How to eat well: When bacteria is good for you

By Ian Marber, August 3, 2012

When I started my career as a nutrition practitioner in 1997, clients consulted with me for advice on a variety of health issues ranging from joint problems to weight loss. In those days, cases of bloating were few and far between, but 15 years later, they are so widespread that they have become the number one reason for seeking nutrition advice.

A bloated abdomen can have many causes but, in my experience, poor levels of beneficial bacteria are among the most common. The bacteria, mostly various strains of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, are involved in the last stages of digestion and if levels are low, food may not be fully broken down into the correct state allowing it to ferment, encouraging bloating and gas.

I should point out that unwanted bacteria are not always linked to what we might term “food poisoning” nor do you have to swim up the Ganges with your mouth open for unwanted bacteria to take up residence in the gut. Some strains of unwanted bacteria can thrive in an environment of sugars, alcohol and a high carbohydrate diet and I find that changing the ratio between the friendly and the unwanted bacteria in the gut can significantly reduce bloating.

Beneficial bacteria are found in a variety of places from live bio yogurt to shot drinks that contain specific strains. They are also available in supplement form and although I usually suggest food as the most appropriate source of nutrients, if you suffer from regular bloating then start off with a capsule of good bacteria twice a day for 14 days, reducing to one capsule for a month after that. In addition, eat live yogurt daily, although if you are taking capsules then you probably will not need the shot drinks as well, although they can be useful.

There are prebiotics, foods that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria — these include chicory, Jerusalem artichoke and garlic, so include these in the diet from time to time as well. Remember that bloating is one symptom of irritable bowel syndrome and if you have pain, then consult your GP as well.

Ian Marber is one of the UK’s most highly regarded nutrition experts and the author of 11 books.

Last updated: 9:58am, September 27 2012