Your digestive system breaks down the foods you eat into the nutrients your body needs. If you neglect your digestive health, your body could run into problems absorbing those essential nutrients.
The foods you eat and the lifestyle you live have a direct impact on your digestive health. Taking steps to improve your digestive health can help your digestive system function more efficiently and improve your overall health and sense of well-being.
Not sure where to start? Try incorporating these strategies into your daily life to keep things running smoothly:
1. Eat a high-fiber diet.
According to Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RDN, owner of Halsa Nutrition and adjunct professor of nutrition at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, consuming a high-fiber diet that’s rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes can improve your digestive health. “A high-fiber diet helps to keep food moving through your digestive tract, making you less likely to get constipated,” Adams says, adding that a high-fiber diet can also help you prevent or treat various digestive conditions, such as diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In addition, it can help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
2. Get both insoluble and soluble fiber.
It’s important to consume both types of fiber, since they help your digestive system in different ways. “Insoluble fiber, also known as roughage, can’t be digested by the body and therefore helps add bulk to the stools,” says Adams. “Soluble fiber draws in water and can help prevent stools that are too watery.” Good sources of insoluble fiber include wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains; you can get soluble fiber from oat bran, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
3. Limit foods that are high in fat.
“In general, fatty foods tend to slow down the digestive process, making you more prone to constipation,” says Adams. But since it’s important to get some healthy fat in your diet, Adams recommends pairing fatty foods with high-fiber foods to help things move along more smoothly.
4. Choose lean meats.
Protein is an essential part of a healthful diet, but fatty cuts of meat can lead to digestive discomfort. When you eat meat, select lean cuts, such as pork loin and skinless poultry and limit portion size, filling more of your plate with fiber-rich whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
5. Incorporate probiotics — and prebiotics — into your diet.
Probiotics are the same kind of healthy bacteria and yeasts naturally present in your digestive tract. “They help keep the body healthy by combating the effects of a poor diet, antibiotics, and stress,” says Adams. In addition, probiotics can enhance nutrient absorption, may help break down lactose, strengthen your immune system, and possibly even help treat IBS. Adams recommends that people eat good sources of probiotics, such as low-fat yogurt or kefir, on a daily basis.
In addition to probiotics, prebiotics can help your digestion as well. Prebiotics act as food for probiotics, helping them support healthy bacteria in the gut, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Prebiotics are found in a variety of raw fruits, vegetables, and whole grains including bananas, oats, onions, and legumes.
6. If you have digestive issues, try the low FODMAP diet.
Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAP) foods, which are types of carbohydrates, can be hard for some people to digest. If you know you have IBS — or if you simply deal with symptoms such as abdominal cramping, gassiness, bloating, and diarrhea — the low FODMAP diet may offer some relief. This diet is meant to be followed for a short period of time to identify which trigger foods you should avoid for easier digestion. Work with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD or RDN) who specializes in this area to ensure your diet is healthy while you figure out which foods should be eliminated from your diet for good.
7. Eat on schedule.
Adams says that consuming your meals and healthy snacks on a regular schedule can help keep your digestive system in top shape. Aim to sit down for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks around the same time each day.
8. Stay hydrated.
Drinking plenty of water is good for your digestive health, according to Adams. Fiber pulls water into the colon to create softer, bulkier stools, allowing them to pass through more easily.
9. Skip the bad habits: smoking, excessive caffeine, and alcohol.
Liquor, cigarettes, and too much coffee or other caffeinated beverages can interfere with the functioning of your digestive system and lead to problems like stomach ulcers and heartburn.
10. Exercise regularly.
“Regular exercise helps keep foods moving through your digestive system, reducing constipation,” says Adams. Staying active can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is good for your digestive health. Make it a point to work regular exercise into your weekly schedule.
11. Manage stress.
Too much stress or anxiety can cause your digestive system to go into overdrive, according to Adams. Find stress-reducing activities that you enjoy and practice them on a regular basis.
Additional reporting by Erica Patino