Gut Health Myths vs. Facts (Grains, Lectins, Bone Broth, Etc.)
Gut health is everywhere right now. From mainstream news outlets, to wellness bloggers, to your mother-in-law, everyone is chatting about it.
While it gets me super excited to see people asking questions and getting informed about their health, when things take off like this it’s pretty much a guarantee that the message will get jumbled. Between distilling the facts for a catchy headline, honest misunderstandings, and flat-out lies crafted to sell products, I’ve seen a LOT of myths popping up around gut health.
Today I’m going to bust some of those so you don’t waste time and money trying to keep your gut bugs happy and healthy.
But first, we should talk quickly about what a “healthy gut” even is, why it has become such a hot topic of chatter.
From the time you put something into your mouth, until the moment it exits your body, it’s not actually “in” your body. During your foods journey it stays contained within a protected barrier that separates your GI tract from the rest of your insides (blood, organs, etc.).
This is your gastrointestinal system, aka. “the gut.”
Within your gut live trillions and trillions of different microbes that perform multiple tasks from preventing pathogenic bacteria from entering the bloodstream, to communicating with the central nervous system and regulating hormone levels.
Since these microbes have so many jobs, it is important keep them populated, healthy and active. Without them, a lot can go wrong. A “healthy gut” is one that has a healthy balance of the right kinds of microbes, all efficiently doing their jobs. It’s also important to keep the structure of our gut lining healthy. When your bacteria are healthy they keep that gut lining strong.
Today I’m going to be addressing some of the FAQs about gut health and some of the myths surrounding it.
Are grains and legumes damaging to the gut lining?
There are so many popular diets and nutrition books out there promoting a diet free from grains and legumes because they “cause inflammation” but what does the research actually say?
Across the board, whole grain and legume consumption is associated with reduced risk of inflammatory disease. Not only that, but the biomarkers of inflammation such as c-reactive protein are lower in people who include whole grains and legumes in their diets.
These foods feed our gut bacteria and help them product a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate which tells our intestinal immune system to reduce inflammation. By including whole grains and legumes in your diet you are supporting your gut health. I have seen no quality research that goes against this, so I’m actually not sure why this myth is so common.
Does a healthy gut mean no bloating or gas ever?
Even healthy guts get gassy. In fact, some gas is a totally normal sign of an active gut.
When we perpetuate the myth that a bit of gas is a bad sign, we lead people to develop anxiety around food, eliminate healthy food groups (like beans!), and damage their health in the pursuit of “perfect digestion.” This is a huge problem and unbelievably common.
You will get gassy sometimes! Especially if you eat a new food or eat a lot of something you don’t usually eat a lot of. It’s not necessarily a sign of a sensitivity or a health problem! Sometimes it’s just your microbiome throwing a party.
Another thing to note is that sedentary lifestyles can lead to increased gas and bloating. One study took IBS patients, got them to exercise, and the results were amazing. Physical activity will help reduce gas and bloating, plus it has so many other benefits that in my opinion it should recommended as a primary approach BEFORE eliminating entire food groups.
Red flags for when your gas/bloating should be assessed by a professional:
It is causing you pain.
It is impairing yoru quality of life.
There is a sudden change in your digestion.
Please always have digestive issues assessed by a doctor before assuming the cause is food-related! While it could be related to a dietary issue, you need to rule out any serious underlying cause first and foremost.
Does eating fruit cause Candida or make it worse?
Candida is one of the most common topics you’ll hear about in the holistic nutrition world, but has been mostly rejected by the medical community.
Candida is a normal, healthy species of yeast present in your gut microbiome. It’s actually impossible to get rid of it completely, even by taking pharmaceutical antifungals. Although a little is fine, too much can be problematic and overgrowth of Candida in the throat and vagina are pretty common. Overgrowth has also been observed in people with inflammatory bowel disease. So we do know that it exists, even if it might be over-diagnosed by alternative healthcare professionals.
We also know that Candida overgrowth is more common in people who have diabetes and that a diet high in sugar may be related. Because of this most practitioners use a totally sugar-free diet to “treat” Candida, advising elimination of all fruits. However, new research shows that fructose can prevent Candida overgrowth. Given that fruit is also packed with micronutrients and fibre that support gut-health, I no longer recommend the traditional “Candida diet” used in holistic nutrition.
