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Gut health is loosely defined as the general absence of disease or gastrointestinal illness. It’s a topic that is trending both in scientific research and in nutrition and wellness circles due to the far-reaching effects the well being of our gut has on overall health.

Everything we eat and drink must pass through our GI tract, which in turn feeds the millions of naturally occurring good and bad bacteria that live within our bodies. Keeping our gut microbiota in balance by promoting the good bacteria, known as probiotics, helps reduce our risk of chronic conditions and disease. Imbalance can be caused by a combination of poor diet, lack of exercise and chronic stress.

Foods that are high in dietary fat and fructose feed the negative bacteria in our GI tract, causing problems such as fatty liver disease and chronic inflammation. Plant-based foods that are nutrient dense and high in fiber, on the other hand, help to feed the good bacteria and have been associated with the prevention of health issues such as cancer, obesity and allergies.

Prebiotics act as food for the good probiotics in our gut. Foods such as whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey and artichokes all provide prebiotics. While probiotics occur naturally inside of our bodies, they can also be introduced into our GI tract through foods. Yogurt and other fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha tea all contain live, beneficial bacteria.

Many food manufacturers have started adding prebiotics and probiotics to their products, and probiotics can also be taken as a dietary supplement in the form of capsule, tablet, powder or liquid. Most probiotic supplements contain Lactobacillus and Bifodbacterium, two of the most well-studied strains, and experts say that supplements with at least 20 billion live organisms per dose seem to be the most effective. Supplements are often very expensive and can sometimes contain bacterial strains that have no proven probiotic benefits, so speak to your doctor and conduct your own investigation before use.

While more research is needed on the true benefits associated with gut health and probiotic use, for now the best course of action is a well balanced, plan- based diet that includes foods containing natural occurring prebiotics and probiotics.

Chicken Sausage with Potatoes and Sauerkraut

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

12 ounces (4 links) cooked chicken sausage, halved lengthwise and cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, halved and cut into 1/4-inch slices

1 1/2 cups sauerkraut, rinsed

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1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds

1 bay leaf

Preparation

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add sausage and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Add potatoes, sauerkraut, wine, pepper, caraway seeds and bay leaf; bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

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