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The 19 Best Foods to Improve Digestion

Health + Wellness
The 19 Best Foods to Improve Digestion
Westend61 / Getty Images

By Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD

The digestive tract plays a vital role in your health, as it's responsible for absorbing nutrients and eliminating waste.


Unfortunately, many people suffer from digestive problems like bloating, cramping, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation for a variety of reasons.

Certain conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), Crohn's Disease, diverticulitis and heartburn, can put you at risk for more severe digestive issues.

However, even a healthy person can experience digestive problems due to things such as a lack of fiber or probiotic-rich foods in their diet.

Here are the 19 best foods to improve your digestion.

1. Yogurt

Yogurt is made from milk that has been fermented, typically by lactic acid bacteria.

It contains friendly bacteria known as probiotics, which are good bacteria that live in your digestive tract and can help improve digestion, keeping your gut healthy (1, 2).

While probiotics naturally occur in your gut, boosting your intake through foods like yogurt can ease digestion (1, 3).

Probiotics can help with digestive issues, such as bloating, constipation and diarrhea. They have also been shown to improve the digestion of lactose, or milk sugar (2, 4).

However, not all yogurt contains probiotics. When shopping, be sure to look for "live and active cultures" on the package.

Summary

Yogurt contains probiotics, which can aid digestion by promoting healthy bacteria in your digestive tract.

2. Apples

Apples are a rich source of pectin, a soluble fiber.

Pectin bypasses digestion in your small intestine and is then broken down by the friendly bacteria in your colon (5).

It increases stool volume and is therefore commonly used to resolve constipation and diarrhea. It has also been shown to decrease the risk of intestinal infections, as well as inflammation in the colon (5, 6).

Summary

The pectin found in apples helps increase stool bulk and movement through your digestive tract. It may also decrease inflammation in your colon.

3. Fennel

Fennel, a plant with a pale bulb and long green stalks, is used to add flavor to food.

Its fiber content helps prevent constipation and improves regularity in your digestive tract (7, 8).

Fennel also contains an antispasmodic agent that relaxes the smooth muscles in your digestive tract. This action can reduce negative digestive symptoms like bloating, flatulence and cramping (9).

Summary

Fennel's fiber content and antispasmodic agent can improve digestion by limiting some negative gastrointestinal symptoms.

4. Kefir

Kefir is a cultured dairy product made by adding kefir "grains" to milk. These "grains" result from mixing yeast and bacteria with milk and appear to have digestive benefits.

Like the probiotics in yogurt, kefir's cultures aid the digestion of lactose, decreasing some of the negative side effects associated with lactose intolerance such as bloating, cramping and gas (10, 11).

In multiple studies, kefir caused an increase in healthy, digestion-improving gut bacteria and a simultaneous drop in harmful bacteria (12, 13).

Kefir consumption has also been associated with decreased inflammation in your gut, further enhancing the digestion process (12).

Summary

Kefir's unique ingredient—"grains" made from yeast and bacteria—appear to improve digestion and decrease inflammation in your gut.

5. Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber, which causes them to form a gelatin-like substance in your stomach, once consumed. They work like a prebiotic, supporting the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and therein contributing to healthy digestion (7, 8).

Their fiber content also helps promote bowel regularity and healthy stools.

Summary

The fiber content of chia seeds can assist digestion by promoting the growth of probiotics in your gut and keeping you regular.

6. Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented tea.

It's made by adding specific strains of bacteria, sugar and yeast to black or green tea, then undergoing fermentation for a week or more (14).

A glut of probiotic bacteria is produced during the fermentation process, which can improve digestive health (15).

What's more, some research in mice has shown that kombucha may contribute to the healing of stomach ulcers (16).

Summary

Kombucha's ample probiotic content improves digestion and gut health. The drink may also help heal stomach ulcers.

7. Papaya

The luscious tropical fruit papaya contains a digestive enzyme called papain.

It assists during the digestive process by helping break down protein fibers. While not required in your diet, it can aid the digestion of protein (17).

Papain may also ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as constipation and bloating (18).

It's commonly used as the main enzyme in digestive supplements due to its gastrointestinal capacities.

Summary

Papaya contains papain, which is a strong digestive enzyme that contributes to the healthy digestion of proteins. It may also relieve IBS symptoms.

8. Whole Grains

Grains are the seeds of grasslike plants called cereals.

To be classified as a whole grain, it must contain 100% of the kernel including the bran, germ and endosperm.

Popular fiber-packed whole grains include oats, quinoa, farro and products made from whole wheat. The fiber found in these grains can help improve digestion in two ways.

First, fiber helps add bulk to your stool and can reduce constipation (19).

Second, some grain fibers act like prebiotics and help feed healthy bacteria in your gut (20, 21).

Summary

Due to their high fiber content, whole grains can support healthy digestion by adding bulk to your stool, reducing constipation and feeding your healthy gut bacteria.

9. Tempeh

Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. Fermentation breaks down sugars through bacteria and yeast.

During the fermentation process, an antinutrient in soybeans called phytic acid is broken down. Phytic acid can interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients.

Thus, the fermentation process improves the digestion and absorption of those nutrients (22).

Fermented foods such as tempeh are a good source of probiotics. Remember that probiotics create a protective lining in your intestines to shield them from harmful bacteria (23, 24).

Studies have found that probiotics help alleviate IBS symptoms, prevent diarrhea, decrease bloating and improve regularity (25, 26).

Summary

Tempeh's fermentation process and probiotic content can decrease negative digestive symptoms, as well as improve nutrient absorption by breaking down the antinutrient phytic acid.

10. Beets

Beetroot, otherwise known as beets, is a good source of fiber.

