Throw Away Processed Foods
If there’s nothing else you do for your gut, do this: Get processed foods out of your diet. Processed foods are the number one contributor to gut dysbiosis. They’re often full of unhealthy fats, white sugar, and artificial ingredients and almost completely devoid of fiber. This combination not only starves good bacteria, it allows bad bacteria to run rampant, leaving you bloated, gassy, constipated, and just plain cranky.
There’s no doubt that processed foods are convenient, but because they mess up your gut, they’re connected to all sorts of related health problems, like weight gain, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases like cancer, heart disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and diabetes (to name a few of the big ones).
The foods that are at fault are not just obviously unhealthy processed foods like macaroni and cheese and frozen pizza; they’re all types of processed foods, even the gluten-free or low-sugar ones. That includes:
- Potato chips/tortilla chips
- Granola bars
- Frozen dinners
Keep in mind that there are different levels of processing. While frozen vegetables are technically processed, they’re still a healthy choice. The goal is to avoid ready-to-eat, convenience foods that lack proper nutrition and the fiber your gut needs.
Fill ’er Up on Fiber
On average, Americans eat about 16 grams of fiber per day, which isn’t nearly enough. The current recommendation for women is 25 grams daily, while men need about 38 grams per day.
Low fiber intake can cause gut problems like constipation and decreased bacterial diversity—or not enough of different kinds of bacteria in your gut. Falling short on your fiber can also create long-term health problems, like an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. And since many of the most nutrient-dense foods are the ones that are highest in fiber, if you’re not getting enough fiber, it’s highly likely that you’re low on other nutrients too.
If you think your fiber intake is low, the best way to boost your intake is to start adding a plant food to each of your meals. For example, you can throw some kale and spinach into your eggs in the morning or mix some chia seeds into your yogurt. Add a side of vegetables—any vegetables—to your lunch and eat a side salad with your dinner.
Some of the best sources of fiber are:
- Split peas
- Chia seeds
Feast on Some Fermented Foods
Fermentation, which is the breakdown of carbohydrates by bacteria and yeast, is the original form of food processing. The goal of fermentation was to increase the shelf life of foods before there was access to refrigeration. But since bacteria and yeast are used during the fermentation process, it also creates loads of probiotics in the food that make food more digestible, boost immune health, and improve gut health by promoting a healthy balance of bacteria.
Not only do fermented foods have high numbers of probiotics, they also contain a wide diversity, or different forms of probiotics.
A September 2018 study found that the probiotics in fermented foods also seem to be more resistant than supplements to the low pH of stomach acid. In other words, unlike some supplemental probiotics, they don’t get killed in your stomach. Instead, they travel through all the way to your small intestine, where they can grow, multiply, and keep your gut healthy. Some fermented foods are:
- Sauerkraut (unpasteurized)
- Yogurt (with live active cultures)
- Cheese (with live active cultures)
- Pickles (naturally fermented)
- Green olives
Pump Up the Prebiotics
When it comes to gut health, probiotics get a lot of attention, but prebiotics are just as important. Prebiotics are nondigestible fibers that feed the good bacteria in your gut. They include inulin, fructooligosaccharides, galactooligosaccharides, beta-glucans, pectins, and resistant starches.
When you eat foods that are high in any of these prebiotic fibers, you’re giving the good bacteria the nourishment they need to grow and multiply. On the other hand, if you don’t eat any prebiotic foods, you’re starving your good bacteria of the food they need to survive.
This is why you often hear that plant foods are the best choices for gut health. Plant foods are the only sources of prebiotic fibers. Some prebiotic-rich foods include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Bananas (especially if they aren’t quite ripe yet)
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Konjac root
- Burdock root
- Yacon root
- Raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
Swap Your Coffee for Chicory Root
Chicory coffee is a hot beverage that’s made from the roots of the chicory plant, a woody perennial that’s part of the dandelion family. Chicory has a high concentration of inulin, a fiber that acts as a prebiotic. Chicory is also rich in polyphenols, antioxidant compounds that act as prebiotics and help balance your gut ecosystem.
Coffee has potential health risks, mostly due to its caffeine, and as many people are sensitive to caffeine, there’s an increasing demand for a caffeine-free substitute. That’s where chicory root coffee comes in. It doesn’t actually contain any coffee. It’s made from chicory root that’s been roasted, dried, and ground into a powder that you can mix with water or steamed milk to make a latte.
