30 Best Foods
The body’s a wonderful machine. It’s built to handle most of the foods we love to eat. But like every machine, the body works best when it receives regular preventive maintenance.
That’s especially true of the digestive system, whose job it is to pull out the nutrients from food that we need and turn them into molecules small enough to be absorbed into the blood and carried to cells throughout the body.
Getting the Right Foods
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t so good about giving our GI tracts some TLC with the right foods. In fact, a poor diet is the most common cause of constipation, a truly bothersome condition that results in 2.5 million doctor visits yearly.
Overeating is thought to be a main contributor to cases of GERD (where a weak esophageal sphincter muscle allows stomach contents to rise up into the esophagus). And bad eating is also one of the reasons why nearly 60 million Americans suffer stomach woes in any given year.
“Most of the digestive problems that individuals face are largely due to a lack of fiber in the diet,” says Joan Salge Blake, an associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. “The body’s very capable of digesting all types of food, but without the right amount of fiber, those natural processes won’t work as well.” Along with fiber there are many foods that make the digestive process easier. Here are 30 top choices.
Diamonds in the Roughage: Best Fiber Foods
Fiber’s ability to relieve constipation is well known. “Your body can’t digest fiber, so it moves through your system intact,” explains Joan Salge Blake, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
There are two types of fiber — soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble (doesn’t dissolve in water) — and both play key roles. Salge Blake says most adults are currently getting about 12 to 14 grams (g) of fiber each day, but we should aim for 25g . “It sounds like a lot, but you can get there when you eat five to seven fruits and vegetables, and four to five servings of whole grains everyday,” she says.
(3g of fiber per medium apple)
Often called the perfect food, apples moves through the gut slowly, so you’ll stay full longer. They’re high in soluble fiber, which has been associated with helping to lower cholesterol and glucose levels.
(10.3g of fiber per medium artichoke)
Not only is the sculpted vegetable very high in fiber, but its bitter taste stimulates the release of digestive enzymes, according to research published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. What’s more, it’s what’s known as a prebiotic — foods that set the stage for probiotics to go about doing their job of restoring healthy bacteria to the gut. (More on probiotics later.)
(10 to 13g of fiber per medium avocado)
Another high-fiber vegetable, avocados also deliver good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids, which promote better heart health, help build the membranes that surround the cells in the body and fight inflammation.
(3g of fiber per cup)
These crisp, green spears are another prebiotic food, which means it’s an ideal fuel source for certain types of beneficial gut bacteria. In Ayurvedic medicine, asparagus is used to treat digestive problems.
(3g fiber per medium banana)
Eaten regularly, this tropical fruit keeps your system in tune. But it’s also well-known as the anchor of the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast), which helps bring your bowel activity back to normal after a bout of diarrhea. Bananas replenish electrolytes and potassium that are lost with diarrhea.
(3.5g of fiber per cup)
The little blue gems rank high both for their fiber content and for their levels of antioxidants — a class of vitamins and other nutrients that are linked to slowing the aging process, reducing the risk of diabetes, lowering cholesterol levels and improving urinary health and vision.
(5.3g of fiber per 3/4 cup)
Not only can a daily bowl of bran cereal help maintain regularity, but diets that are high in fiber have been shown to improve weight-loss efforts and lower the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, says Salge Blake. If you’re turned off by bran, you might be surprised to see how cereal makers have jazzed up their offerings. Just be sure to check nutrition labels to make sure the box you choose contains at least 3g of fiber per serving and is low in added sugars.
(7g of fiber per 3/4 cup cooked)
Yes, the crunchy green flower can cause gassiness but cooking it and eating smaller amounts can help reduce that effect. What you don’t want to miss out on are the myriad of nutrients in one spear: vitamins A and B6, folic acid, calcium, potassium, and phytochemicals (which may help prevent cancer), to name a few.
(4g of fiber per single-serving bag)
Yes, a snack food that’s good for your system. Salge Blake notes popcorn is a whole grain that also contains polyphenols, a type of antioxidant with disease-fighting properties. “It won’t replace having to eat your fruits and vegetables,” she says, “but popcorn is a good food to help people increase their fiber intake.” She suggests choosing single-serve, 100-calorie varieties to keep you from overdoing a good thing.
(4g of fiber per cup)
By now you know that all whole grains contain a good amount of fiber. Oatmeal deserves a special shout out because it’s also a prebiotic (meaning it contains a type of fiber that probiotics like to feed on). Plus, it’s been shown to help lower cholesterol levels.
(4.4g per 1/2 cup cooked)
Many who complain about eating vegetables often cite gassiness as one of the reasons they shun this food group. Fortunately, peas are a low-gas, high-fiber food.
(8g of fiber per cup)
The sweet-tart treat contains dietary fiber for system maintenance. But the fruit also helps to prevent blood sugar spikes and is packed with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that boost your immunity and improve your vision.
Whole Grain Bread and Pasta
(5.2g of fiber in 2 slices of wheat bread; 5.5g of fiber per 1/2 cup brown rice)
Refined grains have been stripped of most of their nutritional benefits, that’s why there’s a big push these days to get Americans to switch to eating whole grains, where we get not only fiber, but healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and more. In your GI tract, whole grains are efficient waste removers. But foods like brown rice, barley and whole wheat bread and pastas have also been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and possibly protect against some cancers.
