As we explained in this blog, the best ways to maintain a healthy gut is by being mindful of the foods you choose to eat. However, not all of the nutrition advice available online is reliable and some of it is downright wrong.
Another important point to bear in mind is that one-size-fits-all diet recommendations are not necessarily the answer. In other words, the diet that helped your friend, work colleague or family member will not necessarily be as helpful for you. As such, it is better to focus on the particular ways the foods you choose can support your gut health.
We interviewed gut health dietitians Andrea Hardy, Paula Crespo, Kate Scarlata, Megan Rossi and Mariana Camarena on frequent misconceptions you can find on your way to a healthy gut and how to fix them.
Andrea Hardy: The most common myths I hear are usually around restrictive diets – there seems to be a new one each month! Between gluten-free, dairy-free, lectin-free and even vegetable-free, there is an array of restrictive diets focused on removing foods and, often, moralizing food decisions. My nutrition motto is “If something scares you, it’s probably not true”. Listen to that ‘gut reaction’ and trust that nutrition science is rarely that sensational or extreme. All foods you enjoy can fit within a balanced diet. I prefer people focus on what they can add rather than take away!
Paula Crespo: I think that the most common misconception is to not believe how something so ‘abstract or invisible’ as gut microbiota can be so important to maintaining overall well-being. In general, people don’t understand that the gut microbiota is as important as other organs. [I debunk this by giving] specific nutritional recommendations for improving intestinal health. I also personalize those recommendations according to each individual case and condition, and say “Just try. This is harmless, it is just food. Please just try and let’s see what happens after following these recommendations daily for at least two months.”
Kate Scarlata: One common misconception is that FODMAP carbohydrates are bad for you. While some FODMAP food sources such as high fructose corn syrup offer little beneficial nutritional value, other foods that contain FODMAPs such as cashew nuts, pistachios, kidney beans, and onion, to name a few, are rich in healthy prebiotic fibers. If a person tolerates these FODMAP-containing foods, they should be included as part of a healthy diet. A low-FODMAP diet has science to support its use in irritable bowel syndrome, but for the majority of people that do not experience IBS, FODMAP-rich foods can be enjoyed and many FODMAP-rich food sources are fiber-rich and offer health benefits.
Megan Rossi: One common myth is that you need to be following a restrictive diet for good gut health. In fact, the opposite is likely: it’s more about what you INclude rather than EXclude. Indeed, research has shown people who eat at least 30 different types of plant-based foods each week, compared with those who ate 10 different types, had a more diverse range of gut bacteria, which is typically used as a marker of good gut health. What’s more, cutting out whole food groups—for example cutting out whole grains and legumes on the paleo diet—can negatively impact your GM. It may also increase your risk of nutritional deficiencies.
Mariana Camarena: The ‘I have to detox to clean my gut’ myth is one of my favorites. The body has its own detox system supported by the lungs, the colon, the liver, the kidneys and the lymphatic system, which are all programmed to detoxify the body constantly. We don’t need a detox diet with enemas to ensure gut health; we just need to maintain a proper diet, exercise regularly, drink plenty of water and sleep well. That is the route to a good and natural detox.
To sum up, although lots of dietary patterns and advice have been touted to have beneficial effects for gut health, not all of them necessarily work for your particular situation. Rather than focusing on what you can take away in your diet and on sticking to restrictive diets for a long while, it is a better approach to focus on what you can add. In case of any doubt or question, ask a registered dietitian before completely eliminating a food group that you love.
Note: original answers may be edited for style and length.