Coincidence? Not according to research on the worst foods for gut health. Science shows that junk food can disrupt your microbiome and damage your gut, but it also reveals alternatives that can restore balance and help you heal.
What are the worst foods for gut health?
Foods commonly considered “junk food”—like fast food, fried food, candy and commercially prepared baked goods—are often refined or ultra-processed. They go through multiple production steps before landing on store shelves, many of which may be responsible for their effects on gut health.
Refined foods include sugar, white flour and some vegetable oils, which are stripped of important nutrients during processing. Ultra-processed foods are made on an industrial scale using ingredients like colorings, flavorings, preservatives, stabilizers or emulsifiers to create specific appearances, textures and flavors.
How junk foods affect the gut
Although these ultra-processed foods can be convenient when life gets busy, they’re not so convenient for your gut. When you eat junk food, it:
- deprives beneficial gut microbes of fiber, leading to dysbiosis and a loss of microbial richness.
- increases the number of disease-causing bacteria called pathobionts in your gut.
- may cause dysbiosis by promoting the growth of microbes not normally present in large numbers.
- can disrupt the gut microbiome in ways that affect your metabolism.
- may promote microbiome changes associated with colon cancer.
But inflammation seems to be the biggest reason why junk foods are the worst foods for gut health. A steady diet of refined and ultra-processed fare allows pro-inflammatory microbes to flourish in your gut, which can damage your gut lining and contribute to inflammation elsewhere in your body.
These changes may even affect your kids or grandkids if junk food remains a dietary staple. One study in mice showed that a lack of fiber progressively reduced the number of different microbes in the gut over several generations. Reintroducing fiber along with targeted probiotics was the only way to reverse the changes.
Top foods to avoid for better gut health
Some junk foods affect your gut more than others. Here’s how a few of the biggest offenders disrupt your health:
- Added sugars are pro-inflammatory, which can irritate your colon and increase the likelihood of leaky gut. Eating sugar is also associated with dysbiosis.
- Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose don’t break down fully during digestion. When they reach the colon, these sweeteners can increase bad gut bacteria and promote leaky gut. They can even kill the cells that line the gut when consumed in large amounts.
- Fried food can reduce the number of different microbial species in your gut. It can also cause systemic inflammation by promoting bacterial toxins called endotoxins.
- Red and processed meats have been shown to damage the gut lining. During digestion, red meat breaks down into compounds that can damage cells and increase the risk of colon cancer. And, like fried food, meat can introduce endotoxins that promote inflammation.
If these foods have been staples of your diet, don’t worry. You can balance your microbiome, reduce inflammation and heal leaky gut by replacing junk foods with gut-friendly alternatives
The worst foods for gut health: Alternatives and healing
To reverse gut damage from junk food, start by upping your intake of fiber-rich whole and minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Beans are especially high in a beneficial fiber called resistant starch, which you can also get from sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and reheated pasta. Consuming fiber from these sources helps promote a diverse population of beneficial microbes and help you recover from dysbiosis.
Walnuts, almonds, whole soy products, berries and dark-colored fruits contain antioxidant polyphenols that can repair gut damage and restore balance in your microbiome. Fermented foods are also popular for gut health because they contain probiotic bacteria. Although these microbes don’t hang around in your gut for very long, they can have beneficial effects as they pass through.
Diversity in your diet is important, so take the opportunity to try as many different types of whole and minimally processed foods as you can. As you replace junk foods with these alternatives, your meat and fat intake will naturally go down, which limits your exposure to endotoxins and reduces inflammation.
Take it slow when you start your journey to better gut health. Small steps are easier to take and can help you avoid some of the discomfort that may occur if you’re not used to eating high-fiber or fermented foods.
If you don’t start to feel better in a few months after getting rid of junk food, consider getting specific, personalized recommendations from a nutrition professional who has experience with gut health and gastrointestinal disorders. With the right mix of foods to nourish your microbiome, you’ll start to feel positive changes that will motivate you to maintain your new gut-friendly habits.