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Image courtesy of Project Juice

Have you had your gut health checked lately? Has Gwyneth convinced you of the importance of your microbiome just yet? Is your flora diverse?

You may be hearing a lot about the gut lately, and for good reason — the health of your gut often determines the health of many other systems in your body. When your gut health is off, your immune health, mental health, skin health, hormone health, and more might be off, too.

Part of this is due to the fact that 70 percent of the immune system is housed in its lining and 95 percent of serotonin is produced right in the small intestine.

And what you eat might just affect all that.

So when Project Juice reached out to me about doing their Happy Guts Challenge for six days straight, the inner Goop in me was definitely down to try.

According to the California-based juice company, the recipe is eight frozen smoothies packed with organic ingredients, prebiotics, and probiotics, along with six “Tummy Tonics.” (FYI: prebiotics are a type of fiber that feeds the probiotics in your gut.)

After drinking a Tummy Tonic and smoothie, the remaining snacks and meals of the day came from their suggested gut-happy meal plan. This included recipes like spicy shiitake oats, fennel-apple salad, buddha bowls, and more.

You do need to buy your own ingredients, and combined with meal prepping, the cost can be kept lower.

Meal plan tips If you don’t do a lot of home cooking, you might have to pick up some pantry staples like oils, spices, and grains. Fortunately, these recipes didn’t require any specialty ingredients (psst — we’ve included one of the recipes at the bottom). And if there was something you weren’t interested in, you could simply swap it out with another recipe on the plan.

The tonics and smoothies were meant to help begin each day gut-strong, ease digestive issues, and boost your well-being. The recipes were to make sure your gut stayed strong.

So each morning I started the day with a Tummy Tonic

These were apple cider vinegar-based shots.

Project Juice says ACV stimulates stomach acid production for easier digestion. While there are no studies to confirm this, the thought is that ACV’s fermented and antibacterial properties are what works.

In my experience, anything with ACV can be difficult to choke down, but throwing back a mild burn-in-a-shot at 7 a.m. really fills you with some zest and vigor.

I actually found these a fairly pleasant and novel way to start the morning. To dilute the ACV, this tonic also had soothing aloe, anti-inflammatory ginger, fresh-pressed apple juice (likely to balance out the acidity), and some vegan probiotics for good measure.

What are vegan probiotics? Many probiotics are actually derived from animals or dairy, so be sure to read the ingredient list carefully for active and inactive ingredients! According to Project Juice, their vegan probiotics are strains of organic, kosher, plant-based bacteria known as Bacillus coagulans, which also help balance your gut community.

Next came the smoothies, under the name Sub-Zero Superfoods

These were all vegan and came frozen in a recyclable cardboard cup.

Flavors ranged from mint cacao (my favorite), strawberry banana, and kale protein, to avocado orange (my least favorite), and cacao and blueberry protein.

The ingredients were true to the superfood trend, with additions like spirulina, sacha inchi, lucuma, chlorella, goji berries, chia seeds, and more on top of the organic fruits and vegetables in each package.

The only work I had to do was add water or non-dairy milk, toss it in a blender, and enjoy.

It was nice not having to think about breakfast or what to put in my smoothie every morning, and I appreciate that the packaging was recyclable. I did notice that some of them were pretty low-cal, which meant I was eager for my mid-morning snack pretty quickly.

Overall, the tonics, smoothies, and recipes were easy to follow and adapt to my lifestyle, and throughout the week I did experience less bloating, noticeable formidability in the elimination department, and more energy.

But how did I actually do in the gut department?

That’s where the accompanying Explorer Kit, made by San Francisco biotech startup uBiome, came in.

After consuming the smoothies, wellness shots, and gut-healthy recipes, I was to take a gut-health analysis test to evaluate my microbiome. It would tell me about the types of bacteria present in my gut, if I have good diversity, and what it all means.

This, of course, required a stool sample, which I wasn’t very excited about providing. But it ended up being pretty painless (you simply swiped the provided Q-tip over used toilet paper and placed it in a little jar to send off to the lab).

A few weeks later my results are in, and I got an 89.3 percent on my overall test!

...Is that any good?

According to uBiome, yes. This is the Wellness Match Score, which compares my microbes to everyone else who has taken the test and are in generally good health — my microbes overlap with theirs by 89.3 percent.

I was also in the 13th percentile for microbial diversity, with a score of 6.83 out of 10 (the normal range is about between 6 and 9).

The rest of the results focused on my unique bacteria (those found least frequently among tested samples), gluten sensitivity, lactose intolerance, inflammation, and more, along with recommendations for how I can make improvements in those areas.

Everything was laid out in an easy-to-understand manner, along with action items for how I can improve the amount of specific beneficial strains of bacteria through diet and supplements.

For instance, both my gluten- and lactose-digesting microbes were minimal (expected, as I do experience bloating when I eat either one), so uBiome recommended a variety of ways to incorporate those bacteria into my diet.

They recommended consuming more fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir to improve symptoms of lactose intolerance and increase my Lactobacillus levels, which is the type of bacteria that can help you digest dairy.

They also recommended eating apples for their pectin, which increases Lactobacillus and a variety of prebiotic supplements.

Honestly, not really.

It’s hard to say how I fared without knowing where I was starting from prior to the challenge, but I did seem to score well after all the smoothies.

Most of the differences were physically noticeable rather than on a micro level. Those fiber-rich recipes really made an apparent difference in my digestion, which led to better energy, better mood, and decreased bloating.

It also did affirm my suspicions that gluten and dairy aren’t really my dietary forte. I can also say that I now know what my body typically looks like after a week of focused, gut-supportive eating.

As for the Happy Guts challenge itself, the smoothies emphasized the virtues of meal prep (having breakfast already mostly prepared for me every morning was delightful), as well as a whole-foods, plant-based diet.

With those positive changes, I don’t need an official test to tell me when something’s working, and with the holidays right around the corner filled with plenty of indulgences, the challenge gave me a guide to know exactly how to nourish myself and give my gut a reset to get back on track.

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Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Yields: 1 serving

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth or water
  • a handful of shiitake mushrooms (about 2 oz.), sliced thin
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 stem fresh rosemary, leaves removed
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil or coconut oil
  • a pinch of sea salt and black pepper
  • a handful of cilantro or parsley, roughly chopped
  • your favorite hot sauce (optional)

Directions:

  1. In a small saucepan, combine oats with veggie broth or water and bring to a simmer. Add salt and black pepper and continue to cook on medium-low until broth is mostly absorbed and oats are creamy, about 5 minutes.
  2. While the oats cook, heat olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic, rosemary, and shiitakes to pan and cook until mushrooms are well-browned, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes to pan and cook until softened, about 2 minutes more.
  3. Pour oats into a bowl and top with shiitake mixture. Garnish with cilantro or parsley and drizzle with hot sauce (optional).

Recipe courtesy of Project Juice.


Kristen Ciccolini is a Boston-based holistic nutritionist and founder of Good Witch Kitchen. As a certified Culinary Nutrition Expert, she’s focused on nutrition education and teaching busy women how to incorporate healthier habits into their everyday lives through coaching, meal plans, and cooking classes. When she’s not nerding out over food, you can find her upside down in a yoga class, or right-side up at a rock show. Follow her on Instagram.