One of the best things we can do to stay strong and healthy – and to protect our immune system – is to take steps to improve our gut health. Though there are several ways we can do this, one of the most effective is to eat the right food.
There are many different types of food that can help improve digestion and make sure our guts are populated with good bacteria. Here we’ll take a closer look at what some of these foods are, and how they help our guts to stay happy and healthy.
Why is digestion so important for our health?
Digestion plays a significant part in our overall health and wellbeing. It breaks down everything we eat, so that vital vitamins and minerals can be delivered to every cell in the body.
Therefore, how well we digest our food will determine things like: how comfortable our stomach feels, how easily we can go to the toilet, how much energy we have, and how well we feel in general.
The type of food we eat plays a key role in aiding digestion; some by improving the digestive process in the stomach, and others by helping to support the intestines. One of the best foods we can eat to improve digestion is fibre – and according to the NHS, we should aim to get 30g of fibre each day (though the vast majority of us don’t do this!). But there are plenty of other foods that can help too.
9 of the best foods to improve digestion
1. Whole grains
Whole grains aren’t only powerful weapons in the fight against inflammation – they’re also great for improving digestion, too. For a whole grain to be classified as such, it must contain 100% of the kernel. Some of the most popular types of whole grains include oatmeal, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bulgur wheat, and whole wheat bread.
The reason whole grains are so good for improving digestion is that they contain a lot of fibre. Fibre doesn’t only reduce constipation, it can also act like a probiotic and feed our healthy gut bacteria. If you’d like ideas on how to eat more whole grains, check out these recipes from Serious Eats.
When it comes to improving digestion, fibre is your best friend – but as you’ll see from this article, fermented foods are too. One of the healthiest fermented foods is tempeh, an Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans that you can buy in supermarkets.
Fermented foods like tempeh are great dietary sources of probiotics (healthy bacteria), and studies show they have a beneficial effect on the gut microbiome. They form a protective lining in your intestines to protect them from harmful bacteria and can help ease IBS symptoms, prevent diarrhoea, reduce bloating, and improve the regularity of bowel movements.
Yogurt is another well-known source of probiotics – but it’s important to know that not all yoghurt contains probiotics. When buying yoghurt, try to make sure that you buy live yoghurt; as this contains active cultures that carry good bacteria, and help our guts stay healthy. Greek yogurt is one of the best yoghurts to eat if you want to consume the live, active cultures that act as probiotics.
Not only can probiotics help with digestive issues like bloating, constipation and diarrhoea, they can also help us digest lactose – which is the milk sugar found in dairy that our bodies sometimes struggle to break down. So, if you like to eat dairy, make sure that you eat live yoghurt to make digestion that bit easier!
Drinking peppermint tea is an old remedy for curing digestive problems – but is there any truth to it? Science says yes. Peppermint leaves contain menthol – a compound that’s been shown to improve digestive issues, including bloating, stomach pain, and the symptoms of IBS.
It seems as though menthol also has a soothing effect on the muscles of your digestive tract, which in turn may help improve the digestive process. Plus, peppermint oil can also reduce indigestion by speeding up how quickly food passes through our digestive systems. If you’d like to eat more peppermint, try drinking peppermint tea, or adding fresh leaves to salads, smoothies and desserts.
5. Chia seeds
Chia seeds may be tiny, but they pack an almighty punch when it comes to health and nutrition. Not only are they packed with omega-3 fatty acids – but they’re also are high in protein, contain many vital minerals and antioxidants, and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Chia seeds are also high in fibre, which is why they’ve been proven to improve digestive health. Once they reach your stomach, these tiny seeds form a jelly-like substance that acts like a prebiotic. They help your gut to grow good bacteria, which improves digestion and promotes bowel regularity and healthy stools.
There are lots of easy ways you can eat more chia seeds. Why not try sprinkling them over cereal, soups or salads? Or for something more indulgent (but just as healthy), why not try making chia seed pudding? Check out these delicious recipes by Greatist.
Ginger has been used for thousands of years for its medicinal benefits – and it’s known to be especially good for digestion. One comprehensive review found that aside from helping to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, ginger is also effective for treating gastrointestinal issues like nausea and vomiting.
Ginger has also been shown to speed up gastric emptying. This is beneficial for digestion because the faster your food moves from your stomach to your small intestine, the less at risk you are of experiencing heartburn, nausea and stomach discomfort.
Plus, ginger has antimicrobial properties. This means it can destroy harmful microorganisms like viruses and bacteria, which also affect your digestion. In particular, ginger has been shown to protect against helicobacter pylori, which is the bacteria that’s often responsible for stomach ulcers and inflammation.
If you’d like more inspiration for tasty ways to use ginger in your cooking, check out these suggestions from Bon Appetit.
Aside from live yoghurt, another dairy product that can aid digestion is kefir: a fermented milk drink that’s made by adding kefir ‘grains’ to milk. These ‘grains’ are created when yeast and bacteria are mixed with milk – and just like the probiotics found in live yoghurt, these cultures can make it easier for our bodies to digest lactose, and reduce side effects like bloating, cramps and gas.
Studies show that kefir can increase the amount of good bacteria in our guts while simultaneously reducing the amount of harmful bacteria. Eating kefir is also linked to decreased inflammation in the gut, which can further help improve digestion.
You can buy flavoured kefir drinks and desserts in supermarkets, but to avoid high amounts of added sugar, it’s best to eat plain kefir. Kefir does have a very tart taste that many people don’t like though. So, if you’d like some ideas for how to make kefir tastier and incorporate it into your diet, then check out this article by What’s Good.
Miso is another fermented food that’s incredibly healthy in general, as well as being great for your gut and digestion. Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning that’s made by fermenting soybeans with salt and kōji, which is a type of fungus. It’s so healthy that one of the world’s top wellness spas serves it for breakfast every day – and in Japan, it’s consumed as a failsafe hangover cure too!
Like other fermented foods, miso is packed with probiotics that boost the healthy bacteria in your gut. These probiotics can also reduce digestive issues and help you get over gastrointestinal illnesses like diarrhoea.
If you’ve never really eaten miso before, one of the easiest ways to try it is to simply have a cup of miso soup every day. These miso sachets from Itsu are ready in seconds and are absolutely delicious. Or if you’d like to use miso in more substantial meals, then why not check out these tasty miso recipes by BBC Good Food?
Papaya isn’t only delicious and refreshing – it also contains digestive enzymes called papain and chymopapain. Papain can aid digestion by helping to break down protein fibres, which can make digesting certain proteins much easier.
Papain is also thought to alleviate common symptoms of IBS like constipation and bloating. It’s so powerful that it’s often used as the main enzyme in digestive supplements. Plus, papaya also contains high amounts of fibre, which we know is essential for maintaining healthy digestion. Try eating papaya like melon, adding it to fruit salads, or drizzling it with lime and scooping out the flesh.
If you suffer from digestive problems, you’ll probably know how challenging they can be – but the good news is that there are several foods that can ease uncomfortable systems and help improve your digestion.
Fermented foods like tempeh, live yoghurt, miso and kefir can increase probiotics in your gut, which can give your digestive health a big boost. Though, in general, most foods that help digestion are fibre-rich. So, it’s always good to make sure you’re eating a healthy, whole foods diet. If you’re not sure where to start, then why not try eating an extra portion of fruit and veg a day? Or swapping your usual desert for a chia seed pudding?
Do you suffer from any digestive issues? Or do you have any additional ideas to improve your digestion? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Leave us a comment below or join the conversation on the health section of the Rest Less community forum.