20 Foods That Can Aid Digestion

Nicole Pajer
by Nicole Pajer
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20 Foods That Can Aid Digestion

An estimated 60–70 million people are affected by digestive diseases and 32.3 million patients visit their physician with digestive disorders as their main complaint. “About 70% of our immune system lives in our gut,” says Alexandra Jatzke, lead registered dietitian with Simplex Health, a clinical nutrition practice with offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Poor gut health has been linked to inflammation, arthritis, autoimmune disease, anxiety and depression, dementia and cancer.

“Any GI distress [gas, bloating, distention, belching, constipation, diarrhea] is a telltale sign that one’s digestion is not functioning optimally,” says Jatzke, which can hamper weight-loss goals.

To help improve digestion, try some of the following gut-friendly foods:

PROBIOTIC-RICH FOODS

According to the Jatzke, having a healthy balance of gut bacteria not only improves digestion but also the immune system, brain function and metabolism. Thus, it’s important to snack on probiotic-rich foods, which support “good” gut bacteria. Probiotics can be found in foods that have been fermented or cultured. Some examples include:

Historically, sauerkraut contains four species of gut-friendly lactic acid bacteria, though other species can also be found in this fermented cabbage dish,” says Kristin Koskinen, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Kennewick, Washington. Sauerkraut has also been shown to contain anti-inflammatory properties.

Pickling is a form of fermentation, thus these products contain probiotics, which help in the gut,” New York City-based registered dietitian Mike Franzone. He warns, however, that pickled veggies can be high in sodium, which can be a risk factor for heart disease. So just a few tablespoons of pickled veggies should do the trick.

This fermented black or green tea drink has become widely popular and for good reason. “It’s a functional probiotic drink that contains bacteria and yeast essential for gut health,” explains Allison Childress, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Texas Tech University. “Start with a few sips per day and work up to a maximum of one bottle/serving per day,” she suggests.

This traditional Japanese food product is made from fermented soybeans and grains, and is usually sold in paste form. “Miso adds a delicious umami flavor to any recipe and is a probiotic,” says Catherine Brennan a registered dietitian. Miso can be high in sodium, though, so it should not be consumed in excess. A serving size is about a tablespoon. Add it to salad dressings and marinades or make a traditional miso soup.

This fermented vegetable is found in many Korean dishes. “It is an excellent source of gut-boosting bacteria,” says Childress who adds that a serving size is about 2 tablespoons as it is meant as a condiment, not as a standalone. Franzone adds that kimchi is loaded with vitamins A, B and E. But the most important part of this food is the healthy bacteria it contains called Lactobacilli.”

This is a fermented milk that many refer to as ‘drinkable yogurt.’ “Kefir can emulate the healthy bacteria already living in your gut and is one of the most probiotic-rich foods on the planet,” notes Childress. The recommended serving size is 6 ounces or 2/3 cup.

High in probiotics, it’s also an excellent source of vitamin D, which helps skin and bones remain healthy, explains Ruth Pupo Garcia, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at White Memorial Medical Center.

PREBIOTIC-RICH FOODS

The healthy gut bacteria that keep our digestive systems running smoothly love high fiber, nutrient-rich foods, known as prebiotics notes Jatzke. “We’ve seen [in our research] that consuming probiotics may not be sufficient, so consuming prebiotic-rich foods as well is critical,” adds Alex Ruani, a doctoral scientist at the University College London in nutrition science education and research director at The Health Sciences Academy. “Prebiotics feed probiotics. So probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria, while prebiotics nourish ‘good’ bacteria.” Natural sources of prebiotics include:

Cooked onions can be enjoyed as a part of a vegetable melange, sautéed as a side or steamed until sweet,” says Koskinen, who suggests eating them raw to achieve the full benefit.

Cellulose fibers from the stalks and stems of leafy greens are great to feed the bacteria we want to support,” explains Koskinen. “These are the parts of the plant that too often end up in the trash or compost bin. Rather than miss out on the prebiotic benefits, thinly slice and steam or sauté them, eat them raw, or toss them into a soup.”

Studies show Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, have prebiotic properties. Florencia Tagliavini, in-house nutritionist for The NutraMilk adds that Jerusalem artichokes contain 2.4g of fiber per cup. Koskinen suggests roasting them and serving them in place of potatoes.

According to Franzone, garlic is an excellent source of prebiotics since healthy gut bacteria like to feed on the high levels of fructan (a type of carbohydrate) it contains. However, those with IBS may want to avoid it because it’s difficult to digest, he warns.

Fennel is calming for the stomach and is often used for various digestive problems including heartburn, intestinal gas, bloating, loss of appetite and colic in infants,” says Jeannie Gorman, a registered dietitian with Aligned Modern Health.

“We’ve seen from our research that bananas help soothe your stomach lining by stimulating the production of a thick mucus coating, which creates a barrier that protects against too much acid and ulcer formation,” says Ruani. She adds that bananas are prebiotic-rich and thus promote friendly microbiota growth.

OTHER GUT-FRIENDLY FOODS

“The glycyrrhizic acid contained in licorice root has anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties and can help speed the repair of the stomach lining and soothe gastrointestinal problems like ulcers, heartburn and food poisoning,” says Franzone. One study suggested licorice, in combination with other herbs, may be effective in the management of digestive disorders such as ulcerative colitis.  

This tropical fruit contains papain, a “proteolytically active constituent,” which serves as a natural digestive enzyme. In fact, papain is an active ingredient in many popular brands of commercialized digestive enzyme supplements. “Beyond my clinical observations, a double-blind placebo controlled study of the effects of a papaya preparation called Caricol was found to contribute to the maintenance of digestive tract physiology,” says Koskinen.

“Some research shows that peppermint in the form of oils or tea can help conditions like indigestion and gas but may make others worse such as gastroesophageal reflux disease,” says Childress. Dr. Luiza Petre, a board-certified cardiologist and weight-management specialist, recommends drinking peppermint tea post dinner. “Mint has been used for centuries to aid digestion and tame troubled tummies. It has both anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties that beat bloat. Peppermint calms down the entire digestive tract and allows gas to pass,” she explains.

“Ginger’s anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties work wonders on bloat and this root is known as one of the best natural remedies for nausea,” says Petre. You can get your ginger fix in a variety of forms: make tea with freshly grated root and hot water or add fresh ginger to smoothies and salad dressings, which will bring in added flavor.

“These veggies are very hydrating and easily tackle the water retention aspect of bloating,” notes Petre. They contain the flavonol antioxidant quercetin, which has been proven to help fight inflammation in the digestive tract and reduce leaky gut symptoms, adds Petre.

Some studies have suggested stocking up on omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon, helps enhance levels of healthy gut bacteria, such as Lactobacillus.

This herb is typically ingested in the form of a tea as a means of calming gastrointestinal disturbances such as flatulence, indigestion, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. It’s also been touted for its anti-inflammatory benefits, as the flowers of the plant contain volatile oils including alpha-bisabolol, alpha-bisabolol oxides A & B and matricin, which possess anti-inflammatory and antiphlogistic properties.

About the Author

Nicole Pajer
Nicole Pajer

Nicole is freelance writer and health advocate that lives, works, and exercises in Los Angeles, California. She is published in The New York Times, Woman’s Day, Men’s Journal, Hemisphere’s, Men’s Fitness, and Parade. You can read more from Nicole at her website, or follow her on Twitter at @nicolepajer.

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