The holidays…. It’s such an exciting time to be surrounded by family and friends, enjoying the most delicious meals, maybe indulging in alcohol, and finishing off the night with a delectable dessert. The problem is that it’s far too common to feel horrible afterward. On top of feeling ill, a lot of common holiday foods are extremely disruptive to the microbiome.
Detoxes, cleanses, fasting, and excessive exercise are not the solution! Let’s discuss 5 tips Nutrition Therapist Masters recommend to support your bowel flora – whether that’s during the holidays, or anytime throughout the year.
5 tips to support your microbiome
1. Avoid added sugars
Sugar is known to feed the “bad” bacteria in the gut. Studies suggest that sugar can negatively change the microbial composition of the gut and promote inflammatory microbiota. It is important to avoid added refined sugars, such as cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, rice syrup and others (there are dozens of names for sugar!).
Natural sources of sugar, such as fruit, vegetables or dairy, can be consumed in moderation in the context of a healthy diet. Although fruit is sometimes demonized, the nutrients and fiber in fruit can actually improve gut health. Additionally, honey has high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and can be used in moderation as a replacement for refined sugars.
Foods to watch out for that contain added sugars include desserts, cookies, sauces, breads, canned products, fruit juice, cereals, cocktails. If you’re looking for a healthy holiday dessert, try preparing Dairy-free Turmeric Pumpkin Pie Panna Cotta or Peanut Butter Cookie Bars.
2. Avoid synthetic noncaloric sweeteners
Synthetic non-caloric sugars include sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and others. Research has shown that artificial sweeteners are toxic to certain strains of bacteria found in the digestive system. Additionally, studies performed on mice showed that sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, sucralose could induce glucose intolerance by altering the composition of gut microbiota.
Although it may be tempting to opt for non-caloric sugar sweeteners, it is recommended to avoid anything that says “sugar-free”, such as diet sodas, ice cream, chewing gum, keto products, zero-calorie sweeteners, etc.
3. Avoid processed foods with emulsifying agents
Emulsifying agents like carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 are FDA-approved food additives. They are added to processed foods to keep ingredients mixed and prevent separation. However, these additives come with numerous health risks.
Polysorbate 80 has been shown to decrease beneficial bacteria in the gut, increase gut inflammation, increase risk of weight gain in both humans and mice, and worsen insulin resistance. Carboxymethylcellulose causes similar effects as polysorbate 80, but the inflammatory effects are shown to occur much more rapidly. Note that carboxymethylcellulose can be listed on ingredient labels as cellulose gum or CMC.
Although only polysorbate 80 and CMC have been studied, it is recommended to be cautious with other emulsifying agents such as carrageenan, dextran sulfate and propylene glycol.
Common sources of polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose include ice cream, dairy products, salad dressings, and sauces. Make sure to check ingredient labels to avoid purchasing foods with these emulsifying agents.
4. Choose organic
Whenever permitted by budget and availability, Nutrition Therapist Masters recommend consuming organically grown foods. Organic foods are less likely to contain herbicides and pesticides. These chemicals can be toxic to humans through various mechanisms, including endocrine disruption. A 2021 animal study found that low levels of the weed-killing chemical glyphosate – the active ingredient in the commonly used Roundup – can alter the composition of the gut microbiome and lead to adverse health outcomes.
It is particularly important to choose organic when consuming the skin of the fruit or vegetable, such as berries, apples, salad greens, tomatoes, celery, bell pepper, and so on. If not consuming the skin – for example, avocados, bananas, onions, pineapple, mango, and winter squashes – it is not as important to choose organic.
As you prepare your holiday feast, try shopping for as many organic ingredients as possible!
You can incorporate a fall-inspired salad made with organic produce, like a Harvest Kale Salad or Warm Spiced Butternut Squash Salad with Apples and Raw Pumpkin Seeds.
5. Consume filtered drinking water & hydrate
Although it looks clean, the water that comes out of our taps can be quite dangerous. It contains toxins like microbes, pesticides, plastics, prescription medications, heavy metals, chlorine, fluoride and others. Exposure to these substances every day can burden the body and lead to long-term health complications. Many of these toxins have been shown to cause cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular issues, reproductive problems and more.
The EPA hasn’t made changes to the federal Safe Water Drinking Act since 1996 despite evolving science showing the dangers of contaminants in our drinking water at levels much lower than what is currently considered “safe.” It is recommended to purchase a water filter that will filter contaminants such as inorganic chemicals, heavy metals, dissolved substances and PFAS to ensure your drinking water is safe!
Additionally, it’s important to stay hydrated during the holidays, especially if consuming alcohol. Our guts are protected by a gut barrier that lets nutrients pass into the bloodstream while keeping toxins and undigested food particles inside the gut. The gut barrier is equipped with an array of physiological defense mechanisms such as mucus, digestive enzymes and stomach acid to protect the body. Hydration is crucial for maintaining a healthy mucus layer – dehydration can make the mucus layer firm and less viscous.
With the holidays tempting us with sugar-laden sweets, alcoholic beverages and other processed foods, it’s important to focus on the foundations, such as hydration. We consume water every day – make sure to consume sufficient quantities of filtered water to support your health.
Main takeaway for supporting your gut health over the holidays
If the list above seems overwhelming, just remember to stick to whole foods as much as possible during the holiday season. Enjoy pastured meats, organic poultry, seasonal vegetables, organic fruits, nuts and seeds, eggs and legumes. Avoid anything that comes from a package containing a long list of ingredients such as emulsifiers, sugars, sweeteners and other chemicals. Your taste buds and your gut will be happy!
Are you ready to help clients support their gut health? If so, the Nutrition Therapist Master program is for you! Learn how to guide others in eating the healthiest foods for gut health.
Daina Rasutis is a graduate of NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. Her background in Environmental Engineering has allowed her to combine the best of science with a love for nutrition, sustainability & delicious food. Follow Daina’s nutrition practice, cooking creations and lifestyle tips on her website: www.tabletocrave.com