In 2016, I would like to encourage everyone to work on their diets and their health by spending a lot more time worrying about GDP. Hold on, hold on! It’s not mere euros and the dismal science of economics that we are talking about here. In health terms GDP doesn’t stand for gross domestic product. It stands for gut digestive preferences. In other words: what does your gut like to eat?
You may not have thought of the food and health equation in that way before. When we eat, we ask ourselves “what do I feel like enjoying?” But the researches into the weird and wonderful exotica of the human microbiome over the last few years mean that that question isn’t enough any more. To put it simply – we are no longer eating for us. We are, all of us, eating for two: you and your gut.
The American geomorphology professor, David R Montgomery, puts it this way in a new book, The Hidden Half, co-authored with his wife, Anne Biklé. "As we all ponder what to eat, it would be a good idea to realise who we are really eating for and what they do with what we eat."
The who we are eating for, and the what they do with what we eat, are the invisible world of bacteria, Montgomery and Biklé’s “hidden half”. Because we can’t see them, we disregard the bacteria that, in fact, dominate our world.
These bacteria are everywhere, but Montgomery and Biklé focus in particular on the bacteria in soils – Biklé is a gardener and grower – and the bacteria in our gut. The countless trillions of them do the heavy lifting when it comes to processing our food and, in that insanely complex and barely understood process, keep us healthy.
This is our “inner omnivore” and it must be fed. If you are feeding your microbiome a healthy and varied diet, with lots of greens, fermented foods, legumes, fruits and wholegrains, then your tummy is a happy place. Your stomach, your small intestine and your colon can go on about their miraculous work, taking care of what Montgomery and Biklé call the “digestive cascade.”
But what happens if your inner omnivore is not happy? The answer is poor health, sometimes very poor health. The chef Séamus Mullen, well-known for his restaurants in New York and London, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2007 having suffered a multitude of ailments. He coped with the help of anti-inflammatory medication.
Mullen's condition began to change in 2013 when he began working with a doctor to "correct gut disorder and optimise gastrointestinal function", according to Dr Frank Lipman. Out went processed foods, gluten and sugar, and in came organic vegetables, grass-fed meats, aged cheeses, oily fish and regular mealtimes, along with exercise. After a year, the RA had gone from Mullen's blood, he had lost three stone in weight and he could cycle tortuous distances in races.
Montgomery and Biklé instituted a not dissimilar dietary regime after she was diagnosed with cancer. As Montgomery writes: “After a year on our new diet, my blood pressure and cholesterol fell within the normal range. My acid reflux disappeared, as did recurrent bouts of diarrhoea. I lost a lot of weight too, about 25 pounds . . . I remain amazed at how changing my diet to cultivate the microbial garden in my gut greatly improved my health.”
Of course, the ideal circumstance is to keep our gut healthy and happy in 2016 so that we stay healthy and happy and don’t fall prey to illness. The nation’s GDP depends on our inner omnivore, so start growing your gut.
1 head Chinese cabbage
Quarter cup sea salt
2 tablespoons plain flour
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 onion, peeled roughly chopped
5 tablespoons Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru, available in Asian stores)
100ml freshly squeezed orange juice or fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 daikon radish, cut into thin julienne strips
5 spring onions, cut into strips about 3cm long
1. Slice the cabbage lengthways in quarters. Cut away some of the core, but keep the cabbage in four pieces. Massage each leaf liberally with sea salt and then place in a bowl and cover with water. Leave to soak for about 3-4 hours.
2. Drain the cabbage and rinse under the tap to remove the salt. Pat dry with a towel or kitchen paper.
3. Next, make a flour paste (we learned this from the recently published cookbook Our Korean Kitchen by Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo) by mixing the flour with 230ml water – first make a paste with just two tablespoons of the water, then add the remainder, whisking to ensure no lumps. Heat the mixture, stirring until it thickens. Simmer for about five minutes.
4. Make the sauce. Place the cooled flour paste in a food processor and add the garlic, ginger, onion, pepper flakes, orange juice or fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and rice vinegar. Purée the mixture until you get a smooth, shiny red paste.
5. Rub the paste right into the cabbage leaves so that each leaf is covered. Once the cabbage is covered with the paste, you can chop it into smaller pieces (discard any thick core) and mix in a bowl with the radish and the spring onions. Place everything into a large glass kilner jar. Press down to make sure the cabbage is covered with the paste.
6. Leave the jar on the kitchen counter for a couple of days until it starts to fizz, and then place in the fridge. You can begin using the kimchi about four days later and go on eating it until it gets too strong for your taste, at which time you can use it for kimchi stews and kimchi pancakes. Store it in the fridge.
Gut instinct: Foods to eat
Probiotic drinks – kombucha; kefirs
Seasonal vegetables, fruits
The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R Montgomery and Anne Biklé, is published by WW Norton.
John McKenna is editor at guides.ie