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Digestive Health

Nourishing Insights: A Candid Q&A with Registered Dietitian Abbey Sharp

Dive into a nutritional exploration with renowned Registered Dietitian Abbey Sharp as she answers burning questions, dispels myths, and shares expert insights on achieving a balanced and nourishing lifestyle.

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What inspired you to become a Registered Dietitian (RD) and to continue your journey sharing knowledge on social media?

I actually came to understand what a dietitian is and does after struggling with my own eating disorder in my late teens. It was then that I got to work one-on-one with a registered dietitian, and as I recovered, I knew I wanted to help others avoid the dangerous pitfalls that I had fallen into. As an eating disorder survivor, I have first-hand experience with the damage that diet culture can do, which is why I’ve made it my personal and professional mission to dismantle diet culture through info-tainment content online.

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What are some common digestive problems that people often experience, and what are their causes?

The main ones are diarrhea, constipation, bloating and heart burn. There are as many reasons for these symptoms as there are folks who experience them (and sometimes it’s really hard to narrow down the unique cause). But in addition to genetics (some folks just have more sensitive guts), and certain medications, health conditions or functional gut disorders, our diet and the health of our microbiome can play a significant role. Diarrhea can be caused by a food intolerance, allergy, or food borne illness. Constipation can be caused by lack of fibre, too little water, or both. Bloating is often the result of a food intolerance, constipation (ie. lack of fibre), or consuming triggering foods. For example, everyone has a unique “FODMAP” Bucket (fermentable carbohydrates that are fermented by bacteria in the gut). When we consume too many FODMAPS, our bucket overflows and we can get symptoms like bloating and gas. FODMAPS are found in foods like broccoli, cauliflower, sugar alcohols, fructose rich fruits, garlic, onions, and many more.

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How can one maintain a healthy gut microbiome, and why is it important for overall digestive health?

Microbiome comes down to a healthy varied diet that’s rich in prebiotics (the fuel that feeds the bacteria), plus probiotics (the bacteria themselves). Probiotics are found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, pickled products, as well as high quality supplements (pro tip: look for probiotics with multiple strains). Prebiotics are fibres that the gut can gobble up as fuel. Common potent sources include bananas, oats, lentils, asparagus, wheat bran, seaweed, barley, Jerusalem artichoke, etc. A varied diet is the most important thing because different beneficial bacterial species thrive on different types of fibre and fibre sources. So, in order to build a bountiful varied microbiome, we want to try to consume as many types of fibre as possible.

A healthy gut microbiome is essential to the health of everything else in the body. We house 70% of our immune system in our gut, so if our microbiome is compromised, so is our immune system. Our microbiome is also involved in weight management, heart health, brain health, mental health and mood, blood sugar regulation, and more. We have only scratched the surface understanding of the microbiome and all of its remarkable uses.

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What are some of the most common misconceptions or myths about digestive health and nutrition that you encounter, and what’s the truth behind them?

That a food is inherently bad for your gut because it causes you gas. The reality is that gas is actually often a sign that your gut bacteria are having a feast – they’re breaking down the prebiotic fibres as fuel for them and producing beneficial by-products like short chain fatty acids. So, if you experience gas after having a huge bowl of beans, it doesn’t mean that beans are bad for your gut. This is actually a sign that they’re good for your gut! You may just need to modify the portion size or quantity or work up to a larger fibre load if your body isn’t used to it. If you suspect that certain foods are triggering uncomfortable side effects, work with a dietitian on a proper FODMAP elimination and reintroduction protocol to determine the tipping point where you can derive these benefits without experiencing negative side effects.

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How do you recommend people balance their diet to ensure they get enough nutrients for overall health while also supporting their digestive system?

Think colour! A colourful diet is a diverse diet, which is the easiest way to meet your nutrient needs for overall health and the nutrient needs of our microbiome. Focusing on plant-based foods as well is another simple way to get in extra prebiotic fibre to support regularity and our gut. In contrast, a diet rich in ultra-processed foods (which are largely digestive and absorbed before they reach our hungry bacteria) typically provides very little prebiotics and polyphenols to support bacterial diversity and growth. Ultimately, what’s good for us, is good for the gut.

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What is the biggest piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to prioritize optimal digestive health and overall wellbeing?

A simple goal would be to aim for at least one plant-based meal a day, and to try to get in at least three different “colours” per day. For example, that could mean berries at breakfast, greens at lunch, and tomatoes at dinner.

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