Essential Foods for a Healthy Bowel
Discussing ones bowel function is not usually a topic that just crops up in a conversation and is one that is generally avoided amongst family and friends. It’s also not on the ‘hot topics’ to talk about around the dinner table. In fact, most people will only talk about bowel health in the presence of a healthcare professional and even then many people find it awkward and embarrassing. However it is time to make bowels less of a taboo conversation, in the hope that bringing attention to this vital area of the body helps better address the problems that so many people can experience with their bowels. Many common bowel symptoms can be hugely impacted by the type of foods we choose to eat. So let’s take a closer look at bowel friendly food and identify which foods can specifically help aid this part of the body, as well as the foods that increase the risk of problems in this area.
(Note: it is important to state the advice mentioned below is general advice and some of it will not be relevant to those suffering from inflammatory bowel disease i.e. Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, as both these conditions require quite unique and different nutritional recommendations than that stated below).
Let’s start with the obvious one and talk about fibre. Most of us already know that fibre plays a huge part in maintaining bowel health, but many people don’t realise there are actually two types of fibre, insoluble and soluble. Both types of fibre are needed for good bowel and gut health and they both have different health benefits and different actions. Insoluble fibre promotes the movement of material through the digestive tract and helps bulk up the stool. It therefore promotes bowel regularity and is essential for the formation of healthy stools. It is this fibre that is most helpful in preventing constipation by keeping your bowel regular, which in turn can help lower the risk of developing hemorrhoids as well as small pouches in the colon that can lead to diverticular disease. Soluble fibre, amongst other things, can help feed healthy gut bacteria, as it is fermentable in the colon, and can help the bacteria thrive longer and promote a healthier bowel.
Foods highest in insoluble fibre include wholemeal bread (2g of fibre per slice), Seeds for example flaxseeds, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds (1tbsp provides 3g of fibre), Nuts (1ounce handful provides 3g of fibre), bran (1 cup provides 60g of fibre), brown rice (one cup provides 3.5g) and also cereals such as porridge, shredded wheat and any fortified cereals (one cup provides 26g of fibre).
Good sources of soluble fibre include avocado (one avocado provides 13.5g of fibre), lentils (one cup provides 15.5g) and all fruit and vegetables.
The recommended average daily intake of fibre is 30g in the UK, but many people can fall short of this and are putting their bowel health in jeopardy. To try and increase your levels throughout each day, ensure you have a high fibre cereal for breakfast (Research shows people who do this have up to 62% higher intakes of fibre than people who don’t and are 80% more likely to achieve the recommended daily fibre intakes). Pick a cereal which contains at least 5 or more grams of fibre per serving. Other strategies for actively increasing fibre in your diet include, adding barley, beans and lentils to your frequently cooked dishes, making sure you eat whole grain foods wherever possible and leaving the skin on fruit and vegetables as most of the fibre is found in the skin.
We may not be a nation of fish lovers, however omega 3 fatty acids, found abundantly in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines, have been shown through research to reduce colon cancer risk, reduce inflammation as well as improve the function of colon cells. Try and aim for consuming two portions of oily fish a week and use as an alternative to processed and red meats, which as you will see below are not bowel friendly.
Now autumn is here, we are unfortunately past rhubarb season, however in preparation for next spring, if you are someone who suffers with constipation, this leafy plant is your friend. Rhubarb contains a compound called sennoside (also known as Senna), which is specifically known for its bowel stimulating properties and is often used as a laxative in herbal medicine. Rhubarb is also a good source of fibre, with one cup containing 2.2g, so why not stew some and freeze it when rhubarb season comes around again and add it to your high fibre breakfast cereal, or make a tasty rhubarb crumble with calcium rich custard!
Probiotics and Prebiotics
This year in particular there has been a lot of media and health attention on both prebiotics and probiotics. In fact, the sales of probiotic supplements are increasing year on year, with people now more aware than ever of the benefit they are purported to have on digestive and bowel health. Prebiotics help to keep your gut healthy by stimulating the growth and activity of ‘good’ bacteria in the digestive tract. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are said to have positive health effects on the gut, including the bowel and can help balance the ‘friendly’ bacteria in your gut. Both prebiotics and probiotics can be found naturally in food, which certainly should be part of your diet, especially if you are one of the millions of people suffering with irritable bowel syndrome.
Good sources of natural prebiotics include onions, pure maple syrup, raw garlic, sauerkraut, beans and artichokes.
Two great sources of probiotics can be found in ‘live’ yogurt and kefir. Kefir grains contain around thirty different strains of bacteria and yeasts, making it a very rich and diverse probiotic source beneficial for health, especially digestive health. One study showed that drinking 500ml of kefir per day improved stool frequency and consistency.
Red & Processed Meats
For the red meat lovers amongst you, unfortunately when it comes to bowel health this is not a match made in heaven. There has been consistent and large research done that shows that eating red or processed meats increase the risk of bowel cancer. The evaluation of much of the research done on this shows a 17% increased risk of bowel cancer per 100g of red meat per day (equivalent to one small beef burger) and an 18% increased risk of bowel cancer per 50g of processed meat per day (equivalent to one sausage).
In the UK, men on average are consuming 77g of red and processed meats per day, which is really too high, especially as bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in males in the UK. Although this reads quite bleakly, it doesn’t mean to say red meat has to be off the menu totally, it just means don’t over do it and reduce your intake where possible. The Department of Health advises no more than 70g of red or processed meats should be eaten per day. To put that into perspective two sausages and two rashes of bacon equate to 130g!! Try and substitute red and processed meats for white meat and fish wherever possible.
Maintaining a healthy bowel should be a key focus for everyone, and like many things, we can easily forget this when things are working and functioning well, but quickly remember when things malfunction or start to cause problems. Prevention is always better than cure, so heeding some of the advice mentioned above will not only keep you regular and healthy, but will also keep your bowel happy too!
• Probiotics, fibre and herbal medicinal products for functional and inflammatory bowel disorders, 2017. British Journal of Pharmacology
• Nutrients, Foods, and Colorectal Cancer Prevention, 2015. Gastroenterology
• Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer: A Quantitative Update on the State of the Epidemiologic Science, 2015. Journal of the American College of Nutrition
• Effects of cereal fiber on bowel function: A systematic review of intervention trials, 2015. World Journal of Gastroenterology
• Calcium intake and colorectal cancer risk: Dose–response meta‐analysis of prospective observational studies, 2014. International Journal of Cancer
• Anticolorectal cancer activity of the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid, 2014. British Medical Journal