Let’s get right to the point: most of the processed “health” foods we consume aren’t as nourishing as they’re touted to be. We’re marketed labels like heart healthy and organic (organic sugar is still sugar)—claims that, quite frankly, are misleading. These foods are known to cause a slew of digestive issues, inflammation, and blood sugar imbalance. Fear not! Once you learn how to read an ingredient list, you’ll see right past these deceiving claims. Today, we’re uncovering key signs of bad gut health as well as ingredients to avoid. Yes, that includes sneaky additives and “natural” flavors found in everything from popular non-dairy milks to sparkling waters. If you love your oat milk, you’ll want to keep reading. Everything you need to know about this key part of improving your gut health is a scroll away.
Featured image by Riley Reed.
What is digestive health?
When we think of our gut, we often think of our belly. But the gut—or gastrointestinal system—is just that: a system. It’s a group of organs. The gut includes the mouth, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, pancreas, gallbladder, colon, and rectum. Like our system of hormones, the gut is powerful yet delicate. It can easily be thrown out of balance. Hence why it’s important to be mindful of the top signs of bad gut health.
While we assume the gut’s only role is to help us digest and assimilate food, it does so much more than that. Our gut microbiome—and its community of bacteria—extends its influence far beyond the gut wall. It impacts our overall health and wellbeing in countless ways (stress, mood, etc).
6 Signs of Bad Gut Health
Naturally, the signs of bad gut health will vary from person to person. But generally speaking, below are physical indicators of an underlying gut issue.
1. Digestive Issues
No surprise here. Think: constipation, bloating, gas, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, stomach cramps, acid reflux, or heartburn. A healthy gut and digestive system should be able to process food and get rid of waste with ease.
2. Unexpected Weight Loss or Gain
Losing or gaining weight—without a change in diet, stress, or exercise habits—can point straight to an unhealthy gut. A gut that’s not balanced can have trouble absorbing nutrients, regulating blood sugar, signaling that you’re full, and storing fat. In fact, a lack of diversity in the gut microbiome can be a precursor to obesity.
3. Constant Fatigue
Are you constantly tired? Of course, many things can cause this, but a lack of diversity in gut bacteria has been directly linked to a lack of energy, chronic fatigue, and sleep disorders. Serotonin, a hormone that affects sleep and mood, is produced in the gut. A gut that’s not functioning properly can have a hard time producing or regulating serotonin—which can affect your ability to get a restful night’s sleep.
4. Skin Conditions
Gut health affects everything, including your skin. Conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne have been linked to inflammation in the gut, caused by food allergies, poor diet, and lack of good gut bacteria.
5. Food Intolerances
If a certain type of food (like dairy or wheat) upsets your stomach, it may not necessarily mean you have a food allergy. Rather, your microbiome is probably out of balance. It lacks enough of the good bacteria needed to effectively break down certain foods.
6. Mood Changes
The gut is often referred to as the “second brain”—and for good reason. Research confirms that things like anxiety, depression, mood swings, and emotional health are tied to the state of your gut. We need good gut bacteria to support important mood-enhancing chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin.
Discuss any of these symptoms with your healthcare provider. A basic understanding of the status of your gut may require a comprehensive stool test, SIBO breath test, or food allergy/sensitivity testing.
Ingredients to Avoid for Gut Health
Because we’re all bio-individuals, what causes your digestive issues won’t be the same as mine. Therefore, take this list with a grain of salt. Figuring out your triggers may be a combination of experimentation at home and testing with a doctor. At any rate, these are universally known as ingredients to avoid for gut health: artificial sugars, glyphosate, guar gum, inflammatory oils, and natural flavors.
Artificial sugars are at the top of the list of ingredients to avoid for gut health. First and foremost, they’re made from chemicals. Secondly, they’re linked to weight gain, brain tumors, bladder cancer, and many other health issues.
A few examples are aspartame, sucralose, maltitol, maltodextrin, and saccharin. All of these can increase blood glucose levels, cause indigestion and weight gain, aggravate allergies, decrease beneficial bacteria in the gut, and more. They’re found in diet drinks, salad dressings, processed foods, etc. Ultimately, they provide no nutritional value. My favorite swaps are honey, stevia, monk fruit, and xylitol.
Glypho—what? Glyphosate is a weed killer. It’s used in herbicides and pesticides which are sprayed on crops, i.e., wheat. Nevertheless, glyphosate gets into the food you eat, and it can’t be washed off. Unfortunately, it’s tied to a slew of gut issues. See here for a list of the top glyphosate offenders (the Dirty Dozen is a helpful list, too).
When possible, buy organic, sprouted wheat. While you won’t see glyphosate on an ingredient list, keep an eye out for “glyphosate-free” on food packages. Love overnight oats? If you’re looking for clean oats, One Degree Organics doesn’t source grains with glyphosate!
Have you heard of guar gum? Guar gum is derived from the guar bean, which grows primarily in India and Pakistan. They look similar to green beans. Unfortunately, even small amounts of guar gum can cause unpleasant symptoms in those with sensitive digestive systems. Some people see an improvement in gut issues after removing guar gum from their diet. If you have gut issues, like SIBO or IBS, consider removing guar gums from your diet. Guar gum is used as a thickener, emulsifier, stabilizer, and blending agent. You’ll find it in many processed and packaged foods—oat milk, coconut yogurt, breakfast cereals, ice cream, and more.
Foods high in industrialized omega-6s promote inflammation. Your common cooking oils, such as vegetable and canola oil, are very high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fats. We need both types of omega fatty acids, but our standard American diet fosters an unbalanced omega ratio, thanks to an abundance of industrial seed oils. Consistent use of vegetable oils can promote chronic inflammation (across the body), leading to gut issues, inflammatory diseases, and more. Try to limit your consumption of canola oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, and grape seed oil. These are found in chips and fried foods, along with oat milk.
It’s nearly impossible to find sparking beverages, canned cocktails, protein bars, crackers, or treats without “natural flavors.” Contrary to their name, natural flavors aren’t exactly natural. Basically, they’re flavoring agents. Food manufacturers can add natural flavors to their products to enhance the taste. Unsurprisingly, research shows that when “natural” appears on food packaging, people tend to assume the item is healthy. That’s not always the case.
Because the FDA hasn’t officially defined “natural flavors,” it can be used to describe almost any type of food. Although natural flavorings must meet safety requirements, individual reactions may occur. People who have allergies or follow special diets should be mindful of natural flavors, as they are linked to physical reactions, including gut issues.
This post was originally published on July 5, 2022, and has since been updated.