Diet and Gastrointestinal Diseases: 8 Best Foods for Gut Health

The digestive system is a whole body process. Even our brain is involved with the gut and microbes, affecting everything from mood and metabolism to our immune system. There is still a lot to learn about how diet and the gut affect our whole body, but we know there are important links between chronic disease, diet and gut health.

How the Digestive System Works

Our digestive tract is a complex system with many working parts and begins the moment food hits our mouth. Each part of the system helps break down food and liquids into smaller pieces until our bodies can absorb and move the nutrients to where they are needed.

Particular enzymes in our salvia trigger the digestion process. As food travels from the esophagus to our stomach, the enzymes work by contracting the muscles, mixing the food with the enzymes. Although everyone is a little different, it usually takes about four to five hours for food to pass through the first half of the digestive system.

The small intestine is where our gut microbes start to do their job breaking down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. It also supports our immune health and absorbs vitamins and minerals. Bacteria in the large intestine (colon) complete the breakdown process and help maintain our fluid balance.

The digestive system is also affected by hormones, nerves, and other organs like the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder.

Diet and gastrointestinal diseases

“Like other types of chronic diseases, I strongly believe that an individual’s diet affects the management and, in some situations, even the progression of chronic gastrointestinal disease,” says Marta Jonson, MMN, RDN , LMNT, Nebraska Medicine nutrition therapist. “Food is fuel, and if we don’t get the nutrients we need, our bodies will struggle to fight disease or help us maintain the quality of life we ​​want.”

Like other chronic diseases, gastrointestinal patients often suffer from chronic inflammation, which can lead to additional health problems. The way we eat can help prevent and keep chronic inflammation at bay. Research reveals links between diet and inflammation:

  • Foods High in Saturated Fats and Trans Fats May Increase Inflammation
  • Healthy fats (like omega-3s and monounsaturated fats) can help reduce inflammation
  • Phytonutrients in Fruits and Vegetables May Help Protect Against Inflammation

Lifestyle also plays a role in the management of gastrointestinal illnesses:

  • Stress management
  • Regular exercise and movement
  • Limit exposure to environmental toxins, smoking, excess alcohol
  • Quality sleep

Diet becomes crucial in preventing disease progression in people with certain autoimmune disorders related to the gastrointestinal tract. People with celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease are greatly affected by what they eat.

Can gastrointestinal diseases be prevented or even cured by a healthy diet?

Research is limited but growing rapidly. “The Frederick F. Paustian Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center is partnering with Nebraska Food for Health to further microbiome research,” says Jonson. “As we continue our research, we hope to use this knowledge to prevent, cure, and help more accurately manage gastrointestinal disease through nutrition.”

Healthy eating may look different for everyone. “Nutrition and health is much more complex than just looking at the macronutrients in someone’s diet,” Jonson adds. “I love talking to patients about gut health because it goes beyond what many people thought of as nutrition education.”

Eight Best Foods for Gut Health

Foods that promote gut health contain prebiotic fiber and potential anti-inflammatory properties. Ideally, half your plate should be plant-based, a quarter full of healthy carbs, and the final quarter a serving of protein. The more color on your plate, the better.

Digestion tips when adding gut-healthy foods to your diet:

  • When you increase fiber in your diet, your body needs time to adjust. Slowly adding fiber-rich foods and staying hydrated are key to reducing discomfort. Mild bloating after eating fiber-rich foods is natural and a sign of healthy digestion
  • You don’t have to shop exclusively organic or buy only fresh produce to add variety and nutrients to your diet. Salt-free and frozen canned versions are equally nutritious and may be less expensive. Look out for seasonal produce, which can often be on sale
  • Use mindful eating techniques to help nurture the brain-gut connection:
    • Be fully present at mealtimes (put digital devices aside)
    • Take three to six deep breaths before sitting down to eat to calm the mind and send blood flow to the digestive tract
    • Take your time and chew slowly to aid digestion

Add these gut-healthy foods to your diet:

  1. Flaxseeds are rich in omega-3s, fiber and antioxidants. Try adding them to oats and smoothies. The body can better absorb the floor version.
  2. Berries like cherries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries are great sources of fiber containing phytonutrients (antioxidants) that fight inflammation.
  3. Turmeric is an antioxidant, fights inflammation and promotes immunity. Rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, buy the high-quality root or spice version to use in meals, over chicken, vegetables or rice.
  4. Ginger root reduces inflammation and can help calm nausea. Make it into a tea or try adding it to frostings, veggies, smoothies or salad dressing.
  5. Beans aid digestion, are high in fiber and slow digestion to help you feel full. Soak them overnight to reduce the risk of gas.
  6. Avocados are packed with healthy fats and fiber called pectin, which are beneficial for gut health.
  7. Oats are full of soluble fiber that can help lower cholesterol, slow digestion to help you feel full longer, and control blood sugar. Add oats to berries, nuts and seeds to add protein and antioxidants.
  8. Pumpkin is full of fiber and vitamin K, supports bone health and promotes a healthy gut. Tip: Canned pumpkin generally contains more fiber.

Foods to reduce or avoid if you are prone to gastrointestinal problems

While all foods are nutritious, some of the most common foods to avoid are artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and a regular habit of eating saturated fats or trans fats.

  • Beware of “sugar-free” or “calorie-free” foods. This often means that artificial sweeteners have replaced sugar. Although helpful for people with diabetes, even one or two servings a day can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
  • Saturated fats are inflammatory for the gut and in almost every product on the shelves, including beef, pork, and ham. A better choice is lean proteins or plant-based proteins like tofu, edamame, quinoa, beans, and hummus
  • Although dairy products are an excellent source of protein, people who are lactose intolerant are encouraged to try plant-based milk or milk alternatives.

“Remember that overall health involves a combination of things, including emotional, physical, and mental health,” says Jonson. “Healthy eating isn’t all or nothing. It’s about being intentional one day at a time, fueling your body with whole foods, and knowing there’s a healthy balance.”

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