Just as there are foods that are known culprits for gut health there are also foods that can be helpful in protecting and keeping your gut healthy and/or reducing symptoms of GI disorders. That doesn’t mean that one specific food will do the magic trick for you but adding these foods to an already healthy gut meal plan can make an even bigger impact. Keep in mind though that just because a food is generally considered healthy for your gut that doesn’t mean it will be that way for everyone. Some people may be sensitive to certain foods that will then cause GI symptoms, even though these foods are gut healthy for the majority of people. Many types of foods can be potential gut helpers, but we will talk about some of the best ones.
Cranberries aren’t just for Thanksgiving anymore. One of the best-known uses for cranberries as a functional food is for the prevention and treatment of urinary tract infections (UTIs). Out of all the fruits and vegetables out there, cranberries contain one of the highest levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Cranberries help support the cardiovascular and immune systems, help decrease the risk of tooth and gum diseases, and play a role in digestive tract support, as well. They help decrease adherence of H. pylori to the walls of the stomach and suppress its growth, thus decreasing the risk of gastric ulcers and work as Helicobacter Pylori treatment method. In addition, the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help decrease the risk of colon cancer. Researchers are also finding that this small but powerful fruit may help to optimize the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut, making it more favorable to good digestive health. Cranberries are available fresh, frozen, dried, or in juice form. Be aware that drinking too much cranberry juice can cause mild side effects in some people such as stomach upset and diarrhea. Drinking large quantities (more an one liter per day) for long periods of time may also increase the risk of kidney stones. Precautions should be taken by those who are pregnant, have an allergy to aspirin, gastritis, diabetes, low stomach acid, or kidney stones, or who are taking warfarin and other medications.
Start your day with fiber-rich oatmeal instead of a sugary breakfast cereal or a piece of white bread, both of which will do your gut no good at all. Whole oats are filling, low in fat, chock full of soluble fiber, and rich in nutrients such as selenium, thiamin, phosphorus, and manganese. Oatmeal is beneficial for your entire digestive tract, especially your colon because of its high content of soluble fibers. For those who suffer from IBD (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), oatmeal can be especially helpful during non–flare-up times. Steel-cut oats contain an even higher nutrient content than rolled or quick oats. You can go a step further and add fresh fruit, a pinch of cinnamon, nuts, and/or raisins to boost the nutrition content and taste even more.
What a great fruit! Bananas are easy to eat, easy to digest, are a sweet treat, and can benefit the entire digestive system. Bananas offer specific benefits for those who suffer from GI symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, and an upset stomach. This bright yellow fruit is a rich source of FOS, one of the prebiotics I discussed earlier. When probiotics or beneficial bacteria are well-fed with prebiotics such as those in bananas, those good bacteria can establish a strong presence in the gut to help fend off overgrowth of pathogenic organisms such as yeast. Probiotics don’t stand a chance if there are no prebiotics in the gut to help nourish them. Bananas are chock of all types of essential nutrients too, including potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, manganese, and fiber. Because of their high levels of magnesium and potassium, bananas are known to reduce inflammation and support heart health. You can enjoy bananas in many different ways: by themselves, sliced on oatmeal or a whole-grain cereal, in yogurt, or even smothered with peanut butter. Make sure you eat bananas at the right time: if they are underripe, they have a higher acid content, which for some can cause digestive issues. So make sure they are not too green on the outside.
As a prebiotic, asparagus has tremendous benefits for your gut. Asparagus is rich in fructooligosaccharides (FOS), a type of soluble fiber, and inulin, a short-chain fructan. Both have been shown to be power foods for probiotics. This vegetable also helps to increase the absorption of minerals such as calcium, can reduce the risk of colon cancer by keeping things moving through your GI tract, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Asparagus contains plenty of antioxidants and other nutrients such as vitamin K, folate, copper, B vitamins, potassium, zinc, vitamin A, and even a bit of protein. Asparagus can be enjoyed in many ways, but to get the full benefits and retain the most nutrients, stick with fresh, washed asparagus that has been steamed, microwaved, roasted, or sautéed. Don’t overcook.
