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Five experts, five tips: How to maintain good digestive health

Foods high in fibre and rich in probiotics are key to boosting digestion and health

Dr Kirsten Berding Harold

Dietician and researcher at APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre at University College Cork
"A key aspect to good digestive health is a healthy microbiota, as we refer to the trillions of bacteria living in our gut. To support the growth of beneficial microbes, we must eat a diverse range of high-quality foods which have adequate amounts of fibre. Fibre is the main nutrient source for our gut bacteria. Not only does fibre support the survival of these beneficial microbes, but it also keeps the bowel movements soft and regular.

“The best sources of fibre in our diet are fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and oats. So, we should eat a wide variety of fruits or vegetables with every meal, choose wholegrain rice and pasta and include lentils and seeds too.

“It is also important is to limit the amount of processed, fried and high-sugar foods, as these foods harm the good bacteria in our gut. Lastly, fermented foods, such as Kefir, Kombucha or sauerkraut, are rich in beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and can boost digestion and health.

“Gut bacteria is linked to other aspects of health, including mental health and immunity. So, by keeping our microbes healthy, we can support all aspects of our health.”

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Kevin O’Hagan

Cancer-prevention manager at the Irish Cancer Society
"People who have a high intake of vegetables, fruit, pulses (beans, lentils, peas) and wholegrain cereals are less likely to develop cancers of the digestive system. According to current research, the risk of cancer is about 11 per cent lower for those who eat mostly foods of plant origin compared to those who eat small quantities of plant-based foods.

“The fibre in wholegrains and vegetables plays a role in reducing cancer risk. Fibre supports a healthy digestive system by limiting the amount of time harmful chemicals stay in the bowel, thus reducing cell damage. The latest World Cancer Research fund report says that including 90g of wholegrains in your daily diet reduces the risk of bowel cancer by 17 per cent.

"A diet with high amounts of red meat, processed meat (ie meat that has been cured or salted with the addition of chemicals), salty or salted foods increases the risk of bowel and stomach cancers. More specifically, eating more than 500g of red meat per week increases the likelihood of developing bowel cancer. See the Irish Cancer Society's bowel health quiz online."

Cathy Monaghan

Hospital-based paediatric dietician who also runs weaning.ie
"Breastfeeding gives babies a good foundation for gut health and colostrum, the breast milk in the first days of breastfeeding is full of good bacteria.

“Solids should be introduced when babies are around six months old. If you start much earlier than six months, the baby’s digestive system is too immature for food. If you start much later than this, the ‘feeding window’ – the period between 6-12 months where we shape the baby’s taste preferences – will be missed. Vegetables are a good first weaning food.

“Research shows that what our babies are eating at nine months is indicative of what they will be eating when they are five years old. Babies who are slow to progress in this phase are often drinking too much milk. Most toddlers go through a phase of fussy eating but this won’t impact the child’s long-term gut health.

“Probiotics are very well marketed; however I always encourage parents to focus on food first. For older children, regularly serving buffet style meals with wholegrains, fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein along with their usual food choices helps increase the variety eaten and sows the seeds for them to include these foods in their diet to look after their own gut health.

“Getting out in nature and exposing children to animals, the bacteria in soil and the natural world also contributes to good gut health.”

Maeve Muldoon

Senior dietician in paediatrics, W82GO Service, Children's Health Ireland at Temple Street
"In the weight management service in CHI at Temple Street, we see many children who are obese. Often, these children consume excessive calories yet are undernourished and/or deficient in various nutrients (eg iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12) which can impact on their health. Ultra-processed foods are very low in fibre and children will often not feel 'full' after these foods and eat larger portions or more snacks.

“We advise all families to include a variety of fruit and vegetables in children’s nutrition plans at main meals and at snack time. One good way to do this is to prepare and eat home-made soups and smoothies with your children.

“The fibre in fruit and vegetables also helps keep children’s bowel movements regular. It’s best to use wheat-based cereals with no added sugar or porridge. Consider adding lentils and beans to curries and stews or wheat bran to yoghurt.

“Children need around two litres of water each day for healthy hydration, to help digest fibrous foods, aid weight regulation and prevent constipation. Getting one hour (or three 20-minute slots) of active play and movement each day also reduces constipation.”

Lorraine Maher

Specialist gastroenterologist dietician, Gut Health Clinic, Blackrock Clinic
"Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common digestive disorder that usually causes abdominal pain, bloating, gas and altered bowel movements. Living with IBS can be challenging, embarrassing and for some, downright debilitating.

“Figuring out what provokes or curbs your symptoms can help manage the condition. So, keep a food and symptom diary to find out how the common culprits impact you. These could be high-fat foods, alcohol, fizzy drinks, caffeine, sugar free or diet foods, lactose, large meals and/or eating too fast. Certain poorly absorbed carbohydrates can also trigger symptoms. Managing stress by practicing deep breathing exercises, meditation and/or yoga for as little as 10 minutes a day can also help.”

Five experts, five tips
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