Bloat, flatulence, cramps, bowel movement irregularity, abdominal pain — Americans know digestive troubles all too well, with up to 70 million dealing with disorders related to their gut.1 The function of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract — to absorb nutrients and eliminate waste — is a simple but critical part of good health, and food can play a big role in how efficient and effective your GI tract works.2 Below is a breakdown of some of the worst foods for digestion and an explanation of why they may be making your stomach upset.
Understanding Digestive Problems On An Individual Level
One thing that can confuse those suffering from digestive problems is that different bodies react to different foods — and foods that work well for one person might be the same ones causing trouble for someone else.
Below are some of the common culprits causing discomfort, but it’s important to remember a consultation with your physician is advised before making changes to your lifestyle, including diet and exercise.
Artificial sweeteners were invented to lower the sugar content in common processed foods and also to be a cheaper alternative in food production to natural sugar. An unfortunate side effect of these man-made sweeteners — including saccharin, aspartame, neotame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium-k, and advantame — is that they may wreak havoc on your gut bacteria, resulting in digestive discomfort.3 Adding insult to injury, artificial sweeteners have actually been linked to weight gain.4
It’s not just artificial sugar that may be causing bloating, cramping, and gas. Lactose, the natural sugar in dairy products, requires lactase, one of the digestive enzymes, to breakdown the sugar for easy digestion. But a whopping 65% of the world’s population is to some degree lactose intolerant — meaning their body doesn’t produce enough lactase to effectively breakdown the lactose.5
While capsaicin, the key component that makes peppers hot, has been linked to potential health benefits, for some people, it’s a major trigger for digestive problems.6
For example, some people with irritable bowel syndrome report a higher correlation between abdominal discomfort and elevated capsaicin levels in foods.7 While those who experience acid reflux link some of their indigestion woes to the consumption of spicy foods containing capsaicin.8
Acidic foods are another category where some people don’t even have the slightest reaction, while for others, these foods absolutely wreak havoc on their gut health. What makes this category a little confusing for some is the high number of “healthy” foods that fall under it, particularly fruit, including:
- Citrus (lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges)
Other common acidic foods include grains, sugar, and fizzy drinks. These low pH foods may be hard for some bodies to break down, leading to upper GI issues like acid reflux.10
High-fiber foods, like whole-wheat bread, barley, and rye, can be a big contribution to gut discomfort in some people. Certain Individuals have a negative immune reaction to the protein gluten found in rye, barley, and wheat, which can cause a wide range of digestive problems.11
Individuals with irritable bowel syndrome may also experience digestive issues from wheat, as it tops the list of high FODMAP foods for its high fructans content. Fructans is a naturally occurring carbohydrate that has been linked to constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and belching.12
While high-fat foods, such as red meat, ice cream, cheese, and butter, may already have a bad rap for being the enemy of a slim waistline, new research is shedding light on how these foods may affect gut health. For one, a diet high in fatty foods is linked to a decrease in good bacteria in the gut (which helps digest food and maintain a healthy weight) and an increase in bad bacteria (which is a contributor to sluggish immune response).13,14
Supporting Gut Health With Food
As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for what’s upsetting your stomach — and that’s why it’s so important to work with your doctor before you start cutting entire food groups out.
Also, on the flip side, there are a number of foods known to support digestive and good gut health in general.
Naturally fermented foods are associated with helping to support the gut microbiome — that is, support the good bacteria living in your gut.15
Examples of gut-friendly fermented foods include:
- Fermented vegetables
- Refrigerated miso
- Pickles in salt (not vinegar)
- Refrigerated sauerkraut
- Unsweetened kombucha16
A healthy gut microbiome is linked to supporting a healthy immune system, weight maintenance, joint health, and a healthy heart.17 Fiber, in the form of prebiotics, helps support the health of your good bacteria.18
Here’s a list of healthy foods that are high in fiber:
- Leeks and onions
- Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes)
A Unique Diet For A Unique Stomach
There’s more to gut health than “good” foods and “bad” foods. Bloating, gas, burping — these can be caused by any number of foods or conditions. And for many individuals, it’s not just any one food that may trigger irritation. One thing that is for sure: when dealing with digestive issues, it’s important to discover what’s going on in your gut and make dietary adjustments accordingly.