It doesn’t taste exactly like coffee—let’s be honest, there’s no great caffeine-free substitute that comes close to the real thing. But a steaming mug of chicory root does provide that warm, comforting feeling that coffee is known for. And since you’ll be doing something good for your gut, the trade-off is worth it.
Drink Some Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms—like reishi, chaga, lion’s mane, shiitake, cordyceps, and turkey tail—are earning a serious name for themselves in the health world, and for good reason. Manufacturers take the mushrooms, which are classified as macroscopic fungi, and turn them into extracts or powders that have powerful health benefits and have been used to treat skin diseases and support the nervous system.
Because medicinal mushrooms are rich in carbohydrates like beta-glucans, chitin, hemicellulose, and galactans, they’re one of the strongest prebiotics you can get. When you add them to your diet, they may help stimulate the growth and reproduction of good bacteria in your gut, which can improve metabolic health and reduce inflammation. Medicinal mushrooms may also:
- Boost and support your immune system
- Prevent cancer
- Supply loads of antioxidants
- Improve blood pressure and circulation
- Lower cholesterol
- Fight off inflammation
- Improve cognition, memory, and concentration
- Boost energy
Sip on Black Tea
Green tea tends to get a lot of attention, but you should give black tea a little love too. Black tea is loaded with polyphenols, plant compounds that act as prebiotics in your gut and promote the growth of good bacteria. Black tea may also be able to positively change your gut in a way that contributes to weight loss and/or prevents weight gain.
Certain bacteria in your gut promote weight gain and obesity. If your gut is healthy, the number of these bacteria stays fairly low and you have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight. However, if the number of these bacteria grow, it can contribute to weight gain and make it difficult for you to lose weight, no matter what you do. That’s because the bacteria in your gut can actually regulate the amount of fat you absorb. Firmicutes bacteria, which are categorized as obesogenic, promote weight gain, while Bacteroidetes promote lean body mass.
Cut Out Sugar
There was a time when health professionals thought that sugar wasn’t good for you simply because it was full of empty calories. But as more research around sugar is being done, it’s become evident that the detrimental effects go beyond that. Eating a lot of sugar doesn’t just add a lot of calories to your day; it also decreases the amount of good bacteria in your gut. Sugar also contributes to chronic inflammation, which decreases the diversity of your gut bacteria and hinders their function.
It also drives metabolic dysfunction, contributes to high blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, weight gain, obesity, and chronic inflammation. It disrupts your brain chemistry, contributing to anxiety and depression. And it’s addictive, so the more you eat, the more you want. Studies show that eating sugar lights up the same part of the brain that lights up when alcoholics have a drink, which increases your cravings and contributes to bingeing behavior. This doesn’t mean that you have to avoid sugar forever, but if you’re having gut problems, it’s a good idea to avoid it until you’re able to get things back in balance.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners were invented for people who can’t eat sugar, namely diabetics, or people who are trying to avoid taking in excess calories. They seem to provide the best of both worlds—a sweet taste without any of the carbs or calories. Genius, right? Not exactly.
In an animal study that was published in the scientific journal Molecules, researchers found that the six most common artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA are actually toxic to gut bacteria. When you consume these sweeteners, it’s possible that they’re contributing to a gut imbalance that can have a wide range of health effects and a negative effect on your metabolism. Another interesting finding from the study was that the artificial sweeteners actually contributed to glucose intolerance (poor blood sugar control)—the very thing they were invented to prevent.
The six approved artificial sweeteners are:
- Acesulfame potassium or acesulfame-K
These sweeteners are commonly found in “diet” or “light” packaged foods and beverages or anything marketed as calorie-free. If you want to make sure your gut is in top shape, read labels diligently and avoid anything that contains any of these names in the ingredient list.
Bring Back the White Potato
Because of its high carbohydrate count, the white potato has been blacklisted in recent years. But while it’s often shrugged off as a refined carbohydrate, the white potato is actually one of the best sources of resistant starch, a prebiotic carbohydrate that feeds the good bacteria in your gut.
