Registered Dietitian and Founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc
Mediaplanet sat down with Registered Dietitian Abbey Sharp to discuss gut health, how to manage chronic digestive conditions, tips to understand food intolerances, and more.
What inspired you to become a Registered Dietitian (RD) and to continue your journey on social media?
I learned about what a dietitian does during my own wellness and eating journey. I suffered from an eating disorder from the age of 17, and in my recovery, I went to see a dietitian. While still recovering, I was of course still very enamoured by nutrition (in arguably an unhealthy way). Side bar — eating disorders are rampant in nutrition students and professionals. But after I graduated, I was able to move away from nutrition for a bit to fully heal and recover. Social media was a natural choice for me because I have a history of theatre and acting and performance training. I was a professional singer when I was a teenager and did lots of acting and dancing as well, so I always knew I wanted to work in media. I also always knew that I had a teacher’s heart, and working in media allows me to teach the greatest number of people at the same time.
What are prebiotics and probiotics, and how do they play a role in gut health?
Prebiotics are fibres that help feed the good bacteria in our gut. Probiotics are the healthy gut bacteria themselves. The health of our gut rests on our gut bacteria being happy, diverse, and well-nourished, so it’s important that we try to get in a wide variety of fibres in our diet, as well as fermented foods for natural probiotics. And, if needed, a probiotic supplement can really help as well.
As an RD, what advice do you have for Canadians struggling with chronic gut and digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disorder GERD, and ulcerative colitis?
You don’t need to suffer alone. A great dietitian who specializes in digestive health can be a key player in your health care journey. I myself have IBS, and working with a few of my colleagues who specialize in the area has given me so much more confidence over my body. We also know that the gut is intimately connected to the brain and mental health, and of course when you’re struggling with a chronic digestive condition, it can be a vicious cycle. I strongly urge folks to invest in their mental health. A calm mind helps develop a calm gut.
What can you tell us about the low-FODMAP Diet? Who can this diet be beneficial for?
The low-FODMAP diet is kind of a misnomer. It really isn’t a diet, but rather an elimination trial — a process that ideally should be done with the supervision of a trained GI dietitian. But essentially, FODMAPs are fermentable carbohydrates that are not well-digested in the gut, and people with IBS are often particularly sensitive to them, so over-consuming a lot of FODMAPs can lead to gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and so on. The low-FODMAP trial involves eliminating all FODMAPs for a few weeks and then strategically reincorporating them one at a time in small increments until you can determine if or how much of that particular FODMAP is a trigger. By the end, the goal is that you’ll be able to confidently consume most FODMAP-containing foods, but you’ll have better awareness of how much your body can tolerate and if there are particular FODMAPs that are more problematic for you than others. Everyone’s experience will differ.
In your opinion, why do Canadians struggle with bloating and constipation, and what would you recommend to Canadians who struggle with this daily, impacting their quality of life?
Generally speaking, we’re just not getting enough fibre, water, and exercise. Fibre is found in a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. And because North Americans still rely heavily on a lot of ultra-processed foods, we often fall short of our very basic needs. Likewise, we’re usually not intaking enough water to help move our bowels or exercising or moving our bodies to assist that process, as well. So, water, fibre, and movement are the three main, simple considerations that Canadians should be focusing on.
Can you speak a bit on food intolerances? What are they? What problems are caused by food intolerances?
Food intolerances are difficulties digesting and processing certain foods or food components, which can often lead to gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and so on. Intolerances aren’t allergies, which are an immune response to a protein in food. Intolerances also aren’t imminently dangerous like an allergy, but they can cause disruptions to everyday life. Most people describe belly pain, diarrhea, gas, bloating, headaches, heartburn, nausea, and brain fog or problems concentrating.
Do gluten and dairy have a negative impact on gut health?
There are a lot of misconceptions around gluten and dairy, but unless you have an intolerance, there’s no need to remove these foods. If you have a gluten or dairy intolerance, consuming these foods may cause gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation temporarily, but they won’t cause permanent damage like we see when someone with celiac disease consumes gluten and it triggers an immune response.
What’s the best way to improve gut health? Do you have any food group recommendations?
#1 — Focus on fibre. Fibre helps keep your bowels moving to prevent bloating and constipation, while prebiotic fibres specifically serve as fuel for the good bacteria in our gut. So, focus on more fibre-rich carbs like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and add in some prebiotic sources like asparagus, green bananas, flax, and apples.
#2 — Diversify your diet. Gut bacteria, also known as probiotics, need a wide range of nutrient sources to thrive, so get out of your food rut and switch up your go-to veggies, carbs, proteins, and fats each week.
#3 — Add in a probiotic. Yes, you can get some probiotics from fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, pickles, and sauerkraut, but for a reliable dose, I recommend adding a supplement to your routine. You’ll ideally want to look for a third-party-tested supplement that has a blend of different strains of bacteria.
#4 — Manage your stress. The gut and brain are intimately intertwined, so a stressed-out brain means a stressed-out gut. Focus on acts of self-care that help support your mental health like meditation, quality sleep, exercise, and therapy.