In case you haven’t heard, paying attention to your gut is really important — and not just when you have a “gut feeling” that something is or isn’t good for you. Healthy gut bacteria is imperative for maintaining a sound body and mind. That might sound hyperbolic, but it’ll make sense the deeper you delve into gut health.
If your skin is the first line of contact with the world, then your gut is the second, says Dr. Vincent Pedre, author of Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program to Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain. Not only does your gut encounter the essential nutrients that allow you to survive (like proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals), but it’s also regularly exposed to food additives, prescription drugs, potentially toxic substances, and untold numbers of microbes.
How Gut Health Controls the Rest of Your Body
Think of your gut like a gatekeeper, says Dr. Pedre: When it’s functioning properly, your gut is responsible for both digesting and assimilating substances that are good for you. Plus, it minimizes the body’s exposure to some harmful substances by maintaining an immune barrier, detoxifying the body, and sustaining healthy gut bacteria.
That’s a tall order — and it means it’s easy for the gut to get out of whack. “When your gut is out of imbalance (which could range from constipation to diarrhea or just gas and bloating), you’re not functioning at the top of your game,” says Brenda Watson, a health educator and author of The Skinny Gut Diet. “As time goes by and the gut breaks down more and more, chronic inflammation [can occur] throughout the body.” This can lead to a slew of other problems.
For example, says Dr. Pedre, gut imbalances may show up as digestive issues, acne, allergies, fatigue, headaches, hormonal imbalances, immune issues, skin rashes, weight gain and yeast infections, among other issues. An unhealthy gut can also lead to allergic disorders and autoimmune diseases.
If that all seems pretty daunting, don’t worry. Fortunately, you can significantly improve the health of your gut simply by eating the right foods, and avoiding the not-so-good ones. Here’s your list of the good and bad.
5 of the Worst Foods for Gut Health
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. A variety of cheap and easily accessible foods are unfortunately not so good for your gut. (Turns out there’s a reason they’re cheap!) Consider these the no-goes.
1. Industrially-Farmed Gluten
You don’t have to suffer from celiac disease for gluten to wreak havoc in your gut. Products containing gluten get the ingredient from wheat, barley or rye, all three of which are typically grown in mass quantities. Why does this matter? Because many places rely on glyphosate (aka Roundup) to grow these products, and this herbicide can quickly disrupt the gut microbiome, says Dr. Pedre. (Animal studies have found that glyphosate can kill off beneficial gut bacteria, thereby allowing unhealthy agents to thrive.) Opt for grain products from small-scale farmers who doesn’t utilize glyphosate and your gut may be better off. Buying certified organic products will also help, as these foods must be glyphosate- and GMO-free to get the stamp of approval.
2. Genetically-Modified Soy and Corn
There’s a lot of talk about the value of fermented soybeans (such as tempeh and miso) for healing the gut. So at first glance it might seem odd to see soy on the “worst foods” list. But here’s the problem: According to Dr. Pedre, much of the soy — as well as corn — grown in the U.S. is genetically modified (GM). While the safety of GM foods is still up for debate, one thing is certain. Virtually all GM crops grown in the U.S. utilize Roundup, that same pernicious herbicide used for growing many gluten-containing crops. There’s also some evidence that the artificially created genes found in GM foods can infiltrate gut bacteria and change the way they function, further contributing to imbalances in the gut.
3. Factory-Farmed Meat and Farmed Fish
Most of the meat available in grocery stores comes from factory farms, where they often give animals antibiotics. When you consume this meat, you’re likely to gain exposure to traces of these antibiotics, which target both the bad and the good bacteria in your gut, disrupting the gut microbiome — which is why Dr. Pedre recommends avoiding them.
Similar issues arise with farmed fish, says Dr. Pedre. Because farmed fish are raised in unnatural conditions and fed a diet they wouldn’t consume in the wild, many of them are highly susceptible to disease. To compensate, fish farmers use antibiotics to keep them healthy, which then ends up in your gut.
You’ve probably heard that sugar is one of the most inflammatory substances around. “Sugar directly feeds bad bacteria in the gut and sets up inflammatory processes,” says Watson. “Most of us don’t require more than 12 teaspoons of sugar daily to be in optimum condition. [But] the average American consumes upward of 30 teaspoons of sugar daily — often thinking that they don’t eat much.” Cut back on the sweet stuff to keep your fill of good gut bacteria.
5. Artificial Sweeteners
Once you know that sugar isn’t great for your gut, you might assume artificial sweeteners pose a healthier alternative. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Animal studies have found that certain ingredients in artificial sweeteners can seriously disrupt the microbiome — they may even make the body more susceptible to health issues, such as diabetes.
6 of the Best Foods for Gut Health
As a general rule, foods that are organic, pesticide-free, non-genetically-modified, locally grown and sustainably farmed are most likely to do your body good, Dr. Pedre says. Here are a few to add to your diet to give your gut health a boost.
1. Bone Broth
It’s a good thing bone broth is trendy, because it’s incredibly good for the gut. That’s largely because it’s high in collagen, a protein that’s necessary for maintaining and repairing the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. When this lining is healthy, it helps protect against a range of issues including Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut syndrome and ulcerative colitis. The collagen found in bone broth serves another purpose, too: When it breaks down, it creates gelatin, which contains amino acids that help restore a healthy balance of “good” gut bacteria.
2. Cruciferous Vegetables
In addition to packing essential vitamins and minerals, cruciferous vegetables — like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens and kale — also contain sulfur-containing metabolites called glucosinolates. That’s an unappetizing term for substances that are actually really good for you. They help reduce inflammation and remove harmful pathogens from the gastrointestinal tract.
3. Jerusalem Artichokes
These probably aren’t a staple of most U.S. kitchens, but it’s time they became one. They’re rich in prebiotics — the food source that allows good bacteria to flourish, says Dr. Pedre. Additionally, they’re high in a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin, which helps promote healthy digestion and is especially adept at increasing healthy flora in the gut.
4. Dandelion Greens
These are also rich in prebiotics, which feed beneficial bacteria in the gut, says Dr. Pedre. For best results, blanch dandelion greens before consuming. This will help ensure your digestive system soaks up the benefits.
Don’t let the thought of bad breath deter you. Garlic is a gut health superfood for two reasons: For starters, garlic is a prebiotic just like the two veggies above. Additionally, it can help prevent and/or treat the growth of candida in the gut. This helps maintain a healthy balance of bacteria, improves digestion, and reduces bloating, constipation, gas and skin issues.
6. Unpasteurized Sauerkraut, Kimchi and Pickled Vegetables
Why all the rage for pickled foods? Because pickling involves fermentation. “For most people, adding fermented foods to your diet will support your digestion and boost the number of good bacteria in your gut,” says Watson. That’s thanks in large part to their high concentrations of probiotics. Even better, says Watson, your body easily absorbs the benefits of fermented foods because the good bacteria is broken down. Permission to add more pickles to your daily diet.