Registered Dietitians Debunk Five Common Myths About Gut Health
The gut—short for the gastrointestinal (GI) tract—is a complex system that impacts so many elements of our overarching wellness, from our physical to mental health. The GI tract is home to trillions of bacteria and microbes collectively known as the microbiome and works to process and absorb nutrients. An imbalanced microbiome, however, can lead to all sorts of problems, including constipation, stomach pain, and even skin irritation. And while it's hardly a secret that maintaining a healthy gut is important, there's quite a bit of misinformation surrounding the topic. To help us separate fact from fiction, we spoke with leading registered dietitians who debunked five common myths about gut health.
You need to cut out food groups to manage gut health.
While many people suffer from food sensitivities and intolerances, eliminating certain food groups might not always be the answer to feeling better. "Those with digestive health concerns often end up following overly restrictive diets, cutting out food groups that are not necessary," explains registered dietitian Mia Syn. "For example, those who are lactose intolerant may cut out dairy foods, which are rich sources of calcium and a vital nutrient for bone health, entirely. In reality, lactose is found in varying degrees in dairy foods and is much lower in natural cheeses, like cheddar, colby, monterey jack, and swiss."
The same goes for gluten, adds Syn; those who do not have celiac disease, or a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, don't need to remove it from their diets. "Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, which are whole grains that provide fiber and B vitamins; they are important for energy production," she says. "Fiber is a nutrient that an estimated 97 percent of Americans fall short on, according to the new 2020 to 2025 dietary guidelines." If you're not getting enough fiber in your diet, you could experience constipation, irregular bowel movements, or blood sugar fluctuations, she adds.
Fiber causes stomach problems.
Speaking of fiber, while it is absolutely essential for maintaining a balanced gut, there's a common misconception that it can also cause stomach issues. "If you're not used to eating higher amounts of fiber and change your eating habits all of a sudden, you may very well experience symptoms like bloating and cramping," explains registered dietitian Amy Gorin, who recommends slowly increasing your fiber intake to avoid discomfort. But to fully reap the benefits of fiber and keep your bowel movements regular, it's important to introduce both soluble and insoluble fiber into your diet. "Both types are found in many plant-based foods and stimulate digestion," says Gorin. "Insoluble fiber in particular bulks up your stool and gets things moving through the digestive system—helping stool to pass."
"Normal" doesn't always mean that you have one bowel movement per day.
"There's no magic number for how often you should be having bowel movements, as this varies from person to person," says Gorin, who notes that anywhere from three times per day to three times a week is considered normal. "What you really should be paying closer attention to is what your bowel movements look like. Any color but brown can be indicative of a health problem—which is when you're going to want to speak to a doctor."
Gut health is as simple as taking a probiotic.
Probiotics are often touted as a cure-all when it comes to managing gut health, but they are only one piece of the puzzle. "Probiotics are good bacteria that can benefit the gut, but they are not the only solution," says Syn. "In addition to probiotics, there are many more factors that go into supporting gut health—namely diet as a whole and lifestyle. Incorporating probiotic and prebiotic-containing foods will also benefit gut health, as will limiting your intake of added sugar and alcohol," explains Syn. Other factors like good sleep hygiene, exercise, and stress reduction have also been linked to better gut health.
You can only fix gut problems with medicine.
Oftentimes, simple home remedies are all you need to feel better. "If you've had diarrhea or have been throwing up, you've been losing water and electrolytes—and these will need to be replenished. You can try beverages such as coconut water, Pedialyte, and Gatorade to replenish these electrolytes and also to rehydrate at the same time," explains Gorin.