Medically Reviewed by Anthony Dugarte, M.D., C.S.C.S
Having a healthy digestion system is important to your overall health, with experts agreeing that a healthy digestive tract can help prevent ailments such as arthritis, depression, fatigue, skin problems, and mood swings.
This article offers a look at the best grains, fruits, and vegetables that help with digestion, as well as foods that are hard to digest, and other helpful tips that can promote a healthy digestive tract. We’ve gathered input from two top experts on this topic, including a Medical Doctor and a certified nutrition and wellness consultant.
Food is the way that the body gets nutrients to function properly, and a healthy digestive system breaks nutrients into small enough parts for your body to absorb and use for growth, cellular repair, and energy, according to Allison Wells, a health coach, certified personal trainer and certified nutrition and wellness consultant in Southern California.
The gut is the root of many health issues, Wells emphasized, and having a balanced microbiome and healthy digestive system can help prevent ailments including the following:
- Autoimmune disease
- Low energy
“Eating foods that aid in digestion ensures that the body as a whole is absorbing and using its nutrients, creating a balanced and healthy system,” Wells said.
Lack of proper nutrient absorption, irritable bowel syndrome, and leaky gut syndrome can cause a toxic buildup in our gastrointestinal tract, which can have a direct impact on the immune system and metabolic functions of the body, Wells said. Some results of poor digestive health may be the following:
- Skin problems
- Mood swings
- Bad breath
- Food intolerances
The digestive tract is so important in one’s overall health, emphasized Dr. Martha E. Rivera, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a Fellow of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine who is sub-boarded in Pediatric Infectious Disease, and has a private practice in Los Angeles, California.
The digestive tract is the second largest organ second to the skin, said Dr. Rivera, adding that it is referred to as the Gut Associated Lymphoid tissue and has much influence on the immunity and overall health of the person.
“Food is medicine or food is toxic,” Dr. Rivera noted. “If we eat clean, less processed foods and more foods from nature and more plant-based foods, we will be able to digest this food leading to less inflammation. Inflammation is the main driver of diseases – diabetes, cancer, arthritis, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, obesity, Alzheimer’s…to name a few.”
Whole grains are excellent for the digestive system, Wells said, because they provide lots of fiber, as well as nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids. These molecules aid in the proper function of the lining of the colon, where 70% of our immune cells live. The fiber from whole grains helps add bulk to stools, which can reduce constipation. Additionally, some grain fibers help feed the healthy bacteria in the gut.
Here are some whole grains that are good for digestion:
- Farro (a type of hulled wheat)
- Products made from whole wheat
According to Dr. Rivera, the following grains are healthy choices because they tend to have a slower rise in blood sugar and keep a person feeling fuller:
- Brown rice
- Wild rice or basmati rice
- Steel-cut oats
“They promote better digestion as they are broken down more slowly than their refined counterparts that cause sugar spikes, leaving a person craving sugar and can cause constipation,” Dr. Rivera added.
Fruits that are high in fructose – fruit sugar – can be difficult for some people to digest, causing gas and bloating, according to Wells, who noted that some examples of these include grapes, mango, and pears. Fruits that are lower in fructose, which makes them easier to digest, include:
Additionally, papaya contains a digestive enzyme called papain, which can help aid in the digestion of proteins, reducing bloating, and possibly alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome – IBS – which affects the large intestine. Symptoms of IBS include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation, or both.
“Bananas are another fruit that is great for digestion,” said Wells, adding that bananas can help stop diarrhea and contain a fiber-rich substance called inulin, which stimulates the growth of good gut bacteria. “Avocados are also a great option, as they are high in fiber and potassium, promoting healthy digestive function.”
In addition to helping with digestion, fruits provide antioxidants, flavonoids, and carotenoids, said Dr. Rivera, who recommends eating 3 to 4 servings per day.
She advises eating berries, which are high in fiber, as well as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, which are low-glycemic and good choices. Additionally, cherries are anti-inflammatory, and watermelon is a good source of potassium and fiber and aids in digestion.
Leafy greens and some cruciferous vegetables are great for digestive health, Wells said, because they are high in insoluble fiber, which adds bulk to stools, quickening elimination from the digestive tract.
