Digestive health has a special place in my heart. I’ve worked in this area of nutrition for about two years and it still gets me fired up each day. :)
Today, I want to talk about several inexpensive nutrition hacks for better digestion. Improving your digestion can get very pricey, but it certainly doesn’t have to.
Here’s a breakdown of the cost of several popular supplements for digestive health:
- Align probiotics $26.58 for 28 capsules
- Culturelle probiotics $26.58 for 50 capsules
- Metamucil $24.75 for 300 capsules (2-5 capsules per day indicated on package)
- Benefiber $10.87 for 62 doses
- Phillips’ fiber gummies $12.97 for 80 gummies (lasts 20 days if taken as indicated)
I’m not saying that none of these are ever necessary. Some people truly need them every single day, and they’re recommended by their doctors. Most healthy individuals, however, can easily do without these if we just focus on beneficial foods that help regulate digestion - in addition to staying well hydrated.
In my book, fiber is #1 and probiotics are #2 when it comes to promoting digestive health with food. Sleep, exercise, and lowering stress levels are also key, but these things are technically outside of my wheelhouse as a registered dietitian nutritionist.
One caveat to this whole article: everyone is different. These foods are generally helpful for digestion, but they may or may not be helpful at all for your digestion specifically. If you have digestive issues, work with a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in digestive health to develop a personalized eating plan for your unique situation.
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Legumes are probably my top item on the list. Beans (besides green beans), peas, and lentils are all a part of the legume family, which is the highest-fiber food category that I am aware of. A cup of beans provides around 15 grams of fiber give or take, depending on the type of bean. This may not sound impressive, but when you compare it to other “high-fiber” foods, it certainly stands out:
One apple contains roughly 3 grams of fiber.
Two cups of raw spinach contains about 2 grams of fiber.
A cup of whole wheat pasta has around 4 grams of fiber.
A slice of 100% whole wheat bread has 2-3 grams of fiber.
A cup of grapes has around 1 gram of fiber.
A cup of blackberries has around 8 grams of fiber.
The funny thing is, people often think of beans as being unhelpful for the digestive system because they cause gas. It’s actually quite the opposite. Gas is produced as a by-product when the healthy bacteria in your digestive tract consume the fiber that reaches your large intestines. These bacteria ferment the fiber in the process of eating it, which results in gas production.
Thankfully, if we eat enough fiber on a regular basis, somehow our bodies figure out how to handle this extra fiber from beans and it doesn’t cause much of a problem. One study found that after one month of daily bean consumption, only 1 in every 4 participants in the study had concerns about increased gas.
You want to have a strong and robust microbiome (the community of bacteria in your gut), and feeding it plenty of fiber is a huge factor in this. In fact, one study using mice showed that if the bacteria in the digestive system don’t get enough fiber, they get desperate and start eating the protective mucus lining of the colon. Bad news!
That mucus lining (called mucin) is an important protector against pathogens and inflammation, so I’d like to keep mine intact, please and thanks.
Moral of the story: we need lots of fiber and beans are a fantastic source.
How much fiber? Dietary recommendations state that women need at least 25 grams per day and men need at least 38 grams.
How does the average American stack up? A paltry 18 grams for men and 15 grams for women. Yikes.
We need our beans, folks. :)
I drink kefir almost every single day. This is partly because I enjoy the taste and mostly because I appreciate the benefits for my digestive system and bone health (but bone health is another story for another day).
You can think of kefir as a drinkable form of yogurt. Like yogurt, kefir is a natural food source of probiotics, but it has more of them and a greater variety.
Unlike probiotic powders and capsules, kefir is a natural stomping ground for these “living bugs” we call probiotics to thrive in, so in theory probiotics in kefir are more likely to be alive and kicking when they reach your large intestine. This is where they provide most of their benefit.
Kefir costs me $2.29 for per bottle at Aldi (the Friendly Farms brand), which provides Jeremy and I with a cup each for two days. Between the two of us, we go through 3 bottles per week. I like the raspberry flavor the best, but blueberry and strawberry are both good as well.
Some people get a little nervous when they look at the nutrition facts label because there are 20 grams of sugar per serving. This includes 12 grams of natural sugar and 8 grams of added sugar.
I’m not concerned about the 12 grams of natural sugar, because this is actually lactose, which has been broken down (via fermentation) by the probiotics in kefir. Some people cringe when they hear the word lactose because they are lactose-intolerant, but since the lactose is already broken, this makes kefir a great option for these individuals as well.
I’m also not concerned about the 8 grams of added sugar in flavored kefir, believe it or not, because I think the health benefits of flavored kefir outweigh the negatives.
Also, unflavored kefir tastes like drinkable sour cream, so I’ll pass. There’s no way I would stick with drinking it every day if it tasted like that.
Besides probiotics, kefir also provides calcium, protein, vitamin K2, vitamin A (added), and vitamin D (also added).
Yogurt is another natural source of probiotics like kefir. I like it on top of baked oatmeal, with berries (and sometimes a few chocolate chips), or as a dip for apples. Similar to kefir, yogurt contains calcium, protein, vitamin K2, vitamin A (added), and vitamin D (added) in addition to probiotics.
Because of the variety of nutrients, you typically get a lot more bang for your buck from drinking kefir or eating yogurt than you do by taking a probiotic-only supplement.
One key difference to note is that yogurt has a lot fewer strains (types) of probiotic bacteria than kefir. Lifeway or Friendly Farms (Aldi's brand) kefir have 12 different strains. Yogurt often has just one or two strains of probiotics.
