Diversify your diet to help maintain good gut microbes. (Photo: Patryk Dziejma, StockSnap)

Just how diverse is your diet? I’m not asking if you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables. I’m talking about the diversity of your food options within a balanced diet. How often does that really cross your mind? Because, for me, the honest answer is I don’t usually give it much thought. If you prioritize your health, you know how important balance is to being healthy. You need a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates and proteins.

Diversifying your diet means eating plenty of fruit, but making sure you eat more than just bananas or strawberries. Instead, I’m talking about eating bananas, strawberries, blueberries, apples, oranges and watermelon. Yes, vegetables are important, but we shouldn’t only be eating green beans or corn. We should eat green beans, corn, broccoli, carrots, spinach, zucchini, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

Of course, I could go on listing different options, but you get the idea.

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Why does diversifying our diets really matter?
There’s mounting evidence that eating a diversified diet really is an important part of being healthy. It all stems from the importance of taking proper care of our body’s gut microbes. These trillions of bacteria affect our metabolism, immune system and even our mood. They keep our bodies running efficiently. A wider diversity of microbes simply increases that efficiency.

Healthy gut microbes have the ability to cause a chain reaction in our health. If you’re worried about your weight, for instance, it’s important to maintain healthy gut microbes because when you’re unhappy, you’re more likely to turn to food for comfort. You’re also less likely to get a good night’s sleep, which can also contribute to weight gain.

There’s even been some preliminary work suggesting that an unhealthy immune system can cause small amounts of inflammation in our bodies. This can, in turn, cause us to overeat because our bodies think we need food to repair the damage our unhealthy immune cells have caused. Keeping healthy gut microbes can often prevent these chain reactions from starting.

An extreme case
You may remember Morgan Spurlock, the guy behind the “Super Size Me” documentary that came out in 2004. In the film, Spurlock ate three meals from McDonald’s every day for 30 days. When Spurlock began filming, he was above average in health and fitness, but by the end, he had gained 25 pounds and was suffering from liver dysfunction and depression.

I remember watching the film back in college, and like most people, I thought, “Duh, of course he gained weight and was much less healthy than when he started the film.” Everyone knows McDonald’s isn’t good for them. Maybe we didn’t know quite how bad it was for us, but it seemed a little silly, didn’t it? Did he really need to put himself through 30 days of nothing but McDonald’s to realize the obvious?

In 2015, however, a college student tried something similar to what Spurlock did. Tom Spector ate all his meals at McDonald’s for 10 days. He collected stool samples before, during and after his 10-day diet to measure the change in his gut microbes during this time.

In only 10 days, Spector lost an estimated 1,400 species of gut microbiomes, which was nearly 40 percent of his body’s original total. Even two weeks after the end of his experiment, his microbes hadn’t yet managed to recover.

Radical change
Weight loss, muscle gain or improving depression symptoms requires a slow and steady approach to getting the results we want. However, it’s important to remember that under specific circumstances, our bodies can experience rapid change. One particularly unhealthy meal loaded in saturated fat can raise your blood sugar to levels experienced by people suffering from Type 2 diabetes.

As I mentioned earlier, a lack of diversity in our diets can significantly decrease the percentage of gut microbes in our bodies. However, another recent experiment led to a 20 percent increase in diversity of gut microbes after only three days spent on a forager diet, which involved a particularly unique mix of food. The bad news? A few days after this, gut microbes had returned to levels they were before this diet. Quite simply, it’s always easier and faster for our health to worsen than improve. We have to remain vigilant in order to be as healthy as we hope to be.

Is it really worth going to all this trouble?
There’s been a lot of back-and-forth on the health benefits of probiotics. It became a fad diet, and those often promise a lot without actually delivering much in the way of results. However, probiotics really can improve your health. The devil is in the details, however. Not all supplements provide the same quality of probiotics, and each person reacts to them differently.

Generally, the better option is to change the food you eat to get the probiotics your body needs. It’s this diversifying of your diet that will increase the diversity of gut microbe, which can again set off a positive chain reaction in your health. After all, if you’re in a better mood, you’re more likely to make better health choices throughout the day. A healthy gut microbe is often the first step, and although you can’t see the change that happens inside your gastrointestinal tract, you will feel the changes.

It’s easy to stick to a short list of foods you know and love, but giving yourself more options really is the best way to go. Diet and exercise are the staples of weight loss, but diversity is the staple of a well-tuned machine on the inside.

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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