“If the furnace is hot enough, it’ll burn anything.” This theory has been thrown around in endurance circles for years. The assumption seems to be that an athlete’s revved metabolism doesn’t require assistance (i.e. fiber) in order to move things smoothly through the digestive tract.
But what if fiber’s role in health is not simply to produce a smooth movement, so to speak? In fact, the most important role of fiber in human health is to nourish the friendly microbes that colonize our bodies…and that’s a big party to feed!
Over the past 15 years, science has discovered that humans host a very powerful army of bacteria, yeast, protozoa, fungi, etc. in our bodies, referred to as the microbiome. They outnumber human cells tenfold and influence a number of aspects of health: mood, immunity, nutrient metabolism, sleep, tissue regeneration and skin integrity just to name a few. Furthermore, all those cells have their own genetic coding that influences how our bodies operate. In short, we humans are hosts to a super-city of good (and bad) microbes that determine various aspects of health. And they run the show.
The term “probiotic” has become mainstream in health circles and it seems taking them in pill form is a standard practice for the masses. Simply put, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms. They’re the ones doing the hard work of keeping us healthy, or rather, keeping your furnace in top working order. Now, the term “prebiotic” might be a new one for you. Prebiotics are the various substances that feed the probiotics in your body, keeping the furnace stoked with fuel. You wouldn’t host a party and not feed the guests, would you? Of course not! So let’s take a closer look at how to be a good host.
Since there are countless strains of organisms in the microbiome, it’s impossible to specifically outline what each of them eat. The most important thing to know is which foods fall into the “prebiotic” category. Just about any plant food will have a prebiotic effect, but especially these:
There are also fermented foods that contain probiotics. Consuming these little helpers is believed to strengthen the overall gut community in your body. Yogurt is probably the most commonly known, but here are a few others:
Some aged cheeses
While eating probiotic foods can benefit gut health, evidence points toward consuming prebiotic foods as the best way to strengthen beneficial microbes. Include a good mix of both for the most impact.
There’s no doubt that the endurance athlete’s furnace definitely runs hot. Sometimes this results in a lower fiber diet for a few reasons. For starters, fiber can contribute to gastro-intestinal discomfort during training and racing. Another issue is that many athletes focus so much on macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) that foods not falling strongly into one of these categories are often neglected. Furthermore, some athletes have a hard time getting enough calories during peak training, so eating high-volume, low-calorie plant foods is not going to give them enough fuel.
Here are a few strategies to help athletes maintain gut health while staying well-fueled for their sport:
Save your roughage (like salads or raw veggies) for times when there isn’t a demanding workout looming ahead. Evenings may be the best time for such foods.
Opt for a meatless meal focusing on legumes as the protein source. One of my favorites is chickpea masala, made with 5 ingredients in about 15 minutes. Toast cumin seeds in olive oil. Mix a couple tablespoons of tomato paste with a good-sized scoop of garam masala (I don’t measure) Once the seeds are sizzling, stir in the tomato paste mixture and a drained can of chickpeas until heated through and well combined. I usually serve this over roasted veggies and top with a dollop of whole milk yogurt.
If you’re needing more calories, focus on ways you can include prebiotic foods in high-calorie recipes. For example, garlicky pesto sauce over whole wheat pasta, or berries+yogurt+flaxseed granola for breakfast.
Try a new fermented food like kimchi or kefir.
Dabble in making your own fermented foods, like sourdough, yogurt or kombucha.
Gradually increase the amount of prebiotic foods in the diet. Too much too quickly can make that hot furnace blow off some steam (hehe).