Gut Health Foods: What to Eat and What to Avoid

Medically Reviewed By Imashi Fernando, MS, RDN
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Having a healthy gut means that healthy bacteria can flourish. These bacteria can support your bodily functions and protect you from diseases and other health conditions.

a person is washing vegetables in a sink
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According to one 2019 review, environmental factors, including diet, play an even more significant role in promoting gut health than genetics.

If you follow a Western diet, it may not be optimal for gut microbiome health. However, by understanding which foods to include and avoid in your diet, you can promote gut health wherever you are.

Read on to learn about some foods that can promote gut health and some that may cause damage to the gut microbiota.

1–5: Fermented foods

Fermented foods are a type of probiotic. This means that they contain live bacteria or yeast.

One 2021 study found that following a diet rich in fermented foods helped increase the diversity of the gut microbiota while decreasing dangerous inflammatory markers. This means that more healthy bacteria can grow in the gut.

The presence of inflammatory markers indicates that there is inflammation in the body, possibly from oxidative stress, an infection, or another condition.

Some examples of fermented probiotic foods include:

  • yogurt
  • sauerkraut
  • kefir
  • kimchi
  • kombucha

Learn about probiotic supplements here.

6–9. Sources of fiber

According to a 2015 review, eating more fiber and less fat may modify the composition of your gut microbiota within 1 day of making this dietary change.

Your gut bacteria will ferment non-digestible fibers in your gut. This is beneficial because it boosts the growth and diversity of healthy gut bacteria.

Eating more fiber may prompt the gut to increase the production of a metabolite called indolepropionic acid. Although research is still in the preliminary stages, indolepropionic acid is an antioxidant that may potentially help treat tuberculosis and lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Some examples of fiber in food include:

  • beans
  • lentils
  • berries
  • whole grain foods

Learn more about the gut microbiome here.

10. Plant-based foods

Food derived from animal products may decrease levels of certain gut bacteria that digest plant polysaccharides, or complex carbohydrates.

The iron from red meat can be especially harmful to bacteria in your gut. Consuming foods that contain animal products can also reduce the growth of good bacteria.

It is a good idea to cut back on red meat and sometimes choose meat alternatives, such as a veggie burger instead of a beef burger.

11–17. Prebiotics

Prebiotics are different from probiotics. Probiotics are living strains of bacteria. Prebiotics are not living, but they can promote gut health in other ways.

Inulin is a prebiotic that selectively boosts certain bacteria and avoids promoting the growth of unhealthy bacteria.

Some examples of prebiotics include:

  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • chicory root
  • leeks
  • asparagus
  • spinach
  • bananas
  • oats

Learn more about how good bacteria can improve digestion here.

18. Low fat alternatives

Consuming foods that are high in fat limits the growth of good bacteria in your gut. Therefore, you should try to opt for low fat alternatives to foods that can be high in fat.

One such example is choosing low fat instead of full fat yogurt.

19. Tea

Tea contains compounds that can help stop the growth of certain harmful gut bacteria.

According to some research, some specific teas can promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. These teas include:

  • black
  • oolong
  • Pu-erh
  • Fuzhuan

20–21. Fish

The Western diet can be damaging to the growth of healthy gut bacteria, but the Mediterranean diet can promote gut health. The Mediterranean diet features a high intake of fish, among other food types.

The researchers behind a 2021 study tested a group of people with added cod or salmon to their diet against a group of people who ate no fish for 8 weeks. They found that individuals in the groups that consumed cod and salmon had better gut health because their bodies could better modulate the microbiota in their gut.

22–24. Lignans

Lignans are a type of polyphenolic compound that has bioactive properties. Consuming them can help promote certain types of gut bacteria that can help protect the body against:

Some sources of lignans include:

  • flaxseed
  • sesame
  • cashew nuts

25. Soy foods

Soy contains high levels of isoflavins. Isoflavins are very beneficial for general gut health, but they can also reduce the damage that gastrointestinal disorders like colitis can cause.

Therefore, soy is beneficial for those wishing to promote their gut health regardless of whether or not they have a condition that affects their gut. You can discuss the pros and cons of soy consumption with your doctor if you are worried about the effects of a higher intake on a certain condition.

26–28. Starches

Starchy foods and fiber contain polysaccharides. These polysaccharides are beneficial for gut health because they are:

  • anti-inflammatory
  • protective of barriers in the gut
  • immunomodulating

Polysaccharides protect your body’s cells from external diseases and promote overall gut health by boosting the bacteria that are already there.

Some examples of starchy foods include:

Try to opt for whole grain for optimal gut health.

29–30. Gamma-aminobutyric acid

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a type of amino acid that naturally occurs in the body, and the microbiota in your gut can help promote it.

GABA may help protect the body against anxiety and depression.

Certain foods can boost the GABA in your body by interacting with bacteria in your gut. These foods include shellfish and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli.

What to avoid

Some foods to avoid to promote gut health include:

  • Animal protein: According to a 2017 review, animal protein can play a part in the likelihood of developing inflammatory bowel disease, which can signify unhealthy gut microbiota. Research from 2019 suggests that it may be especially beneficial to avoid red meat. You could try meat-free alternatives, such as soy patties.
  • Fatty foods: Avoid eating fatty foods that are harder for the body to digest, including greasy and fried foods. Instead, opt for lean meat or low fat alternatives.
  • Spicy foods: If you find that spicy foods cause unwanted symptoms in your digestive system, try to cut back. Some people find that spicy foods cause acid reflux, stomach cramps, or diarrhea.
  • Acidic foods: Some people also find that acidic foods can trigger acid reflux. You may wish to avoid foods and beverages such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, and sodas.
  • Lactose: You may find that consuming dairy products causes bloating and diarrhea. This could mean that you are sensitive to lactose and that it is causing imbalances in your gut. Try choosing dairy-free milk and yogurt instead.

Not everyone will have adverse reactions to specific food groups. It can be worth keeping a food diary to make a list of symptoms that occur as you eat certain foods.

Other tips to improve gut health

As well as including certain foods in the diet and avoiding others, making lifestyle changes can be very beneficial in promoting gut health.

For example, try:

When to contact a doctor

A healthcare professional can help you identify which foods to increase and decrease in your diet. Sometimes, specific conditions or factors can affect this, and a doctor can tailor these tips to what will be the healthiest for you.

Doctors can also identify food sensitivities or allergies that you may not have been aware of and test you for the potential complications of an unhealthy gut.

They can also prescribe medications to treat any underlying conditions, which you should not discontinue without their advice.

Learn about seven digestive symptoms that you should never ignore here.

Summary

Certain foods can play a significant role in regulating the bacteria that live in your gut. These foods include sources of fiber, probiotics, and fish.

However, you should try to avoid food that makes it more difficult for your body to digest things. These can be different for everyone, so keeping a food diary to identify your own triggers can be helpful.

Speak with a doctor if you are concerned about your gut health or want to learn more.

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Medical Reviewer: Imashi Fernando, MS, RDN
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 25
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.