This matters because different strains have different health benefits and potentially help different people. Your microbiome (the community of bacteria in your digestive system I mentioned earlier) is as unique as your fingerprint, and this means that the probiotics that benefit your microbiome may be different from the ones that benefit your neighbor’s.
Fruits and vegetables in general
Generally speaking, fruits and vegetables are all high-quality sources of fiber. The Mediterranean diet (of which I'm a huge fan) recommends at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, depending on the source you check. Certain fruits and vegetables, namely beans, Brussels sprouts, and oranges (as well as oats) contain soluble fiber, which can be especially helpful for promoting consistent bowel movements. If you’re not having regular bowel movements every day or so, you may not be getting waste (which contains toxins) out of your body efficiently.
But what about cost? I buy my fruits and vegetables at Aldi, and they’re consistently cheaper there than at just about any other grocery store.
At least half of the food in my grocery cart every week is a fruit or vegetable, so I save a significant amount of money every week just by shopping at Aldi. Last week, I saw an ad for strawberries on sale at my local Hy-Vee for $1.50. Guess how much they were at Aldi? One dollar.
Whole grains are another highly-ranked food category on my good-for-digestion list. A half-cup of oats (one of my top 2 favorite grains) contains 4 grams of fiber. A cup cooked of whole wheat pasta (my other favorite whole grain) contains around 4 grams of fiber as well.
A serving or two of whole grains per day will definitely help you reach your fiber goals. :)
Another perk of whole grains is that they’re one of the cheapest foods you can buy. A container of oats costs me around $2.50 at Aldi and provides 30 servings. So cheap and super versatile! Baked oatmeal is my favorite way to fix oats, but overnight oats are great too - especially in the summer when you want a cold breakfast.
A.k.a. “the Big Raisins”, as my co-worker’s daughter likes to call them. :)
Prunes are a fantastic food for digestive health. They may sound boring and un-trendy, but there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Their digestive benefit doesn’t only come from their relatively high fiber content (3 grams per ¼ cup). It also comes largely from their sorbitol content. Sorbitol falls into a category called sugar alcohols, which are substances found in some foods naturally (like prunes) and in other foods artificially (like sugar-free gum, sugar-free mints, Halo Top ice cream, etc.). Like fiber, these compounds are not digestible by the human body, so they pass through to the large intestines (aka colon) completely intact.
When undigested food hits the colon, a couple of things are likely to happen:
First, the trillions (literally, trillions) of bacteria found in the microbiome consume the undigested food. In the process, the food is fermented, producing gas as a by-product, and nourishing the microbiome. Other byproducts of this fermentation process are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Some research suggests that certain SCFAs may be very beneficial to our colon health.
The other thing that often happens when sorbitol hits the colon (besides fermentation) is that the colon goes, “Hey, we have undigested food in here. Let’s get it out!” Water is pumped into the colon across the colon wall, and boom, you have either A) diarrhea - if you consume too much sorbitol all at once (Warning!!), or B) softer bowel movements (goal).
(Sorry if this is a little too out in the open. I work in digestive health and talk about this stuff regularly. ;) You could say I’m completely immune to being embarrassed about it.)
Enough about sorbitol. Back to prunes as a whole food.
How many prunes are enough to be beneficial without being...too much? I can’t say for you personally, but one study showed that around half a cup of prunes per day may do the trick.
Another cool side benefit of prunes is that some studies have shown that they improve bone density! Who knew?!
Side note: you may be wondering if all dried fruit has the same benefits. Some might, but prunes have the strongest evidence as far as I can tell. It could be because they have a higher sorbitol content than most other dried fruits.
How much will prunes set you back? A container of generic brand at Walmart (Aldi doesn’t carry prunes. Sigh…) is $3.94 and contains 13 servings. That’s about $0.30 per serving. Not bad for a snack, especially considering prunes may be beneficial for both digestive and bone health!
Peppermint and Ginger Tea
I love tea. Besides water and kefir, it’s the only other thing I drink almost every day. Peppermint and ginger tea, in particular, have some pretty neat properties for digestive health. Peppermint has the ability to relax muscles throughout the digestive system. This can be helpful if you’re having uncomfortable cramps after eating something that didn’t agree with you.
Unfortunately, the muscle relaxation works so well that it can relax the muscle that keeps the stomach closed at the top. This can lead to or worsen hearburn symptoms in individuals who are prone to it.
Ginger tea also helps to relax muscles throughout the digestive tract as well as speed things along. It may actually increase the rate of the stomach emptying into the small intestine. This is pretty cool for people with delayed stomach emptying - or just indigestion. There’s also pretty strong research showing it to be helpful for nausea.
A generic box of about 15 tea bags (either ginger or peppermint) costs roughly $3.50 at my local grocery store. That’s a pretty fantastic deal, if you ask me - and it tastes great! There’s nothing like a comfy cup of hot tea when you’re cold or sick or a refreshing glass of iced tea in the summer.
It’s the little things. :)
Even Healthy Food Should Taste Good
These are some of the foods and drinks that, put together, can help promote a healthy digestive system. The bonus of all of this is that these foods and drinks are delicious! They’re not just good for the body - they’re also enjoyable to eat (depending on how you cook and serve them).
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how beneficial something is for the body if it tastes bad to you. About 98% of people won’t keep eating a bad-tasting food in the long run - and for sure not on a regular basis.
The #1 determinant of what we eat is whether we like the taste or not!
Put your own twist on these foods and drinks to make them taste delicious for you, and you'll be on your way to a creating and reinforcing new eating habits for better digestion!
We are what we eat, and we eat what we love. :)