Dr Megan Rossi (Doctor of Philosophy (Medical Science) ’15) is a registered dietitian who shares her science-based nutrition advice to her online following of more than 100,000 readers. Contact’s Rachel Westbury sat down with Rossi for some easy-to-digest information on all things gut health.
What is gut health, and why is it so important?
Gut health relates to the functioning of your entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract – the tube that delivers food from entry to exit. This involves the digestion and absorption of nutrients, 70 per cent of your immune cells, and many other functions that happen without you knowing. It’s only been in the past decade that we’ve discovered the significance of the trillions of bacteria that live within everyone’s GI tract. This community of bacteria, known as your gut microbiota, is considered central to our overall health and happiness.
Why did you decide to specialise in gut health?
My interest in the gut began after I lost my grandma to bowel cancer during my undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics. Several years later, when I was working as a clinical dietitian, I noticed that my kidney disease patients frequently complained about gut issues. That gave me the push I needed to begin my PhD to explore the role of gut health, diet and chronic diseases – especially kidney disease.
What do you love most about your work?
I love research and helping patients, but I also really enjoy sharing ground-breaking research with the public on social media. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work across these three areas. By day, I lead research at King’s College London, investigating nutrition-based therapies in gut health. By night, I run The Gut Health Clinic, a team of gut-specialist dietitians dedicated to helping people get the most out of their gut health. In between research and clinical practice, I enjoy sharing some of the exciting research with the general public on social media. To have the opportunity to write a book on a topic that I’m so passionate about and truly believe will improve lives, has certainly been a dream come true. The gut health doctor: an easy to digest guide to health from the inside out is set to be published by Penguin Life in September 2019.
Gut health is a relatively new field of research. When do believe gut health became a point of interest to society, and why?
Because the research has reached a point where it’s now strictly clear that gut health is not just a trend, but a concept grounded in science that will change the way we not only see ourselves but manage health and disease. This has convinced the media that it’s a topic worth writing about, and sharing with the wider public.
How has social media changed the way you communicate about health?
It has given scientists like myself a platform to share information that previously would have been kept within the walls of universities.
Dr Megan Rossi
You advise that we should aim to eat 30 or more plant-based foods per week. Why 30?
Research has linked this number with greater gut bacteria diversity, which is associated with better overall gut health. Essentially, the more diverse your plant-based foods, the more diverse the range of plant chemicals you’re feeding your bacteria, which in turn facilitates the growth of a more diverse range of bacteria – which is thought to be key to overall health and happiness!
Is there a single diet that is best for improving our gut microbiome?
Any diet that is based mostly around plants – the Mediterranean diet is a good model of this.
What area of gut health is your current focus? Can you share any exciting findings from your recent research?
We’re looking at more of the mechanistic aspect of diet, and how we can look at new therapies, for both preventing and managing disease, that are food-based.
One project I’m working on is looking at different types of dietary fibres in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that affects around 10 per cent of the globe. Certain dietary fibres are known to trigger gut symptoms, leading to a lot of people excluding fruit and vegetables, which can be a vicious cycle.
We’re looking at whether we can combine different fibres to increase tolerability and have the long-term effect of supporting the gut microbiota (the trillions of microbes, including bacteria, that live in our gut). We’ve teamed up with experts to give people acute doses of different types of fibre, then scan their gut to see how much gas and small bowel water is produced after having that dietary fibre, as well as the core symptoms. There's a lot of potential there.
I've also recently published work looking at predicting response to dietary intervention in IBS by measuring different elements of people's faecal samples. Hopefully soon we will be able to say something like, "Based on your stool analysis, you've got 60 per cent chance of responding to a low FODMAP diet, so let's try it." It’s personalised nutrition.
Can you share a few career highlights so far?
My first was winning the UQ’s Three Minute Thesis back in 2014, I’ll never forget that! More recently it was meeting Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, who presented me with the British Nutrition Foundation Award. I was very fortunate to meet Princess Anne in advance of the award ceremony, she was very down to earth – and even cracked a few jokes!
Megan's seven steps for better gut health?
1. Eat a varied diet that’s rich in fibre: High-fibre food includes vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes and pulses.
Gradually increase fibre over several weeks to give your gut time to adapt.
2. Experiment with fermented foods containing good bacteria, such as kefir, kimchi or sauerkraut: Foods containing natural live bacteria come at no extra cost and taste great.
3. Avoid unnecessary medications, particularly overuse of antibiotics and painkillers: These can aggravate gut problems and disrupt your gut bacteria.
4. Chew your food well: Digestion starts in the mouth. Aim to chew your food between 10–20 times, until the food is broken down and not so tasty anymore.
5. Take time to breathe, destress and sleep well: There’s a link between your brain and gut. Being stressed and tired can affect your
6. Exercise regularly: Exercise helps to regulate bowel habit, particularly those prone to constipation. It’s also associated with greater diversity in gut bacteria.
7. Know when to seek medical advice: Alarming symptoms include unexplained weight loss, low iron levels, rectal bleeding, and changes in bowel habits lasting more than six weeks, particularly in those over 50 years of age.
For more information on all things gut health, find Megan on Instagram @TheGutHealthDoctor.