They also contain magnesium, which can help relieve constipation, and feed your good gut bacteria. Some examples of vegetables that are good for digestion include:
- Brussels sprouts
Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, are members of the Brassicaceae family, Dr. Rivera said, and contain compounds called sulforaphane that are anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory – as well as help with digestion.
Other vegetables that help with digestion include carrots, which are beneficial because they contain carotenoids, which are believed to provide health benefits in decreasing the risk of disease, particularly certain cancers and eye disease.
Additionally, tomatoes are good for digestion and also contain beta carotene, which is an antioxidant that’s converted into Vitamin A in the body and has been shown to decrease inflammation.
It is recommended to eat 4 to 5 servings of vegetables a day, Dr. Rivera noted, and these can be incorporated at every meal and help to promote digestion, anti-inflammatory properties and provide micronutrients necessary to promote digestion.
There are many other foods that aid in digestion, Wells noted, and some of the top ones include fermented foods, lean proteins, and some roots and herbs.
Fermented foods are an excellent source of probiotics, she said, which improve digestion and promote bowel health. Some examples of fermented foods include:
“Lean proteins are much easier for the body to digest than a hearty steak,” Wells said. “Sticking with chicken and fish, specifically salmon which has Omega-3s that can reduce inflammation in the gut will help ensure a healthy digestive system.”
Additionally, ginger can help quicken the elimination of food through the stomach and is also used to treat nausea; and peppermint oil – found in the peppermint leaf – contains menthol, which can help alleviate the bloating and stomach discomfort associated with irritable bowel syndrome.
Increasing your water intake is also beneficial, said Dr. Rivera, further noting that the body is comprised of at least 66% water, so consuming more water will help with digestion.
“Adding lemon or cucumber – or mint during these hot summer days – make it easier to consume more water,” Dr. Rivera advised. “Not drinking enough water can lead to sluggish bowels and constipation.”
While much of this may sound like home remedies and folk medicine, digestive health is a well-studied topic.
Researchers examined the effects of consuming whole grains regularly over the course of 6-weeks in healthy individuals. Consumptions of 14g of whole-grain fiber daily was associated with health benefits like lower cholesterol and more frequent bowel movements.
A recent review of 27 studies investigated the association between whole grain consumption and body weight. Researchers found that the relationship was inverse, i.e. lower body weight was correlated with higher whole grain consumption in most studies.
According to this review, whole grain consumption may reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Additionally, individuals that consume more whole grains are more likely to have better digestive health and lower BMIs.
Fruit consumption has also been shown to support the function of your digestive tract, as well as other desirable health benefits.
Like whole grains, the fiber found in fruit can reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity. Also, fruits are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can boost immune function, fight inflammation, and improve diarrhea and constipation.
Two daily servings of prunes improved the frequency and consistency of bowel movements in constipated individuals comparably to a fiber supplement. Similarly, 2 servings of kiwi effectively relieved constipation.
Kiwi was even effective in improving digestive function in subjects with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Additionally, other fresh fruits like bananas, blueberries, lemons, and strawberries may serve as potential treatment options for IBS.
Vegetables are packed with many of the nutrients that make fruits so beneficial, as well as many more. Regular consumption of high-inulin vegetables (artichoke, onions, garlic, etc.) may be associated with modifications in the composition and function of friendly gut bacteria.
The effect of fermented foods on overall health has also been examined. Kimchi effectively reduced cholesterol and fasting blood glucose. Other fermented foods, like yogurt, have been proven effective in preventing diarrhea in hospitalized patients taking antibiotics.
It’s important to note that these benefits are not all or nothing. You can start by simply including a whole grain, fruit, or vegetable serving. Alternatively, you can make it a goal to have one plant-based meal each day or every other day.
There are so many foods that can taste good going down, but really wreak havoc on the digestive system, even causing major health issues down the road, Wells warned.
“Everybody is different and responds differently to various foods,” she said. “Paying attention to what foods make your body feel clean, energized, and healthy – versus bloated, gassy, and painful – is a good compass to knowing what’s appropriate for you. Regularly incorporating foods into your meals that promote healthy digestion will aid in the prevention of diseases, and improved gut health.”
Additionally, exercise is the key to aid in digestion, Dr. Rivera said. “In this world of Uber eats and convenience meals, increased screen time and lack of movement, digestion suffers. If we don’t move, our bowels won’t move.”