Attaining a healthy gut microbiome has long been all the rage in the wellness world, but now it seems everyone else — including countless TikTokers — has become obsessed. However, despite all of the reels, articles and advice we regularly encounter, many of us aren’t exactly sure what the term even means.
“It’s a scientific description of those trillions of microorganisms that live in our gut,” Megan Rossi, a Ph.D. and registered dietitian who is known in some circles as queen of gut health, recently told us — Raj Punjabi and Noah Michelson, co-hosts of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast.
“It’s not just bacteria — it’s also the chemicals they’re producing,” the founder of London’s The Gut Health Clinic said. “So it’s that collection of the environment and all those microbes.”
That little party, she explains, is mostly in the lower section of our gastrointestinal tracts — specifically the last 5 feet of our 30-foot-long digestive tract. Keeping it healthy can have huge benefits, not just for our guts but for our entire body — and even our mental health.
Even though many of us have probably heard that “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria” can be found in our guts, Rossi wants us to reframe that binary. “Very few [bacterium] are actually inherently bad. It’s more about the environment they’re in as well as their dominance ... . If we treat them well, they will then look after us.”
So how do we improve the health of our gut microbiomes?
Doctors and researchers are learning more every year — Rossi herself has authored more than 50 international peer-reviewed scientific papers on the topic — but one thing is certain: Eating as many plants as possible — ideally 30 different kinds per week — is key.
“When it comes to gut health, it’s more about inclusion than exclusion,” Rossi said. “Studies have shown that if we’re adding in plenty of different types of plants, we’re actually going to have much better gut health than people who fixate on cutting out what they think is the bad food.”
For those worried about having to forage for twigs and berries to fulfill their gut’s needs, Rossi explained that when she says “plants,” she is specifically referring to six different and reasonably accessible groups she calls “the super six”:1. whole grains (e.g. quinoa, oats)2. nuts and seeds3. vegetables4. fruits5. legumes6. and herbs and spices
“Each different category provides your gut microbiome with different fertilizer,” Rossi noted. “So what I get people to do is, firstly, think about diversifying their plants and trying to get 30 different kinds of plants across the week... once people nail that I think, OK, are you getting something from the ‘super six’ most days?” She added that many people aren’t getting enough of certain plants, like legumes. “Those are really important for feeding specific types of bacteria that have specific functions.”
Rossi told us that eating lots of plants from the “super six” groups on a daily basis ultimately will provide everything we need for a happy microbiome. “If we want this diverse range of bacteria in our gut, which has shown to have a diverse range of skills and, kind of like super powers, then we need to feed them that diverse range of fertilizers, otherwise they’ll die off — they won’t grow.”
We also discussed how our favorite vices, like alcohol and weed, might be affecting our microbiomes, whether probiotic supplements actually do anything for our guts and much more: Listen to the full episode here.
Need some help with something you’ve been doing wrong? Email us at AmIDoingItWrong@HuffPost.com, and we might investigate the topic in an upcoming episode.This article originally appeared on HuffPost.