The Meat of the Matter: Best Protein Sources
Fiber isn’t the only nutrient that contributes to overall digestive health. Lean protein sources also help ferry food through the GI tract at an acceptable rate. Fatty foods, like juicy burgers and bacon, on the other hand, slow down the process and have been associated with the development of colorectal cancer.
Two to three servings of beans (any variety) and lentils each week can keep your gut happy, says Salge Blake. Not only are they a good protein source, but they’re also high in fiber. Navy beans, for example, have 19g of fiber per cup, while black beans and lentils both have 16g per cup.
A popular snack food and stir-fry addition, edamame is the immature pod of the soybean plant. It packs 11 grams protein and 8 grams fiber per cup — that’s 23 percent of the daily fiber requirement for men and 32 percent for women. It also has as much iron as a chicken breast. And, thanks to its many vitamins, nutrients and isoflavones (a type of phytoestrogen), it has anti-inflammatory properties.
Lean Meat and Poultry
Your body can handle lean meats, like pork loin and skinless poultry, “a whole lot better” than high-fat red meats, sausage and bacon, says Salge Blake. Plus, these foods have been shown to help people lose and maintain their weight as they get older.
This increasingly popular grain has a good balance of all nine amino acids, making it a wonderful protein choice for “meatless Mondays.” And in one 2012 animal study, the grain’s unique starches were shown to shrink stomach ulcers by up to 72 percent. Scientists believe those starches may block ulcer-causing bacteria from attaching to the stomach lining. Need another good reason to choose quinoa? It’s high in iron and has 5g fiber per cup.
Spice Things Up: Best Flavor Enhancers
Many times, it’s the little things we add to our food that can make a big difference in our digestive health. Certain spices, cooking oils and garnishes have been shown to reduce inflammation and bring harmony to your gut.
While technically a saturated fat, coconut oil is now considered healthy fat, thanks to its high amounts of lauric acid, which studies show has a “neutral” effect on heart health. More to this point, it’s been found to be beneficial for improving digestive disorders, such as IBS. You can use it to roast vegetables, make a salad dressing or blend with almonds for your own nut butter.
This herb, which has a licorice-like flavor, can soothe the GI tract and help relieve chronic constipation, heartburn and gassiness. You can chew the seeds or thinly slice the plant into salads, soups and stir-fries. It’s also great simply roasted or grilled.
A centuries-long staple in many Asian cultures’ medicine bags, ginger is often used to relieve nausea and gas. It also helps speed food through your GI tract. But a little goes a long way — more than 4 grams a day can cause heartburn.
Squeezing this tart juice over foods just before serving not only gives a dish some oomph, but it triggers the liver to produce digestive enzymes, which might reduce heartburn and gas. Lemon also acts as gut cleanser, helping to keep your system free of harmful bacteria.
Nuts and Seeds
These savory snacks and garnishes are fiber powerhouses that can help maintain regularity. Forty-seven pistachios, for example, have 3g of fiber, 40 walnut halves contain 4g and 56 peanuts have nearly 5g. Word to the wise, portion out your servings as its very easy to go overboard — more than a handful will give you calories and fat that you just don’t want or need.
A big part of the heralded Mediterranean diet, olive oil is rich in antioxidants called flavonoids, that protect the body’s cells from daily wear and tear. In animal studies, olive oil has been shown to reduce inflammation in the colon.
The active compound in this common curry spice, curcumin, has anti-inflammatory properties that support a healthy colon and ease stomach cramps. Just check with your pharmacist if you take any daily medications, including those that slow blood clotting, as it can have negative interactions with several drugs.
Go Pro: Best Probiotic Foods
More people are becoming familiar with probiotic supplements, but you don’t need to pop a pill to get helpful bacteria into your gut. Fermented foods can do that and more, says Salge Blake. “When you have good bacteria in your digestive system,” she says, “you have less room for the bad bacteria that might otherwise hang out there.”
This tangy-flavored cultured milk product packs up to 50 different probiotic strains. Research on ways kefir might support the digestive system is emerging, but it has been shown to improve lactose digestion. But there are many more reasons to give this drink a try: it also contains potassium, calcium, protein, and vitamins A, C and D.
Pickles, Sauerkraut and Kimichi
These sour foods not only promote the growth of healthy bacteria, but they’re rich in fiber so they can help keep you on schedule. (Kimchi is a spicy Korean dish made with cabbage.) If you’re prone to heartburn, however, you might want to limit yourself to small amounts a couple of times each week.
A serving of Greek or regular yogurt daily puts healthy bacteria into your system. Just be sure to look for varieties labeled “live and active cultures,” and opt for those with little added sugars. It’s better to sweeten plain yogurt at home with bits of fresh fruit, some honey or a few dark chocolate chips.
Liquid Assortment: Best Beverages
With all that fiber you’re now going to be eating, it’s crucial to stay hydrated. Otherwise, your system has to work that much harder to digest food and your stools will be noticeably harder to pass.
Yes, alcohol can inflame the stomach lining and may cause heartburn, but Salge Blake notes that the hops in dark beer can be good for your system. A pint of dark beer contains about 10 percent of your recommended daily value for soluble fiber, and it can act as a prebiotic. The hops content in dark beer promotes the secretion of gastric juices that are needed for good digestion. Of course, moderation is key, says Salge Blake: “Drink too much and you’ll cancel out any benefits.” (That means no more than one beer per day for women, two for men.)
With so many liquid choices tempting us, it’s no wonder people don’t drink nearly enough water. But good old H2O is necessary to help move things through the intestines. You don’t need to keep a water bottle with you at all times, simply drink a glass with every meal.