Eating Well for Digestive Health

If you're like most people, you may have gas, constipation, or heartburn every now and then. These symptoms are so common that many people just live with them. You may be able to prevent many of these problems simply by making better food choices.

Eating to prevent gas, bloating, and flatulence

These uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing symptoms can be caused by swallowing too much air, eating foods that make a lot of gas, or having a reaction to a food that your system has trouble digesting. It’s normal to pass gas 18 to 20 times a day. If flatulence or bloating becomes more of a problem, try these tips:

  • To keep from swallowing too much air, don't drink carbonated beverages. Don’t drink through a straw, and, in general, eat and drink more slowly. Rather than gulping, savor each mouthful.

  • Don't chew gum, especially gum that contains sorbitol. The air you swallow while gum chewing may cause gas. Sorbitol and other artificial sweeteners cause flatulence in some people.

  • The protein in milk is hard for many people to digest. This is a condition called lactose intolerance. If milk products give you gas, try cutting back on how much of them you eat or drink to see if the symptoms go away. You can use lactose-free dairy products instead. The protein in grains, such as wheat and rye, are also hard for some people to digest. Talk with your healthcare provider if you think you might have problems with these foods. You may need a blood test to see if you have celiac disease.

  • Some people are sensitive to other foods, including FODMAPs, gluten, and wheat. FODMAP stands for fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These are a type of sugar that the small intestine does not absorb well. Sometimes you can change your diet to limit the amount of these foods you eat and see if your symptoms get better. You can talk specifics with your healthcare provider. 

  • Limit foods that commonly cause gas. These include cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, onions, garlic, and legumes.

Eating to prevent heartburn

Everybody gets occasional heartburn. If you have heartburn often, especially if it wakes you up at night, you could have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Talk with your healthcare provider about frequent heartburn. Try these tips to help prevent it:

  • Stop smoking and only drink alcohol in moderation. That means no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men.

  • Stop eating at least 3 hours before you go to bed.

  • Eat smaller meals more often.

  • Don't have foods that are known to cause heartburn. This includes fatty foods and foods and beverages with caffeine, chocolate, and peppermint.

  • Raise the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches. 

Eating to prevent constipation

Just about everybody gets constipated every now and then. It's not usually considered a problem unless you're having bowel movements fewer than 3 times a week. Before reaching for a laxative, know that the most common cause of constipation is your diet. Other possible reasons for constipation may include dehydration, too little physical activity, and overuse of laxatives. Try these tips to get more “regular”:

  • Add high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains to your diet. Too many low-fiber foods, such as cheese, eggs, and meat, can cause constipation. Aim to get 25 to 31 grams of fiber in your diet each day. Some high-fiber cereals offer more than half that amount in just a single serving.

  • Not getting enough fluids is another cause of constipation, but some fluids are better than others. Your best bet is to drink water. Caffeine, colas, and alcoholic beverages can actually dehydrate you and make constipation worse.

  • Get some exercise every day. Walking 30 to 45 minutes a day will help with your constipation. It will also improve your mood and your fitness level.

  • Ask your healthcare provider if any of the medicines you’re taking might be causing constipation. Ask if there are any alternatives.

  • In rare cases, constipation may be from a serious problem, such as colon cancer. This is especially true for people older than 50.

More eating tips for better digestion

No matter what your digestive health issues are, you’ll probably benefit from choosing whole foods over processed foods. Processed foods are foods that have been changed by food companies before you eat them. Whole foods are foods that are eaten in their natural state, like an apple or tomato.

Processed foods often have a lot of added (and unwanted) fat, sugar, and salt. A lot of their original nutrients may be lost as well. For instance, whole grains have their outer shells removed to become processed grains, such as white flour. As a rule, whole foods are better for your digestive health and your overall health. Here are simple swaps to make:

  • Choose brown grains, such as brown rice and steel-cut oatmeal, over white grains like packaged pasta and white rice.

  • Choose whole fresh fruits and vegetables over canned fruits and vegetables.

  • Don't have processed junk foods, desserts, sodas, juices with added sugar, canned soups, and snack foods.

  • Shop around the outside perimeter of your grocery store to find the whole foods.

 Most digestive complaints don't cause long-term problems. But if you notice any unusual symptoms that don’t go away, call your healthcare provider.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jen Lehrer MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Tara Novick BSN MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2023
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