If you’re trying to improve (or at least look after) the health of your gut, your daily diet will play an important role.
Some foods help nourish the gut and promote the growth of good bacteria, while others can cause digestive distress and interfere with the health of the microbiome — or the bacterial environment in the gut.
Here, experts outline foods you may want to avoid or limit to reduce your likelihood of developing gut problems.
“Fried foods are bad for gut health on many levels,” says gastroenterologist Elena A. Ivanina, DO.
First, fried foods are one of the most common triggers for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition that occurs when stomach acid repeatedly flows into the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth and stomach), says Dr. Ivanina.
Fried foods also contain high amounts of saturated fat. Not only does saturated fat contribute to heart disease, but excess amounts are harder to digest and will take longer to break down, which can be a problem for people with IBD, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of:Read it before you eat it – it takes you from poster to table.
To make matters worse, “fried meat, specifically, increases endotoxins and systemic inflammation by affecting the gut microbiome,” says Dr. Ivanina.
In fact, “consumption of fried foods is associated with less variety.” [of gut bacteria] While foods such as raw vegetables are associated with higher diversity.”
Here’s why it matters: A less diverse microbiome has been linked to many chronic health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes, according to an article published in January 2019 inaging.
Drinking a daily cocktail can have some serious consequences for your gut. That’s because wine can damage the lining, or mucous membrane, of the digestive system, says Taub-Dix.
Dr. Ivanina says clearly: “Alcohol is directly toxic to the gut and should be one of the first things to get rid of if you are concerned about your gut health.”
This is because “alcohol damages the function of the intestinal barrier (causing ‘leaky gut’) allowing bacterial toxins to pass into your system,” Dr. Ivanina explains. This can contribute to inflammation in other organs, such as the liver.
Eating a lot of red meat may spoil your gut.
“Studies have shown that eating a lot of red meat contributes to inflammation, especially in the colon where it can lead to colon cancer,” says Taub-Dix.
And the statistics are staggering: “Eating a lot of red and processed meat causes 18 percent of bowel cancer cases,” says Dr. Ivanina. “Specifically, processed meat has been classified as a Class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO), which means that it is known to cause cancer in humans.”
There’s a mechanism behind red meat’s link to cancer: “Red meat contains heme iron which is broken down in the gut to form N-nitroso compounds, which can damage the intestinal lining and lead to cancer,” explains Dr. Ivanina.
4. High-sugar foods/drinks
Eating and drinking a lot of sweet foods can be particularly harmful to the health of your gut.
“High-sugar foods and sugary drinks have been linked to inflammation, which can irritate the gut and destroy beneficial bacteria,” says Taub-Dix.
And this damage starts earlier than you think — childhood food patterns set the stage for gut health later in life.
“Too much sugar, especially during early growth periods, alters the gut microbiome by causing ‘dysbiosis,’ or an imbalance of bacteria,” says Dr. Ivanina. She adds that dysplasia can also affect other organs like the brain (think: impaired memory function).
Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners might not be a smart strategy either.
“Artificial sweeteners, like sugar alcohols, can cause bloating, stomach aches, painful gas, and diarrhea,” Top-Dix says. “Not everyone experiences these reactions, but if eaten in large quantities, foods containing sugar alcohols can upset your gut.”
Furthermore, Dr. Ivanina says, “Artificial sweeteners can alter gut bacteria responsible for metabolism, leading to obesity and diabetes.”
Research has found that artificial sweeteners can be harmful to gut bacteria, according to a September 2018 research paper published inMolecules.
To avoid artificial sweeteners, check your food labels. “Look for words ending in ‘-ol’ to identify a sugar alcohol like sorbitol,” says Taub-Dix.
6. Highly Processed Foods
There is no denying that ready meals and ready-to-eat foods (eg: frozen pizza and microwave dinners) are an easy way to make them in no time. But the health of your gut can pay a heavy price for the convenience of processed foods.
Unfortunately, “Ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of IBD,” says Dr. Ivanina.
To help preserve foods and make them taste good, ultra-processed foods contain artificial ingredients such as added sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, thickeners, and flavorings, all of which can be harmful to gut health.
“For example, food emulsifiers have been shown to promote colitis by altering the microbiome and damaging the intestinal lining,” says Dr. Ivanina.
However, you don’t necessarily have to cross out every processed food. “When it comes to foods that are good or bad, it’s not just about how they are processed as it is about their ingredient list,” says Taub-Dix.
You should limit or avoid most processed foods, but there are also many nutritious ready-to-eat foods. For example, canned beans, canned fish, and frozen vegetables are all technically “processed” foods, but the ingredient list typically consists of three or fewer simple ingredients, making them nutritious choices.
For some, dairy products can be harmful to gut health.
“Dairy products typically cause symptoms through a combination of mechanisms including lactose intolerance, low lactase enzyme, FODMAP intolerance or milk allergy,” says Dr. Ivanina. Some dairy products also contain hormones and antibiotics that may be harmful.
“While they are important, and sometimes necessary, to killing bad bacteria, antibiotics can also damage or destroy the good bacteria,” says Taub-Dix. This means that they can disrupt the balance of friendly flora in your gut.
Now, you might be thinking,I have to give up all those cold turkey foods?
Taub-Dix assures us that there is room for all foods in your eating plan. “There’s no need to avoid ‘any of the foods listed above if your diet is basically balanced and consists of a variety of whole foods,'” she says. “How often you have it may have a bigger problem.”
Dr. Ivanina agrees that moderation is key: “The risk increases the more a person eats harmful food. Eating red meat at a steakhouse on your birthday won’t cause cancer, but on a regular basis, it certainly is.”