- Black beans
Any legume (dried beans and lentils) will help to release short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that help to strengthen intestinal cells and improve the absorption of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients). The American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans all recommend legumes/dried beans as a key food for the prevention of disease and for optimizing health. Beans contain prebiotics, which feed the “good” bacteria to help them thrive. The starch in beans is resistant starch, meaning that the starch stays intact until it reaches the large intestine, where it nourishes the “good” bacteria. Increasing your consumption of legumes can help decrease the risk for colon cancer. Black beans in particular provide special support for gut health, especially for the colon. Black beans contain more resistant starch than most other beans and legumes. They seem to contain the perfect mix of substances to allow the bacteria in the colon to produce butyric acid, which is essential for the health and proper functioning of the colon. All legumes are packed with fiber, protein, folate, B vitamins, and other essential nutrients, all of which play a role in regulating gut health. Black beans take it even further: the color of the bean comes from anthocyanins, flavonoid pigments that offer extraordinary antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Black beans also have a low glycemic index (GI), meaning that the sugar they contain is absorbed slowly into the bloodstream, which helps keep blood sugar levels steady. This can help greatly with blood sugar issues as well as helping to prevent food cravings, which in turn can help with weight loss. Low GI foods such as black beans can help to fight the insulin resistance that is associated with diabetes and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Greek yogurt
Yogurt is one of the best foods to keep your gut healthy and on track. Yogurt is a cultured or fermented milk product. These products are soured and thickened by adding lactic acid–producing cultures or healthy bacteria to milk. These healthy bacteria, better known as probiotics, include strains such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei and/ or bifidus. All of these probiotics in yogurts have the ability to help maintain the correct balance of “good” to “bad” bacteria by replenishing the normal gut flora within the GI tract that is needed to boost immunity and promote a healthy digestive system. Greek yogurt is even better than regular yogurt because it contains probiotics and a higher protein content. When choosing a yogurt, take a look at calorie, fat, and sugar content as well as calcium, especially if you use yogurt as a significant source of calcium in your diet. Choosing a non-fat or low-fat version with live and active cultures, vitamin D, and at least 200 mg of calcium per serving is a healthy choice. As far as sugar content goes, keep in mind that this will include both added sugar and the naturally occurring sugar from milk and fruit, if it is included. Choose a yogurt with less than 15 grams of sugar per serving, and stay away from yogurts that include high-fructose corn syrup in the ingredient list. Beware of yogurts with artificial sweeteners, as they often contain sugar alcohols, which for some people can cause GI symptoms. Soy yogurt is a good alternative for those who are vegetarians or lactose intolerant Soy yogurt is similar to yogurt made from dairy in terms of calories, protein, and probiotics. Frozen yogurt can work, the freezing process won’t kill the live and active cultures, but not all frozen yogurt products contain them. Yogurt makes a great breakfast, lunch, or snack. You can jazz it up with ground flaxseed, low-fat granola, and fresh fruit or even use it to whip up a smoothie. Not all yogurts and yogurt products are the same. Always look for the words “live and active cultures” on the label to ensure it contains the probiotics you expect. If you see anything else, such as “live cultures” or “active cultures,” the product probably does not have the probiotics you are looking for.
- Ground flaxseed
Some call it one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet. Flaxseed can add tremendous benefits to your gut health. It acts as an anti-inflammatory and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly in the form linolenic acid (ALA). It also contains plenty of soluble fiber and natural oils to help the digestive process along and promote regularity, as well as vitamins, minerals, and lignans, which contain antioxidants and plant estrogens. Ground flaxseed is much better absorbed than its whole counterpart, which basically passes through your system without being digested. You can add about 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day to your meal plan, but you probably shouldn’t use more than that. Flaxseed is usually not recommended during pregnancy. Add ground flaxseed to smoothies, non-fat yogurt, hot cereal, mashed potatoes, or in baked goods. Start small and increase slowly to avoid gastric upset.
- Jerusalem artichoke
A Jerusalem artichoke is actually a species of sunflower. The part we are interested in is a tuber, or root vegetable, that acts as a potent prebiotic for your digestive system. It is different than the globe artichoke, a type of edible flower bud that you’re probably used to seeing in grocery stores. It is eaten much the same way as a potato. Jerusalem artichokes are an excellent source of fiber and are especially high in oligofructose inulin, a prebiotic. These tubers contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which help reduce constipation and protect against colon cancer. It also contains some B vitamins and antioxidants, such as vitamin C, A, and E, as well as flavonoid compounds, such as carotenes, that help offer protection from certain cancers, inflammation, and age-related diseases. They are also a good source of minerals and electrolytes, especially potassium, iron, and copper, helping this vegetable to be heart health friendly. Jerusalem artichokes are very versatile and can be cooked in many different ways. They can be enjoyed raw in salads or boiled, mashed, roasted, or sautéed as you would a potato. Be careful not to overcook them as they can turn soft and mushy quickly.
All berries have a balanced glucose-to-fructose ratio, which makes them easier on the gut than fruits that have a higher fructose content. Blueberries are considered one of the “superfoods.” They have the highest antioxidant content among all fruits and vegetables. The pigment that gives them their bold, blue color is also a powerful antioxidant called anthocyanin, the same flavonoid found in black beans. Blueberries contain a whole host of other phytonutrients that possess both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and that have a very positive impact on gut health and normal bowel function. Blueberries have been found to strengthen memory, improve immune function, provide cardiovascular benefits, stabilize blood sugar, improve eye health, prevent certain cancers, and diversify gut bacteria. Blueberries are high in vitamin K, manganese, vitamin C, copper, and fiber. They also contain polysaccharide prebiotics that feed and nourish good bacteria. The nutrients in blueberries, along with its fructose content, improve digestion by stimulating the gastric and digestive juices to move food smoothly and properly through your digestive tract. You can use blueberries as a healthy snack by themselves, added on top of your oatmeal or whole-grain cereal, mixed into yogurt, or added to a salad. Keep in mind that all berries are gut-friendly foods, so enjoy your blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries, as well.
Kefir is a fermented dairy food that is similar to a drinkable yogurt. Fermented foods are full of probiotics. Kefir is easily digested and one of the most probiotic-rich foods you can find. Like yogurt, kefir contains live and active cultures. Kefir also contains oligosaccharides (a type of prebiotic) and complex carbohydrates that act as food to the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Keeping these bacteria happy and fed with a highly nutritional food such as kefir will supercharge your immune system and help create a healthier digestive system. Kefir’s superior nutritional content includes vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, folate, biotin, and enzymes. In addition to boosting the immune system and supporting digestive health, kefir can also help heal IBD and IBS, build bone density, battle allergies, improve lactose intolerance, kill candida (a strain of yeast that causes fungal infections), fight cancer, and support detoxification. Regular use of kefir can help relieve all types of intestinal disorders and symptoms as well as promote regular bowel movements, reduce gas, and create a good balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut. Choose a brand with lower sugar content, and be sure to keep it cold, as the cultures can easily be destroyed by heat.