The Best and Worst Diets for Your Gut Health, According to Research
Not all diets are created equal.
A healthy gut is the gift you give yourself. Well, maybe that's not exactly how the old saying goes, but it's still true. Your gut works hard to digest the food you eat, produce vitamins that keep your blood functioning at its best and help support a healthy immune system. You can support your microbiome in a lot of ways—like by eating probiotic- and fiber-rich foods (also known as prebiotics)—and in turn, your microbiome will support you.
A healthy gut can be beneficial for managing your mental health, controlling your cravings and boosting your immunity. So who wouldn't want to take some extra care and reap those benefits? Eating to support your gut can be simpler than you think, especially when you keep these dieting tips in mind.
The Best Diet for Your Gut
The Mediterranean diet was named the healthiest diet of 2021 by U.S. News and World Report, and it's not hard to see why. The Mediterranean diet is less about following a strict regimen and more about focusing on holistically healthy eating. This diet emphasizes whole grains, plenty of fruits and veggies, fish and healthy fats. Because the Mediterranean diet prioritizes healthy ingredients rather than cutting out carbs or slashing calories, it's one of the easiest to follow.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in fibrous produce and whole grains, which are paramount for a healthy gut. The largest gut health study to date, called the American Gut Project, found that the number-one indicator of a healthy microbiome was how many different plant-based foods (such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains) a person regularly consumed. Additionally, the Mediterranean diet limits things like processed foods and added sugars, which are some of the worst foods for gut health.
The 3 Worst Diets for Your Gut
The key to a sustainable diet is often remembering that everything can be healthy in moderation—but these diets tend to deviate from that age-old wisdom. First up is the ketogenic diet, which eliminates a lot of healthy fruits, veggies and grains in a quest to drastically cut down your carb intake. Keto is quite popular right now because it does facilitate quick weight loss, but its restrictive philosophy makes it challenging to follow in the long term.
Plus, the ultra-high-fat diet that keto promotes poses long-term risks to your gut health. A 2019 study determined that a low-carb, high-fat diet increases inflammation in the gut, while diets that are lower in fat decrease inflammation. (Find out why a gut health doctor says that keto "decimates the gut.")
Another surefire way to undermine your own gut health? Following a dramatically low-calorie diet. There's nothing wrong with setting healthy, balanced nutritional goals, and that can include lowering your calorie intake. But a recent study from researchers in Germany and the U.S. found that a "very low calorie diet"—meaning a diet of just 800 calories per day—resulted in a severe lack of energy caused by an unhealthy gut. The study, which observed 80 overweight women, showed that such an extreme diet could change the composition of your microbiome and result in increased inflammation.
And while we hope you aren't following a diet too low in calories, a diet that's high in calories can be just as harmful. Eating a diet high in processed food, refined sugar and added fats—sometimes called the Southern-style diet—is not the best way to support your microbiome. We know that a high-fat diet is tough on the gut, and refined sugar is no friend to your gut either. Research shows that consuming a lot of sugar can actually change the composition of your microbiome, and artificial sweeteners can alter your gut and increase your risk for diabetes.
The Bottom Line
It remains true that exercise, sleep and a balanced diet are the best ways to take care of yourself. Whether you decide to follow the Mediterranean diet or go your own way, simply enjoying the food you love in moderation with lots of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and whole grains will set you on the path to eating for a healthier gut.
Looking for a place to start when it comes to eating for your gut health? We've got a few meal plans that might help you out. Try this 2,000-calorie eating plan for a healthy gut, or maybe this 1,200-calorie plan for a weight loss-friendly option. Or consider adding foods that are beneficial for gut health to your everyday routine.