Never self-diagnose or assume that your issues are related to Candida . Always seek the advice of a doctor to rule out and possible underlying causes before changing your diet. If you work with an alternative healthcare practitioner, choose one who understands the limitations of our knowledge about Candida and doesn’t claim to fully understand this issue, because we don’t fully understand it.
While an anti-candida diet is safe and nutritious, when well-planned, attempting it as a solution to potentially serious medical issues can be very dangerous.
Is gluten horrible for you?
There are gluten-related disorders like Celiac Disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, Dermatitis herpetiformis, and wheat allergy. People with these disorders make up about 2-5% of the population and in any of these cases, gluten should without a doubt be avoided.
What about for the rest of the population?
Research shows us that gluten-containing grains have the same anti-inflammatory benefit as gluten-free grains. In fact, most of the research done on whole grains includes wheat, barley and rye so we know them to be beneficial and reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer.
These grains even seem to promote good gut health by feeding the healthy bacteria and even boosting our immune system. The evidence just isn’t strong enough to say that everyone needs to go gluten-free. As a person with Celiac Disease, believe me when I say I WANT gluten to be evil so that it can be removed from the food supply. My life would be much easier!. But the research just doesn’t show this to be the case.
However, many wheat products are treated with glyphosate which is shown to possibly have negative effects on the microbiome. Specifically it kills off the good bacteria like lactobacillus, while leaving the bad guys like salmonella alone. So while gluten products are totally healthy for 95% of people, it is a good idea to choose organic whole grain products to protect your gut health. Of course, we don’t have any clinical trials to suggest you MUST choose organic, but the precautionary principle can certainly be used here.
There is so much more to say here, I could write a whole post on this alone! If you’d be interested in that, let me know.
Are lectins horrible for you?
Again, I could do a whole post getting into the junk science behind this claim and the real data refuting it… but the short answer is: definitely not.
Lectins are actually really, really good for you. They can improve your gut function and even destroy cancer cells, especially colorectal cancers. In fact, they’re known for exclusively targeting cancer cells with their harmful potential. While there isn’t enough evidence to say they’re a cure, there is far more evidence showing benefit than any potential harm.
The only evidence of lectins being harmful to human health is found in raw beans, specifically raw kidney beans, but it is inadvisable to eat raw beans anyway. At this time, all the research shows that eating fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains is beneficial for health and there is no reason to believe otherwise.
So cook your beans! And let me know if you want a full post debunking the Plant Paradox lectin-free diet.
Is bone broth a gut health miracle food?
Like Candida, bone broth is a super common topic that comes up in the holistic nutrition world. I’m going to be honest and say that I totally jumped on the bone broth bandwagon. Claims say that it's high in collagen and minerals contributing to amazing gut health and all kinds of other benefits. It tastes great and it’s a “traditional food” so I really wanted to believe in it.
But when we look at the actual science, it’s not as clear and defined as my colleagues (and myself) want to believe it is.
First of all, while I myself wanted to believe in the benefits of collagen… I just don’t anymore. It’s my opinion that this is just a highly processed food product with great marketing. Collagen manufacturers aren’t even allowed to use most the claims on their labels because of lack of evidence. Right now all we know about collagen is that it is a type of protein that, like all proteins, is broken down into amino acids during digestion. There is no reason the believe that eating collagen leads to more collagen in your body, and most of the benefits people report from using collagen (hair and nail benefits) may simply related to supplementing with protein.
Second, a lab analysis of bone broth found that it has little to no minerals. So a lot of the claims surrounding high calcium and magnesium content are unsubstantiated. You can also check out this TIME article which explains the lack of evidence really succinctly.
If you love bone broth, it’s a good source of protein. And when you add lots of veggies, it will contain lots of micronutrients that contribute to better gut health. But there is no reason to think that you need the broth to get this benefit - you can just eat protein and veggies.
I really hope this helped to answer some of your gut health questions and debunk some myths! If you have more questions let me know - I would love to dive deeper on any of these topics!