7 Foods That Help Digestion—and 7 You May Want To Think Twice

Here are some foods you should eat to soothe your stomach and keep your digestive tract running smoothly—and some you'll want to leave alone.

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Photo: Pongsak Tawansaeng / EyeEm/Getty Images

Both high-fat and fried food can overwhelm the stomach, resulting in acid reflux and heartburn. "The body can only handle so much at one time," Jessica Anderson, RD, a diabetes educator with the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center, in Corpus Christi, told Health.

High-fat food also can result in pale-colored stool, a phenomenon called steatorrhea, which is essentially excess fat in the feces, per the National Library of Medicine (NIH). A lot of people with irritable bowel syndrome need to stay away from foods high in fat, said Anderson, because they can cause digestive problems.

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Think Twice: Chili Peppers

This staple of spicy cuisine can irritate the esophagus and lead to heartburn pain.

"Consuming chili peppers can be a particular problem for people with irritable bowel syndrome [IBS] or those who already suffer from chronic heartburn," Tim McCashland, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told Health.

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Think Twice: Dairy

You need calcium in your diet, and an easy way to get it is from dairy products such as milk and cheese. However, for those who are lactose intolerant, dairy can cause diarrhea, gas, and abdominal bloating and cramps.

Lactose intolerance occurs when people don't make enough lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose (the sugar found in milk). Celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and chemotherapy can damage the intestines, which also can lead to lactose intolerance.

If you're lactose intolerant, staying away from dairy is probably your best bet.

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Think Twice: Alcohol

Alcohol relaxes the body, but it also relaxes the esophageal sphincter. This can lead to acid reflux or heartburn.

Drinking also can inflame the stomach lining, impairing certain enzymes and preventing nutrients from being absorbed, said Anderson. Too much alcohol can cause diarrhea and cramping, but unless you have a gastrointestinal disorder, moderate amounts of alcohol shouldn't irritate the digestive tract.

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Think Twice: Coffee, Tea, and Soft Drinks

Coffee, tea, and carbonated beverages not only over-relax the esophageal sphincter, which keeps stomach acid confined to the stomach, but they also can act as diuretics, which can lead to diarrhea and cramping, noted Anderson.

Caffeinated beverages can be a particular problem, especially for people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

If you have GERD or heartburn, you should avoid mint tea; it can, however, calm the stomach, said Anderson.

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Think Twice: Chocolate

So chocolate itself may not be the true villain here, said Anderson. For people with milk allergies, for example, the real culprit in chocolate is the milk content. Even for people without lactose intolerance or dairy allergies, the caffeine content in chocolate can also stimulate cramps, bloating, or diarrhea for those with IBS.

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Think Twice: Corn

Fiber-rich corn is good for you, but it also contains cellulose, a type of fiber that humans can't break down easily because we lack the necessary enzyme to do so.

"Our evolutionary ancestors were probably able to break it down with bigger, stronger teeth," said Anderson. If you chew corn longer, you can probably digest it just fine, added Anderson. Still, if you decide to wolf it down, it may pass through you undigested and cause gas and abdominal pain.

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Best: Berries and Seeds

Berries are good for your health since they exist as natural sources of fiber, and the same goes for nuts and seeds.

However, when it comes to both of these foods, it's best to consume them in moderation. Otherwise, they can turn into one of the worst foods for digestion—especially berries with fructose, which can be hard to digest for some individuals.

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Best: Yogurt

You have trillions of bacteria in your gut that help you digest food, and yogurt contains some types of these healthy bacteria. (Not all yogurts have them, though—check for "live and active cultures" on the label.)

"Yogurt has bacteria, which replenishes the normal flora within the gastrointestinal tract so it's healthy," said Dr. McCashland.

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Best: Kimchi

Kimchi is a Korean favorite usually made with cabbage, radish, or onion, along with lots of spices. The main ingredient is usually cabbage, which promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the colon.

Cabbage is a type of fiber that's not digested, so it helps eliminate waste, keeping bowel movements regular, said Anderson. Sauerkraut is good for the same reasons.

This dish can be spicy, however, so it might not be a good option if you've found that spicy foods trigger digestive problems for you.

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Best: Lean Meat and Fish

If you're going to eat meat, go for chicken, fish, and other lean meats—they'll go down a lot easier than a juicy steak.

"Red meats tend to be fattier," said Anderson. "Your body can handle lean meats and fish and chicken a whole lot better than prime rib."

Further, lean meats and fish have not been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, unlike high-fat red meats.

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Best: Whole Grains

Whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, oats, and brown rice, are a good source of fiber, which helps digestion.

"If there's one thing America lacks, it's fiber," said Anderson. "We need 20 to 30 grams a day and we maybe get 12."

Fiber also can help you feel full and lower cholesterol, but it can cause bloating, gas, and other problems in people who quickly ramp up their intake—it's better to take it slow when consuming more. Those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance should also avoid wheat grains.

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Best: Bananas

Bananas help restore normal bowel function, especially if you have diarrhea (say, from too much alcohol).

They help restore electrolytes and potassium that may be lost due to runny stool. This fruit also has lots of fiber to aid digestion. "A banana a day is what I always say," said Anderson.

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Best: Ginger

This spice has been used for thousands of years as a safe way to relieve nausea, vomiting, motion sickness, morning sickness, gas, loss of appetite, and colic.

It's best to consume it in moderation. High doses of ginger can backfire—more than 2 to 4 grams per day can cause heartburn.

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