Good Health Begins In the Gut

Heather McKern asks whether we can trust others to grow our food

This famous statement in one form or another is attributed to Hippocrates,
a physician of ancient Greece who lived around 300BC.

Touted as a revolutionary, he’s credited as being the father of modern medicine. He’s the guy the Hippocratic Oath is named after. He was the first physician to separate illness from religion, magic and the supernatural. Denouncing superstition and promoting rationality, he argued that illness was caused by environmental factors, diet and lifestyle.

Some 2,000 years later, many of his principles still stand. The billions of microscopic bacteria, fungi and viruses that live inside our digestive system, are now thought to impact depression, heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, asthma and autoimmune diseases. They contribute to nutrient absorption, the metabolism of xenobiotic substances, the maintenance of our gut lining, and protect us against pathogens.


In fact, it’s believed that up to 80% of our immune response occurs in the gut. It is now well established that having healthy gut flora is significantly responsible for our overall health.

That’s all very well, but what does this have to do with gardening? Simply, the food we eat and the environment we create for ourselves can have a huge impact on the nature and health of these fascinating microorganisms that live inside us. And it’s our food choices that often let us down.

Having a health sciences background, I’ve always been interested in our relationship with food. From the atrocious acts of popular sandwich companies including a rubber chemical in their buns, to the empowerment we as individuals can feel from simply growing the food we eat in our own backyards. Our relationship with food is complex, yet the food choices we make every single day have a tremendous power to impact our health.

We often know that something is not good for us or can even cause us harm, yet we can’t resist picking it off the shelf and putting it in our trolley. Maybe we do this because we bow to peer pressure, maybe the packet is just too enticing, but almost certainly we just aren’t aware of all the extra ingredients that have snuck their way into our food over the years.

For example, the humble French fry now contains close to 20 ingredients. And plain old sausages? No such thing. I’ve yet to find a brand that has less
than 10 ingredients.

A lot of the products on our supermarket shelves have been altered so much, either to give them a longer shelf life, to adjust their visual appeal or to ‘enhance’ flavour, that I hesitate to call them food anymore. And it’s
this consumption of non-food that many health experts believe is a huge reason why lifestyle diseases are continuously on the increase.

It’s even been postulated that if every one of us were to adopt a diet of ‘real food’, for example, as popularised by Michael Pollan in his book The Food Rules, that population health outcomes would improve by up to 80%. It makes sense, what you put into your gut will affect it, and thus, your health.

Packaged food deceptions

Packaged and convenience food aren’t the only foods
to be mindful of. Fruits and vegetables can come with extras you may not be aware of either, mainly pesticide chemicals. We now even have an expression to describe the fruits and vegetables that have the highest levels of pesticides; ‘the dirty dozen’. Yet how aware would the average shopper be of all these ‘extras’ we are consuming?

The food industry does nothing to inform their customers of what they are consuming. Why would they? They have no interest in our health. And how keen would you be to purchase something if it came with a disclaimer like ‘these peaches come with 50 pesticide compounds’?
Now I know they tell us that most fruit and veg grown in Australia have residue levels below the Australian Standards, but how can a ‘safe’ level be decided upon when we just haven’t learnt all there is to know about these compounds and how they affect us or the microscopic critters within us? We are only just starting to discover how important these guys really are, and it’ll be a long time before we can say we know it all.

In my view, until we as humans can confidently say we absolutely and completely understand our bodies and all the relationships and interactions that occur within us, I’d rather leave the chemicals at the shops.

What can we do to help us eat better?
I’m a firm believer in aiming to buy products with as few ingredients as possible. If you pick something off the shelf and it has multiple ingredients you cannot even pronounce, it’s probably better to put it back. Experts recommend you try to include 30 different plant-based foods in your diet every single week (oats, nuts, spinach, bananas, lentils, etc) as this has been shown to nurture your gut flora and is correlated with a significant reduction in disease risk. Try to shop from trusted suppliers, preferably from the growers themselves, or aim to buy organic for certain foods like potatoes, tomatoes, kale and spinach.

Grow your own

Lastly, grow or produce it yourself where possible. That way you have total control over the entire process of getting that food to your plate.
If we can be mindful that we are eating not just for ourselves but for our guts, then I think we are already on the path to a healthier lifestyle.

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Bill Bampton explains how to create a food border by combining the ornamental potential of edibles with the edible potential of ornamentals

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Arabella Forge explains why you should eat more fruit and vegetables

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Q&A - Cane Fruit

Cane fruit guru Phil Rowe answers your questions about berries

Q&A - Citrus

Citrus expert Ian Tolley answers your questions about citrus trees and fruit

Q&A - Fruit Trees

Julian Blackhirst answers your questions about summer pruning and general care of fruit trees

Q&A - Tomato Growing

Our experts Julie, Tim and Evette answer your questions about growing tomatoes

Start Your First Food Garden

Bernadette Brady encourages you to start your own vegie garden

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Unusual edibles

Arno King introduces southern gardeners to some northern vegetable staples that succeed down south

What’s wrong with the food forest concept?

Organic gardener Julian Blackhirst questions the ‘bare foot, lazy gardener’ idea

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