One cup (136 grams) of beets contains 3.4 grams of fiber. Fiber bypasses digestion and heads to your colon, where it feeds your healthy gut bacteria or adds bulk to your stool—which both improves digestion (27, 28).

A few popular ways to eat beets include roasted, mixed in a salad, pickled or blended into a smoothie.

Summary

Beetroot's nutrients can help improve digestion by helping feed friendly gut bacteria and adding bulk to your stool.

11. Miso

Commonly consumed in miso soup, miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, a type of fungus.

Miso contains probiotics that, like other fermented foods, help improve digestion by increasing the good bacteria in your gut.

The probiotics in miso can also help reduce digestive issues and overcome intestinal illness like diarrhea (29).

Summary

Miso's probiotic content makes it helpful for reducing digestive issues and overcoming intestinal illness like diarrhea.

12. Ginger

Ginger is a traditional ingredient in Eastern medicine that helps improve digestion and prevent nausea. Many pregnant women use it to treat morning sickness (30, 31).

From a digestion standpoint, this yellowish root has been shown to accelerate gastric emptying (32, 33).

By moving food from your stomach to your small intestine quicker, ginger reduces your risk of heartburn, nausea and stomach discomfort.

Summary

Ginger appears to expedite food's movement through your stomach, easing certain side effects associated with slow digestion. It has also been used to treat nausea, including morning sickness during pregnancy.

13. Kimchi

Kimchi, usually made from fermented cabbage, can also comprise other fermented vegetables.

It contains probiotics that help with digestion and promote the growth of good bacteria in your colon. The longer kimchi ferments, the higher the concentration of probiotics (3, 25).

Kimchi also contains fiber, which can add bulk to your stool and promotes bowel health.

Summary

Kimchi contains probiotics and fiber that improve digestion and promote bowel health.

14. Dark Green Vegetables

Green vegetables are an excellent source of insoluble fiber.

This type of fiber adds bulk to your stool, quickening its pace through your digestive tract (7).

Green vegetables are also a good source of magnesium, which can help relieve constipation by improving muscle contractions in your gastrointestinal tract (34, 35).

Some of the most common dark green vegetables that provide this benefit are spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other leafy greens.

In addition, a 2016 study revealed an unusual sugar found in green leafy vegetables that feeds good bacteria in your gut. This sugar is thought to aid digestion while also impairing some of the bad bacteria that can cause illnesses (36).

Summary

Green vegetables play a role in healthy digestion by providing fiber and magnesium to your diet, as well as feeding good bacteria in your gut.

15. Natto

Like tempeh, natto is made from fermented soybeans.

Typically eaten plain, some popular toppings for natto include kimchi, soy sauce, green onion and raw eggs. It can also be eaten with cooked rice.

Natto contains probiotics that serve as a defense mechanism against toxins and harmful bacteria, while also increasing healthy gut bacteria that improve digestion (37, 38).

Interestingly, one gram of natto contains almost as many probiotics as a whole serving of other probiotic-rich foods or supplements, such as six ounces (170 grams) of yogurt (39).

Its fiber content also improves the regularity of stools and reduces constipation.

Summary

Natto's rich probiotic content can aid gastrointestinal health and digestion, improving the regularity of stools and reducing constipation.

16. Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is made from shredded cabbage that is fermented with lactic acid.

Due to fermentation, it contains probiotics.

Research suggests that a half-cup (71-gram) serving of sauerkraut may contain up to 28 distinct bacterial strains that help your gut by feeding good bacteria (40, 41).

In addition, sauerkraut's generous helping of enzymes break down nutrients into smaller, more easily digestible molecules (41).

Summary

Sauerkraut is a rich source of probiotics and contains enzymes that help with digestion by breaking down nutrients into more easily digestible molecules.

17. Salmon

Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce inflammation in your body (42, 43).

People with inflammatory bowel disease, food intolerances and other digestive disorders often have inflammation in the gut. Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce this inflammation and thereby improve digestion (44, 45).

Summary

The omega-3s found in salmon may reduce inflammation in your gut, thus improving your digestive process.

18. Bone Broth

Bone broth is made by simmering the bones and connective tissues of animals.

The gelatin found in bone broth derives from the amino acids glutamine and glycine.

These aminos can bind to fluid in your digestive tract and help food pass more easily (46).

Glutamine protects the functioning of your intestinal wall. It has also been shown to improve the digestive condition known as leaky gut, as well as other inflammatory bowel diseases (46, 47).

Summary

The gelatin found in bone broth can help improve digestion and protect your intestinal wall. It may be useful in improving leaky gut and other inflammatory bowel diseases.

19. Peppermint

Peppermint, part of the genus Mentha, grows commonly throughout much of the world.

Peppermint oil is made from the essential oils found in peppermint leaves and has been shown to improve digestive problems.

The oil contains a compound called menthol, which may ease symptoms of IBS, including bloating, stomach discomfort and bowel movement issues (48, 49).

The oil appears to have a relaxing effect on the muscles of your digestive tract, which may improve digestion (49, 50).

Peppermint oil can also ease indigestion by accelerating the food's movement through your digestive system.

Summary

Peppermint has been shown to improve digestion. It can alleviate IBS symptoms and push food more quickly through your digestive tract.

The Bottom Line

Digestive issues can be challenging, but certain foods may be helpful in easing uncomfortable symptoms.

Research supports eating fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi and tempeh, to increase probiotics in your diet, which can improve digestive health.

Fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains, dark green vegetables and chia seeds, also play a role in digestion by helping food move through your system more easily or quickly.

If you're seeking relief for your digestive woes, consider adding some of these 19 foods to your diet.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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