We all have our indulgences: A big bowl of chocolate ice cream after a long, stressful day. That can of Coke with a few slices of pizza on a Friday night. A burger and fries at that new restaurant everyone’s been raving about.
The saying “everything in moderation” exists for a reason. Most doctors and nutritionists know that completely depriving yourself of foods you love will backfire, causing you to eat way more of them than you should. But there are certain foods that gastroenterologists — doctors who specialize in keeping your gut and digestive tract healthy — avoid 99% (and sometimes 100%) of the time.
None of these foods will take years off your life if you eat them now and then, but there are certain foods GI docs rarely eat. Here are six of them.
Protein bars are healthy, right? While some — like the ones made with real fruit and nuts — are better than others, Dr. Harmony Allison, a gastroenterologist at Tufts Medical Center, says she never eats the highly processed ones. In particular, super-processed protein bars can lead to bloating and gas. “I never eat ‘protein’ bars. They tend to be highly processed and contain lots of additives that are of unknown utility,” she said. “You can get the same amount of protein in a cup of milk, a serving of peanut butter, nuts or pumpkin seeds.”
Sorry, red meat lovers: GI docs are not fans. “I avoid red meat, especially steaks and burgers,” said Dr. Reezwana Chowdhury, a gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins. “Red meat and processed meat increase the risk of colon cancer and colon polyps. They are high in saturated fats, but if you are going to consume them, the amount consumed is important: The risk of colon cancer is higher in those who consume greater than 100 grams per day (that’s just under a quarter of a pound).”
Hot dogs and other processed meats
There are few people who have an easy time turning down a few pieces of fragrant bacon or a hot dog, but Dr. Rabia De Latour, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, steers clear of processed meats like these — and sadly, cold cuts count, too. “Red and processed meats have a higher risk of colorectal cancer,” she said. “Data has linked the ingestion of red and processed meats four or more times per week to as high as a 20% increased risk of colon cancer.”
Deep-fried fish or chicken
That Filet-O-Fish and carton of chicken nuggets are delicious and all, but they’re not doing your gut health any favors.
“Studies have shown that frying oil could adversely modulate the gut microbiome, leading to exacerbation of atherosclerosis (buildup of fat and other substances on the artery walls),” explained Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum, a microbiome researcher and co-founder of BIOHM. Long term, this buildup can lead to consequences like heart attack and stroke.
If you’re a regular consumer of soda or any other type of sugar drink, it may be time to ditch that habit. “While they can be easy on the way down, these drinks are linked to chronic conditions as well, such as diabetes and heart disease,” said Dr. Simon C. Matthews, a gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins and advisory board member to Vivante Health. “In addition, they are often associated with triggering gastrointestinal symptoms of bloating, burping and reflux, particularly when combined in their carbonated and caffeinated forms.”
According to Dr. Shilpa Grover, the director of the onco-gastroenterology program in the division of gastroenterology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, refined grains aren’t great for your gut.
“Studies that have evaluated dietary patterns have clearly shown that a high intake of red and processed meat and refined grains is associated with an increased risk of [inflammatory pouches in the digestive tract] called diverticulitis,” she said. “Contrary to what was thought earlier, nuts, corn, and popcorn are not associated with an increase in the risk of developing diverticulosis, or complications like diverticulitis or bleeding.”
But your gut health isn’t all you have to watch out for when it comes to eating a diet high in red meat and refined grains. “Those same diets recommended to decrease the risk of health conditions such as diabetes, coronary artery disease and cancer, including colorectal cancer, are also likely to decrease the risk of diverticulitis,” she said.
If you’re mourning a loss of identity as you contemplate spending your summer months without a single hot dog, worry not: A hot dog here and there won’t destroy your gut health. Just go easy on them — and maybe add sauerkraut for some gut-boosting benefits.