Most of us only think about our digestive system when there is an internal rumbling or a slip of gas. Yet, the gastrointestinal tract plays a significant role in our overall well being. Indeed, digestive health calls for maintaining a healthy diet, avoiding processed foods, and making healthy lifestyle choices.
Then, is your digestive system healthy? This quick guide explores the effect of nutrition on our gut health and digestion. Specifically, we differentiate foods that promote digestive health from those that encourage chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. That way, you can make informed decisions about your diet and be in control of your digestive health.
Understanding Gut Health
Our gut health relates to the physical state of the gastrointestinal tract and having a well-functioning digestive system. It revolves around the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome. Ideally, a healthy gut will allow us to eat and digest food without discomfort.
Quick Facts about Gut Health
Here are some quick facts about your gut and digestive health:
- The optimal digestive health varies from one individual to another
- The composition of the gut microbiome is associated with all aspects of our health, including skin, heart and brain health, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, allergies, and diabetes
- Up to 70 million people in the US complain of digestive issues like Crohn’s disease, a leaky gut, bloody stools, regular bloating, and blockage
- Taking prebiotic and probiotic supplements improves digestive health
- One cup of a carbonated beverage is enough to trigger gastro mechanical distress symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and reflux
- Not everyone with gluten intolerance has celiac disease
The Gut Microbiome & Our Immune System
The gut microbiome comprises trillions of bacteria, fungi, and microbes. It is a balance between friendly and unfriendly microscopic living things playing vast roles in keeping our bodies healthy. Any imbalance in the gut microbiome may trigger chronic inflammation and other health complications. And taking prebiotics and probiotics helps increase the useful bacteria density and control the harmful bacteria.
Did you know that 75% of our immune system is in the stomach? Indeed, the digestive tract that starts from the mouth to the large intestine acts as a gatekeeper against harmful bacteria entering the body. Also, it trains the immune cells to distinguish between body tissue and foreign organisms.
The symbiotic relationship between the digestive system and the immune system determines the overall health of our bodies. In contrast, chronic inflammation in the digestive tract due to poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and our inability to manage everyday stress may trigger other serious health complications.
How Bowel Transit Time Determines Our Food Choices
Finally, a healthy gut will empty food within 4 to 6 hours of eating. Still, the average duration food stays in the stomach varies from food to food, as detailed below: –
- Water – 0 minutes
- Watermelon – 20 minutes
- Orange -30 minutes
- Cantaloupe – 30 minutes
- Grapes – 30 minutes
- Collards – 40 minutes
- Apple – 40 minutes
- Cherries – 40 minutes
- Kale – 40 minutes
- Zucchini – 45 minutes
- Cauliflower – 45 minutes
- Fish – 45 to 60 minutes
- Beetroot – 50 minutes
- Carrots – 50 minutes
- Salad with Oil – 60 minutes
- Cornmeal – 90 minutes
- Buckwheat – 90 minutes
- Oats – 90 minutes
- Potato – 90 to 120 minutes
- Lentils – 90 – 120 minutes
- Chicken – 90 – 120 minutes
- Chick Peas – 90 to 120 minutes
- Beans – 120 to 180 minutes
- Cooked Egg – 120 minutes
- Milk Products – 120 minutes
- Turkey – 120 minutes
- Nuts – 180 minutes
- Beef Meat – 180 minutes
- Lamb – 240 minutes
- Pork – 300 minutes
If food stays in the stomach for much longer than it should, you may develop gastroparesis. You may experience heartburn, bloating, vomiting, lack of appetite, inability to control blood sugar, and feeling full fast when you eat. Gastroparesis may lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and intestinal blockage. Diabetes, hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis are some of the most common causes of gastroparesis. Here is a list of foods you can take if you suffer from gastroparesis: –
- Fresh fruit juices and purees
- Low fiber breads
- Vegetable juices
- Smooth peanut butter
Avoid or limit your intake of the following foods to keep your gastroparesis in check: –
- Carbonated drinks
- Beans and legumes
- Fatty foods
- Cauliflower and broccoli
- Seeds and nuts
- Heavy cream
Foods Recommended for Digestive Health
Foods essential for a healthy digestive tract are a natural source of prebiotics and probiotics. As the food undergoes fermentation during digestion, it releases live bacteria beneficial to the gut microbiome. Also, these foods have fibers that get consumed by these live bacteria. Below is a list of the top gut-friendly foods to boost your digestive health: –
- Lean Protein
If you are susceptible to bowel sensitivity or irritable bowel syndrome, opt for a diet rich in lean proteins. These include lean beef, tofu, white-fleshed fish, peas, beans, lentils, skinless white meat poultry, low-fat cottage cheese, powdered peanut butter, low-fat milk, pork loin, and frozen shrimp, egg whites, and bison. Lean protein is lower in fat and calories. Hence, lean protein has the individual calories and protein necessary for muscles and tissue building and maintenance, promoting fullness and weight management, and regulating many body processes.
