Popular Foods That Are Wrecking Your Belly, Say Nutrition Experts
What's causing that train wreck in your belly kind of depends on the train. Do you suffer from indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, GERD (gastrointestinal reflux disease), or simply belly fat creeping over the waistband of your jeans?
Any number of foods that you send down your gastrointestinal tract can trigger a train wreck in your belly. But while the variety of those locomotives is vast, many of those foods have one thing in common—they screw up the delicate equilibrium of bacteria in your gut. (Related: Popular Foods That May Cause Lasting Damage to Your Gut, According to Science.)
"Poor gut health has more negative health consequences than we often realize," says Lisa Richards, a nutritionist with TheCandidaDiet.com. "When your microbiome, the bacteria that naturally live in the gut, is out of balance, we can experience gastrointestinal issues and weight gain." This can also lead to more serious health outcomes like chronic disease and poor quality of life.
We asked some registered dietitians and other nutrition experts to identify the most popular foods that contribute to an out-of-balance microbiome so you can avoid belly problems and keep your GI tract on track. Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, don't miss Simple Ways to Start Losing Weight Immediately, According to Science.
"A major cause of fungal overgrowth [in the gut] is a diet full of processed, sugar-laden, junk food," says Richards. "Unfortunately, even food products considered healthy can fall into this category of foods that are wrecking your belly and gut—foods like sugary cereals, protein and cereal bars, and pre-packaged pastries."
"Promote good gut health by eliminating sugar that feeds bad bacteria in the gut and integrating a probiotic into your daily regimen," she says.
Eating yogurt with its live active cultures is a great way to repopulate your gut with helpful bacterial, but not if your spoon is in flavored yogurt. "In an attempt to increase the palatability of yogurt, food companies turn this great natural probiotic into a sugar bomb that counteracts its probiotic activity," says Fiorella DiCarlo, RD, a nutritionist at Appleman Nutrition. Choose 2% plain Greek yogurt or plain low-fat Kefir, which contains 11 strains of active bacteria, and add your own fiber-rich fruits like berries, pineapple, and mango, she suggests.
For some picks, check out: The 20 Best and Worst Greek Yogurts, According to Dietitians
Bacon and Other Fatty Meats
Diets high in saturated fat have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, the number one killer of Americans. However, some recent studies have called the demonizing of animal fats into question, to the delight of followers of the ketogenic diet. But many nutrition experts still believe that eating fatty meats crowds out more nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.
"Bacon, a highly-processed fatty meat, kills off healthy gut bacteria," says registered dietitian nutritionist Jana Mowrer, MPH, RDN, a certified diabetes care, and education specialist and founder of HealthWins Consulting. "And the more red meat consumed, the less people eat of other food groups, usually those with fiber such as vegetables." Mowrer tells the story of a client who was eating a pound of bacon every morning because he was trying to lose weight and manage blood sugars. "While his blood sugar maybe was under control, bacon consumption has been linked to increased rates of colon and stomach cancer."
Crackers and Pita Chips
"The worst popular foods for gut health are those that lack fiber (crackers, pitas, non-whole wheat bread) or are high in added sugars like cereal," says DiCarlo. "In trying to lower calories, food companies often strip a natural product of fiber and natural lignans found in grain fiber." Any increase in daily fiber intake will help your belly issues, but work toward getting up to 28 grams of fiber per day, she says. Some easy ways to do that: add flax meal to soups, salads, and smoothies, toss asparagus, artichoke hearts, and beans into salads, top sandwiches with fiber-rich avocados. See these 43 Best High-Fiber Foods For a Healthy Diet.
Soup is often thought of as a weight-loss appetizer because it fills the belly, satisfying hunger so you won't eat as much during the main meal. But most soups are extremely high in sodium and some research suggests that very salty diets may negatively impact the gut microbiome. Though it didn't examine the gut per se, a 2015 study in Hypertension found high sodium diets to be a potential risk factor for obesity independent of energy intake. Researchers discovered that higher salt intake was associated with more than a 25% increase in the risk of obesity and was related to higher body fat mass.
Eat whole foods whenever possible. Sandwiches, even when made with whole-grain bread, are not whole foods. Sandwiches can compromise gut health because they are the epitome of processed foods. Deli meat is loaded with salt as is the carb-heavy rolls and bread that surrounds it. "Deli meat has nitrates and nitrites and eating them on a regular basis has been shown to increase risk of cancer and heart disease, according to the World Health Organization," says Rameck Hunt, MD, founder and director of an obesity medicine clinic in Princeton, NJ and author of The No Guess Work Diet.
One of the negative influences of red meat on gut bacteria is an increased production of a byproduct called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMA)), which has been linked to risk of heart attack and stroke according to a study in the European Heart Journal.
Potato Chips and Pretzels
Devoid of dietary fiber, these are carbohydrate-heavy snacks that can tip the balance of your microbiome into the tummy-trouble zone. But it's easy to upgrade your chip habit by switching to bean-based chips, which nutritionist Kristen Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, calls "a game-changer." Some popular black bean chips, like Simply Nature Black Bean Chips boast 5 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and only 85 mg of sodium. Kirkpatrick, manager of nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, recommends pairing bean chips with a fiber-rich dip like hummus or guacamole.
French Fries and other Deep-Fried Foods
Foods fried in oils rich in saturated and trans fats soak up those oils and become loaded with extra calories. That's one reason regularly eating fried foods has been shown to be associated with obesity, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. High-fat foods like fried foods also can subtly change the populations of bacteria in the gut and actually cause a rewiring of satiety circuits in the brain, according to a study that was presented to the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in 2015. In that animal study, researchers found that "the brain is changed by eating unbalanced foods," explained Krzysztof Czaja, DVM, PhD, a principal investigator on the study who is an associate professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. "It induces inflammation in the brain regions responsible for feeding behavior" and the brain no longer senses signals for fullness, which causes overeating.
For more motivation to limit ordering those fried mozzarella sticks, read This is What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Deep-Fried Foods.