Safe Foods to Eat When Everything Upsets Your Gut
For those with IBS type symptoms, meal times can be a bit of a nightmare. If you’ve ever thought or said, “If I eat that, I’ll look 6 months pregnant within 30 minutes” or “If I eat that, I’ll be on the toilet within an hour” I completely get it. And it sucks! All of a sudden food becomes the enemy and choosing ‘safe’ options means a very limited diet. At one point, I was down to chicken or fish with steamed vegetables and olive oil for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dee-licious. But seriously, not cool for me or my microbiome.
Let’s be clear, this is about short-term symptom management and calming inflammation. This isn’t the long-term fix you need. That will only come if you test to find the underlying root cause of your symptoms – which is almost certainly one or more gut infections and/or overgrowths (read more about that HERE). But, in the meantime here’s some of the most common recommendations I make for my clients for safe foods to eat when everything upsets your gut.
But first, what not to eat
Ok, so you probably know what doesn’t work for you better than me. With that said, here are a list of the most common obvious, and not so obvious, culprits of IBS symptoms – gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, etc.
Processed food-like substances
Let’s get the really obvious culprits out of the way. Most sugary, chemical-filled, packaged foods are definitely a no-go. Your eyes and your tastebuds might recognise this stuff as food, but your GI tract isn’t so easily fooled. These food-like substances usually result in irritation and inflammation as your gut and immune system attempt to digest and defend against unrecognised ingredients. Sticking to real food, the kind without a label, is generally the best place to start..
Wheat and other gluten-containing grains
No, this isn’t just a gluten-free fad. We’re talking about the damaging effects of the gluten-protein on the lining of the GI tract and the inflammatory effect it produces, especially in those with gut dysfunction, e.g. leaky gut, imbalanced gut flora, Coeliac Disease, IBD, etc. A large proportion of my clients with chronic digestive conditions feel a lot better for avoiding gluten and it’s a really easy place to start. This only works if you replace gluten with real foods and not the gluten-substitutes that are often just as bad as gluten – see ‘food-like substances’ above.
Fermented Foods are good, just not for right now
Fermented foods are generally good for your gut health and particularly good at preventing IBS symptoms. It gets a little more complicated if you already have IBS symptoms. For anyone with a gut infection or overgrowth (most people with IBS), fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi often lead to extreme bloating and/or gas.
This is because fermented foods are designed to feed bacteria. Good for keeping a balanced gut flora healthy, not so good for those with SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) or Candida.
Raw / vegan
Raw foods, like salad bowls and nut-based raw treats, are often the healthiest option on the menu when you eat out. And for anyone trying to clean up their diet, this is the first place you usually start. The only problem is that uncooked foods are generally more difficult to break down and digest. This is because those suffering with IBS symptoms often lack the enzymes and beneficial gut bacteria necessary to break down raw foods, leading to undigested food particles sitting in your digestive tract and coming out in your stools. This then leads to fermentation and the dreaded bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea, etc.
Sadly, because eating vegan usually involves eating a lot of raw foods, it can be a challenge when trying to manage IBS symptoms.
What to eat when EVERYTHING upsets your gut
Ok, so we’ve cut out some obvious culprits, but what CAN we eat in the short-term when it feels like everything upsets our gut? Here are a few of my favourite dietary strategies:
If raw foods are hard to digest, the simple solution is to cook them. Cooking foods helps break down some of the hard-to-digest nutrients and places less stress on the GI tract. I generally recommend aiming for around 70% of the food you eat to be cooked and 30% can be raw during the day.
If you do opt for raw foods, it’s a good idea to have them in a smoothie, raw soup or dip where they are partially broken down, or as a small side salad.
Calming inflammation in your digestive system is an important step to better gut health. And one of the best anti-inflammatory foods you can eat are Omega-3 healthy fats. I recommend trying to incorporate Omega 3’s with each of your main meals to help reduce inflammation.
Good sources include:
– 1 teaspoon ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil
– 1 tablespoon chia seeds
– 2 walnut halves
– 1 serve of oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel or herring).
Aiming for macronutrient balance
Whenever I create a gut-friendly main meal I like to make sure there is a balance of each of the macronutrients – protein, fats and carbs. This ensures we are getting enough of our healthy and anti-inflammatory fats, amino acids from protein for repair, and vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients from carbohydrates.
Each main meal should be made up of a quality source of protein (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, protein powder, gelatin, collagen or bone broth), carbohydrate from fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes as tolerated and healthy fats that are ideally high in omega-3’s such as those listed above or avocado, coconut products, nuts, seeds and oils.
Gut healing diets
The most common gut healing diets like Low-FODMAP, SCD, GAPS, Paleo AIP, etc. are well known because, in most cases, they are effective. They all differ slightly but generally have the basics in common; restricted carbohydrates and a focus on good quality sources of proteins and fats. Why are carbohydrates restricted? Because these are the preferred food source of gut bugs, both beneficial and bad, within the microbiome. It is important to note that these diets are only beneficial in the short term and may be harmful if used for extended periods. Due to the level of restriction most require, the diversity of the gut microbiome can be negatively impacted (reduced), potentially leading to poor immunity and other chronic conditions.
Each of these diets has a specific purpose and if your practitioner has recommended one, you can easily find the allowable foods lists with a basic Google search. Here’s a list of some of the most commonly allowed foods that are a good place to start:
> Good sources of healthy fats: oils, activated nuts, seeds, coconut products, avocado and oily fish.
> Good sources of protein: grass-fed or organic meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pure hemp or pea protein powder, bone broth, gelatin and collagen.
> Good sources of carbohydrates: vegetables like leafy greens, pumpkin, carrot, green beans and zucchini; low carb fruits like berries, lemon, lime and kiwifruit..
Don’t just try and manage symptoms forever
These are the exact strategies that I use with my clients in their health protocols. But once again, these dietary recommendations are only symptom management. You need to figure out and heal the root cause of your gut dysfunction which means testing is key (you know who to call, wherever you are in the world!). Trying to manage symptoms long term buy continually limiting your diet can actually do more harm than good as you decrease the diversity of your microbiome.
I should know, as this my approach initially. I got so good at managing my symptoms, I didn’t realise my body was continuously breaking down more and more until the day I (metaphorically) fell off a cliff and diet was no longer a therapeutic option for me. So learn from my mistakes. Don’t get so good at managing symptoms that you make it incredibly hard to regain your health once your body eventually falls apart. Take action to find and heal the root cause. It really is the best way.