“Skinny” is such an outdated concept; too diet culture for 2022. “Flat belly” sounds better, but we’re tired of that, too. What is the trend-dependent online influencer culture to do?
Enter “gut health,” TikTok’s latest euphemism for having a thin waist — this time with extra wellness baggage. It sounds like it’s all about a science-based journey toward better nutrition, but really it’s more bullshit. So let’s explore the most questionable gut health hacks that the video platform has to offer. Grab a towel, because it’s time for your internal shower!
An “internal shower” is a drink that contains two full tablespoons of chia seeds, plus a squeeze of lemon. Chia seeds swell in water, forming a lumpy, gel-like texture. (This is both what makes them good in pudding, and allows them to adhere to the terra-cotta planters of Chia Pet fame.)
So why drink them? Well, they’re high in fibre, and you also consume a glass of water in the process. In other words, it’s a trendier version of Metamucil. The sudden increase in fibre in your diet can lead to bloating and diarrhoea if you’re not used to it, but isn’t likely to be harmful otherwise.
It’s true that a diverse diet with plenty of plant foods is probably better for your gut than a crappy diet — but not for any game-changing, gut-specific reason. Your gut is healthy when your body is healthy, and a variety of fibre and other nutrients are good for your gut microbes and for the rest of you. This amounts to “eat your vegetables,” and is thus not an exciting TikTok tip.
So we have to put a spin on it. While there are plenty of other clips out there suggesting you go on an elimination diet, ripping out entire food groups, I particularly liked (hated) this video that demonizes pepperoni sticks, cheese slices wrapped in plastic, and Lunchables, the one joy of my childhood packed lunches, because they have “chemicals.”
The pursuit of “gut health” has led influencers to tell you that you need to go out and get some L-glutamine (available in any store’s supplement aisle) to heal or prevent your leaky gut. Some of these videos include actual scientific facts about what we understand glutamine to do in the body. But that itself should set off alarm bells: When somebody talks about the mechanism of how something is supposed to work, without presenting data on whether it actually works for the intended outcome, chances are you’re on the wrong path. (Dr. Arreola, to her credit, makes clear that L-glutamine is not a belly flattener or a cure-all.)
L-glutamine is an amino acid that our body can usually make for itself. There is evidence that supplementing it is helpful for people with serious bowel diseases, sepsis, injuries like extensive burns, and immune disorders. The Canadian Society for Intestinal Research notes that you should consult a physician if you think you have conditions serious enough to affect your body’s ability to make enough glutamine.
Anything involving an “elixir”
There’s a whole genre of TikTok videos that feature a woman with visible abs making a beverage in her kitchen. The identity of the woman and the purpose of the beverage vary, but the abs are a constant.
So, sure, there are elixirs for gut health. The lady above is making one that includes a fresh squeezed lemon (of course), mango juice, aloe juice, and coconut water. What does any of that have to do with gut health? Beats me, but hey she has abs. I mean, gut health.
Washing your fruit
Video after video tells us that we need to wash our fruit before we eat it, to remove pesticides that will ruin our gut and stand in the way of snatching our stomachs.
It is a good idea to rinse fruit before you eat it, but there’s no link between the barely-detectable trace amounts of pesticides on fruit and the health of your gut or the size of your waistline. This isn’t a gut health tip, it’s just sensible food prep.
Pilates is low-key strength training. We’ve already covered the trend of TikTok influencers making up imaginary benefits of Pilates, but “gut health” is new to me. What does a specific exercise routine (here, Pilates and hot yoga) do for your intestinal and microbial health? “I mean, look at this body,” the narrator says while the camera shows her thin waist. So…not gut health at all.
Eating 30 plants a day
I kind of like this as a hack for increasing the diversity of your diet: count up the number of plant species you eat each week, and aim to get more than you currently do. Lettuce and tomato on your sandwich? Add the wheat from the bun and you’re already up to three. This idea got its start with research from the American Gut Project, which found people who ate a more varied diet had a more diverse gut microbiome — although there is no specific link to health, and scientists still haven’t found a way of determining what a “healthy” microbiome looks like.
But all of that has mutated quite a bit on TikTok. In this clip, the narrator tells us that the difference between her before and after pictures is not due to “cardio and a restrictive diet.” But she has clearly lost fat. Gut health is just the new code word for losing fat. Nearly every one of the videos I’ve highlighted here starts with a before-and-after of somebody’s soft, then toned, tummy. If it were really about “bloating” you’d be able to see the same abs in both pictures.
Going for a walk in the morning
Walks are good! Morning routines are good! And it’s true that your gut has its own “clock” for telling what time it is. This influencer gets it backwards, though, when she suggests getting morning light to set your gut’s clock. In truth, the gut sets its clock based on when you feed it.
If you want to set your gut’s clock in the morning, try eating breakfast. Like a whole, actual breakfast, not a glass of lemon water.
This old thing? (I need to stop being surprised when old health trends make a comeback.) Oil pulling is when you swish coconut oil around your mouth, sometimes for up to 20 minutes, in addition to (or in place of) brushing your teeth. It’s not particularly good at that job, and there’s no reason to believe it will do anything for your gut health or your abs.
Another archaic one that keeps popping up, the idea of over-chewing your food always reminds me of that scene in The Road to Wellville where the dining hall erupts in a chorus of “Chew chew chew, that is the thing to do/Chew chew chew, good food is good for you..”
Yes, your mouth produces salivary amylase to help break down your food. But there is plenty of amylase in your small intestine as well. Studies have shown potential, subtle effects of extended chewing on satiety (how hungry you feel), but the idea that you’ll get a TikTok flat belly by spending more time chewing is unsupported.
Drink water before or after meals, but not during
Lemon water makes its appearance again. But not during meals, ok? Even though the water you drink before, during, and after a meal all goes to the same place. Sigh.
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