- Leafy Greens
Did you know that Kimchi, Korea’s fermented cabbage, is rich in Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacteria essential for the gut? These vegetables readjust the gut microbiome to reduce the risk of becoming obese, insulin-resistant and developing high blood pressure. Plus, they have a specific type of sugar that nourishes the healthy bacteria in the gut. Other benefits of leafy greens to digestive health include:
- Have insoluble fiber that facilitates bowel transition
- Feed essential microbiota better than dietary or prebiotic fiber
- Facilitate the growth of desirable bacteria and limit the ability of the less desirable bacteria to reproduce or colonize the digestive tract
Typical essential vegetables rich in fibers and vitamins include:
- Spinach and kales
- Mustard greens
- Dandelion greens
- Turnip greens
- Beet greens
- Bok choy
- Microgreens like red cabbage, herbs, and radishes
- Whole Grains
Did you know that optimal colon function occurs when we consume at least 25 grams of fiber each day? And whole grains have up to 7 grams of dietary fiber per 100 grams, sufficient for a well-functioning digestive system.
Second, whole grains have added nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and improved the biodiversity of the gut microbiome. A diverse gut microbiome of up to 38 trillion bacteria strengthens our immune system. In contrast, a diminishing microbial diversity in the gut triggers such conditions as bowel cancer and irritable bowel syndrome.
Also, when whole grain fiber ferments in the stomach, it releases short-chain fatty acids that promote the proper functioning of the immune cells on the colon lining. Hence, whole grains ideal for digestive health includes:
- Brown and wild rice
- Whole wheat
- Wheat berry
- Whole rye
Note that some whole grain wholesalers mix whole and refined grains. Hence, always read the ingredients list when buying your processed whole grains products. Insist on processed whole grains with no added sugar.
- Low Fructose Fruits
Are you susceptible to excessive gas and bloating? If so, cut your fructose consumption. Whereas most fructose or fruit sugar gets absorbed in the small intestine, if you have gastroparesis or fructose intolerance, the fruit sugar will reach the colon and ferment. Then, it will release methane and hydrogen gases, responsible for flatulence, stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
In contrast, adding low fructose fruits to your diet supplies your body with essential fibers, minerals, and vitamins. It is an excellent way of reducing your sugar intake for weight loss. Besides, they are a much better alternative than processed snacks. Below is a list of low-fructose fruits you can include in your diet:
- Kiwi fruit
- Ripe bananas
- Lemons and lime
- Honeydew melon
- Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds have high fiber for a healthy gut. Also, these foods have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties for healing the gut lining. Did you know that walnuts clean the colon to reduce the presence of cancerous colon tumors? Still, know the right amounts of nuts and seeds you should take in a day. For example, women need 21 grams per day while men require 30 grams per day. And some nuts and seeds contain lectins that can irritate the stomach lining, trigger allergies, or cause a leaky gut. Then, always know your nut tolerance before adding them to your diet.
Here is a list of seeds and nuts beneficial to your digestive system: –
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Brazil nuts
If you find nuts hard to digest, we recommend soaking them in warm water for half an hour before eating them. Limit your intake of chia seeds to 2 tablespoons a day if you have an ultra-sensitive stomach. Whereas it may be impossible to eliminate lectins in your diet, you can minimize it by cooking all the seeds that have harmful lectins.
- Probiotic and Prebiotic Foods and Supplements
Probiotics are live bacteria useful to the human body. Foods with probiotics added to the gut microbiome density and diversity. Most common foods containing probiotics include bacteria-fermented foods like: –
- Sourdough bread
- Some cheeses
Second, prebiotics is the food that useful bacteria eat. Adding prebiotics to your diet helps stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome. Naturally, occurring prebiotics is plant fibers in such foods as fruits and vegetables. Since these plant fibers are indigestible, they pass through the digestive system, serving as food for the gut microbiome. Below is a list of natural sources of prebiotics you can add to your diet: –
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Konjac root
- Burdock root
- Yacon root
- Jicama root
You may take probiotics and prebiotics as natural foods or as supplements. When consuming them as supplements, seek medical advice from a registered dietician regarding the appropriate dosage for digestive health.