When you eat white potatoes, the resistant starch gets broken down by bacteria and converted to butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that reduces gut inflammation, provides energy to the cells in your gut lining, and helps repair weak spots that contribute to leaky gut.
Resistant starch is also unique because it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on your blood sugar levels. In fact, replacing normal starches with resistant starches have been shown to help reduce blood sugar spikes after meals.
Cook and Cool Your Starches
Some starchy foods, like rice, oatmeal, and potatoes, get even higher in resistant starch when they cool down. For example, rice that has been cooked and then cooled is higher in resistant starch than rice that’s eaten as soon as it’s done cooking.
To really hack these foods for gut health, cook your starches in advance, let them cool down in the refrigerator, and then eat them later—or the next day. You don’t have to eat them cold, though. Once they’ve been cooked and then cooled, they have more resistant starch and you can reheat them any way you want.
This is even more of a reason to do some meal prep. You can make a big batch of rice or roasted potatoes on a Sunday and then pair them with some nonstarchy vegetables and a lean protein all week.
Do this for:
- White potatoes
- Sweet potatoes
Prioritize Plenty of Fats
You need fat to stay healthy. This is especially true of your nervous system and your digestive tract. Fats play a role in stimulating motility, or the movement of digestive material through your intestines. When you eat a meal that contains fat, it sends a signal from your stomach and small intestine to your colon through a nerve signal called the gastrocolic reflex. This signal turns the muscular contractions in your intestine on and starts moving things along. When you follow a low-fat diet, this signal is slower to kick in, and you might notice that your digestive system doesn’t seem to move as well.
An adequate intake of healthy fats is also vital to the proper absorption of vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that helps keep your epithelial cells in your intestines healthy. Your intestinal epithelial cells help absorb nutrients and maintain a healthy relationship between you and your gut bacteria.
If you feel like things are a little backed up, try adding some more healthy fats to your meals. Some good options are:
- Olives and olive oil
- Coconut and coconut oil
- Nut butters
- Fatty fish like salmon
Increase Those Omega-3s
When it comes to gut health, fiber gets a lot of attention, but healthy fats are just as crucial to your gut microbiome. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids increase the number of bacteria in your gut and contribute to bacterial diversity (the number of different strains of bacteria). In addition to this general benefit, omega-3 fatty acids specifically increase certain types of bacteria called Bacteroidetes and Lachnospiraceae, which have been shown to be deficient in people with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Omega-3 fatty acids also:
- Improve your cholesterol profile
- Lower blood pressure
- Decrease your risk of heart disease
- Make your bones stronger
- Alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
- Reduce your risk of memory loss and dementia
Lots of omega-3 fatty acid supplements, like high-quality fish oil, are available over the counter, but the best way to boost your intake is through nutrient-rich foods like:
- Sea bass
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Seaweed and algae
Every time you eat, it triggers an immune response called postprandial inflammation. While this is a perfectly healthy and normal response, you don’t want it to be turned on all the time. If this low-grade inflammation never shuts off, it can negatively affect your gut health and contribute to an imbalance of bacteria.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t snack ever, but you really don’t want it to be a habit. And it’s not a good idea to snack when you aren’t hungry anyway, for other reasons like weight gain, increased cravings, and poor blood sugar balance, to name a few.
A meal should be something that you savor, not something you rush through while you’re driving home or sitting at your desk answering emails. This is partly so you can actually enjoy your meal, but there’s also a physiological reason.
Digestion is a complex process that involves a lot of hormone signaling between your gut and your brain (and the rest of your nervous system). You need to be in parasympathetic mode, also called “rest and digest,” to digest your food properly. If you eat while you’re still in work mode, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating and make it harder for your body to absorb nutrients from the food you’re eating.
Aside from that, it takes about twenty minutes after eating for your brain to register that you’re full. If you rush through a meal, you may eat more than you need before your body even has a chance to tell you that it’s had enough. This can lead to overeating and weight gain. It also makes it hard to eat intuitively and learn your body’s proper hunger and fullness cues.
Every time you eat, put your food on a real plate and sit down at a table. If you’re eating a meal at work, make it a point to leave your desk and sit down in the break room or at a bench outside somewhere. Put your phone away and turn off the TV. Fully immerse yourself in your meal instead of getting lost in distractions. Spend at least twenty minutes fully invested in your meal.