Gut health is all the rage. It’s probably why you landed on this page. But if you’re like us, you probably need a little refresher on why this emerging science is so important. So here goes: More than 100 trillion bacteria are floating around your gut—a flora, if you will, of microbes both good and bad for your health. Most of these belong to one of the following groups: Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, Actinobacteria or Proteobacteria, according to the National Institutes of Health, and each plays a significant role in how our bodies break down and absorb food, nutrition and energy. When an imbalance happens in your gut and the bad guys take over, it’s called dysbiosis, which can lead to weight gain, inflammation (hello, bloat) and even IBS and some cancers. Doctors are only beginning to learn about the gut and how it affects pretty much every other aspect of our health, but a clear picture is beginning to form when it comes to what’s good and bad for the gut.
Inspired by that research, we rounded up the handy list below of five foods to stay away from in order to live your best gut health life—but not entirely, since some of our faves (RIP, booze) didn’t make the gut cut. It’s all about balance, amirite?
1. Animal Products
Too much animal protein in your diet (think grilled chicken BLTs and steak fajitas) can be a detriment to your gut health—especially red meat. One study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine found that those who have a diet that relies heavily on animals for protein (whether that’s meat, eggs, cheese or other dairy products) are far more likely to suffer from the chronic gut condition known as IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease, as opposed to others who get their protein primarily from plants. That was further backed up by a more recent study from the European Heart Journal, which found eating red meat raises the body’s levels of trimethylamine N-oxide—a byproduct of unhealthy gut bacteria—that can lead to heart attack and stroke. Maybe vegans really are on to something.
The swap: To help cut down on your animal consumption, try instituting Meatless Mondays in your household and eating probiotic-packed yogurt for breakfast, fresh vegetable- and fruit-filled salads for lunch, and grilled wild fishes for dinner.
2. Fried Foods
We know, these are some of the gems of the culinary world, but fries, fried chicken and the like are cooked in fatty oils that, when tossed into your gut once or twice a week, can change the composition of your gut microbiome, according to the World Journal of Gastroenterology. In short, this means you could be fast-tracking yourself toward gastro-related diseases like IBD, IBS, colitis, celiac disease and gastroparesis, to name just a few.
The swap: Invest in an air fryer (like this Amazon reviewer favorite) to make healthier versions of all your favorite fried foods and save your gut and waistline in the process.
It hurt to add this one to the list, but it’s not completely black-and-white. Sure, drinking in excess is bad for you and you know it. Preliminary research conducted by the American Journal of Physiology - Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology on the guts of alcoholics has shown that their microbiomes were altered thanks to the frequently high levels of alcohol in their systems. But one glass (that’s 3.4 ounces if you’re asking the NIH) of red wine a day also helped increase the prevalence of good gut bacteria, like the type that lowers cholesterol and reduces blood pressure.
The swap: It might be hard to stick to just one drink (OK, or two) at your weekly happy hour, but if you make it a glass of red, you can enjoy your friends’ company and the health benefits without killing your gut…or your head tomorrow morning.
4. Fake Sugars
You might think you’ve got a leg up on traditional sugar by drinking diet soda and sweetening everything from your coffee to your cake with artificial sweeteners like saccharine and aspartame, but you might actually be doing your gut a huge disservice. Those fake sugars increase your glucose intolerance and can set you up for a lifetime struggle with obesity and type 2 diabetes—a disease that’s been linked to poor gut health.
The swap: Allow yourself the six added teaspoons of sugar per day that the NIH is surprisingly on board with. You can still have the piece of chocolate you need to take the edge off that 3 p.m. meeting without wrecking your gut in the process.
Foods that are high in preservatives—e.g., chips, pretzels, frozen dinners and freeze-dried mac and cheeses—are also typically low in fiber, an important ingredient in sustaining good gut health. When your gut is fed a ton of processed foods instead of the fiber it needs to survive, it’s unable to keep all the healthy bacteria alive, which decreases gut diversity and, typically, your overall health.
The swap: Pack apple slices and almond butter, or carrot sticks and hummus, for a midday snack that won’t throw your gut out of whack.
Remember that your gut health isn’t controlled only by what you put into it. For the most well-rounded gut care, you also have to sleep well, avoid cigarettes, get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity (and 75 minutes of harder cardio workouts) per week and try to keep your stress levels as low as you can. Think, too, about how many of these are related to and directly reflective of the other: Working out will make your body crave fresh, healthy foods, can promote better sleep and decrease stress. Being less stressed will help you sleep better and give you more energy for an early-morning run. Healthy is as healthy does, folks!