7 expert tips for better gut health – including what to eat more of

Digest these evidence-backed ways to improve your gut health. Your gut will thank you.

It seems like the frequency with which people dish out gut health tips is as regular as the number of times I write the word ‘bowel movement’ (as Saga Exceptional’s gut health and nutrition writer, believe me, it’s a lot). 

With so many experts or platforms claiming to have the answers or hacks you need to help with your gut health issues, it can be hard to know where to turn to for advice you can trust.

What makes this advice we are about to give any different, you ask? We have spoken to top experts in the field and used the latest scientific research to provide reliable and practical information you can use to help improve your gut health.

Their gut health tips include insights into why eating more plants will help your gut bacteria, and the importance of avoiding unnecessary elimination of certain foods.

Mixture of bread, oats, seeds, nuts and cereal, which all contain fibre.Credit: Shutterstock/marilyn barbone
Eating enough fibre can keep your bowel movements regular and feed your good gut bacteria.

1. Get to know your gut

You are unique and so is your gut

It’s important to understand what makes up the gut – the digestive system that runs from the mouth to the anus – and how it can support your overall health (some of which we cover in this article), but also your personal gut microbiome and what works for you.  

“We all have incredibly unique gut microbiomes. No two people have the same composition of gut bacteria,” says gut health dietitian Dr Caitlin Hall. And co-founders of digestive health business The Gut Stuff Lisa and Alana Macfarlane, otherwise known as the Mac Twins, know this only too well. Alana, who is an identical twin to Lisa, says: “Lisa and I have 100% the same DNA, but we only have 30-40% of the same gut bacteria. So we can’t do the same thing to look after our gut health.” 

Hall adds: “The most important thing I’ve learned is that there’s no one-size-fits all advice. The unique mix of gut microbes you have will dictate which foods are best for your gut.  

“This is why eating a diversity of different plant-based foods is critical to gut health [more on that in a minute], ensuring that there’s something for all your gut microbes. We’re also already moving towards a more personalised approach to gut health through things like microbiome sampling, which can tell you the types of fibre best for your gut.” Personalised nutrition programme ZOE is one example of a way to analyse your gut bacteria, blood sugar and blood fats.  

Other ways to become more familiar with your gut include keeping a food diary to identify when you have any issues, or speaking to a dietitian. 


What is the gut microbiome? 

The trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) that live in your digestive tract make up the gut microbiome. 

“A healthy gut microbiome is crucial for healthy ageing,” says Hall. “Unlike genetic factors, our microbiome can be altered by diet and lifestyle, helping us reduce the risk of chronic disease as we age.” 

Scientists are still learning about our microbiome, but it’s estimated that each person has around 1,000 species of bacteria in their gut. 

2. Eat a variety of different plant foods

Increase the diversity of your gut microbes

All three experts we spoke to suggested eating a range of different plants. Including a variety of different plant foods in your diet can help to diversify the bacteria in your gut. And a more diverse gut microbiome is considered a healthier one.

“Lots of different types of bacteria are related to better health outcomes,” adds Lisa Macfarlane. Yet “research suggests that the diversity of your gut bacteria decreases as you age – so increasing the diversity of your gut bacteria is a great focus.” 

A range of colourful plant foods, including fruits, vegetables and seeds.Credit: Shutterstock/marilyn barbone
Aiming to eat 30 plant foods per week can increase your gut bacteria diversity.

All three experts also suggest aiming for a specific number of different plant foods per week: 30.

This number comes from a large-scale study called the American Gut Project, which took stool samples from more than 10,000 people. It found that people who ate this quantity and variety of plants each week had more diverse gut bacteria compared with those who ate fewer.

The experts say the range of different plants to eat can include wholegrains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans and pulses, and to add herbs and spices to your cooking. 

The Macfarlanes say the more colour you have on your plate, the better for your gut health.  

3. Eat more fibre

Help your gut bacteria thrive

Eating enough fibre can also help to support your diversity of gut microbes. Lisa Macfarlane says: “Fibre feeds the good bacteria in your gut to make them happier, healthier and help them thrive.”  

