If the walls of your gastrointestinal tract could talk, they’d say you are what you eat—at least when it comes to the makeup of the trillions of microorganisms it houses. A little refresher: A healthy gut microbiome (one that is diverse with a balanced composition of beneficial bacteria) controls gut health by communicating with the intestinal cells, digesting certain foods, and preventing disease-causing bacteria from sticking to the intestinal walls.
Your diet is often prime suspect #1 when things go awry (read: bloating, cramps, and other digestive drama). And just like certain foods can destroy digestive health, other foods can work to improve gut health and heal symptoms. In fact, research says that you can rapidly alter the composition and activity of the gut microbiome simply by changing what’s on your plate. So what are the heavy hitters that you should be loading up on for better gut health? Ahead, we break down six must-have foods to keep your gut on point (and they’re not just your usual fermented eats). *Adds to grocery list ASAP.*
1. Leafy greens
What can’t leafy greens do—they’re the triple threat of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Plus, they have major fiber content that feeds good gut bacteria and keeps things moving along in your digestive tract. As if we needed more reason to believe they’re the real MVPs of vegetables, leafy greens also contain a little-known nutrient called sulforaphane, which normalizes the composition of gut microbiota and repairs the physiological destruction of the gut barrier. With countless recipes starring the likes of spinach, kale, and Swiss chard—from the obvious salads and smoothies to soups to pasta—incorporating leafy greens into your diet is a no-brainer.
2. Sweet potato
This starchy root veggie is a superfood in its own right thanks to its nutrient profile. Made up of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B6, magnesium, and potassium, that should be reason enough to stock up on it. But its benefits don’t stop there. Since sweet potatoes also boast both soluble and insoluble fiber, they help promote gut microbiome diversity, keep your bowel movements on the reg, and help beat bloat. Moreover, they are a rich source of prebiotics (food for the growth and activity of the beneficial bacteria already in the gut), such as oligosaccharides and resistant starch, which aid in improving the balance of your gut bacteria and overall gut health. Whether you decide to bake, roast, spiralize, mash, or transform sweet potato into casseroles, fries, or brownies, you’ll be doing your gut a solid by noshing on it.
While ginger may best be known for its spicy zest, consider it your gut’s BFF because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can support digestion and combat bloat by stimulating saliva and stomach acid production. According to Dr. Lance Uradomo, M.D., M.P.H., an interventional gastroenterologist at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center, ginger root contains gingerol, a natural compound that assists with gastrointestinal motility, or the contractions and relaxations of muscles of the GI tract and the movement of ingested food and liquid through the gut. It doesn’t hurt that adding ginger to your diet can be as simple as making yourself a cup of ginger tea (just slice ginger and pour hot water over it), adding a slice of ginger root to your smoothies, or grating ginger into soups or salad dressings.
4. Whole grains
Despite what diet culture may have you believe, carbs are not the enemy. In fact, research shows that whole grains (such as oats) constitute important sources of nutrients like fiber and prebiotics for the gut microbiota and contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. Whole grains also deliver on non-starch polysaccharides (NSP), resistant starch, and phenolics—all of which feed the growth of friendly bacteria in your gut. Additionally, a study published in the journal Healthcare demonstrated that when a combination of different whole grains is consumed, the various types of fiber, micronutrients, and polyphenols entering into the gastrointestinal tract may yield greater bacterial diversity. BTW, “whole grains” does not mean whole wheat bread (although that can be totally fine too!); we mean grains in their actual unprocessed, whole form (think: brown rice, quinoa, oats, bulger wheat, quinoa, farro, or millet).
No gut-friendly list of foods would be complete without mention of fermented foods. Sauerkraut is basically pickled cabbage that contains a healthy dose of fiber and probiotics, which have been associated with maintaining a healthy gut microbiome and improving digestion and gut function. Sauerkraut is especially good for those who are looking to ease into consuming fiber-dense foods since it contains digestive enzymes that make it gentler on the gut and easier to break down. Another perk of the probiotic superfood? One study found that regularly eating sauerkraut can increase good bacteria and help reduce symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and stomach pain. When shopping for sauerkraut, look for raw and unpasteurized, and then add it on top of eggs, avocado toast, tacos, or a burger.
6. Bone broth
Chock-full of proteins and amino acids like collagen and glutamine, studies suggest bone broth may soothe gut inflammation and strengthen the gut barrier, which can enhance healthy digestive function. According to another study, bone broth is not only capable of changing the immune response by decreasing the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and stimulating the expression of anti-inflammatory cytokines but also having a therapeutic effect against ulcerative colitis (a form of inflammatory bowel disease). You can DIY bone broth by adding chicken or beef bones along with vegetables, onions, garlic, herbs, and apple cider vinegar to a large pot of water, bringing it to a boil, and then letting it simmer for 10-12 hours. If you go the store-bought route, make sure you opt for one that is organic, grass-fed, and free of additives.