We’ve all heard about the importance of gut health, for good reason. Often referred to as our “second brain,” the gut plays a crucial role in not only regulating digestion but also influencing our immune system, heart and mental health, skin, mood, and even cognitive function. Clearly, it has some important functions! And while many people are aware of gut-healthy foods and the importance of maintaining a healthy gut, some may unknowingly consume foods that harm gut health and disrupt the delicate balance of this ecosystem.
Ahead, learn about eight inflammatory foods that may be secretly harming your gut health. Plus, healthy swaps that are delicious and nutritious.
Chronic Inflammation & The Gut: What to Know
First, what is chronic inflammation? Chronic inflammation is a long-term, low-grade inflammatory state in the body that can contribute to the development or exacerbation of various conditions and wreak havoc on our health. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that chronic inflammation and gut health are closely intertwined. When gut health improves, we often see a reduction in chronic inflammation. But, when chronic inflammation worsens, our gut health often pays the price.
Considering the significant impact each has on the other, maintaining a healthy gut is vital when it comes to mitigating and preventing the adverse effects of chronic inflammation. And while adding in pre and probiotic-rich foods can significantly enhance our gut health, steering clear of inflammatory foods that harm gut health is important, too.
Top Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
#1 Seed & Vegetable Oils
If you’ve been following the latest wellness news, you’ve likely heard the trending talk surrounding the inflammatory potential of seed and vegetable oils.
Seed and vegetable oils (including soybean, corn, canola, and sunflower oil) are widely used in restaurants, fast foods, and processed foods due to their low cost and extended shelf life. However, they contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and relatively low levels of omega-3s. While omega-6 fatty acids are essential for the body, research suggests that a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids, especially when not balanced with sufficient omega-3s, can contribute to chronic inflammation and various health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions like arthritis.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Opt for healthier alternatives rich in anti-inflammatory Omega-3s, like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. According to research, the consumption of EVOO has been shown to improve gut health and increase immune function while reducing harmful gut bacteria. No wonder it’s a staple in the Mediterranean diet, an eating style linked to longevity.
Other anti-inflammatory oils include:
- avocado oil
- coconut oil
- flaxseed oil
- fish oil
#2 Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, are often found in sugar-free and low-calorie products as a sugar replacement. However, despite providing sweetness without the added calories, their impact on gut health isn’t so sweet. According to recent 2023 research, artificial sweeteners can disrupt the gut microbiome, and additional research suggests that artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda, may promote inflammation in those with a pro-inflammatory predisposition such as Crohn’s disease.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: Low-Sugar Fruit
And if you’re opting for low-sugar options, you’ll keep your blood sugar in check while gaining all the health benefits. Here are some gut-healthy examples:
#3 Artificial Colors and Additives
Speaking of all things artificial, we can’t forget about artificial colors and additives. Prevalent in a wide variety of foods, including processed foods, snacks, and even ‘healthy’ foods, these synthetic compounds (such as red #40 and yellow #5) can wreak havoc on the gut. According to new 2023 research, synthetic dyes have been linked to gut inflammation and a host of digestive issues. To avoid these sneaky ingredients, always read the ingredient label! As a rule of thumb, avoid anything you can’t recognize or pronounce.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: Color Your Plate with Whole Foods
By using natural food-based coloring, you not only avoid the potential negative effects of artificial additives, but you also benefit from the good-for-you nutrients present in these whole food sources.
Here are some ideas:
- Blue and purple color: blueberries and cabbage
- Yellow, and orange color: spices like turmeric, paprika, and saffron
- Green color: spirulina, leafy greens like spinach, or herbs like parsley, cilantro, and mint
- Red and pink color: beets or berries such as raspberries and strawberries
#4 Gluten (for individuals with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease):
While not all individuals need to steer clear of gluten, those with a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease can experience adverse reactions to gluten, such as bloating, malabsorption, and abdominal pain. In situations where one is intolerant to gluten, if consumed long-term, it can even damage the intestinal lining and trigger chronic inflammation in the gut.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: Gluten-Free Grains
If you have a diagnosed gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, or simply feel better adopting a gluten-free lifestyle, here are some gut-friendly nutrient-dense alternatives:
- gluten-free oats
#5 Non-Organic Produce with High Pesticide Residues
If you’re mindful of the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen, then you’re aware that not all conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are bad. However, if it’s not on the list of low-pesticide produce, it may contain pesticide residues that can disrupt the gut microbiome and potentially harm gut health. In fact, some studies suggest a link between pesticide exposure and gut dysbiosis and inflammation.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: Organic & Clean-15 Approved Produce
Whenever possible, opt for organic produce — this is especially important if it’s on the Dirty Dozen list, as these foods are highest in pesticides. If organic isn’t an option, thoroughly wash and peel non-organic fruits and vegetables to reduce pesticide exposure.
The good news is that there are some safe conventional foods that are healthy and gut-friendly, according to the EWG. Here are some of the most nutritious 2023 Clean15-approved produce options:
#6 Processed Meats
Processed meats, such as deli meats, sausages, and hot dogs, often contain preservatives, additives, and high levels of sodium. Plus, they’re often preserved with nitrates and nitrites, which can negatively affect gut health and alter the gut microbiota.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: Lean Whole Food-Based Protein
Choose lean, unprocessed meats or plant-based alternatives, like
- fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, and trout
#7 Dairy Products (for those intolerant to dairy)
While dairy can be a good source of nutrients for some individuals, it can be problematic for others — particularly those with lactose intolerance, dairy sensitivities, and even gluten sensitivities. For these individuals, dairy can lead to digestive discomfort, bloating, and inflammation in the gut. If you suspect dairy is harming your gut or causing inflammation, consider reaching for dairy-free alternatives.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: Dairy-Free Alternatives
Plant-based and full of nutrients, dairy-free milk alternatives can be a great gut-friendly option in place of milk. Here are some healthy swaps:
- almond milk
- coconut milk
- gluten-free oat milk
- pistachio milk
- cashew milk
The occasional cocktail is nothing to stress over. However, excessive alcohol consumption can wreak havoc on the gut and contribute to inflammation. Ideally, try to limit your alcohol intake and instead, opt for healthier alternatives like herbal tea, coconut water, or probiotic-rich kombucha.
The Anti-Inflammatory Gut-Healthy Swap: DIY Mocktails
Making your mocktail at home is simple and delicious, plus it’s an easy way to keep it gut-friendly and control the ingredients in your glass.
Made with a kombucha base, here is a simple gut-friendly recipe to try at home:
- 1 cup kombucha of choice
- ½ cup mixed berries (such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries)
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- ¼ cup sparkling water of choice
- Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
- Ice, to serve
Step #1: Muddle the berries in a large glass. Then, add the kombucha, fresh lime juice, and sparkling water.
Step #2: Taste test, adjusting ingredients as needed. Then, add ice to serve. Option to serve with fresh mint leaves for garnish.
Ditch The Inflammatory Foods & Nourish Your Second Brain
If you have the occasional cocktail or enjoy dinner made with seed and veggie oils, it’s not the end of the world — you have to enjoy your life too. It’s all about moderation and mindfulness! However, small changes in our food choices can make a big difference in our gut health and, consequently, our overall quality of life. So, when possible, do your best to avoid foods that harm gut health and instead, opt for healthy alternatives. From dairy-free milk to oats and quinoa to healthy fats like avocado and olive oil, there are so many good-for-you options. Trust us — your gut will thank you!