The 8 Worst Foods for Digestion
What you eat matters for your health in terms of nutritional value, but it also matters for your stomach—where the wrong foods might sit in your belly for hours leading to abdominal pain, bloating, and gas. Not fun.
There are some foods that are really great for digestion, such as those with probiotic strains, like Greek yogurt or Skyr, and some that can be brutal going down, like those high in acidity or artificial additives.
If you’re unsure of what to eat right before bed or before a big work presentation, where proper digestion is critical, avoid these triggering foods that might give your stomach some trouble.
Sure, greasy and fried foods are obviously not nutritious, but they are also pretty difficult to digest. “They can lead to tummy aches and diarrhea for some, or possibly contribute to reflux for those who experience it,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. So, if you have a date or are trying to get some shut-eye, put down the fried fish or greasy potato chips and look towards something cleaner instead, like fresh produce.
“Sugar-Free” Packaged Foods
Be careful with some protein bars and sugar-free beverages and desserts, like ice cream. “Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol found naturally in many fruits like apples, pears and prunes but also concentrated in large amounts in ‘sugar-free’ sweets like candy and ice cream,” says Harris-Pincus.
“While fine in foods, the sorbitol added to these manufactured goodies, which are often consumed in excess, can lead to gas, bloating, and diarrhea,” she explains. You’re better off choosing a product with a small amount of natural sugar instead.
You might think that chewing gum habit is helping curb your appetite to promote weight loss, but it could be making you bloated and gassy, says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD. “Most sugar-free gums contain low-calorie sweeteners or sugar alcohols that are not well digested in the stomach. The majority will pass through the intestines unabsorbed and once in the intestinal tract [will] cause bloating, gas, and even diarrhea, if consumed in large amounts,” she says.
Sugar alcohols you'll most commonly see on gum packages, as well as protein bars and lower-calorie drinks, include sorbitol, erythritol, xylitol, and maltitol.
“On one hand, coffee can be great for digestion to speed things along. But on the other hand, it can be hard on your digestive system—especially if you already face indigestion,” says Michalczyk.
Coffee is pretty acidic, and once your stomach produces too much acid, it can lead to discomfort and indigestion. “Take note of how your stomach feels after drinking coffee and decrease your overall consumption to see if your symptoms subside,” she says.
In addition to coffee, other acidic foods include red or processed meat, and refined grains.
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Veggies are great for your health, but raw ones can be tough to digest. “Raw vegetables are especially high in insoluble fiber, as this fiber type is found in the cell walls of plants,” says Michalczyk.
“Your body can have trouble breaking this type of fiber down, which can cause gas and bloating,” she says. This may not be the case for everyone, but it's worth noting that it can happen often in people. Raw vegetables are better than no vegetables, but if you know your stomach is sensitive, eat them cooked. You’ll still get the benefits.
Garlic and Onions
Be careful with the level of fructans in garlic and onion, as they can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, says Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
“If someone notices they experience cramping, gas, diarrhea or any other symptoms of IBS in relation to these foods, they may benefit from a low FODMAP diet and can see a dietitian for the best way to work through this,” she says. This diet keeps foods high in fructans and other substances that can cause acidity and ingestion in moderation. “Because garlic and onions are ingredients in so many dishes, this can sometimes be hard to identify, though,” she says.
“It’s no secret that many people suffer from lactose intolerance. According to the NIH, 65 percent of the human population has an impaired ability to digest lactose after infancy,” says Jones. When you aren’t able to breakdown lactose, and it passes into the lower digestive tract, instead of being broken down and absorbed, the stomach becomes inflamed, and there’s promotion of bad bacteria to lower gut health, she explains. Soft cheese, like Brie, blue, feta, and queso, as well as milk and ice cream, are all triggers.
“Most people don’t consume beans the three times per week recommended via the Mediterranean diet, so when they do ingest them, they may experience gas or discomfort since their GI bacteria is not used to them,” explains Jones.
Yet rest assured—once legumes become a more regular part of the diet, these side effects usually subside, she says, unless you require a low FODMAP diet as indicated above. Start slow with lentils, chickpeas or fermented beans, as in tempeh or tofu, as your body adjusts to eating beans more regularly, she says.