Let’s get straight to the point: most of the processed “health” foods we consume are not as nutritious as they are advertised. We market labels as healthy heart and Organic (organic sugar is still sugar)—claims that, quite frankly, are misleading. These foods are known to cause a host of digestive problems, inflammation, and blood sugar imbalances. Do not be afraid! As you learn to read ingredient lists, you’ll see these deceptive claims right away. I don’t want to spoil your oat milk obsession, but today we’re going to explore ingredients to avoid for gut health. Yes, that includes sneaky additives and “natural” flavors found in everything from popular non-dairy milkshakes to carbonated water.
Featured image of Hannah Haston.
What is digestive health?
When we think of our gut, we often think of our belly. But the gut – or the digestive system – is just that: a system. It’s a group of agencies. The intestines include the mouth, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, pancreas, gallbladder, colon, and rectum. Like our hormone system, the gut is powerful but also very delicate. It can easily be thrown out of balance. Hence why it is important to be mindful of ingredients to avoid for gut health!
Although we think that the sole role of the intestine is to help us digest and absorb food, it does much more than that. Our gut microbiome — and the community of bacteria — extends its influence beyond the intestinal wall. It affects our overall health and well-being in a myriad of ways (stress, mood, etc.).
Signs of an unbalanced digestive system
Of course, this will vary from person to person. But in general, here are the physical indicators of an underlying gut problem.
1. Digestive problems
No surprises here. Think: constipation, gas, bloating, stomach cramps, acid reflux or heartburn. A healthy digestive system should be able to process food and remove waste easily.
2. Unexpected Weight Loss or Gain
Losing or gaining weight – without changing your diet, stress or exercise routine – can lead to an unhealthy gut. An unbalanced gut can have trouble absorbing nutrients, regulating blood sugar, signaling that you’re full, and storing fat. In fact, a lack of diversity in the gut microbiome may be a precursor to obesity.
3. Constant fatigue
Are you often tired? Of course, many things can cause this, but a lack of diversity in gut bacteria is directly linked to a lack of energy, chronic fatigue, and sleep disturbances. Serotonin, a hormone that affects sleep and mood, is produced in the gut. A gut that isn’t working properly can have trouble producing or regulating serotonin — which can affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
4. Skin Condition
Gut health affects everything, including your skin. Conditions like eczema and acne are linked to inflammation in the gut, caused by food allergies, poor diet, and a lack of good gut bacteria.
5. No Tolerance Food
If a certain food (like milk or wheat) upsets your stomach, it may not necessarily mean you have a food allergy. Instead, it’s possible that your microbiome is out of balance. It lacks enough good bacteria needed to effectively break down certain foods.
6. Mood swings
The gut is often referred to as the “second brain”—and for good reason. Research confirms that things like anxiety, depression, mood swings, and emotional health are linked to the state of your gut. We need good gut bacteria to support important mood-enhancing chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin.
Discuss any of these symptoms with your healthcare provider. A basic understanding of your bowel condition may require a comprehensive stool test, SIBO breath test, or food allergy/sensitivity testing.
Ingredients to avoid for gut health
Because we are all biological individuals, what causes your digestive problems will not be the same as mine. So fill this list with a grain of salt. Finding pathogens can be a combination of home testing and checking with your doctor. At any rate, they’re known as ingredients to avoid for gut health: artificial sugars, glyphosate, guar gum, inflammatory oils, and natural flavors.
Artificial sugar tops the list of ingredients to avoid for gut health. First and foremost, they are made of chemicals. Second, they have been linked to weight gain, brain tumors, bladder cancer, and many other health problems.
A few examples are aspartame, sucralose, maltitol, maltodextrin, and saccharin. All of these can raise blood sugar, cause indigestion and weight gain, worsen allergies, reduce beneficial bacteria in the gut, etc. They are found in diet drinks, salad dressings, processed foods, etc. Ultimately, they provide no nutritional value. My favorite swap foods are honey, stevia, monk fruit, and xylitol.
Glypho—what? Glyphosate is a weed killer. It is used in herbicides and insecticides that are sprayed on crops, i.e. wheat. However, glyphosate leach into the food you eat and cannot be washed off. Unfortunately, it’s tied to a host of bowel problems. See here for a list of the top glyphosate violators (Dirty Dozen is also a helpful list).
When possible, buy organic, sprouted wheat. Although you won’t see glyphosate on the ingredients list, look out for “glyphosate-free” on food packaging. Love overnight oats? If you’re looking for clean oats, One Degree Organics doesn’t offer grains with glyphosate!
Have you heard of guar gum? Guar gum is derived from guar beans, which grow mainly in India and Pakistan. They look similar to green beans. Unfortunately, even small amounts of guar gum can cause unpleasant symptoms in people with sensitive digestive systems. Some people see improved gut problems after eliminating guar gum from their diet. If you have bowel problems, like SIBO or IBS, consider eliminating gum from your diet. Guar gum is used as a thickener, emulsifier, stabilizer and blending agent. You’ll find it in a variety of packaged and processed foods — oat milk, coconut yogurt, breakfast cereals, ice cream, etc.
Industrialized omega-6 rich foods promote inflammation. Your usual cooking oils, such as vegetable and canola oils, are very high in omega-6 fatty acids and Short in omega-3 fats. We need both types of omega fatty acids, but the standard American diet feeds on an unbalanced ratio of omegas, thanks to the abundance of industrial seed oils. Continuous use of vegetable oils can promote chronic inflammation (all over the body), leading to intestinal problems, inflammatory diseases, etc. Try to limit your consumption of canola oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil and grapeseed oil. They are found in chips and fried foods, along with oat milk.
It’s nearly impossible to find sparking drinks, canned cocktails, protein bars, crackers, or snacks that don’t have “natural flavors.” Contrary to their name, the natural flavor is incorrect Nature. Essentially, they are flavoring agents. Food manufacturers can add natural flavors to their products to enhance flavor. It’s no surprise that research shows that when “natural” appears on food packaging, people tend to assume the item is healthy. Not always so.
Because the FDA hasn’t officially defined “natural flavor,” it can be used to describe almost any food. Although natural flavorings must meet safety requirements, individual reactions may occur. People with allergies or following special diets should be mindful of natural flavors, as they have been linked to physical reactions, including intestinal problems.