How to feed your gut on a student budget

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Current conversations around why and how to improve our gut health have flooded mainstream media outlets. From TikTok to podcasts, nutritionist students and scientists are increasingly sharing how to boost the beneficial bacteria which reside in our gut and their importance. Research shows that our diet’s influence on the functioning of this microbiome has a profound effect on our immune, physical and mental health. 

With this, the dietary conversation and advice enters a new sphere: from that of the fad, extreme, calorie counting, low-carb or fat diets, to a much healthier sustainable way of looking at the goodness in foods. A new approach which supports blood glucose control, our immune system, reduces levels of inflammation and the subsequent risk of mental health disorders and physical disease.

Our diet’s influence on the functioning of this microbiome has a profound effect on our immune, physical and mental health

This all sounds like a winner however how can it be realistically achieved as a student rolling into Market Square Tesco’s after a long library day on a budget?

Even skimming the surface of advice, it becomes clear that including a variety of high fibre foods in our diet is the key to a healthy microbiome. Nutritionists at ZOE, one of the UK’s leading researchers in health, recommend us to eat 30 different plant foods a week. This sounds a lot, especially for students cooking for themselves, but Professor Tim Spector at ZOE tells us to expand our ideas of what counts as a plant-based food – as spices, herbs, nuts, and seeds count too. The fibre in our foods nourishes our gut bacteria, which in turn metabolises it into anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acids. There’s another pot of gold at the end of the rainbow too as colourful plant foods are rich polyphenols, which “good” gut microbes love. Nuts, berries, seeds, brightly coloured fruit, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables and dark chocolate are particularly rich in these beneficial antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.

Including a variety of high fibre foods in our diet is the key to a healthy microbiome

So, what things should you add to your shopping list?

Many plant foods, such as onions, leeks, asparagus, garlic, and whole grains contain prebiotics, a type of fibre that feeds the “good” bacteria in your gut and helps them to thrive.

Regularly eating plants rich in fibre and high-quality protein — for example, lentils, beans, nuts, and quinoa — can also help you feel fuller for longer. Try making the switch to whole grains which have much higher levels of fibre like whole grain pasta, breads, oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa. These are widely available and cheaply brought either tinned or dried. For example, swap out your ground meat to black beans next taco night and choose bran flakes or flax seeds in porridge not sugary granola in the morning. 

The base to many of the meals you’re probably already using actually have some surprising benefits! Your simple onion is rich in inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which are among most common prebiotic molecules and there is some evidence suggesting that they have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which enhance the gut immune system. Like onions, garlic contains the prebiotics inulin and FOS to help good gut bacteria thrive. Mushrooms too contain a number of prebiotics, including chitin, hemicellulose, mannans, galactans, and xylans which help nourish “good” gut bacteria. The fungi are also rich in B vitamins and minerals like selenium and potassium and are very cheap and versatile to add to your pastas, casseroles and chilli. 

Student tips

Incorporating nutritionally high foods into your diet can also be student budget and busy week friendly. Plant based proteins like beans, lentils or tofu can be cheaper and make meals go further than using meat in meals like stews, curries, and Bolognese. Adding tinned tomatoes, herbs, and spices for extra flavour and diversity can also be done at low cost. 

Make the most of those large student freezers as you can prepare extra roasted vegetables, vegetable-based stews or grains at the weekend and pop them in the refrigerator or freezer to use throughout the week. As fresh berries and fruits can be expensive and not last long, buy frozen alternatives instead which are just as nutritious. Plus, canned fruits, vegetables and lentils are often very student budget friendly. 

Skip out on that post-night out Paddy’s once in a while… I don’t think it takes an expert’s advice to know ultra-processed food isn’t good for your gut and is associated with unfavourable health outcomes, including conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Sugary fizzy drinks, sweets, pre-made pizzas and some breakfast cereals don’t provide your gut bugs with the fibre and other nutrients they need and won’t keep you satiated throughout your day. 

Obviously, there’s no need to skip out on fun for this, but it shows just how easy it is to make small changes cheaply to improve your physical and mental health which is so important during term time.

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