7 Gut-Friendly Foods To Always Have Around.

Whole foods seem to be the whole truth, whether it’s to stimulate a sluggish gut with fiber or feed it with beneficial bacteria.  So next time you’re on a cleaning binge in your fridge or pantry, pitch the processed stuff full of preservatives, chemicals, and coloring and see how much better you feel by stocking up on whole, unprocessed plants and fermented foods.  (The less a food is refined, the more of it gets through our GI tract.) 

Eating as close to nature as possible, but not raw, is the mantra of Amy Chaplin, author of the just-released At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen and chef to Liv Tyler and Natalie Portman. “I believe in preparing whole foods in ways that enhance their nutrition and digestibility,” says Chaplin.  The Seasonal Cleanse on her website includes lots of cooked veggies and a daily nutritional broth spiced with turmeric and teeming with burdock root, seaweed, and ginger.     But just because she likes a cleanse now and then doesn’t mean she’s into denial.  “My recipes are probably higher in calories than most dieters expect, but the meals are nutritionally dense and balanced, so you really enjoy the taste and textures and feel so sated you won’t overeat.” It’s a principle she learned while cooking at a macrobiotic restaurant and that the Japanese call hara hachi bu, meaning roughly “Eat until your belly is 80 % full.”

On a more scientific level, the following pre-, pro-, and synbiotic foods encourage the growth of good microbes in our intestines.  There, they keep pathogens from taking up residence and help manufacture enzymes, vitamins, essential nutrients like amino acids, and even neurotransmitters such as feel-good serotonin, writes Michael Pollan in “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs” in The New York Times.  Even better news: just because these are so-called “functional foods” doesn’t mean they’re boring or bland (see kimchi, # 2). 


Asparagus, artichokes, leeks, soybeans, onions, and garlic are natural prebiotics (nondigestible carbs that stimulate the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the gut). And broccoli, kale, chard, all leafy greens, squash, and tomatoes are the top veggies on the Clean Gut Diet Program by Alejandro Junger MD, whose fans include Gwyneth Paltrow and fashion designer Rachel Roy.


These pack a double whammy as “synbiotics” (meaning they contain both prebiotics and probiotics, the live microorganisms that confer a health benefit).  As lovers of Korean food know, kimchi is a spicy condiment of pickled and fermented cabbage; sauerkraut is fermented cabbage; and miso is a tangy paste made from fermented soybeans.  All are favorites of Nykki Hardin, a natural health specialist and founder of Nykki’s Cleanse. “Just make sure you read the label and buy the organic, non-MSG versions of these foods,” she says.


In its raw, organic form, coconut oil is the new darling of both bakers (who substitute it for butter in vegan pastry) and health-conscious chefs. “Coconut is our favorite cooking oil,” says Junger.  “It provides a good source of saturated fat, stays stable at medium temperatures, rarely goes rancid, is antibacterial, and promotes weight loss.”  If it makes your savory dishes taste too “coconuty” (as it did when we sautéed broccoli), Junger also like avocado oil, which has a high smoke rate (375 degrees), and olive oil. 


The seed of a plant that grows in the Andes, quinoa looks and tastes like a grain and is rich in protein, fiber, iron, and amino acids. It’s the only “grain” allowed on Junger’s Clean Gut Diet Food List, and Nikki Hardin extols it. “Skip the bread and pasta and get creative by integrating this powerhouse.  Plus, it cooks in no time.”


Bananas are rich in prebiotics (those carbs that nourish our healthy intestinal flora).  And fresh and frozen berries, lemons, and limes are beloved by Junger. One landmark study shows that one cup of berries provides all the disease-fighting antioxidants you need in a single day, according to WebMD.  Among all fruits, these little gems (cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries) pack the most antioxidant bang for your buck.


Packed with active cultures to replenish the beneficial organisms in the gut, kefir and yogurt are synbiotics. Kefir actually has more probiotic strains than yogurt, writes Jane E. Brody in the New York Times. Plain whole-milk yogurt, to which you’ve added fresh fruit for sweetness, obviously tastes better than low-fat yogurt. “Fat adds flavor,” says Chaplin.  “Eating plain low-fat yogurt is like eating paste, I have no interest.  It bears repeating that it’s possible to be healthy and lean while eating high-fat, nutrient dense food.”  If you’re lactose-intolerant, Junger suggests organic yogurt made from cultured coconut milk (So Delicious makes one). 


A source of soluble fiber, nuts like almonds, pecans, walnuts, cashews, and macadamias are “an awesome snack filled with valuable nutrition and fat, to keep us going and help us feel full longer,” says Hardin.  When she craves something rich and sweet, she pops a handful of macadamia nuts or spreads almond butter on apple slices.  Junger includes all the above nuts and seeds on his Clean Gut Diet Food List, with the proviso to “go easy, only a handful a day.” (We’ll try.) So-called “activated” or sprouted almonds are a favorite of Chaplin’s because their hulls have been soaked to release the bad boy phytic acid, a nutrient blocker of phosphorus, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Most raw nuts or seeds with hulls have phytic acid (seasame, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts), but sprouting or soaking them will break down the acid and enable your gut to fully absorb these important minerals.


  1. Amy Chaplin
  2. Alejandro Junger MD
  3. Nykki Hardin