Are Your Healthy Habits Hurting Your Gut?

Gut health

July 20, 2020

By Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum

We’re taught to whittle our diets down to nothing and crush ourselves in the gym day after day in the ultimate pursuit of health. But what if all those things we’ve been so conditioned to believe as “healthy” are anything but?

There’s a lot of fear-based talk on the internet and on social media that tries to scare us out of eating certain foods and scare us into doing things we might not actually want to do, like run three miles a day and put Splenda in our coffee.

Well, we’re here to tell you that these five healthy habits may not be healthy for you at all.

1. You don’t eat carbs.

We hate to break the news, but… your keto diet could be the very thing starving your gut microbiome of the nutrients it needs to flourish. Unless you have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten, you don’t need to avoid wheat to have a healthy diet. And even if you do have a wheat allergy or sensitivity, you can choose from a vast range of gluten-free grains and other carb sources.

Oats, bulgur, amaranth, brown rice, quinoa, millet, farrow, spelt and wild rice are all fantastic grain sources. Root vegetables, such as beets, carrots, sweet potatoes and — gasp — even white potatoes also provide nutrients that your gut microbes thrive on.

Of course, everything in moderation. We aren’t suggesting you take this advice and use it to justify eating ice cream for breakfast and cookies for dinner. But we are saying that you shouldn’t be afraid of carbs and that you need healthy sources of carbohydrates to feed your gut bacteria.

2. You don’t eat dairy.

In the same vein as the carbs argument, you really don’t need to avoid dairy unless you have an actual intolerance to dairy. In fact, by avoiding dairy, you may foster an environment that allows aggressive microorganisms to grow.

High-quality sources of dairy include full-fat milk and yogurt (low-fat and nonfat milks contain added sugar), kefir, and soft, fermented cheeses like Gouda and Swiss. When choosing dairy products, read the ingredients labels to look for unhealthy additives like sugar, artificial sweeteners, hormones, and antibiotics.

As long as you’re diligent about picking the right products, dairy can have a very healthy place in your diet.

3. You exercise every day.

We love exercise! It releases endorphins to put us in a good mood; it makes us feel strong and healthy; and it helps us sleep better at night. But we definitely don’t like forcing ourselves to hit the gym when our bodies are sore and tired and we feel run down from a long day at work.

Sometimes, it’s better to rest.

Rest days allow your muscles, bones, joints, and even your brain to recover from the physical stress of exercise. Your gut needs a rest from exercise, too. Too much exercise can wreak havoc on your microbiome by causing constant elevations in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When those hormones are chronically elevated, they can cause digestive upset, as well as mood issues and insomnia.

Remember, too much of anything can be harmful.

4. You use artificial sweeteners.

You might think that artificial sweeteners are healthier than plain ol’ sugar because they have zero or few calories. But the truth is that all kinds of sugar — yes, even natural ones like honey — affect your microbiome. Artificial sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal), and Saccharin (Sweet and Low) may be the worst.

Zero-calories sweeteners are toxic to our digestive microbes, and they can disrupt our microbial balance. Low-calorie sugar alcohols like xylitol and mannitol, which are found in many protein bars and sports drinks, aren’t yet known to adversely affect the microbiome. However, they may cause cramping, bloating, and diarrhea if consumed in large amounts.

5. You meal prep.

Bet you weren’t expecting this one! It’s true that meal prepping is a fantastic way to make sure you eat healthier, home-cooked foods rather than order takeout or whiz through the Whataburger drive-thru. Not to mention it helps you save money. But you should consider one thing the next time you head to the market for meal prep supplies: A healthy gut is a diverse gut.

If you don’t eat a wide range of foods, you can potentially starve some of the species of good bacteria in your digestive tract. While prepping sweet potatoes and chicken every week is easy and inexpensive, it’s worth it to experiment with new recipes that include a variety of foods. Try adding in exotic fruits and veggies, different protein sources, fermented foods, ancient grains and soy-based products.

On top of supporting your gut, a diverse menu keeps you from getting bored and straying off your healthy eating plan.

A word from Dr. G

Healthy for one person doesn’t mean healthy for everyone. We encourage you to experiment with different foods and types of exercise to find things that work with your body. While some people certainly can exercise for hours each day and run efficiently on strict diets, you may do better with three to four days of exercise and a more diverse diet. “To each his own” holds true.


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