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healthy foods and digestive issues: young woman holding broccoli in front of face on pink background

8 Healthy Foods That Can Actually Cause Digestive Issues

You may associate digestive issues with eating not-so-healthy or fatty foods (and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong), but a number of healthy foods can unfortunately cause stomach upset, as well. 

Here’s what you need to know about good-for-you foods that could be bad for your belly. 

What Happens In The Body During Digestion

First things first: To understand why certain foods bug your gut, you’ve got to understand how digestion works.

“The GI tract is divided into the upper section (which consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and duodenum) and the lower half (which is made up of the small intestines and large intestines or colon),” explains Karen Cooney, M.A., C.N., C.H.H.C., nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. “The process of digestion involves complicated chemical and biological interactions that happen at every step along this 30-foot tract.”

As food travels down the complex GI tract, these chemical and physical reactions occur to break it down and absorb its nutrients.

“In order for digestion to take place, both chemical and mechanical digestion must work together for food to be digested and absorbed,” adds Amber Pankonin, MS, RD, LMNT, registered dietitian and founder of Stirlist.

The Links Between Certain Healthy Foods And Digestive Issues

Many factors can influence your digestion and make eating certain foods more difficult than others. “Health is not just what you eat but how well you digest and absorb what you eat,” says Cooney.

A few of the most common factors that affect your digestion:

Genetics: From the get-go, your genetics may predispose you to developing certain diseases that might impact digestion, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or other digestive disorders like IBS or GERD, says Pankonin.

Candida or yeast overgrowth: Consuming excess sugar (which feeds yeast in the digestive system) or overuse of antibiotics (which kills off good gut bacteria) can contribute to candida or yeast overgrowth.“This causes gas, bloating, weakened immunity, brain fog, fatigue, and possibly a leaky gut,” says Cooney. 

Leaky gut syndrome: Known as “leaky gut,” this condition occurs when increased gut permeability (think small holes in the intestinal lining) allow compounds meant to stay within the gut to get out and wreak havoc on the body, says Cooney.

The most common culprits behind leaky gut include unaddressed food allergies and bacterial overgrowth—and symptoms include abdominal pain, fatigue, and diarrhea.

Food allergies: “If not pinpointed, food allergies can lead to a weak immune system and a ton of digestive issues, including malabsorption issues,” says Cooney. “An inability to absorb the nutrients from our foods can affect all of our bodily functions, including our mental condition.”

Insufficient digestive enzymes: “Digestive enzymes help break down food and absorb nutrients,” says Cooney. Thing is, we make less of them as we age.”

The Healthy Foods That May Mess With Your Stomach

There are a few foods in particular that often contribute to digestive issues in sensitive people. 

1. High-fiber breakfast bars and cereal

“We know that fiber is very important for digestion and most of us do not get enough in our diet,” says Pankonin. “However, too much all at once might not be a good thing which is what you might find in high-fiber convenience foods like breakfast bars or cereal.”

Read More: Fiber Is Especially Important For These Three Groups Of People

Eating too much fiber at once, rather than starting slow and gradually introducing it to your diet, can cause painful and uncomfortable side effects.

Plus, the type of fiber often found in these foods—think chicory root—specifically, has been linked with GI problems.

Who may have issues with fiber: “Those who are not used to eating high-fiber products might experience gas, bloating, and discomfort as their body adjusts to the high fiber intake,” says Pankonin.

2. Dairy

“Eat too much dairy and it may be digested in the large intestine instead of the stomach, which can cause digestive upset, diarrhea, and gas,” says Cooney.

“If dairy triggers diarrhea, bloating, and gas, you may have a dairy allergy,” Cooney explains. “Or, it means you don’t have the enzyme called lactase that digests the sugar part of milk or the enzyme that digests the casein protein in milk.” Only when you figure out the root cause of your dairy issues can you determine how you treat it.

Who may have issues with dairy: According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), up to 75 percent of all adult African Americans and Native Americans and 90 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance may also become more common with older age, as our bodies produce fewer lactase enzymes

3. Onions

Here’s an unexpected one: “Some individuals experience bloating, gas, cramps and diarrhea when eating raw—or even cooked—onions,” says dietitian Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet

Onions contain fructans, a type of carb called oligosaccharides, explains Gans. Oligosaccharides, which are considered FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), are not easily digested. They sit longer in the gut and ferment, potentially causing uncomfortable symptoms.

Who may have issues with onions: Some sensitive people’s small intestines have a really hard time with FODMAPs, Gans says.

4. Cruciferous vegetables

Cabbage and broccoli may be very good for you, but they can do a number on your stomach. “These are very nutritious foods, but they do contain a non-digestible carbohydrate (an oligosaccharide called raffinose) that might cause excessive gas, bloating, and discomfort, especially if consumed in large amounts,” says Pankonin. 

Who may have issues with cruciferous veggies: “Those who already suffer with digestive disorders or underlying digestive disorders might experience more serious side effects,” says Pankonin.

5. Beans

“Beans are loaded with healthy protein and fiber, but they also contain a hard-to-digest sugar that may cause gas and cramping,” says Cooney. (Yep, raffinose again.) As the bacteria in your gut work to break this sugar, they produce gas.

Who may have issues with beans: According to Cooney, some people lack an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase that helps break down certain sugars like raffinose in beans.

6. Barley

Barley contains high amounts of fiber and gluten. So, “some people experience bloating, diarrhea, gas, and cramping when consuming it,” says Gans.

Who may have issues with barley: “An individual who has celiac disease or a gluten intolerance cannot tolerate barley,” Gans explains. “Their body is unable to break down gluten, a protein found in wheat and many other grains.”

7. Tomato sauce

Tomato sauce, though delicious, is highly acidic. Tomatoes cause more acid production in your stomach, which can force acid back-up in your esophagus, causing heartburn, Cooney says. This can also irritate the lining of your stomach.

Read More: 6 Ways To Ease Heartburn

Who may have issues with tomato sauce: “People who already have an irritated stomach lining from factors like food allergies that lead to heartburn or acid reflux may have issues with tomato sauce” says Cooney.

8. Citrus fruits

Like tomato sauce, citrus fruits are acidic and can also contribute to irritation and heartburn, Cooney explains.

Who may have issues with citrus: People with stomach acid issues or acid reflux should be wary of citrus fruits. 

Notice your stomach gets upset after eating citrus? “Cut back on these acidic fruits until you’re feeling better and instead load up on applesauce or bananas to help ease discomfort,” says Cooney.

4 Tips for improving digestion

If you’re looking for ways to improve your digestion without kissing some of your favorite healthy eats goodbye, Cooney has a few suggestions for you.

Sit and relax during meals: “Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly,” she says. “Digestion actually begins with the simple-but-important act of chewing and the subsequent release of enzymes in your saliva.”

Avoid processed foods: “These can weaken your immune system by triggering the release of antibodies,” says Cooney. Sticking with whole, natural foods, compared to processed, packaged foods best protects your gut and keeps it healthy.

Take a digestive enzyme: If you need a temporary fix, “take a comprehensive digestive enzyme 15 to 20 minutes before meals,” says Cooney.

Take a probiotic: Probiotics may be the single most important supplement for a healthy GI tract,” says Cooney. “Probiotics crowd out bad organisms, such as yeast and bad bacteria. Plus, they also support immune function, synthesize B vitamins, and regulate bowel movements.”

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