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An Introduction to FODMAPs + Your Gut Microbiome

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, FODMAPs is short for Fermentable Oligo- Di- Mono-saccharides and Polyols.

But don’t let the big science-y words scare you!

All this means is these are different kinds of carbohydrates with varying lengths in their carbon chains (carbon is in carbohydrates) but they are all made of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.
 

What Exactly Are Carbohydrates?

Let me briefly take you back to your highschool chemistry class (fun times!). Glucose (the main sugar our bodies run on) has 6 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms.

Other carbohydrates have different amounts of these elements, but they are always the same three: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Other carbohydrates include fructose (which is in most fruits), galactose (which is found in dairy), and maltose (which can be found in some fruits, cereals, and barley).

When you eat foods containing these and other carbohydrates – which can be everything from kale to eggplant to chickpeas and dates – your body uses enzymes like amylase in your saliva and other juices in your digestive tract to break down the initial solid material.

Then it’s the job of your gut microbiome to further break it down and free other nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from the remaining materials. All these carbs are eventually broken down into glucose, which is what our body and brain runs on.

So essentially all plant-based foods have varying levels of these different kinds of carbs in them. So what does that mean for you and the health of your gut microbiome?

 

Here’s the Full Scoop on FODMAPs

The main job of your gut microbiome is to finish digesting these materials and obtain certain vitamins, minerals, and other chemical compounds and, in effect, prepare them so your body can absorb and use them.

However, depending on the specific microbes in your gut, these FODMAP carbohydrates may not get completely broken down and, instead, become fermented.

This can cause bloating, gas, issues with regularity, and in some cases, can exacerbate inflammation in people suffering from IBS-related gut sensitivity.

So if you’ve ever felt bloated and “icky” after a larger meal of lets say garlic cauliflower pizza with cashew cheese or an avocado date pudding, this is why.

This is also one reason why people tend to feel extra ill with digestive issues on antibiotics because the meds aren’t just attacking whatever you’re sick with – they’re also attacking your gut microbiome.

Depending on what microbes you have established in your gut, you may or may not be able to fully digest foods with high levels of FODMAP carbs in them.
 

What If You’re Sensitive to FODMAPs?

All the foods just mentioned are relatively high in FODMAPs (including yes, the almighty avocado).

While someone sensitive to FODMAPs might be able to have one or even two high FODMAPs items, such as a banana that’s not super ripe yet or a small serving of falafel and feel fine, having multiple combinations of these foods can easily push your poor tummy over the edge.

Plus some foods can be hard to pinpoint since most of us eat meals with several ingredients instead of just one food at a time (although you could do that, it might get boring).

Symptoms include bloating, gas, constipation/diarrhea, even sometimes skin issues, headaches, and lots of other lovely things you emphatically do not need in your life.

Some foods can be hard to pinpoint since most of us eat meals with several ingredients.

 
So what do you do? You started on a new journey of health and wellness now and you realized you were spending a lot more time in the kitchen. You’ve gotten all these amazing new recipes that are bursting with flavor, superfoods and so much fiber you feel 10 times lighter every day! Awesome!

But, unfortunately, sometimes this journey is fraught with unforeseeable obstacles. Perhaps you started having every breakfast with a banana avocado smoothie and granola, falafel in whole grain pita for lunch, and cauliflower artichoke pizza for dinner.

Those are all healthy and delicious, so what’s the problem? Most people would honestly do just fine with a menu like this and probably lose some excess body fat if their portions were appropriate.

However, for some people, a full day of eating like this would not only bring them to their knees in stomach upset, but over time can actually cause damaging inflammation that negatively affects their health and well-being. Even though all of these foods are perfectly healthy whole food recipes.
 

Your Gut Microbiome: What It Is and Why It Matters

We have to think about our gut and, more specifically, the team of microbes inside it that a lot of research is showing supports pretty much all our bodily functions in one way or another.

You may have heard about our gut microbiome and how we need prebiotics, which are the soluble and insoluble fibers from plant foods that feed the probiotics, which are the bacteria found in fermented foods to keep the helpful bacteria that reside in the intestines healthy and plentiful.

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This is very true, and there are multiple scientific sources to support this. But the key thing to remember is that your gut microbiome is unique to you, meaning that just like your DNA, your personality, and handwriting style, no one else on earth has a gut microbiome exactly like yours.

The microbial community in our gut is just like a major metropolis: you have thousands and thousands of little communities or colonies within – some that come and go for short periods of time based on the foods you eat (as well as your physical environment), and others that have been there since before you were even born (thanks, mom!).

The microbial community in our gut is just like a major metropolis.

 
There is some correlational evidence to suggest that the more diverse your gut microbiome is, the healthier you are! Some examples of this could be people who travel frequently and eat a highly varied diet, athletes who engage in trail or outdoor obstacle course running, and those who may live closer to nature.

