What Is the Leaky Gut Diet? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

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January 18, 2023
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Maybe lately you’ve been feeling a little sluggish, rather bloated, and – ugh — is that a pimple breaking out on your forehead? As you try to identify a cause for your symptoms, you might consider stress, hormones, or perhaps a poor diet. Or could it be a leaky gut? This recently identified condition is still considered hypothetical and isn’t generally accepted in Western mainstream medicine. But many people believe intestinal permeability (the “leaky” part of the leaky gut) is the underlying cause behind a constellation of unpleasant GI issues, fatigue, skin problems, and more.

Because leaky gut isn’t an official diagnosis, there’s no standard treatment. Still, to combat symptoms, some folks elect to follow a leaky gut diet. This eating plan aims to restore the GI tract by providing minimally processed foods rich in gut-friendly bacteria.

If you’re considering a leaky gut diet, here’s what you need to know about foods to eat and avoid, plus whether experts say it’s worth a try.

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What is leaky gut?

A healthy GI tract is a highway of over 4,000 square feet of surface area that takes food on its digestive journey from start to finish. When working properly, the smooth mucosal lining of the intestines absorbs water and nutrients from food, sending them into the bloodstream, where they can then be distributed throughout the body. To allow for this absorption process, healthy guts are somewhat permeable.

The idea behind leaky gut goes that, in some people, the gut lining may develop larger-than-optimal cracks or holes. This allows undesirable substances like toxins, partially digested food, and harmful bacteria to “leak” into the bloodstream, ultimately causing health problems like diarrhea, constipation, painful digestion, bloating, and fatigue.

While there’s no consensus in the medical field that leaky gut should be its own diagnosis, many experts agree that increased intestinal permeability is a real phenomenon — and that it isn’t a good thing for health.

The theory behind a leaky gut diet

If you believe your gut is leaking unwholesome gunk into your bloodstream, nobody can fault you for wanting to fix it! That’s where the theory of a leaky gut diet comes in.

“This diet focuses on removing processed foods and emphasizing whole foods and that can be effective for controlling symptoms,” explains gut health dietitian Amanda Sauceda, RDN. Including whole, antioxidant-rich foods could serve to dial down inflammation in the gut, allowing it to heal.

Besides reducing systemic inflammation, a leaky gut diet includes foods rich in good bacteria to promote intestinal health. Because research shows that there’s an interplay between antioxidants and gut microbiota, the two components of this diet could work well together.

Related: 7 Surprising Ways to Add More Inflammation-Busting Fiber to Your Diet

Foods to include on a leaky gut diet

Just like the diagnosis of leaky gut, its accompanying diet plan isn’t perfectly defined. Still, most proposed eating plans for this condition feature many of the same foods (and encourage avoiding others).

If you decide to adopt a leaky gut diet, foods to eat include:

  • Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, and kefir
  • Nuts and seeds, including almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds
  • Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and some cuts of beef, pork, and lamb
  • Seafood, especially fatty fish
  • Healthy oils like olive oil, avocados, and nuts
  • Grains free of gluten, such as quinoa, oats, sorghum, and buckwheat
  • Fruits, such as coconut, citrus, and berries
  • Vegetables like broccoli, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, and zucchini
  • Bone broth
  • Coconut milk and coconut water

Foods to avoid on a leaky gut diet

A leaky gut diet recommends nixing any food believed to cause inflammation in the GI tract, disrupt the microbiome, or trigger intestinal symptoms. These include:

  • Highly processed foods like chips, candy, and snack bars
  • High-sugar foods and beverages like sodas, sweetened cereals, and
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Gluten-containing grains, including wheat bread, pasta, and crackers, as well as rye, bulgur, and barley
  • Processed meats like deli meat, sausage, and hot dogs
  • Most dairy products (except for fermented dairy)
  • Refined oils like cottonseed, canola, and soybean oil
  • Alcohol

Is it worth trying? What experts say

Because beliefs about the legitimacy of the leaky gut itself are so varied, it’s no surprise that expert opinions on the associated diet are mixed, too.

The Mayo Clinic contends that food sensitivities could affect a healthy gut barrier — so, theoretically, removing foods with high sensitivity rates (such as gluten, artificial sweeteners, and dairy) could be a way to reduce intestinal permeability. Research conducted by Mayo Clinic also found that a high-fat diet, alcohol, and emulsifiers used in foods damage the intestinal barrier, whereas prebiotics and probiotics can help repair it. However, the Mayo Clinic offers no specific leaky gut diet plan.

Other public health organizations, such as the Cleveland Clinic, suggest that a low-FODMAP eating plan, rather than a leaky gut diet, is an effective dietary treatment. (A low-FODMAP diet limits consumption of non-digestible short-chain carbohydrates. It’s shown promise for treating irritable bowel syndrome, but hasn’t been well-studied for leaky gut.)

Sauceda believes that a leaky gut diet could improve symptoms for some people. “Automatically people will find some benefit because they are eating healthier,” she says. “Plus, this gives people the opportunity to figure out food triggers and foods that work well for them because they have more control over what they eat.”

On the other hand, she sees potential problems with some dos and don’ts prescribed on the diet. One example is the exclusion of most grains.

“Where it becomes problematic is the idea that all gluten-containing grains are inherently bad for everyone with leaky gut,” says Sauceda. “Gluten-containing grains can also be a big fiber source for people. Your gut loves fiber and cutting their primary source can be a problem.”

Even before trying a leaky gut diet, there are helpful steps you can take.

“Before removing anything, I suggest keeping a food diary,” she says. “Getting a baseline of what and how you eat can be so powerful. It will give you insight into foods that may be bugging your gut without having to try a specific diet.”

Read next: The 8 Best Gut Healthy Foods To Eat, Says Gastroenterologist

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