News flash: What you eat matters. Not only to your waistline, but also your insides. Your organs like you better when you opt for the salad instead of the fried cheese platter. (Although that fried cheese platter is so, so delicious.) But there are few things more important than your gut. It’s really important to keep it healthy and functioning properly. It regulates so many things, and is a big factor in how you feel. And while yes, we all know that eating healthy is important. But we’re human. And we all have our weaknesses. And that’s ok! But some diet weaknesses are worse than others. So what are some of the worst foods for gut health?
Our gastrointestinal tract and digestive system is the first step for nutrient utilization. When we take our first bite, the digestion process begins — nutrients are broken down and continue to be metabolized and absorbed as it travels throughout our GI tract. Our GI tract is made up of multiple body parts- our mouths, esophagus (throat), stomach and intestines and rectum. Which means our digestive system includes the pancreas, gallbladder and liver too.
Our intestines contain a crucial component to digestion and absorption and overall gut health: microorganisms. These include bacteria, fungi, and even viruses. These microorganisms exist in our GI tract as a microbiome. Our microbiome plays a role in our health, from immune support to metabolism. This microbiome is delicate and ever-changing. It is influenced by multiple factors: environment, genetics, medications, and diet. Chronic disruption to our microbiome and cellular damage from chronic inflammation overtime can lead to various diseases such as cancer, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Inflammatory Bowel Disease (such as Crohns and ulcerative colitis), and type 2 diabetes.
So what are the worst foods for gut health?
Which foods can disrupt the good bacteria in our guts? Which foods can cause damage to our GI tract and increase inflammation?
1. Processed Meats
There is ongoing research on how red meat and processed meats can affect our GI health. However, the research that is currently out there shows strong evidence that processed meats can damage our gut health. Enough so that the World Health Organization declared processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen for humans, meaning, it is likely to cause cancer, especially colorectal cancer.
Processed meats include multiple foods: lunch meats, bacon, hot dogs, jerky, and other cured meats. These processed meats can contain added nitrates and nitrates, which help cure the meats and keeps them fresher for longer. However, nitrites and nitrates, when ingested, react within our bodies to produce cancer-causing compounds. While they can taste great, they are one of the worst foods for gut health.
Alcohol can be fun. But it can also wreak havoc on our GI system. This doesn’t really include social drinking. Social drinking is about one drink for women and two drinks for men. The problem really starts with excessive drinking. Chronic alcohol use can cause chronic inflammation in our bodies and alter our bacteria in our GI systems. There are different processes in our body to metabolize alcohol, especially depending on the quantity of alcohol. When the body is metabolizing excessive alcohol amounts, free radicals are produced. These free radicals cause cellular damage, which can lead to disease.
The bacteria in our GI tract can also metabolize alcohol, which produces compounds that promote inflammation. Over time, chronic inflammation can cause damage to the GI system and other organs, and it can lead to different diseases. Chronic alcohol consumption can also increase risk of colon and rectal cancer, per the American Cancer Association. Excessive alcohol consumption can interfere with the absorption of certain B-vitamins such as folate and thiamine, and can cause deficiencies. It’s obvious why this is one of the worst foods for gut health out there. (Is it a food? Technically, yes.)
Alcohol can also induce acid reflux, or heartburn. There is a lever that separates our esophagus and stomach, also known as a sphincter. Alcohol relaxes this sphincter, and our acidic gastric juices in our stomach backflow into our esophagus, causing heartburn. Frequent heartburn can damage our esophagus. Overtime, this can increase our risk for esophageal cancer.
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3. Fried and Greasy Foods
Fried and greasy foods are a staple in the American diet. Sadly, they are also one of the worst foods for gut health. From french fries and chicken fingers to pizza, onion rings and cheeseburgers. These foods are high in fat. Too many fatty or greasy foods at one time can overwhelm the digestive system and cause diarrhea. High fat diets can also disrupt our gut microbiome by altering the composition of bacteria in our guts. Overtime, this can produce inflammation, damage our gut’s lining, and overtime can lead to chronic disease.
We are what we eat. It is up to us to develop a healthy eating pattern that focuses on wholesome, nutritious foods. Can the foods and drinks listed above be incorporated into our diet? Of course, but enjoy on occasion. The object is to not eat these foods in excess. But this is difficult due to the nature of our Western-diets. Utilize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low fat dairy as a foundation for your eating pattern. These foods can help regulate and maintain a healthy gut flora, and help keep our body and health in check.
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The Worst Foods for Gut Health – In Conclusion
We always like to preach everything in moderation. But when it comes to gut health, it’s best to steer clear of fried foods, processed meats and excessive drinking. As much as you can, anyway. Sometimes it’s too hard to turn down that fried chicken. We get it. We love that stuff, too. But it’s always good to know what to cut back on to give yourself the healthiest gut you can.
Christine Morgan is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian who currently practices in dialysis. Her experience includes renal nutrition, food service, and geriatrics. Her education includes a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and she completed her Dietetic Internship with the University of Delaware. She is also a member of the Tri-State Renal Dietitians Association.