An editorial analysis written by David Ferry of Outside in January 2018 as well as multiple other studies demonstrate that diet composition (i.e. high fiber versus high fat versus high protein) and environment can promote a very specific bacteria profile that works in symbiosis with your other organ systems.

Other studies are currently exploring more about how our gut modulates our immunity, our body composition, and our psychology.

5 Ways to Maintain Gut Health and Why This Is Crucial to Your Overall Wellness
 

How Do You Affect Your Gut Microbiome?

While food is the principle way we take microbes into our gut, being in nature also exposes you to the ultimate cornucopia of life, which includes microbes in the dirt and on plants and animals.

Essentially the more places you go, and the more environments, things, and natural whole foods you come into physical contact with, the more you will inevitably pick up germs from that environment.

So what does all this have to do with cauliflower pizza? First, remember that all plants (i.e. fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and seeds) are made up of complex carbohydrates, of which there are multiple types.

Think of sand and rocks; they are both made of the same earth minerals but sand is in little bits from rocks crushed long ago and rocks are just sand that has been pressed and bonded together. Simple sugars and complex carbohydrates are the same.

Essentially the more places you go, the more you will inevitably pick up germs from that environment.

 
Ideally everything is broken down to glucose and absorbed for your body to use. But if you don’t have the right microbes to digest the FODMAPs or even enough of the microbes, undigested carbs will sit in your gut while other microbes try to digest them and end up fermenting them instead.

This is where the uncomfortable bloating, gas, and other symptoms come from. And until they come out through normal excretion, you may continue to experience symptoms for several hours.

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Here’s How to Identify Potential Problem Foods and Yummy Alternatives:

First, tracking what you eat and how you feel afterward can give you information to start figuring out when you are feeling most out of sorts and what you ate before then.

Second, if your symptoms are affecting your daily life and normal functioning, go see a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or other qualified health professional who has experience with GI distress and elimination diets.

An elimination diet is where you avoid any and all problem foods for at least three to four weeks to regain control of your symptoms (and get some relief) and then you systematically reintroduce one single food at a time to test which foods are actually causing the issues and which are not.

Registered dietitians will work with you to make small but significant changes in your nutrition with the goal of alleviating your pain and maintaining a healthy, enjoyable lifestyle.

While doing research on your own is a great place to start, the last thing you want to do is spend a ton of money trying to self-medicate and make it worse instead.

In the meantime, below are some commonly-found high FODMAPs foods along with low FODMAPs swaps that you can try in your own diet and see if your symptoms improve.
 

Learn Which Foods Are High in FODMAPs and Low FODMAP Alternatives You Can Use Instead:

While this is not an exhaustive list and some foods on the high list may not be a problem for you, this may help you to ascertain if any persisting stomach issues could be related to what you are eating.

High FODMAPs Foods

  • Garlic (most common, tends to be very potent)
  • Onions (most common, tends to be very potent)
  • Bananas (ripe)
  • Cauliflower
  • Avocado
  • Beets
  • Dates
  • Figs
  • Pomegranate arils (greater than ¼ cup)
  • Watermelon
  • Almond meal
  • Cashews
  • Semolina flour
  • Chickpeas/hummus (greater than ¼ cup)
  • Tahini paste
  • Agave
  • Molasses
  • Honey
  • Most dairy products except butter, some cheeses, and some yogurts
  • Sugar alcohols (artificial sweeteners)
  • Coconut water
  • Kombucha
  • Soymilk
  • Whey protein (unless lactose-free)

 

Low FODMAPs Foods

  • Dragon fruit
  • Kiwi
  • Passion fruit
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries
  • Eggplant
  • Cucumber
  • Kale
  • Olives
  • Parsnips
  • Sweet and regular potatoes
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Bok choy
  • Gluten-free breads
  • Oats
  • Rice (all)
  • Whole almonds
  • Almond butter
  • Pecans
  • Brazil nuts
  • Walnuts
  • Maple syrup
  • Tamarind paste
  • Coffee
  • Tea (chai, green, herbal)
  • Plant milks (almond, hemp, oat, rice)
  • Yogurt (Greek, Icelandic, goats, lactose-free)

 

FODMAPs: The Takeaway and Next Steps

FODMAPs are different types of carbohydrates that are fermentable and not easily broken down if you lack certain microbes in your intestinal tract.

Certain foods contain higher levels of these carbohydrates, and too much can cause symptoms like painful bloating and gas, especially in people who already have gut sensitivity.

Knowing your body and identifying these foods with the help of a knowledgeable health professional will go a long way to help you achieve a healthy nutrition regimen that is sustainable and enjoyable.

Ultimately, your decision to clean up your diet by having more healthful whole foods is one of the best decisions you will ever make. Nutrition, like everything else, is just one of those things that you have to find what works for you.

If you find that you have identified problem foods and made significant changes and you are still experiencing uncomfortable symptoms, it’s time to see your doctor/nurse practitioner for more personalized support.

All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. The views expressed are those of the author and should be attributed solely to the author. For medical questions, please consult your healthcare provider.

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