Common Healthy Foods that Can Trigger Digestive Issues
Food is fascinating because it's medicine. It can entirely impact how well or not our body functions. This includes our digestive health! Our nutrition has the power to support healthy digestive processes, and a thriving microbiome.
You might've read all about just how impactful the food we eat is on our microbiome. That prebiotic fibers, and fermented foods, polyphenols, and diversity in plant foods are all important.
The thing is though, it can be frustrating when you're trying to do right by your gut, and eat "healthy" foods (even foods that are known to be really amazing for our microbiome!), just to have them exacerbate your symptoms, or make you feel worse off than when you started.
In this article, we're digging into some of the healthiest foods, and why they might be causing you digestive drama, versus feeling better. Things like nuts, cruciferous veggies, allium veggies, and beans and legumes.
Nuts are another food that have a ton of healthy nutrients (they're especially a great source of fat and vitamins and minerals), but can cause issues for some people.
One reasons that people have a hard time with nuts is because of their phytic acid content. Phytic acid is how plants store phosphorus. It's known to be an "anti-nutrient" — meaning it protects the plant. We as humans can't break down and digest phytic acid, which can make nuts tough for us to process. Likewise, phytic acid binds to important minerals (like zinc, iron, copper), which can impact our absorption of these important minerals.
Another reason nuts might be bothersome for some, is due to their PUFA content (AKA polyunsaturated fatty acids). Two well known polyunsaturated fatty acids are Omega 3 and Omega 6. Omega 3 is widely known for its health benefits, and anti-inflammatory activity (it's even good for our microbiome!). Omega 6's on the other hand, may not be as "health promoting" in excess.
We ideally want to get more omega 3's in our diet, versus omega 6's. Nowadays however, people tend to get more omega 6's from things like corn, corn oil, soy products, sunflower and safflower oils, and nuts and seeds! Too many omega 6's can be pro-inflammatory, which can impact both our microbiome, and the health of our intestinal lining.
Cruciferous veggies are popular for being great for both our gut and our liver! Veggies in this family are: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccolini, asparagus, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, etc.
While these vegetables are great for our gut because they're packed with fiber, and provide the body a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as powerful antioxidants, they can be problematic for some!
Certain cruciferous veggies contain compounds known as fructans, galactans, and polyols. Fructans and galactans are a type of oligosaccharide, which is a type of carbohydrate (or sugar), and polyols are naturally occurring sugar alcohols.
Both of these compounds can be fermented by bacteria in the gut. When the microbes in the gut are "in balance" (where there is a ratio of more beneficial microbes to opportunistic microbes), and when these microbes are in the right place, these compounds feed them, and keep them happy and healthy.
When we see an overgrowth in certain microbial species (such as pathogenic, or opportunistic species), OR when these microbes are overgrowing where they aren't "supposed to" (like in the case of SIBO, where they overgrow in the small intestine), these foods can be problematic. These microbes ferment them, which creates gas as a byproduct, leading to common IBS-type symptoms like bloating, distention, abdominal discomfort, and altered bowel movements.
The allium vegetables are fan favourites: garlic, onion, shallots, green onion, leeks, chives. While absolutely delicious, these specific veggies can cause a lot of digestive drama for people.
These foods contain compounds called "fructans," which are a type of oligosaccharide. Oligosaccharides are a type of prebiotic fiber, that help to feed our gut microbiome. However, because of this, they can also be problematic for people who have imbalances in their microbiome!
Some parts of these specific foods — like the tops of green onion — are better tolerated than others. Likewise, you can make homemade garlic-infused-olive-oil if you're looking for flavor, but find garlic doesn't agree with you.
As per all of these "healthy" foods, that can bother people, it could be an underlying imbalance that's contributing to the intolerance, which is definitely worth exploring further!
Beans and Legumes
The musical fruit.
The more you eat, the more you.. you know 😅
Seriously though, beans and legumes are touted as "one of the healthiest foods for our gut," but they can cause people MAJOR digestive drama.
Beans and legumes are jam-packed with fiber, protein, and key vitamins and minerals. Specifically, they contain compounds called "galactans," which are also a type of oligosaccharide (galactooligosaccharide).
Similar to the cruciferous and allium veggies mentioned above, these are compounds that our gut-bugs loooove to feed on. When we have an imbalance in our microbiome, or overgrowths of pathogenic species (or, of beneficial species in the "wrong" place!), consuming these foods can exacerbate symptoms like bloating, distention, abdominal discomfort, gas, altered bowel movements, etc.
It's also important to mention that these foods are SUPER high in fiber! If you aren't used to eating a lot of fiber, and decide that you'd like to start, it's critical that you go "low and slow."
Going from 0-100 with fiber, can be problematic for most people. You may have to build up a tolerance to certain foods, and allow your microbes that will be feeding on these foods, to proliferate and adjust themselves, which will help you better digest these foods over time.
If you've been eating these healthy foods, but find you're struggling with your digestion (or that it's even gotten "worse" since incorporating more of these foods), then I definitely recommend investigating further to see what's going on with your microbiome.