Best foods for gut health

By Dr. Josh Axe

Your gut microbiome helps to support the overall health and wellness of your body, including by housing the majority of your immune system. One of the primary goals of following a “gut health diet” is to improve the ratio of “good guy” bacteria (also called probiotics) to the “bad guy” microbes living in your gastrointestinal tract.

How can you increase good bacteria in your gut naturally? By eating more of the best foods that foster the growth of friendly bacteria while supporting overall gut health. 

Gut-friendly foods — such as vegetables, bone broth, grass-fed meats, probiotic foods and sprouted seeds— help to “feed” probiotics in the gut, supply essential nutrients that support a healthy gut lining, and support nutrient absorption and healthy elimination.

Let’s look closer at what a healthy gut diet plan entails, plus foods you’ll want to remove from your diet in order to support an overall healthy gut. 

Related: Gut Health 101, Including Signs of A Healthy Gut

Best Gut-Friendly Foods  

What the best foods for gut health have in common is that they are typically whole, unprocessed foods, which means the body usually easily recognizes and digests them. They’re also full of beneficial nutrients, enzymes and phytochemical compounds that help to build and support the health of the gut lining, which is essential for healthy digestion and overall healthy immune system function.

Here are some of the best foods to include in a gut health diet:

1. Probiotic foods

Fermented (or cultured) foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, kimchi, miso and kombucha are superfoods for gut health because they naturally introduce a diverse amount of healthy bacteria into your gut. 

While taking a daily probiotic supplement is a convenient way to boost your intake of beneficial bacteria, probiotic foods also have a place in a healthy diet since they are a natural source of microbes, vitamins, minerals and enzymes.

Probiotic foods may also contain a wider variety of bacterial strains compared to many supplements, such as kefir for example which contains dozens of different types.

2. Prebiotic foods

Prebiotics are compounds that are not digested by the body, but instead are metabolized and used as fuel by beneficial bacteria in the microbiome. They can help to support the overall health of the body by fostering growth of probiotics. And since they are a source of fiber, they’re generally also helpful for supporting healthy bowel transit time by reducing occasional constipation and diarrhea.

Some of the best sources of prebiotics include raw veggies, whole grains and leafy greens. Try including these prebiotics in your meals: raw onions, raw garlic, leeks, asparagus, jicama, dandelion greens, chicory, artichokes and burdock root.

3. Bone Broth

Bone broth is a traditional type of stock that is made by slow-simmering animal bones in water, sometimes along with chicken feet, joint tissue, cartilage, vegetables and herbs.

Collagen is a type of protein that’s found in real bone broth; it’s made up of amino acids including proline, arginine and glycine that help to generally support healthy connective tissues throughout the body, including those in the gut.

Chicken bone broth, as well as high-quality Bone Broth Protein supplements made from chicken, also naturally contain compounds including glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronic acid (which support overall healthy cartilage and joint health), in addition to minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus that are important for digestive health, healthy muscle and nerve functions, and beyond.

4. Vegetables

Veggies are full of antioxidants, fiber and other nutrients that can help fight against  free radicals and boost digestive health, and help to keep connective tissues in the gut in good shape.

Some of the best include: dark leafy greens (collard greens, kale, spinach), beets, carrots, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale), sea vegetables, mushrooms and squashes.

5. Fruits (especially berries/cooked fruits)

Like vegetables, certain fruits can provide you with antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin A, fiber and other beneficial nutrients.

Good options include cooked pears and apples, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, nectarines, oranges, grapefruits, kiwi and pomegranates.

6. Healthy fats  

In order to properly absorb fat-soluble vitamins (including vitamins D, E and K) you need to include fats in your diet. Healthy fats or performance fats such as grass-fed butter, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and avocado also play a role in supporting healthy, normal hormone production and keeping your appetite in check by making you feel fuller, which means sticking to an overall healthy diet might be easier.

7. High-quality proteins

Wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs and grass-fed/pasture-raised meat are some of the best sources of amino acids that support a healthy gut lining and fuel many other bodily processes.

Some of these protein foods, such as salmon and beef, also provide omega-3 fatty acids that support an overall healthy cardiovascular system and more. 

In addition to providing you with protein, these foods are high in healthy fats, and essential nutrients like zinc, selenium and B vitamins which generally support a healthy immune system, healthy energy levels and metabolic health.

8. Sprouted nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds (such as almonds, walnuts, and pumpkin, and flax, chia and hemp seeds) are a great source of healthy fats, fiber, protein and trace minerals for vegans, flexitarians, paleo dieters and just about everyone else.

Soaking and sprouting nuts and seeds helps to make their nutrients more bioavailable, and often leads to them being easier to digest overall. 

9. Herbs, spices and teas

These include antioxidant-rich spices such as turmeric, ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, etc., plus green tea and organic coffee in moderation.

Herbs and spices, (which can be enjoyed fresh, dried or in herbal tea/infusions) have many digestive benefits to offer, such as supporting an overall healthy immune system, stimulating normal saliva and bile production, and soothing the stomach.

10. Sprouted whole grains

Certain whole grains, such as oats, contain beta glucan, a type of fiber that generally helps feed healthy gut microbes and that can contribute to other health perks, too, such as supporting healthy cardiovascular function. 

For the most gut-related benefits, gluten-free grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and rice may be best for most people, since gluten (a protein in wheat, barley and rye) can sometimes be difficult to break down.

Worst Foods for Gut Health 

Now that you know which gut-friendly foods to emphasize in your diet, let’s talk about those that should be avoided.

To help support healthy gut flora, limit or avoid the following worst foods for gut health: 

1. Foods with added sugar

Sugar is found in the majority of packaged snacks, condiments, cereals, etc., not to mention desserts and sugary drinks. Consuming added sugar regularly can contribute to an imbalance of yeast and microbes in the gut.

2. Trans fats/hydrogenated fats

These man-made fats are added to many packaged/processed foods, fast food and fried foods. Not only can they be hard to digest, but they’re now known to negatively impact overall weight and metabolism.

3. Refined vegetable oils (like canola, corn and soybean oils)

Processed vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which most people eating a “Western diet” are thought to already get enough of.

Another issue is that when they are cooked with, their chemical composition changes in a negative way. You’ll mostly find these oils in processed foods, which means eating whole foods automatically makes them much less prevalent in your diet.

4. Pasteurized dairy products

Dairy can be a common allergen, so if you suspect you don’t tolerate it well, try eliminating it from your diet for a while or sticking to raw, organic dairy which may be better tolerated.

5. Refined grain products

Processed foods made with flour and grains, such as cereals, breads, pasta, rolls, cookies, etc. are mostly considered “empty calories,” since they provide little in terms of nutrients but are often high in calories and sugar.

Most of these foods also contain gluten, a protein that can negatively impact some sensitive people. 

6. Conventional meat, poultry and eggs

Factory-farm raised animals tend to be fed less healthy diets, which can negatively affect their overall health. Grass-fed, pasture-raised and wild-caught animal products may also supply you with higher levels of nutrients such as omega-3s and other healthy fats compared to their conventional counterparts.

Of course, you should always consult your healthcare professional prior to starting any new dietary or lifestyle regimen. 

Dr. Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CNS, is a doctor of chiropractic, doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food and nutrition. He operates leading natural health website DrAxe.com and is co-founder of Ancient Nutrition, a health supplement company. He’s also author of the books Eat Dirt, Essential Oils: Ancient Medicine, Keto Diet, Collagen Diet and the upcoming Ancient Remedies.

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