I am a veggie snob. All winter I suffer, forced to shop in the produce section of the grocery store, instead of the bounty of my backyard. Greens, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, no matter what it is, lose flavor and appeal with every mile they travel. To me they taste more like the cooler they were stored in, than anything like the outdoors where they were grown. Perhaps I shouldn’t gripe, since our selection and quality of winter vegetables has improved a great deal since I was a child, but I live on a produce farm, so I am genuinely veggie-spoiled.
With spring’s arrival, and the greening of the fields, I can simply walk across a few acres and graze. The cultivated lettuces, spinach, baby radishes and beet greens taste sweeter to me than a pan of brownies, but the real thrill comes in the flowering tops of the wild mustards, last year’s arugula, dandelions, violets and all manner of weeds, waiting to be foraged. Within seconds of harvest, their nutrients hit my digestive tract and await assimilation. Something deep and ancestral stirs in my bones when I engage in this “hunter-gatherer” ritual. The world around me right now reverberates the most intense golden green life and the tender succulence of the plant matter appeals to both palate and belly.
For at least 90% of the time that humans have walked the earth our ancestors foraged for plant matter. Roots, greens, berries and seeds created a rich diverse source of fiber that sustained life, not only the human consumer but also the microbial residents of the human's digestive tract as well. A special relationship between human and microbe evolved around the consumption of 80-150 grams of fiber/day. Gut microbes feast daily on our leftovers: the fibrous portion of our diet that we are unable to digest. These fibers travel through our small intestine and arrive in the large intestine as a bug’s smorgasbord. Bacterial digestion (aka fermentation) of these fibers release nutrients, such as short chain fatty acids (SCFA) that we would otherwise miss out on. SCFAs, notably butyrate, provide fuel for colon cells and protect these cells with it’s anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Roots such as burdock, dandelion, chicory and radish are rich in a soluble fiber called inulin that our beneficial microbial residents love.
Remember, gut microbes thrive on your leftovers. Competition for bug food in the colon is stiff, and if fiber is scarce, they will turn to their second favorite food: your intestinal mucus. If that sounds gross and unappealing, you are right, it is. That mucous lining provides an important barrier between what’s in your gut and what’s in your blood stream. If bacteria are starving for nutrients, they will dine on what they can get their hands on, if they had hands, that is.
If you’re like me, you want to keep your mucous lining in tact. A vast array of supplements can support you in this endeavor, especially if you are already in trouble. Licorice, L-glutamine and zinc carnosine are some of the most popular supplements for symptoms of leaky gut. However, before you spend big bucks on magic pills, evaluate your fiber consumption. A handy fiber calculator, available online can give you a good idea if you are eating enough. If you daily fiber total is less than 50 grams, consider boosting fiber, especially soluble fiber. If you have access to fresh local produce, commit yourself to consuming more vegetables with every meal. A search online will help you find creative ways to prepare vegetables so that your task becomes a delicious endeavor. Joining a CSA is a fantastic way to encourage healthier eating: your box arrives each week, and you set a personal goal to eat the entire contents before the next one arrives.
As is often the case, the remedy is as simple as following your Mom’s advice: "Eat your vegetables!”