We get it. For every list of unhealthy foods you find online, your list of health-proclaiming or comfort foods gets shorter. It’s hard to navigate nutrition information when faced with contradictory advice, and we all need to eat. While no food’s effects exist in a vacuum or are isolated from other influences, your health, which can fluctuate with different needs, can also predetermine what is harmful versus beneficial. While research studies significantly differ, this article reviews a few of the currently regarded worst foods for impaired digestive function often found in (or presenting a risk for) autoimmunity, and how you can lessen the blow without going hungry.
Why Is Gut Health Important?
While the special energy-producing structures called mitochondria are famously considered the powerhouse of the cell, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract could be the powerhouse of the entire body. Although internal to us, the GI tract is the primary place where the outside world (i.e., food, medicines, some bacteria, viruses, and the like) comes into contact with our internal world. The organs of the intestinal tract help food move through, while signaling for digestive juices and enzymes to extract nutrients and materials to nourish our cells and dispose of what is not useful. (Source)
But the digestive tract isn’t only the organs and parts (mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, liver, anus) we associate with it. Digestive and immune functions are closely related to the functioning of our GI tract barrier, or gut lining, and to the gut microbiome, the GI tract’s massive and diverse microbial population.
If that sounds a little off-putting, rest assured that human health is closely related to our gut microbiome’s thriving diversity and balance. Actually, beneficial gut bacteria help us by synthesizing some vitamins and amino acids from food, and by creating short-chain fatty acids that support colon health. On the other hand, microbiome imbalance is connected to many conditions and diseases inside and outside the GI tract, showing us that what happens in the gut can influence any body system. (Source)
An impaired gut lining, or increased intestinal permeability known as leaky gut, can promote ongoing immune system activation (inflammation) in the body. Additionally, it can play a role in intestinal dysbiosis, or an imbalanced microbiome, which also promotes chronic immune system activation, and is implicated in many conditions both inside and outside the GI tract. Increased permeability and dysbiosis occur with most autoimmune conditions, indicating that the gut is critical for managing autoimmune health and reducing chronic inflammation. (Source, Source)
What’s Food Got to Do With It?
The food you eat is raw material not only for your direct energy use (and enjoyment) but for your gut microbes, which can’t easily be separated from you. Different foods can affect populations of harmful and beneficial microbiota in your digestive tract as those microbes adapt to your diet, and the food itself can introduce new bacterial, viral, or fungal components to your microbiome. Additionally, especially for those with autoimmunity, the breakdown products of foods can either promote immune activity or be anti-inflammatory, and induce either a leakier or a more intact gut lining. Food has enormous potential and sway within our bodies, so if your health is in disrepair, you may want to consider a few of the worst foods for your gut. (Source, Source)
5 Worst Foods for Gut Health
Supporting both microbiome balance and intestinal lining function is key to improving digestive health and autoimmune conditions. Here are a few foods and ingredients that impair the balance of intestinal bacteria or the function of the lining, as well as some simple ways to rebalance your tract.
1. Processed Red Meats
Regular intake of processed red meats has long been associated with the risk of intestinal and colorectal cancers and inflammatory bowel disease. Meats such as hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, and bacon that are preserved by salting, smoking, or use of other additives creates breakdown products that can influence gut microbiota, cause oxidative damage (inflammation), and are toxic to the gut lining. Consistent intake of processed red meats can create an intestinal environment that promotes inflammatory processes. This may be due not only to the breakdown products but also because a meat-centered diet tends to be lower in fiber and short-chain fatty acids. (Source, Source, Source)
Food for Thought
There is a benefit to balancing your plate. Studies have shown that including vegetables containing magnesium and resistant starches in the same meal with red meat can counter some potential damage to the intestinal tract. Analysis of dietary intake in less industrialized countries, as well as dental studies on ancient humans, suggest that significantly higher fiber intake protects against cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases and supports a thriving and diverse balance of beneficial bacteria. (Source)
Several studies have found that gliadin, a protein component of gluten, can react with an intestinal lining regulator protein called zonulin, leading to increased intestinal permeability in susceptible individuals. For those with already dysbiotic guts (which are found in many autoimmune conditions), gluten can have a big role in worsening dysbiosis and the symptoms that can go with it, and avoiding or limiting gluten may help reduce symptoms.
However, research also shows that following a gluten free diet if you don’t have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten/wheat sensitivity can upset the balance of your gut microbiome and affect the way you metabolize starch, decrease production of important short-chain fatty acids, and increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies. This means that individuality plays a role in the benefits and effects of removing gluten. (Source)
Food for Thought
Despite the risks in healthy individuals brought on by a gluten free diet, abstaining from gluten if you have GI symptoms or non-celiac gluten sensitivity may help resolve symptoms, improve intestinal permeability, and significantly improve quality of life. Additionally, the quality of a gluten free diet is important — along with avoiding gluten, you need to make sure you’re taking in the nutrients you need. Increasing non-gluten resistant starches and non-processed whole foods can support nutrient intake and gut repair. (Source)