It can also help with keeping your bowel movements regular. But the majority of us aren’t getting enough of it. Current government guidelines say our dietary fibre intake should be 30g per day. However, most UK adults are only eating around 20g per day. We need to be increasing this.  

Hall echoes this. “It’s important to find ways that make it easier to consume fibre through eating things such as a fruit smoothie, oatmeal or [a vegetable] soup,” she says. “A prebiotic supplement could also be added to these foods to ensure that fibre requirements are easily met.” 

Lisa Macfarlane says fibre bulks your stool, which makes it easier to pass. This helps you to have regular bowel movements. Hall explains that “grains like wholewheat bread, rye bread, oats, barley; fruits like apples and kiwis; and nuts and seeds like chia seeds and linseeds” can help with this. More specifically, specialist dietitian for The Gut Health Clinic, Anna Pettit, says: “You could trial eating two kiwis per day for six weeks to see if this helps.” Leaving the skin on the kiwi will provide you with even more fibre. 

4. Don’t restrict your diet

Think about what you can add, not take away

Hands up if you’ve followed a diet trend before? Many of us do this, but it could be doing more harm than good.  

Hall says: “There’s a growing number of people who are looking for strategies to improve and maintain a healthy gut, which is great.” But, she says, the availability of inaccurate food allergy tests alongside the rise of social media influencers, which has led to a rise in gut health myths, can be harmful. “Often this encourages people to restrict or remove a number of healthy (and not harmful) foods.” 

“Unnecessarily restricting foods (when it’s not an allergy or intolerance) significantly reduces the health and diversity of your gut microbiome. In turn, this affects your overall health.” 

Woman adding flax seeds to a blender filled with other ingredients.Credit: Shutterstock/Okrasiuk
Look for opportunities to add nutritious foods to your diet rather than restricting it.

Pettit says: “Evidence indicates that exclusion of foods for a long period can actually result in the loss of tolerance, so when the food is eventually reintroduced, more symptoms can be experience.” 

She suggests working with a gut health dietitian to identify foods and/or drinks that might be causing you gut issues. They can help manage these intolerances by ensuring you’re getting the nutrients you need in an alternative way. 

Pettit’s top tip: Consider a Mediterranean-style diet. She says: “Studies have shown that people who follow a Mediterraneanstyle diet have more beneficial and varied gut bacteria.” Speak to a health professional or dietitian before making changes to your diet.

5. Nourish your gut to keep you well

The gut and the immune system have a strong connection

You might be surprised to read that 70% of your immune system is in your gut. Therefore, “keeping the gut healthy will support a good immune function and vice versa,” explains Pettit. 

In fact, a healthy gut has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and plays an important role in your susceptibility to infection. 

The food you eat can encourage good gut health and, in turn, strengthen your immunity. Gut healthy foods, filled with key nutrients and phytochemicals, that can help with this include: 

  • walnuts  
  • garlic  
  • firm tofu   
  • carrots  
  • oranges  
  • chia seeds  
  • turmeric  
  • broccoli 
  • mushrooms (preferably those with higher levels of vitamin D – leaving shop-bought mushrooms on a sunny windowsill for a day will raise their vitamin D levels, or you can buy mushrooms enriched with vitamin D)   

6. Nurture your gut-brain axis

Better gut health can support your mental health

It’s not just your immune system that has a strong link to the gut, so too does your brain.

Pettit says: “One of the most fascinating areas of current research involves the gut-brain axis – a two-way communication system between the gut and the brain [via the vagus nerve] – and its potential therapeutic role in depression and anxiety.”   

Fake brain connected to fake intestines to demonstrate the gut-brain axis.Credit: Shutterstock/Perception7
Looking after your gut health can support your mental health and vice versa.

Hall, who specialised in the gut-brain axis for her PhD, says supporting mental health through the gut is linked to the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the gut. “SCFAs can interact directly with the vagus nerve, which is the fastest way they can influence mental states like anxiety, stress and mood.”

