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what to eat to support a health gut for athletic performance

When we think of athleticism, we tend to think of powerful muscles, a strong heart, and mental smarts. But we may not be thinking small enough: A multitude of studies have found that a diverse microbiota in our gut feeds our performance.

In addition, the microbiome can boost performance in other ways, such as keeping you from getting sick and missing out on training. “It may seem odd that bugs in your gut can impact your respiratory tract, but the presence of certain microorganisms in your gut leads to an uptick in the production and activity of immune cells and compounds that offer protection from respiratory infections,” notes Patrick Wilson, PhD, RD, author of The Athlete’s Gut. This, in turn, can improve your availability — the amount of time you’re fit to train and compete.

Experts offer advice on how you can keep your gut in top form.

1) Eat plenty of plants. “Building the foundation of your diet on plants is key for building the best foundation for good health and optimum performance,” says exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Stacy Sims, MSC, PhD.

The more plant types a person eats, the higher the microbial diversity of their gut, noted the American Gut Project, now called the Microsetta Initiative. A plant-centric diet is anti-inflammatory and good for your gut, aiding digestion and providing lots of fiber.

It also helps balance hormones. The microbiome is “so instrumental in managing sex hormones that recent research has suggested the concept of a ‘microgenderome’ to indicate the interplay between the gut microbiome and sex hormones,” Sims says.

2) Prioritize protein. Athletes need sufficient protein to build and maintain muscles, Sims says. (For advice on how much protein you may need, see “Protein Power: What You Need to Know“; for sources of plant-based protein, see “How to Get Enough Protein From a Plant-Based Diet.”)

3) Get your probiotics. While there are still questions about how probiotics may affect your athletic performance, it’s clear that the healthy bacteria in probiotic foods are good for your microbiome as a whole. The best sources are fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir.

You can also supplement with probiotic capsules, which contain billions of live bacteria. “Probiotic supplements are sources of microorganisms that can shift the microbial balance of the lower intestine,” explains Paul Kriegler, RD, Life Time’s nutrition program manager.

Whichever probiotic you choose, ­Wilson advises a trial period of at least one to two weeks prior to a competition to make certain it doesn’t cause unwanted side effects, such as gas, bloating, or loose stools. (For more on probiotic foods and supplements, see “Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics.”)

4) Feed the bacteria with prebiotics. Ample fiber is key to feeding those healthy bacteria. Prebiotic foods include apples, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, oatmeal, and legumes. (For more on prebiotics, see “Why Prebiotics Are as Important as Probiotics“; for more on fiber, see “Why You Need to Eat Fiber.”)

5) Just say no to ultraprocessed foods. Those irresistible, lab-engineered processed foods don’t help your athleticism at all. Refined sugary foods promote bad bacteria, which can lead to inflammation, Sims explains.

Processed foods contain fewer nutrients and can hamper your immune system. Recent research suggests they can also promote anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.

6) Skip the NSAIDs. “Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can directly impact the composition and function of the gut microbiota, and can lead to dysbiosis, or an imbalance of microorganisms in our microbiome,” says Sims.

7) Be careful with antibiotics. Antibiotics can dramatically harm the gut’s microbial diversity, according to the Microsetta Initiative. And we often unknowingly consume antibiotics in the meat we eat, a good reason to opt for organic meats.

Learn More

The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in our overall well-being, from digestion and immune function to mood and mental health. You can learn more about the importance of gut health by exploring our collection of articles.

This was excerpted from “How Your Gut Microbiome Can Affect Your Athletic Performance” which was published in Experience Life.

Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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