Updated 23rd November 2022

What foods are good for digestive health?

Having a healthy digestive system is crucial. This system is responsible for breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and getting rid of waste. 

It’s also home to the gut microbiome — the trillions of microbes that influence your gut and overall health.

When your digestive system isn’t working smoothly, you might have uncomfortable symptoms, like diarrhea, nausea, and bloating.

While it's normal to have digestive problems occasionally, they can be disruptive if they happen often.

So, can any foods improve our digestive health and reduce these symptoms? Below, we'll dive into the research and see what the science says.

ZOE runs the largest ongoing study of nutrition and the gut microbiome in the world, with over 40,000 participants so far. 

With the ZOE at-home test, you get a breakdown of the bugs in your gut microbiome and personalized nutrition advice about supporting your “good” gut bugs.

Take our free quiz to get started.

1. Ginger

The evidence of ginger’s health-promoting qualities starts as far back as 400 BCE. 

Modern research supports the use of ginger for some digestive problems. Studies show that ginger can speed up stomach emptying, which can help reduce indigestion and nausea.

It may also reduce bloating, stomach cramps, and flatulence.

Different studies test different amounts of ginger, so it isn’t clear how much you need to reap the benefits. But one review suggested that 1,500 milligrams of ginger powder a day helps relieve nausea. 

Instead of the powder, you could add grated ginger to teas, stir-fries, curries, and salad dressings.

2. Fiber-rich foods

Fiber can benefit digestion by preventing constipation and promoting healthy bowel movements in other ways. It also serves as food for the “good” bugs in your gut microbiome.

You can get plenty of fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, including:

  • green peas

  • carrots 

  • lentils 

  • avocados

  • kiwis

  • raspberries 

The skins of fruits and vegetables are packed with fiber and other compounds that benefit your digestive and overall health.

So, if you keep the peels on foods like potatoes and apples, you'll get more fiber.

You might have some mild gastrointestinal symptoms as your body adjusts to the increase in fiber.

Make sure you add fiber to your diet gradually — and drink plenty of water to prevent constipation.

If you have a gastrointestinal disorder, it’s best to speak with a healthcare professional before you introduce more fiber into your diet. 

3. Probiotic and fermented foods 

Fermented foods have additional microbes, like bacteria or yeast. Some examples include kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi. 

Many fermented foods are probiotic. This means they can benefit your microbiome and your overall health. The fermentation process can also make some foods easier to digest.

For example, when a person makes sourdough bread, the microbes in the starter break down some of the carbohydrates in the dough that can cause gut symptoms. Because the microbes break down these carbs for you, digesting the bread is easier.

Similarly, if you have problems digesting lactose, you may still be able to eat kefir and yogurt with live bacterial cultures. This is because the cultures can break down the lactose into smaller sugars that are easier to digest.  

4. Whole grains

If you’re eating “whole” grains, it means that each grain still has its bran, germ and endosperm intact. Refining processes can remove these parts of the grains in other products.

Whole grains are rich in fiber, which feeds your “good” gut bugs and keeps your digestive tract making stools that are soft, bulky, and easy to pass. 

Whole grains also contain many vitamins and minerals. They’re particularly rich in B vitamins, which are important for keeping your gut healthy.  

Some examples of whole grains include bulgur wheat, barley, quinoa, and oats.

5. Prebiotic foods

Prebiotics are compounds in food that we can’t digest, but they still have health benefits. They serve as food for probiotics and so promote a healthy gut microbiome.

Some good sources of prebiotics include:

  • mushrooms

  • garlic

  • onions

  • asparagus

However, specific prebiotics can be problematic for people with irritable bowel syndrome. If you have concerns, ask a healthcare professional about how to incorporate prebiotics into your diet.  

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6. Sprouts

You can find sprouted versions of grains like wheat, barley, rye, and oats at health food and grocery stores. You can also find sprouted legumes and seeds, like sprouted broccoli seeds and alfalfa seeds.

Sprouting improves the digestibility of nutrients. This is because germination mimics some of the processes of our digestion, making sprouts an easy way for your digestive system to access nutrients.

Sprouting can also reduce antinutrients — compounds that can limit the absorption of nutrients.

For example, phytic acid is an antinutrient. It makes it difficult for your body to absorb iron, zinc, and calcium.  

You might try sprouting foods at home. It requires very little space and only a few minutes of watering a day — you don’t even need soil.

7. Peppermint 

Peppermint is an antispasmodic agent. This means that it relaxes the gut wall and helps calm digestion.

Studies have shown that peppermint oil may help relieve gut symptoms, such as bloating and abdominal pain. 

8. Some dairy products

Dairy products can cause digestive problems for some people. This is because cow’s milk naturally contains lactose, a sugar that can be difficult to digest. 

Lactose-free milk comes from cows, but manufacturers add lactase, an enzyme that breaks down the lactose for you.

Yogurt can be easier to digest than other dairy products, since the microbes that ferment the milk also break down the lactose for you.

Yogurt can also be a strong source of probiotics for your gut microbiome.

Kefir is another good option for people who are sensitive to lactose.

These alternatives can help minimize symptoms like excess gas and bloating.

Other tips to ease digestion

Foods with hard outer shells, like nuts and seeds, can be difficult to digest. 

Studies have shown that chewing almonds 40 times, compared with 10 or 20 times, is better for releasing the fats and making the nuts easier to digest. 

Cooking certain foods can also make digesting them easier. For example, when you cook foods containing starches, the heat breaks down the starches. This makes it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients.

Which ingredients can worsen digestion?

Some foods and drinks are less helpful and can make your symptoms worse. 

Caffeine, for example, is a stimulant that increases gut motility. “Motility” refers to the contraction of muscles that pass along the contents of your gastrointestinal tract. More motility can mean loose stools or diarrhea for some people.

Also, alcohol can irritate your gut, temporarily increasing inflammation

Some artificial sweeteners contain sugar alcohols. These draw water into your gut and can cause digestive digestive symptoms like flatulence, stomach pain, and laxative effects in some people.

A few examples of sugar alcohols are sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. 

Research also suggests that artificial sweeteners could harm your gut microbiome.

Summary

Everyone has digestive symptoms sometimes, but if they happen frequently, it can be disruptive and uncomfortable.

There’s evidence that certain foods can benefit our digestive health. Some examples are ginger, sprouts, and whole grains. 

Foods rich in fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics can help promote a healthy gut microbiome and support good digestion.

And certain foods — like fermented foods, sprouted foods, and some dairy products — are easier to digest because manufacturing processes break down compounds that might cause digestive issues.

Incorporating more of these foods into your diet  may reduce any digestive symptoms.

It’s also a good idea to moderate your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners, each of which can make digestive symptoms worse. 

With ZOE’s personalized nutrition program, you can learn how to eat for your gut and your overall health.

Take our free quiz to learn more. 

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