The Worst Foods for Gut Health (And What to Eat Instead!)

by | Updated: July 22nd, 2022 | Read time: 4 minutes

Americans get over half of their calories from ultra-processed junk foods and collectively spend $98.7 billion every year on gut-related health problems.

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.

Overhead View of Woman Eating Some of the Worst Foods for Gut Health | Vitacost.com/blog

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:

 

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.

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Theresa Sam Houghton

As Chief Nerd at The Modern Health Nerd, Theresa “Sam” Houghton is helping plant-based and better-for-you CPG and DTC brands understand their customers and create better content.

Sam has been writing content for over 12 years and believes in the power of storytelling to connect with customers. She is a graduate of both the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant program and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate program and uses this expertise to bring a unique perspective to content writing.

Her writing appears regularly on NutritionStudies.org and has been featured on Green Queen Media. She has been a guest on the Vegan Visibility podcast, UnchainedTV's Lunch Break LIVE, Chef AJ Live, the ProteinX Virtual Coffee series, the Behind Their Business podcast and Let's Eat with Mark Samuel. When she’s not writing or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, cook tasty plant-based food, hang out at farmers markets and knit crazy socks.