Gut health is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. Each of us is host to trillions of bacteria that profoundly influence our overall biology. Research shows a healthy gut has been linked to numerous health benefits including strengthened immunity, healthier weight, clearer skin, decreased anxiety and depression, better digestion, and more. Plus, it turns out the gut and the brain are directly connected, and what we put into our body directly affects our mood as well.

These bugs sound pretty great, right? But just like all of the other good things in life, maintaining the flora in your body takes work, and you might be surprised by some of the ways you can actually harm your microbiome.

The foods we eat, drinks we consume, and products we use can all have the potential to help, or hurt, the balance of healthy bacteria in our digestive tract.

Kelly LeVeque – certified nutritionist, wellness consultant, entrepreneur, best-selling author, speaker, podcaster, blogger, wife, mother, and total boss – is a wealth of knowledge in this department. We tapped Kelly for some advice on how to feed the good bacteria in your gut and promote a healthy microbiome. Says LeVeque:

“First and foremost, your microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria that not only helps ferment the food you eat, but these bugs can support blood sugar balance, digestion, and support optimal health. Your gut can support and protect your body from the outside world.”

As always, it’s important to be aware of the impact our lifestyle has on our bodies. Today, gut disorders like leaky gut, IBS, IBD and SIBO are at an all-time high, while auto-immune disease, diabetes, and depression and anxiety are running rampant. “Antibiotics, poor eating habits, and even birth control pills have negatively affected the delicate balance of this ecosystem,” LeVeque says. If you’re experiencing issues like poor digestion, stomach discomfort, or acne, it might be a sign of dysbiosis, or microbial imbalance, in the gut.

What’s the difference between the “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut?

“Some of these microorganisms do us good (so-called good or healthy gut bacteria), while others do us harm (such as candida and yeast),” LeVeque says. “Our resident microbes play a significant role in everything from digestive and cardiovascular health to cognitive and immune function.” These microbes help balance the bad bacteria in the gut, and prevent specific “bad” strains from overgrowing. When this balance is thrown out of whack, it can trigger an inflammatory response. For this reason, she says it’s “all about being careful to consistently feed the good guys, and not over-feed the bad guys.”

What foods should we avoid?

The short list:

  • refined grains
  • refined sugars
  • industrial seed oils
  • dairy
  • alcohol

While stress and environmental factors can wreak havoc on the gut, LeVeque points out that our guts are most impacted by what we put directly into our bodies. She strives for balance with her clients, and says “nothing is off the table” when it comes to different types of foods. Rather than classifying foods as “good” or “bad”, she emphasizes the importance of knowing your body on a bio-individual level, and arming yourself with knowledge on how different foods might affect you and your gut.

That said, she points out a few things that can generally do your gut more harm than good. Acellular carbohydrates (aka processed foods) like sugar and flour, as well as alcohol, should be avoided. This includes bread, crackers, chips, candies, desserts, etc. (sorry sweet tooth). “When it comes to gut health, cutting out dairy, refined grains, industrial seed oils, and refined sugars can all have a massive impact on preventing the overfeeding of yeast and candida that can cause gut breakdown,” LeVeque says.

What foods do we need more of?

The short list:

  • vegetables – squash, yam, asparagus, artichokes, sunchokes
  • leafy greens
  • legumes – beans, lentils, peas
  • seeds – chia, flax
  • other sources of prebiotic fiber – acacia fiber, psyllium husk, apple pectin, inulin
  • fermented foods – sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut yogurt

In general, LeVeque recommends incorporating the “fab four” – protein, fat, fiber, and greens- into every meal. The fiber and greens here play an especially crucial role in gut health. “Leafy greens contain a specific sugar that is known to feed gut microbes,” LeVeque says. “What we know now is that microbes are multiplying at such a fast rate after every meal, that when we go meals without the two, we can see that die off happen within days.”

“With my clients, we try to think about how to feed the good guys at every meal. Your good gut bacteria eat resistant starches (aka prebiotics), which can be found in vegetables, legumes, and seeds. Other sources of prebiotics include acacia fiber, psyllium husk, apple pectin, inulin. These come in the form of thin powders you can easily add to your smoothie (1 or 2 tbs) and massively feed your gut prebiotic fiber to create a really healthy digestive tract.”

Fermented foods are also a great way to get more of the good guys. LeVeque points out that “foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and coconut yogurt allow you to get trillions of CFU’s (colony forming units) into your gut, quadrupling the amount you might get from some of the probiotic supplements you could spend $50 for.” She does say, however, to watch out for any fermented foods that require adding additional sugar to create the fermentation (aka kombucha), as these are not great examples of the healthiest gut food.

What else can I do to keep my gut in check?

In addition to cleaning up our diets, LeVeque had a few more recommendations for keeping our microbiomes healthy and thriving: 

  • Consistency – a daily smoothie loaded with greens and prebiotic fiber can help with gut health, metabolism, and prevent dysbiosis
  • Take a high quality probiotic – look for seed or soil based organisms – she likes Seed or JustThrive brands
  • Get a good source of amino acids by adding something like collagen or bone broth to your diet, especially if you suffer from leaky gut
  • Take a fecal test – like Gut Bio by Onegevity –  to get an in-depth look at your gut and what strains you have overgrowth in and what strains you may be lacking
  • Avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals like parabens and phthalates – especially in products that you are rubbing directly onto your skin like makeup, hair or cleaning products 
  • Ditch the plastic – avoid drinking out of plastic water bottles whenever you can to avoid ingesting microplastics that can interfere with your microbiome
  • Cooking techniques – any time you cook rice or potatoes, if you cool them in your fridge after cooking them, then re-warm before eating, you will transform the starch in these foods into resistant starch that will feed your microbes and prevent a blood-sugar spike

If you want to dive deeper, check out our past interview with Kelly and find more information in her books Body Love and Body Love Every Day. You can also listen to her podcast for more great information and tips. 

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Jenny Sathngam