Promoting SCFA production can help to target brain health through the gut, she says. But how do we do this? Hall says: “The most effective way is by eating a range of prebiotic fibres, which can include artichokes, asparagus, green bananas, oats, onion, garlic, leeks and chicory root.” 

7. Don’t just focus on food for a healthy gut

It’s not all about what you eat

While diet is a huge factor, other lifestyle factors, from stress to sleep, can affect gut health. Pettit says: “Having a good toileting routine can be a good start. Try to assign some time to open your bowels in peace and quiet.” 

Hall and Pettit note you also need to drink enough fluids to stay hydrated and help fibre do its job. Fibre draws water into the bowel and dissolves to form a gel, which keeps stool soft. They recommend moving your body regularly too; simply walking can help. 

“Movement can help with the blood flow to the pelvic area and help to prevent constipation,” explains Pettit. 

Stress can be a trigger for digestive problems and poor gut health. One way to ease stress is through breathwork; the NHS have some simple breathing exercises to help you manage stress and anxiety.  

In addition to managing stress, simply talking about gut issues can help. The Macfarlanes noticed this during the filming of their TV series Know Your Sh!t, which aired earlier this year. “People felt lighter just by telling us their problems,” says Lisa Macfarlane. The twins are keen to break Britain’s poo taboo and encourage more conversations to raise awareness about gut issues to help resolve them. 

Pettit adds: “The gut is quite adaptable and you can absolutely change the composition of your gut microbes for the better with improved diet and sleep, less stress and by avoiding unnecessary antibiotic use (antibiotics destroy healthy gut bacteria. They are still an important treatment for certain infections). 

“It is never too late to review your diet and lifestyle to make positive changes.” 

Expert bios 

Sleep-deprived DJs turned gut health champions Lisa and Alana Macfarlane began their gut journey when they volunteered to be part of the TwinsUK research at King’s College London. After sending off poo samples and undergoing a couple of colonoscopies (an examination of the bowel with a camera on a thin tube), they became the “chief guinea pigs” for the British Gut Project. The results inspired them to help spread the message about how important and exciting your gut is, by setting up digestive health business The Gut Stuff. They have since been presenters of the recent Channel 4 TV series Know Your Sh!t and are developing an app. 

Dr Caitlin Hall is a gut health dietitian, with a PhD in neurosciences and gut microbiology. She is passionate about the real-world applications of gut-brain axis research, including microbiome-based interventions that improve physical and mental health. She works as chief dietitian and head of clinical research at myota – a gut health company specialising in prebiotic fibre blends. 

Anna Pettit is a specialist dietitian for The Gut Health Clinic. She graduated from King’s College London in 2009 and has more than 12 years of experience working with both adult and paediatric clients in the NHS and privately in the UK and the Middle East. She now specialises in the use of the low FODMAP diet in managing irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive conditions. Pettit is extremely passionate about evidence-based nutrition and dietetics, and the use of clinical reasoning to provide safe, practical and quality patient-centred care. 

Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her


Gemma Harris is a Staff Writer for Fitness, focussing on nutrition content, at Saga Exceptional. Gemma has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded thegutchoice.com – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

Previously a freelance journalist, Gemma has written about topics including combatting the spread of health misinformation on social media, how to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet with a stoma and probiotics for gut health. Her work has been published within leading health journals such as Gastrointestinal Nursing and the British Journal of Healthcare Management, as well as multimedia health and lifestyle platforms, including calmmoment.com, StomaTips, Fit&Well, LiveScience and metro.co.uk.

She is the proud owner of two adorable guinea pigs who are far too spoilt and have become her writing companions. When she is not writing, Gemma can be found making a colourful and nutritious meal in the kitchen, walking in nature, at a yoga or spin class, swimming, doing an at-home YouTube workout, snuggling up with a self-help book or meditating. These experiences help to influence and shape the content she creates. And because life is all about balance, Gemma also enjoys having cocktails with friends.

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