We don’t think much about gut health — until it acts up and makes us miserable. An unhappy digestive tract will always let you know, with symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea or acid reflux.
The good news is that diet often plays a huge role in maintaining a healthy gut. A good place to start is with a focus on fiber, probiotics and water. If your digestive woes are related to your diet, you’ll likely get some relief.
Why the “big three” matter:
It’s often when these three are deficient or out of balance in our bodies that digestive problems occur. And that makes sense because these three play a major role in day-to-day digestive health.
Our digestive tracts love balance, and providing the right nutrients is always the best way. That’s why it’s important to do this with food — not supplements because supplements can often give too much of a particular nutrient, which can sometimes be a health negative.
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Getting the fiber you need
While there are two kinds of fiber, soluble (digested) and insoluble (not digested), it’s the insoluble fiber that plays a big role in keeping food moving through the digestive tract, and helps with regularity because it’s not digested by the body. Most foods with fiber contain both types, so you don’t need to worry about choosing. And fiber is abundant in fruits and vegetables, as well as whole-grain starches like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, bran cereals, potatoes and corn. Legumes like beans and lentils are also great sources.
That’s why with a little planning it’s not hard to get to the recommended daily amount of 25 grams. While that sounds like a lot, it’s about five fruits and vegetables a day, or a mixture of whole grains and legumes. With five to seven servings of a variety of fiber-containing foods, it’s not too challenging to meet that goal. There are some good shortcuts — like 1 cup of blackberries or raspberries has about 8 grams of fiber, about one-third of your daily need!
Aim for foods, not supplements or fortified foods (like bars) to meet your need, unless you’ve checked with your doctor first. Real foods have value-added nutrients to support optimal health.
Why we need probiotics
Your gut is full of good bacteria to help digestion, and keep your intestines healthy. The key word to finding probiotics in the diet is the word “fermented.” During this process, healthy bacteria are produced in foods that stay alive to do positive work in your gut when you eat them. Top sources are: yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso and tempeh. And you need to eat them daily, not once in a while to make sure your gut is fully supplied.
When it comes to probiotics, stick with real food, not supplements unless your doctors OKs it. It’s easy to get too much of a good thing — sometimes making your symptoms worse. Recent studies show that even people with lactose intolerance can usually handle a serving of yogurt or kefir each day, because there is natural “lactase” (the enzyme that digests the lactose in dairy) already in yogurt created during the fermentation process from milk to yogurt.
Do you need prebiotics?
No, it’s not a typo — there is a work “prebiotic.” Simply put, as a living thing, probiotics (healthy bacteria) need fuel to live and thrive in your gut. Prebiotics are this fuel. The good news is if you’re eating fruits and veggies daily, you’ll have enough prebiotics from foods, without any supplements. Good sources of prebiotics are blueberries, strawberries, apples, watermelon, onions and leeks.
Why water is so important
You need to keep your water intake high especially when you eat a fiber-rich diet to avoid constipation. Staying well hydrated helps boost digestion and easier flow through your digestive tract. Stick with water and non-calorie liquids.
Remember that fruits and veggies are 90% water — and this counts! As you boost your fiber intake, try to drink an extra 1 cup of water for every 5 grams of fiber you add. And it’s easy to figure out how much fluid your body needs — drink to thirst and take a peek in the toilet bowl after you’ve gone. If your urine is not pale (the color of lemonade), it’s time to drink!
Foods to avoid:
While there are a lot of foods to add for better digestion, there are a few triggers that can aggravate or contribute to problems. Learn your own triggers, cut out the problem foods and see if your symptoms improve. You are your own best judge of that! Here’s a list of top irritants:
- Acidic foods like oranges and grapefruit (acid reflux)
- Spicy foods like hot pepper sauce (acid reflux)
- Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, used in sugar-free foods (gas, bloating stomach pains, diarrhea)
- Seltzer/soda (gas, bloating)
- Processed/refined foods (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation)
- High-fat foods (diarrhea, bloating)
- Legume pastas (gas, bloating, stomach pains)
- Low-carb tortillas (gas, bloating, stomach pain)
When to call your doctor:
If you’ve made some changes in your diet for a few weeks, and your symptoms have not improved, it’s time to reach out to your doctor. You’ll already have your lifestyle changes in hand for discussion (you’ve already done the first step by changing your diet) and along with an examination and blood work, your doctor can track down the cause and set up the right treatment plan for you. There’s no reason to live in discomfort. Help is out there when you need it.