Foods to Avoid for Digestive Health
The following foods hurt your digestive system, hence not recommended in your regular diet: –
- Processed Foods
Foods rich in refined carbohydrates like pasta, white rice, white bread, crackers, pastries, and desserts use refined grains with a finer texture and longer shelf life. Only the refining process gets rid of fiber and nutrients beneficial to the digestive health. Other processed foods to avoid or minimize include: –
- Luncheon meat
- Granola bars
- Instant noodles
- Cheese slices
- Microwave popcorn
- Microwave ready meals
- Added Sugars
Now, the harmful bacteria in our gut microbiome thrive on sugar. These bacteria get their sugar supply from the added sugars in our foods. Foods rich in added sugars include: –
- Pies and cobblers
- Sweet rolls
- Dairy desserts
- Fizzy drinks
- Ice cream
If you have a sweet tooth, you can opt for foods that replace added sugars with artificial sweeteners like stevia, maple syrup, sugar alcohols, monk fruit sweeteners, allulose, dates, applesauce, honey, and yacon syrup.
- Highly Saturated Fatty Foods
Fatty foods like red meats and fried foods have a high saturated fat content that feeds harmful colon bacteria. When the saturated fat gets into the bloodstream, it raises the LDL cholesterol levels. This bad cholesterol clogs the arteries and may trigger heart attacks. If this bad cholesterol breaks off from the arteries and finds its way to the brain, it may cause a stroke. Likewise, these fatty foods may trigger contractions and inflammation in the colon. Most common highly saturated fatty foods include: –
- Dark chocolate
- Fatty meats
- Poultry skin
- Heavy cream
- Fatty fish
- Hydrogenated oils
- Salad dressing
Shifting Your Diets to Healthy Meals for the Digestive Health
Here are some tips to help you shift to healthy diets that support your gut health: –
- Maintain a Food Diary – Since optimal digestive health is different for everyone, foods that are safe for my stomach may not be beneficial for yours. Then, shifting to healthy diets starts with maintaining a food diary. Take note of how you feel when eating different meals. Use the elimination method to create a balanced diet consisting of foods beneficial to your digestive health.
- Fasting – Fasting gives your stomach a well-deserved break from food. During this time. The digestive tract empties of any remaining food. And it heals itself of any inflammation. Regular fasting and detoxification ensure your digestive system is operating optimally.
- Take Prebiotic and Probiotic Supplements – Seek medical advice before settling for the prebiotic or probiotic supplements.
Digestive Health FAQs
- Do I need to stick to a diet for a long time to see improvements in my gut health?
No. You can try a diet for 2 to 3 weeks. If you see no improvements in your gut health within this period, you should move on to another diet. And, if you notice some improvements, continue up to week 5
- What is the effect of fasting on gut health?
Skipping meals helps the gut rest and heal from any inflammation. Still, there is no guideline on how to fast for better digestive health. We recommend listening to your body and increasing or decreasing the fasting duration accordingly.
- How does bone broth benefit my digestive system?
Bone broth is a vital source of collagen and gelatin. Collagen is a structural protein mainly found in skin and connective tissues. It helps increase gastric juices and repair and increases the protective mucosal lining and the damaged intestinal lining. And gelatin facilitates the absorption of certain nutrients. Then, drink bone broth or add it to your recipes to strengthen the structure of the intestinal walls.
- Apart from a healthy diet, what other factors promote the digestive health?
Regular exercise, attaining and monitoring a healthy weight, getting sufficient sleep, and quitting smoking are essential for a digestive tract free of inflammation.
- What are enriched grains and are they beneficial to gut health and digestion?
Enriched grains are fortified refined grains that replace nutrients lost during milling. Hence, fortified white wheat flour may have added vitamins and minerals like iron and folic acid. And, since whole grains lack folic acid, adding enriched grains to your diet will further promote your digestive health.
- Are herbal teas beneficial to digestive health?
Yes. Herbal teas hydrate and nourish the gut to get the digestive juices flowing, relieve occasional indigestion, and prevent motion sickness. Drink your herbal teas before meals to warm up your digestive system.
The Bottom line
A happy gut always translates to a healthy body. Hence, knowing which foods to eat or avoid for digestive health gives you a head start in staying in control of your overall health. Then, opt for lean proteins, leafy greens, whole grains, low fructose fruits, nuts and seeds, and prebiotics and probiotics. Then, cut down or eliminate processed foods, added sugars, and highly saturated fatty foods in your diet. Finally, always read the ingredient list to know exactly what goes into your digestive system.