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salad bowl and breadIn a world of competing advice, it’s hard to know what’s really healthy for your digestive system…

Every day, it seems there’s a newly discovered diet or food that will unlock the secret to digestive health.

One day, it’s avoiding gluten. The next, it’s eating as many whole grains as you can. Then you learn that it doesn’t matter what you eat — as long as you’ve got probiotic supplements.  

When digestion health advice seems a dime a dozen, it can be hard to sort fact from fiction. Let’s review some of the most common nutrition-based digestive concerns I hear at my digestive care practice — and what I tell my patients about each one of these myths.  

Myth 1: Dietary restrictions, like cutting out dairy and gluten, are the best way to solve gut problems

It’s easy to understand where this logic comes from. Particularly when patients come in experiencing recurring digestive issues, it’s common to cut out and then re-introduce products like dairy and gluten. Doing so gives doctors a systematic way to understand a patient’s food-body stasis.

There is a problem when this one-size-fits-all elimination approach hits mainstream, though. People begin to hear broad claims on how dairy wreaks havoc, or how gluten is the bane of all contemporary health. We take these individual cases and apply it to ourselves — even if we feel only the occasional gut discomfort. Then, we apply our newfound “healthy” insight to everyone around us.    

When the National Center for Health Research released its comprehensive report on gluten in 2012, it stated that unless one has a diagnosed case of celiac disease, going gluten-free can be counterproductive to gut health.  This is merely one example of the wildfire affect “trendy” elimination diets can have. When people take an elimination approach to what they eat without proper medical testing, they can experience everything from nutritional deficiencies to low energy to overall compromised health.

Myth 2: The more fiber, the better.

While most Americans don’t get their daily recommended dose of fiber (25 grams/day), consuming too much fiber can cause problems, too.

Unlike the other macro-nutrition categories like proteins, fats, and carbs, fiber cannot be fully digested in your body. Instead, as it passes through your digestive system, it aids in things like bowel movements, blood sugar regulation, and weight maintenance.

Overloading your intestines with fiber can cause cramping, bloating and excess gas, among other too-much-too-fast adverse effects. What’s more, if you suffer from digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), research like that published by the British Medical Journal suggest it’s more about eating certain kinds of fibers (like those that are water-soluble) rather than fiber uninhibited.     

Myth 3: Spicy foods irritate your stomach.

Spicy foods have a bad gut reputation, and they have for a long time.

Yet unless you have ulcers or a similar kind of painful stomach sore, spicy foods do not — and should not — seriously irritate your stomach. Chemical compounds found in spicy dishes such as chilis, curries, or kimchi even have research claiming to temporarily boost metabolism and contribute to feeling full.      

The National Institute of Health points not to spicy foods but bacteria growth and common pain medications, like ibuprofen, as the main culprits behind ulcers and stomach sores. Hard on the stomach lining, overusing aspirin or ibuprofen can “wear and tear” that lining and lead to the burning pains misattributed to spicy foods. And while sprinkling a dash of cayenne on supper may make the taste buds hurt, it shouldn’t go beyond that.       

Myth 4: You must ‘detox’ to clear out your digestive system.

Regardless of what the glitzy celebrity infomercial you saw last night on TV claims, those colon or kidney detoxes you hear so much about can be harmful to your body — if not outright dangerous.

Your digestive system is designed to “cleanse” itself. Organs like the liver, lungs, kidneys, and colon work with hormones and lymph nodes to do so automatically and internally. Your system has done this for many years without the aid of detoxing teas, smoothies, or 72-hour juicing that rids your body of toxins you didn’t even know you had. (Newsflash: You probably don’t.)

Products claiming to release toxins in your organs and muscles are not based in much credible science, says Natural Standard, a nonprofit agency that analyzes and verifies scientific data on functional or holistic practices. If keeping your system “cleansed” is the goal, you’re better off drinking lots of water and eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods.

Myth 5: You need vitamins and supplements to be gut healthy.

Sales of vitamins and supplements have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2016 alone, U.S. consumers purchased over $30 billion dollars worth of out-of-pocket vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements. Those numbers are projected to rise as holistic health practices grow more commonplace.

And while there’s nothing wrong with people taking nutrition seriously (that’s a great thing!), studies show that there are limited benefits to vitamins and supplements when a person isn’t making the same healthy investment regarding what’s actually on their plates.  

The whole foods entering your body — from the cereal you eat at breakfast to the midnight snack of ice-cream — are square one of digestive health. Additional supplements are just that — supplementary, if needed at all.  

While certain deficiencies may occur due to medical conditions, pregnancies, or diet choices (think vegans who may need to take an occasional B12 pill), they are rare and circumstantial. Consult with a doctor or registered dietician to see if vitamins and supplements are really necessary before you open your wallet.

If you would like expert advice on your own personal meal planning, we offer nutrition counseling services at Digestive Care Specialists. Schedule an appointment by calling 301-288-1319.