5 “Healthy” Habits That May Be Bad for Your Gut

Gut health

March 18, 2021

By Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum

In the pursuit of health, it’s easy to go overboard, to whittle our diets down to nothing, to crush ourselves in the gym day after day, to become obsessed with healthy eating. There’s a word this: It’s called orthorexia, which is defined as pathological dieting based on being “healthy.” But, even if you haven’t reached this level of disorder, it can be difficult to know what healthy really means. The truth? Healthy for one person isn’t healthy for everyone. And some “healthy” habits may hurt your overall health, including your gut health.

Here are five “healthy” habits that may be bad for your gut.

1. You don’t eat carbs.

Unless you have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten, you don’t need to avoid wheat to have a healthy diet. And you probably shouldn’t: your keto diet could be the very thing starving your gut microbiome of the nutrients it needs to flourish.

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, we aren’t suggesting you take this advice and use it to justify eating ice cream for breakfast and cookies for dinner. We are saying that you need healthy sources of carbohydrates to feed your gut bacteria.

2. You don’t eat dairy.

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

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

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, your brain, and yes, even your gut to take a rest from exercise. 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.

4. You use artificial sweeteners.

You might think that artificial sweeteners are healthier than plain old sugar because they have zero or few calories. But the truth is that artificial sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal), and Saccharin (Sweet and Low) may be 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. 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.