5 Foods That Help Improve Digestion

By Reshaunda Thornton, RD

How does improving digestion affect your health and mood? There’s often a strong connection between our mood and how our gut feels. When cramping, bloating, and stomach queasiness appear, we can often feel like it’s the worst day ever.

It’s also interesting to note how much our stomach plays a critical role in the direction of our health. Think about it: when our stomach is at its best, we feel our best. We can go work out without feeling slowed down, we can run our never-ending errands, and we can rest better.

The best feeling arises the moment our gut, mood, and health are all in sync.

Facing Digestive Issues

One of the most annoying concerns is facing digestive issues. Whether it’s dealing with an aching stomach or not being “regular” on a daily basis, everyone can experience digestive issues differently. Indeed, there are several forms of digestion complications, with varying reasons behind them.

Our digestion, good or not so good, is dependent upon our gut health. The spectrum of digestive complications can range from constipation, bloating, diarrhea, to gas. When any one of these culprits arises, we know something about our health is out of sync.

While many digestive issues can be caused by non-food-related triggers — stress, hereditary factors, bacterial infections, and environmental causes — these triggers can usually be managed.

When Food Is the Culprit

Some of the most common digestive issues are celiac disease, lactose intolerance, diverticulosis, colitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).1 These all have one thing in common: food has a lot to do with what triggers flare-ups or cause uncomfortable moments when going to the restroom.

Certain foods can also impede your body’s digestive abilities. Some common triggers to many digestive complications are processed foods that are high in fat, sodium, and sugar. Spicy and fried foods also contribute to the uncomfortable feelings.

Other considerations are food intolerances and allergies. Food intolerance is a digestive response. Meaning your gut doesn’t produce certain enzymes, therefore the breakdown of certain nutrients will be minimized. This causes symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, cramping, and gas.

Flare-ups resulting in constipation or diarrhea can also indicate a lack of food absorption, and infected pockets within the intestines due to embedded, undigested food that gets caught in the intestinal lining.

If your body is allergic to certain foods, you will more likely experience a higher variety of symptoms because a food allergy is an immune response.2 Common digestive responses to allergies are inflammation, cramping, diarrhea, and nausea.

However, there is hope! Many foods are key players in improving digestion. Below are five foods that can help improve digestion, and creative ways to add them to your plate.

1. Roughage Is Your Friend

Basically, fiber is often referred to as “roughage” because fiber tears the outer membrane of the gut, causing cells to release mucus. This mucus helps move food along the digestive tract, thus increasing digestion. According to the dietary guidelines for 2015-2020, the recommended intake for females is 25 grams a day.3

Are you wondering how to get these full benefits? What foods are high in fiber and would help in digestion? Increasing your vegetable intake will increase fiber that contributes to the breakdown of foods and increase of movement through your digestive tract. Kale, spinach, broccoli, carrots are all insoluble fiber sources that prevent the slowdown of digestion.

How can you add more roughage in your life without systematically having to resort to salads? Taking advantage of the multiple forms of spiralized veggies can be a fun way to increase your veggie intake. Zucchini, butternut squash, carrots, and even beets can easily be spiralized (you can do this at home, or purchase pre-spiralized vegetables). They take the shape of pasta and are a great substitute.

2. Fabulous Fibrous Fruits

Fiber also comes in the form of fruit. For example, the skin of apples is essentially solely fiber. All fruits — including bananas, prunes, and berries — have a high amount of fiber that will get your gut moving.

For your power breakfast, add apple slices or fresh berries to your oatmeal. This breakfast combo is already providing a third of your daily fiber needs.

Another easy practice to increase your daily fruit consumption is to try to simply swap fresh fruit every time you think about going for those bags of chips or piece of cake. Not only will this help your digestion by providing a fiber boost, but it will also give you an energy boost too!

3. Oils That Move Digestion

Oils such as coconut or flaxseed oil are known for their ability to increase the flow of digestion.4 These are the lubricants that will help breakdown, provide viscosity to our foods, and the capacity to travel more smoothly through the digestive system.

Try including one tablespoon of flaxseed or coconut oil in your protein shake in the morning. This will also give your shake a more creamy effect which can be pleasant on the taste buds. Flaxseed oil can be easily switched for other types of oil in salad dressing.

4. Water, the Solvent

Water breaks down food substances in our gut to increase transport.5 Look at it this way: water washes foods through the stomach, all the way to the intestine. By this time, food is more liquefied and much easier to digest.

When we are dehydrated, our digestive system tends to move at snail’s pace. This is a problem almost everyone can relate to: we all struggle, at times, to drink water consistently.

To reap the benefits of a well-hydrated body in terms of digestion, make it a point to drink water at every meal — this includes snacks! Keep your water bottle near you at all times. In addition, make it a goal to replace juices and soda with old-fashioned water.

It may also be a good idea to add natural flavors to your water to keep it interesting. Fresh lemon or cucumber slices will upgrade your water. You are sure to feel better about the digestive response from increasing your water intake

5. Probiotics Protect Our Gut

Probiotics are the good bacteria that help balance good and bad bacteria to keep your digestive system working.6 According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, probiotic therapy has proven to help many gastrointestinal problems.7 You may be familiar with probiotics in the form of yogurt, kefir, fermented foods, or in supplement form.

The best way to maintain a probiotic-friendly diet is by adding yogurt to your snack options, adding a side of pickles to your sandwich, or trying out the varieties of kombucha teas at your local tea shop or grocery store.

In Conclusion

When dealing with digestion and the variety of digestive complications that you may be experiencing, it is important to understand what may be triggering the condition.

First and foremost, you want to get a proper diagnosis by a medical professional so you are better prepared to manage and prevent further digestive issues. Secondly, it can be a good idea to meet with a registered dietitian to learn what foods you should avoid, and which ones can be your front-line defenders when it comes to improving your digestion.

Once you have a game plan, you will not only be better off in the long run, but likely be in a better mood on a daily basis.

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About the author:  Reshaunda Thornton, RD

Reshaunda Thornton is a registered dietitian, owner of Bettervessel Nutrition, who specializes in individual consultation, sports nutrition, and motivational speaking to groups around St. Louis, MO. Reshaunda is also the nutrition expert featured on Fox2 News in St. Louis, with over 75 nutrition segments. When she is not seeing clients, she is empowering and educating people on how to create harmony with their everyday challenges while maintaining a consistent healthy lifestyle. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Mahan, L., & Raymond, J. (2017), Krause's Food & The Nutrition Care Process (14th ed.). St Louis, MO: Elsevier.
  2. Ho, M.HK., Wong, W.HS. & Chang, C. Clinical Review Allergy Immunology (2014) 46: 225. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12016-012-8339-6
  3. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 for fiber intake. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
  4. National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/flaxseed/ataglance.htm
  5. Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(8):439-58. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/
  6. National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Probiotics: In Depth. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm
  7. Benefits of probiotics: Should you take a daily dose of bacteria? Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/benefit_of_probiotics_should_you_take_a_daily_dose_of_bacteria

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