Have you ever felt gassy, bloated or experienced an extreme case of heartburn after a meal? That uncomfortable, tummy-twisting feeling was most likely due to what you ate. Some foods are worse for digestion than others, particularly if you’re one of the 70 million people in the United States that suffer from a digestive disorder, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), to name a few.
We’ve rounded up some of the top foods that can put your GI tract in a bind. If you’ve found that other foods negatively affect your digestive system, let us know in the comments.
How it affects you:
If you like to cut calories by adding artificial sweetener rather than real sugar to your coffee, you may be affecting your digestion and increasing inflammation in your body. “In general, sweeteners which are partially digested (sugar alcohols) have the biggest impact on the GI system and can lead to bloat, gas, and diarrhea,” according nutritionist and dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade
What you can do:
Experiment with the multitude of artificial sweeteners that are on the market and determine which affects you the least, suggests Palinski-Wade, who recommends using natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar. “This is not calorie-free, but because it is sweeter than sugar, less is needed, helping to reduce carbohydrates and calories,” says Palinski-Wade.
How it affects you: Your sweet tooth may affect more than just your waistline. Caffeine contained in chocolate may trigger heartburn and IBS symptoms in people prone to digestive disorders. What’s more, like coffee, chocolate is also a diuretic, which can result in loose stool or diarrhea.
What you can do: If you need to satisfy that craving, choose dark chocolate. “It contains polyphenols that can slow GI function and increase water absorption to prevent diarrhea,” says Palinski-Wade. “Cocoa, which is found in higher amounts in dark chocolate than milk chocolate, is also a good source of fiber, which promotes healthy digestion.”
How they affect you: Beyond upping the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and leading to weight gain, refined carbohydrates, like white bread, soda, and potato chips, move quickly through the digestive tract and can result in bloating, cramping, and other GI issues.
What you can do: If you can’t totally cut out processed foods from your diet, eat them in combination with foods that digest slowly, like lean protein – think chicken breast without the skin – and healthy fat – like an avocado or natural peanut butter, says Palinski-Wade. On top of that, keep portions in check, so those refined carbs don’t outweigh the good food you’re combining them with.
How it affects you: Whether we’re talking hot curry or spicy Buffalo chicken wings, foods that give your taste buds a run for their money can also trigger heartburn, particularly if you eat them close to bedtime.
What you can do: "Cooling foods, specifically dairy, can help to calm the burn associated with spicy food in some people," says Palinski-Wade. "Since milk itself can be hard to digest, reach instead for Greek yogurt or Daisy Brand cottage cheese, which contain GI-friendly probiotics to aid digestion while cooling the burn felt from heavy spices."
How they affect you: Conventional wisdom says that reaching for nature’s bounty in the produce aisle is the best way to stay healthy. And while fresh produce should always be included in a healthy diet, digesting raw fruit and vegetables can be difficult for people with sensitive GI systems. Raw produce has high amounts of insoluble fiber, which move quickly through the intestinal tract and can result in loose stool, diarrhea, gas and bloating.
What you can do: Cook your veggies and, whenever possible, your fruit. “Cooking helps to break down some fiber in produce, allowing it to be digested more easily, limiting gas and bloating that can occur when eating raw produce,” says Palinski-Wade.
How they affect you: Food high in saturated fat, like steak (certain cuts, like rib-eye, are fattier than others), French fries, and ice cream, is difficult for the body to digest and can make you feel uncomfortably full and increase the chances of acid reflux, according to Palinski-Wade.
If you already suffer from heartburn, fatty food can make it even worse by relaxing the valve that seals off the stomach from the sphincter. The loose valve can cause stomach acid to rise into the esophagus and result in a really unpleasant case of heartburn, says Karen Ansel, nutritionist and dietitian.
What you can do: If you’re jonesing for a steak, burger, or other high-fat meal tonight, remember not to combine it with alcohol, which can further irritate your GI tract, says Palinski-Wade. Whenever possible, cook meals in plant-based fats, such as olive oil, which is easier to break down than saturated fat, like butter.
How it affects you:
This energy hero can quickly become your GI tract’s worst enemy. In fact, nearly 40 million people in the United States refrain from drinking coffee – or as much coffee as they would like – due to stomach irritation, according to the American Chemical Society
Coffee doesn’t just wake up our mind, it also stimulates acid production in the stomach, which can cause inflammation and result in heartburn and GERD. What’s more, caffeine acts like a diuretic, which can cause dehydration and, ultimately, constipation.
What you can do:
Limit caffeinated coffee to one cup, says Palinski-Wade. “If that’s not possible, limit to one caffeinated cup every two hours to allow your body time to process the caffeine.” It’s important not to drink coffee on an empty stomach, which can increase indigestion, notes Palinski-Wade. She recommends adding something that’s easily digestible – like a banana or bran cereal at breakfast – to reduce symptoms.
How they affect you: Even if you have the best intentions, many healthful fruits and vegetables, like oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tomatoes, may increase your risk for acid reflux and GERD due to their acidity.
What you can do: Removing acidic foods from your diet is the best way to reduce your risk for heartburn. However, if you still want to eat these fruits and vegetables every once and awhile, don’t do it on an empty stomach, which can increase irritation and inflammation.