Your gut microbiome influences your digestion, metabolism, and immune function (among other things), and when bad bacteria are given the opportunity to thrive, it can contribute to everything from gastrointestinal upset to obesity to mood disorders. A gut healthy diet can help restore or maintain microbial balance, which can have a major impact on how you feel.
Importance of a healthy gut.
Your gut is the foundation of your health. Everything from your digestion to your mood ties back to your gut in some way. "We also know there is an important link between the health of the gut and our brain and hormones (aka the gut-brain axis or GBA)," says registered dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, M.S., R.D. "The GBA includes all of the connections between our central nervous system and our enteric nervous system—and these connections play a vital role in metabolism, immunity, and hormonal health."
If your gut is out of whack—meaning the ratio of good bacteria to bad is off—you'll feel it. Gut microbial abundance and diversity is critical for whole-body health.
Do you have gut issues?
Gut issues can be obvious (think gas, bloating, and/or constipation), but that's not always the case. Sometimes you'll experience sneakier signs, like difficulty concentrating, mood swings, and skin issues. Here are some signs that your gut microbial balance might be off:
But why does this happen? There are a number of reasons your gut can get thrown out of whack, but poor diet is one of the biggest contributors.
Bad bacteria and yeast thrive on sugar and processed foods (a foundation of the standard American diet), while good gut bacteria prefer fiber and prebiotic fiber especially, which most people don't eat nearly enough of. National surveys show3 that only about 5% of the population meets their daily fiber needs.
That said, while certain foods may be generally categorized as "gut-healthy foods," you also have to consider any potential food intolerances that may be unique to you. Such intolerances can contribute to a "loose" or permeable gut wall—a phenomenon also referred to as "intestinal permeability" or "leaky gut" by many functional health experts.
"When the permeability of the gut lining has been altered, this allows toxins, bacteria, and foreign substances like undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream along with the nutrients," family medicine physician Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., previously told mbg. This may also ladder up to digestive issues, autoimmune issues, hormone imbalances, food allergies, and other manifestations like joint pain.
And while your diet is important, it's not the only thing that can promote gut imbalance. "There are so many factors—both societal and structural, environmental, and behavioral, that can impact gut health," says Pasquariello, adding that she likes to refer to the "social determinants of health model" to get a more holistic view. Proximity to and access to nutritious foods, education level, food quality/agriculture in the region you live, pollution, and water quality can all contribute to gut issues, she says.
On an individual level, some other things that can negatively affect your gut include:
Pasquariello says when trying to improve your gut health, focus on the things you can control. And one of those things is your diet.
Improve your gut with a gut healthy diet
Prioritizing gut-healthy foods can have a massive impact on gut microbiota, helping bring things back into balance. Here are a few key factors to consider:
Focus on getting plenty of fiber and complex carbohydrates, which feed good bacteria. Prebiotic foods, like asparagus, flaxseeds, artichoke, and jicama are especially helpful. "These prebiotic foods aren't easily digested or absorbed. Instead, they bypass your small intestine and beeline into your colon, where, among their many benefits, they feed the good gut bacteria to create healthy, energy-producing short-chain fatty acids4," board-certified internist Vincent M. Pedre, M.D., previously told mbg.
"There is also good research to suggest that probiotic-containing and fermented foods, like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, kombucha, and miso, in conjunction with an overall healthy diet and lifestyle, can promote good gut health," says Pasquariello. You may also consider a targeted supplement to help support the good bacteria in your gut, too (here are our top probiotic supplement picks.)
Gut health expert and registered dietitian Heather Finley, M.S., R.D., also emphasizes the importance of eating a wider variety of plant foods. "Aim to eat 30 different plants per week (from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and herbs)—or as many varieties as you possibly can," she previously told mbg.
And don't forget to chew your food. There are important enzymes in your saliva that start the digestion process. If you don't adequately chew your food, it puts more work on the digestive system and can lead to bloating, gas, and other digestive symptoms.
Of course, it can also be beneficial to limit certain triggers. Pedre says sugar can be the worst offender since it can feed bad bugs and create an imbalance in the gut microbiome. He also recommends limiting processed foods, artificial sweeteners, gluten-containing grains (if you're sensitive), and dairy products (with the exception of yogurt and kefir). But like with all things, moderation is the key to a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Gut health meal plan.
A gut health diet doesn't have to be complicated. You can use this grocery list to plan your own easy meals or try some of the mbg-approved recipes below.
Gut Health Breakfasts
Gut Health Lunches
Gut Health Snacks
Gut Health Dinners
Your gut influences everything from your digestion to your mood. While many things can contribute to poor gut health, your diet is one of the most influential.
A gut health diet helps feed the good bacteria and starve out the bad, restoring balance in your gut microbiome and helping you feel your best. Plant fibers and fermented foods are especially beneficial, while sugar and processed foods can promote imbalance.
Want to learn more? Check out our complete guide to gut health and the best and worst foods for your gut. If you're feeling a little sluggish and unsure where to start, a gut reset is a good transition to a gut health diet. It's also recommended that you work with a gastroenterologist and registered dietitian if you have specific gut health concerns.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.