More Americans are trying to lose weight today than ever before. According to a massive 18-year study of nearly 50,000 people published last year in the journal JAMA: Diabetes and Endocrinology, the number of adults over the age of 20 who have embarked on weight-loss plans jumped to 42.2 percent in 2016 compared to just 34.3 percent in 1999. The sobering news, however, was that the study also notes that a startling number of those efforts simply didn’t work at all—regardless of the fact that the weight-loss strategies evolved over time to factor in the latest science and research.
If you’re among the countless Americans who have adopted a dedicated weight loss plan and haven’t seen the results you wanted—whether it’s via a fad diet or cutting calories or trying to go full keto—doctors say there’s still hope for you yet. In fact, there’s at least one targeted weight-loss method you should definitely try before you consider giving up on losing that extra weight for good: Fine-tuning your diet to get your gut health in order.
For perspective, know that your body is actually home to roughly ten times as many bacteria cells as it is to human cells. They accumulate on your skin, in your mucus membranes, in your mouth, and all throughout your digestive system. (Be thankful your cells are much bigger than bacteria cells, or else you’d look a lot different.) “All of this bacteria perform vital protective, structural, and metabolic functions,” says Anthony S. Padula, MD, a rheumatologist and Gut Council Member for Jetson Probiotics. “Perhaps the most important bacteria are present in your gut as they produce hormones that can affect your metabolism, immunity, and behavior. There are trillions of bacteria living in your gut. Together with other microscopic organisms like viruses and fungi, they form your microbiome, which is unique to every individual.”
The bacteria in your gut have long been thought to serve one primary purpose: to aid in the digestion of food, helping you absorb the maximum amount of nutrients and ridding your body of any excess. What’s actually going on is a more delicate dance than most of us recognize, with the specific balance in bacteria in our digestive tract working as the deciding factor in who gets to enjoy an effortlessly fit body and who’s stuck trying to shave off the same stubborn weight year after year.
“In most folks, the microbiome is not a healthy place anymore,” says Florence Comite, MD, a clinician-scientist and founder of the Comite Center for Precision Medicine&Health in New York City. “It’s not healthy because our environment has changed and our gut is the largest organ in our body to interact openly with the foods we eat, the air we breathe, and the fact that we take antibiotics and our whole structure has changed.”
Making matters worse, when harmful bacteria take hold in your gut, your weight isn’t the only thing to suffer. Harmful gut bacteria are linked to the development of leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which toxins borne from your gut bacteria inflame your digestive tract. Once your digestive tract is sufficiently angry, microperforations can develop, allowing those toxic substances to escape their confines and leak out into the bloodstream. This can lead to the development of chronic inflammation throughout your body, and that inflammation, in turn, can throw a wrench in your metabolism. The worst foods to avoid for your gut health will be foods that further inflame it.
“Processed foods, with their high sugar levels, omega-6 fatty acids, excess sodium, and junky additives, on the other hand, can stoke the fire of inflammation,” Sydney Greene, MS, RD, told us recently. “When inflammation is high, it taxes the immune system leaving us more susceptible to disease and illness.” (See here for the full list of The Worst Foods for Gut Health.)
So how can you restore balance to your gut? For starters, you need to exercise more. “Studies have shown that athletes, especially marathon runners, had higher levels of bacteria called Veillonella in their guts, especially after completing a race compared to inactive people,” says Padula. “While you may not be a professional athlete, a good workout may boost different bacterial strains that will enhance your endurance and help you lose weight.”
You should also take steps to relax. “Stress can affect your gut health as it directly alters the microbiome and increases intestinal inflammation,” Padula continues. “Some ‘bad’ types of bacteria are increased in the presence of stress while other, ‘protective’ bacteria are decreased. Also, levels of short chain fatty acids produced by the bacteria can be decreased when exposed to stress.”
However, the single best thing you can do restore balance to your gut—and boost your chances of losing weight—is to nourish your gut with the foods it craves. To know what those are, courtesy of Padula, read on, because we’ve listed them below.
“There are numerous prebiotic and probiotic foods that contain fat burning microbes and also boost your microbiome and weight loss efforts,” he explains. “Probiotic foods contain live strains of bacteria that increase the population of good bacteria in your digestive system, while prebiotic foods contain types of fiber that act as food for good bacteria. Both sources are designed to increase the number of bacteria in your gut and improve your microbiome.” And for foods you should definitely avoid, take note of these 50 Worst Foods for Weight Loss.
“Fermentation is a process that uses yeast and bacteria to preserve foods,” says Padula. “Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, sourdough, and some cheeses are great sources of probiotics and therefore boost the population of your microbiome’s bacteria.”
“These are good sources of the prebiotic fiber called inulin, which helps good bacteria grow. Two bananas a day are enough to boost your bacteria and reduce bloating.”
“Research shows that leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale have a specific type of sugar that stimulates healthy bacteria’s growth. They are perfect sources of fiber and nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin K, and vitamin A.”
“For your colon to work optimally, it requires at least 25 grams of daily fiber. Unlike other refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta, whole grains provide a lot of fiber. The bacteria in your gut are the only ones that can break down fiber. When that happens, it creates acids that protect your gut from harmful bacteria.”
“Polyphenols are powerful antioxidant chemicals found in plant-based foods. Some examples are teas, soybeans, chili peppers, sesame seeds, and many others. These prebiotic foods maintain your gut health by moderating the gut’s microbial balance.” And for more great advice for living and eating healthier, don’t miss these 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.