Your digestive tract is (obviously) the vehicle for food to nourish your body. But as you look for everyday snacks, how much do you think about choosing foods that nourish the gut itself? You don’t have to live with a digestive upset to want to encourage a happy, healthy gut through your snacks. Maintaining good gut health has a number of benefits no matter who you are! From promoting smoother digestion to helping prevent disease, the microbiome—the sum total of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract—plays an important role.
You may know that fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and miso promote a friendly environment for good gut bugs, but on the other hand, other foods do the opposite. Many common snacks do your gut health no favors.
We reached out to dietitians for their advice when it comes to smaller bites that can mess with your gut. Here are their picks for the top 11 offenders. So, be sure to check out the 5 Best Drinks for Boosting Gut Health.
Overindulging in sweets isn’t a smart move for all kinds of health issues, including gut health. “We know that a high-sugar diet has many downstream health effects, but people often forget about gut health,” she says. Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES. “A high-sugar diet can disrupt the balance between good and bad gut bugs and can contribute to worse gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, pain and loose stools.”
Luckily, that doesn’t mean all sweets are bad news for your tummy. According to Thomason, research shows that dark chocolate could be a treat that improves gut health! “High in fiber and nutrients and low in added sugar, you might be better off with a square of dark chocolate instead of reaching for the bowl of candy,” he says.
When you cross the drive-thru for a mid-day snack, protect your gut by avoiding french fries. “Fried foods like savory potato chips are high in saturated fat and salt,” she says Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FANDby Soccer Mom Nutrition.
“They reduce healthy gut bacteria and can even lead to more intestinal inflammation,” says Magil. She considers a fruit salad or yogurt parfait as a better option for fast food snacks.
Real, whole potatoes have beneficial nutrients for your gut, including fiber and resistant starch, but just like french fries, french fries are fried, significantly lowering their health factor. “Snacks like salted potato chips can have the same impact [as French fries] on gut health,” Magill says. “High-fat foods also have an impact on slowing digestion, which affects gut health.”
If regular candy is off the table for gut health, you might think artificially sweetened treats would be a useful substitute, but even these have drawbacks.
‘Artificial sweeteners can disrupt communication between bacteria in the microbiome and increase inflammation within the gut,’ says Gut Health Dietitian Julie Balsamo, MS, RDN, by Julie Nutrition. “Recent research also suggests that artificial sweeteners could cause changes in the microbiome that could impact insulin resistance and weight gain.” If you want a sugar filling, fresh fruit is the best gut-busting choice for a sweet fix.
“Heavily processed foods can damage the gut microbiome, as they’re full of unhealthy additives like sugar and preservatives, and are low in fiber,” she says Moushumi Mukherjee, MS, RDN.
Crackers made with refined wheat, such as artificially flavored cheese crackers or graham crackers, definitely fall into the “heavily processed” category, making them some of the worst snacks for gut health. “These foods don’t provide ideal conditions for healthy bacteria to grow. Sugar allows bad bacteria to thrive even more, while not having enough fiber in our gut inhibits the growth of healthy bacterial colonies,” says Mukherjee.
When it comes to the worst snack for gut health, America’s favorite lunch meat makes the list. Scientific evidence shows that processed meats like bologna, kielbasa and bacon are some of the worst culprits for inflammation. “These meats have been found to have pro-inflammatory effects on the gut and can alter the gut microbiome,” she says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LDN.
You may want to add other processed meats to your snack avoid list. “One food to watch out for when it comes to maintaining a healthy digestive system is lunch meat, like ham or turkey,” she says. Kristin Draayer, MS, RDN. “Research has shown that these processed meats may increase the risk of both bowel and stomach cancer.”
That said, if you love a tasty turkey or ham sandwich, you don’t have to pass up this convenient mini-meal entirely. “It’s a good idea to try enjoying them less frequently and in smaller portions,” says Draayer.
There are plenty of ways to make healthier cookies at home, like using whole-wheat flour, mashing a banana or avocado into the mix for a fluffier batter, or adding a cup of high-fiber oats. But most store-bought cookies don’t use any of these healthier baking techniques. Instead, they rely on refined grains, sugars, and preservatives to create a sweet finished product.
All this processing is not a path to smoother digestion. “There is a growing body of research showing that consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods can have negative effects on gut health,” says food scientist and dietitian Dr. Shyamala “Shy” Vishnumohan, PhD.
Of course, that doesn’t mean store-bought cookies should never pop up as an afternoon or after-dinner treat, but Vishnuomohan encourages you to rethink how often you consume them. “Instead of dreading a particular food, take a look at the percentage of ultra-processed foods you’re feeding your gut microbes. This is a good starting point to reevaluate your diet.”
As a fried food, pork rinds won’t make any list of good-for-you snacks. With their combination of ultra-processing, complete lack of fiber, and high fat content, these crunchy bites are an especially poor choice for your gut. In fact, a 2021 animal study found that pork fat significantly altered the microbiome and was not beneficial to gut health. For a better crunchy choice, consider veggie chips or lightly salted nuts.
Snack bars are another example of ultra-processing, as they contain high amounts of sugar, fat, preservatives, and artificial flavors and colors. Second Melissa Hooper, MS, RDNfounder of Bite-Size Nutrition, foods like these can wreak havoc on gut health.
“Sugar is known to increase inflammation, which can change the microbiome in the gut and damage the intestinal lining, which can reduce the good bacteria,” she says.
“Soda has long been known as a bad food choice, yet it can be particularly bad for gut health, too,” she says. Kimberley Wiemann, SM, RDN. According to Wiemann, the added sugars in soda can draw more water into your digestive tract, leaving you with side effects like diarrhea, while the caffeine in some soft drinks can also make digestion undesirably fast. “Diet sodas can be even worse for gut health because artificial sweeteners can disrupt healthy bacteria in your gut,” she says.