,” she explains. “Muscles are your entire digestive tract. When we exercise, it actually helps all those internal muscles too.”