by The Culinistas

t’s easy to get lost in medical speak and jargon when it comes to learning about health and wellness, particularly around gut issues. That’s why we love talking shop with nutritional therapy practitioner and co-author of the Healthy Gut Cookbook Maya Gangadharan. 

Gangadharan breaks down her philosophy on gut health in a way that’s approachable and relatable, and we’re oh-so-grateful. Here she talks to us about the fallacy of gut “bad guys,” the effect of stress on digestion (spoiler: a lot), and how following her gut led to knowing her own worth. 

The Culinistas: So little is known about the gut. What’s a misconception people might have about gut health? 

Maya Gangadharan: Many people believe that the microbiome (a fancy word for the host of bacteria, yeast, and fungi living in the gut) can be divided into good and bad organisms. What we are finding through research is that those “bad guys”, when they are in balance, often have a function that supports the body. For example, most of us think of candida as something we should get rid of, but candida helps detox heavy metals from the body. So an excess of candida needs to be managed, but killing it all off might make it harder for us to release heavy metals our body is trying to get rid of. It’s more accurate to think of these tiny residents of our gut as “probiotic” and “opportunistic” rather than good and bad.

TC: What’s one easy thing anyone can do to take care of the gut? 

MG: Every time you eat, make sure you sit down, take a few deep breaths, and put yourself in a calm, relaxed state. If you always eat in the car (even worse — during rush hour), or during meetings, or you are grabbing bites of food while you are rushing around your home, you are undermining your digestion in a way that can cause long-term problems. Remember this phrase: “When stress is on, digestion is off”. Ever notice how your digestion is at its worst when you are super stressed out? Digestion is an energy-intensive process and if your body senses that you are in stress it will turn down your digestive power to free up energy to deal with the perceived stress. This creates the perfect breeding ground for IBS, leaky gut and even food intolerances. Eat when you are eating, do everything else when you are doing everything else!

TC: What hooked you in wanting to become an expert on gut health? 

MG: Healing my own gut issues was more than enough to make me a believer! I went from not being able to eat a simple salad with chicken and oil-and-vinegar dressing without severe digestive distress to healing my gut, losing weight and seeing my PMS symptoms disappear in less than six weeks. I realized from my own experience what a huge factor the gut is in overall health, and my formal nutrition training gave me a deeper understanding of how it is all connected. I find that almost every client that I work with has gut issues and/or blood sugar issues as underlying causes that need to be addressed before they can make progress on any of their other health goals.

TC: If your gut was a celebrity, who would it be and why? 

MG: Chrissy Tiegen. She’s strong, outspoken (with a touch of sarcasm, which I love) and loves all things food and cooking. As we have seen from recent events, Chrissy also sometimes faces unexpected vulnerabilities, and her resilience is a model for us all. Strong and resilient — that’s the gut I have built and continue to maintain.

TC: Tell us about a time when you followed your gut and it paid off in spades. 

MG: In my mid-twenties I was working on a contract for a client and found out that my counterpart, who had the same experience as me and was doing the exact same job, was making significantly more money. I brought this up to the project manager and was told that since this budget had already been set there was nothing that could be done, but that they would correct it for the next contract. 

When that contract came around my terms were the same as before. I brought it up to the project manager who told me she had forgotten about that conversation and offered me a small amount above what I had made before. I knew in my gut that if I didn’t hold to my standards, I would never be respected and valued by this client, so I firmly but politely declined the contract. It was a scary thing to do because I needed that work! 

Two weeks later (a very long two weeks as I contemplated my bank account!) that client came back to me, offered me the increase I had requested and I went on to enjoy a long relationship with them, becoming one of their top vendors. Now, I always trust my gut when it comes to valuing my talents, skills and contributions.

TC: What’s one thing you’ve never had the guts to do, but always wanted to try? 

MG: Parachuting! I used to fly all the time for business and I’m not afraid of flying, so you’d think I’d have tried it by now. Maybe in 2021!

TC: What is your gut telling you is in store for 2021? 

MG: Growth and change! Professionally I am excited to launch two new digital courses in 2021; one on gut health and one on blood sugar balance. It will be a way to help more people and also make it easier for private clients to get the basics in place and prepare to address more specific issues in a one-on-one setting. 

Personally, I took a big risk early this year by selling my home in a quiet suburb where I had lived for 20 years and moving to the city of Detroit. It paid off big time! I have loved my life in the city, even during the pandemic. In fact, the parks, greenways and riverfront in Detroit made the shelter-at-home time period much easier to navigate. So, I’ll be house-hunting in the spring for my new dream home. I love historic homes with lots of brick, limestone and original wood accents and there is plenty of that style of house in Detroit. The question I am asking myself now is how much renovation do I feel willing and able to handle? We’ll see what I decide!

We asked Maya to select six items from our Go With Your Gut menu and tell us why.

Spinach & Artichoke Dip with Crudités & Sourdough (spinach, marinated artichokes, sheep’s feta, yogurt, parsley, za’atar, sumac, onion powder, cayenne, sourdough, vegetables)

“Sourdough, yogurt, feta — all these versions of foods that sometimes cause people digestive distress are often easier to digest for sensitive stomachs.”

Cauliflower Soup (cauliflower, celery, shallot, coconut milk, apple cider vinegar, finishing pepper, cayenne)

“Soup! Softening the fiber in vegetables makes it easier for an irritated stomach to digest. It’s the first thing I recommend for any gut-healing protocol.”

Shrimp with Tomato & Spinach (wild shrimp, tomato, spinach, sage, garlic, lemon, cayenne,onion powder)

“You had me at shrimp! In addition, tomato and spinach are also high in vitamin C, which helps make strong, healthy collagen translating into healthy intestinal lining.”

Sea Bass with Leeks & Spinach (wild sea bass, leek, spinach, rosemary, lemon, cayenne, onion powder)

“Prebiotics — or insoluble fiber — feed the probiotic bacteria in your gut which in turn helps them produce nutrients that your body can use.”

Roasted Sunchokes (sunchoke, sesame seed, mint, serrano chile, lemon, za’atar, cumin)

“Mint has a long history of being used medicinally for abdominal issues and some research studies have shown it to be effective at relieving symptoms of IBS.”

Roasted Sweet Potatoes & Spicy Yogurt (sweet potato, honey, apple cider vinegar, serrano, urfa, finishing pepper, onion powder)

“Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of fiber as well as being packed with vitamins and antioxidants. The yogurt provides probiotics and cashews add protein and healthy fat.”

Make sure to download our fun gut health bracket for your chance to win a set of our 10 Grove kitchen linens.