Top tips: cooking for a healthy gut

Dr Joan Ransley shares her top tips on cooking for a healthy gut and digestive system for Love Your Gut Week.
healthy gut
Aim to eat at least 30 different plant foods a week to maintain a healthy gut.

A healthy gut can impact not only our physical wellbeing, but also our mental health and mood, so it is important to take good care of it.

This is due to the direct link between the gut and the brain, called the gut-brain axis. When we eat food, our gut and gut bacteria process it and break it down into nutrients and metabolites. Some of the metabolites produced by our gut bacteria include serotonin and dopamine – known as feel good hormones. They are chemical messengers called neurotransmitters and are used by the gut and brain to ‘talk’ to each other. They also have the power to influence our mood and how we feel. No wonder the gut is sometimes called the second brain!

To help us take good care of our gut (and brain!) Dr Joan Ransley has shared her top tips on cooking for a healthy digestive system for Love Your Gut Week. From why your freezer is your best friend, to the benefits of berries and the power of plants, Joan’s tips will help you give your gut the love it deserves!

  1. Your freezer is your best friend when time is short, and you have to put healthy, gut friendly meals on the table. Frozen beans, peas, sweetcorn, and spinach are all good for the health of the gut. They can be taken out of the freezer in the quantities needed and included in dishes such as omelettes, frittatas, stir fries, risottos, casseroles and pies, or eaten as a side dish.

Uses for chick peas

Canned chickpeas are good for gut health, thanks to the fibre they contain, and make a great snack.

  1. Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a pan.
  2. Add drained chickpeas and fry until crisp – approx 10 mins.
  3. Sprinkle over some smoked paprika or ground cumin to add flavour to the crispy chickpeas.

The same method can be used to crisp up canned Puy lentils.

These crispy pulses can be strewn over salads, curries and vegetable dishes to add texture and flavour.

Cooking for somebody who may have gut health issues?

Think about the ingredients you’re cooking with, as well as the overall dish. As a starting point offer grilled lean meat or fish, flavoured with herbs such as parsley, chervil or dill, steamed green vegetables, such as spinach, and steamed new potatoes or rice.

Avoid serving too much fat which can upset the gut and also avoid basing a meal around pulses or wheat which are high in carbohydrates that can ferment in the gut and trigger symptoms in some people.


Berries, such as, raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants are a good option for someone with a troubled gut. They look and taste amazing too!

Take inspiration from Scandinavian cuisines where berries are made into simple compotes to eat alongside lightly cooked meat and poached fish. Berries are also great served as a delicious dessert with yogurt or cheese. 

Berries don’t need added sugar and can be flavoured with crushed cardamom seeds, juniper berries, cinnamon or star anise.

Plant foods for a healthy gut

Plant foods are the foundation of a diet which helps support a healthy gut microbiota (the collection of microorganisms living in the gut).

Plan meals around vegetables that taste good such as aubergines, peppers, mushrooms and courgettes. Adding small amounts of meat, fish, eggs and cheese to vegetable dishes provides additional protein and adds to their flavour and texture.

Recent research demonstrates the importance of a healthy gut microbiome for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. [1],[2]

Plant food variety and your diet

Aim to eat at least 30 different plant foods a week. All minimally processed plant food count towards this target. Anything from a clove of garlic to some nuts or seeds. Challenge each member of the family to count the number of plant foods they have eaten in a week. You may be surprised by how well everyone does.

The reason why eating a wide variety of plants is important is it improves the diversity of the gut microbiota. A diverse and healthy gut microbiota may have positive effects on the ‘gut-brain axis’ including reducing anxiety.[3]

Whole grains contribute to a healthy gut

Whole grains can help maintain a healthy gut as they contain soluble and insoluble dietary fibres and a range of bioactive phytochemicals which can improve health due to their antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, antimicrobial, antimutagenic, and anti-inflammatory activities. These important bioactive phytochemicals are mainly present in the outer layers of the grains.[4] Examples of whole grains are: whole wheat and spelt, brown and wild rice, barley, maize (corn), rye, millet, oats, buckwheat, quinoa and ‘ancient grains’ e.g. kamut, freekah, amaranth.

Omega 3 fatty acids

Long chain omega three fatty acids are good for the health of the gut[5] and can be found in oily fish such as sardines, fresh tuna, mackerel and salmon. Sardines taste great on rye sourdough toast with a squeeze of lemon and some black pepper. Fresh tuna is expensive, but you need less than 50g per person to include in noodle dishes and salads. Both smoked and fresh salmon are great to eat in salads and with fresh vegetables. Aim to eat one portion of oily fish a week.

Don’t waste vegetables

Use as much of the whole vegetable as you can. When using spring onions, use the white and green parts. Use broccoli and cauliflower stalks in soups which are going to be liquidised. Steamed beetroot leaves are delicious as a side dish, or use the outer leaves of cabbages, kale and sprouts to make crisps. Roughly tear the leaves to the size of a crisp, place in a bowl with a little olive oil and a little garlic powder and parmesan cheese and mix well. Lay the dressed torn leaves on a baking sheet and place in a preheated oven [220°C/Gas 7]. Cook for 5 minutes until crisp and just beginning to brown.

[1] Valles-Colomer et al. (2019) The neuroactive potential of the human gut microbiota in quality of life and depression. Nat Microbiol 4(4):623-632 doi: 10.1038/s41564-018-0337-x  

[2] Clapp et al. (2017) Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract 7(4):987 doi: 10.4081/cp.2017.987   

[3] Yang et al. (2019) Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: A systematic review. Gen Psychiatr 32(2):e100056 doi: 10.1136/gpsych-2019-100056  

[4] 13. Özer, M.S. and G.N. Yazici, Phytochemicals of Whole Grains and Effects on Health, in Health and Safety Aspects of Food Processing Technologies, A. Malik, Z. Erginkaya, and H. Erten, Editors. 2019, Springer International Publishing: Cham. p. 309-347

[5] Fu et al. (2021) Associations among Dietary Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids, the Gut Microbiota, and Intestinal Immunity. Mediators Inflamm 2021:8879227. doi: 10.1155/2021/8879227

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Tags: , , Last modified: September 21, 2021

Written by 4:42 pm Nutrition, Health