What Should You Eat to Feel Your Best?
What you eat undeniably changes how you feel.
Switching up your diet may reduce uncomfortable GI symptoms like bloating, acid reflux, occasional diarrhea/constipation and excessive gas. If you’re managing an autoimmune disorder, inflammatory bowel disease or hormonal fluctuations due to aging or your menstrual cycle, food choices may worsen or help relieve your symptoms.
So, what should you eat to feel good?
There’s no simple answer because no single food or diet works for everyone.
“Diet is such a personalized thing,” says Morgan Sendzischew Shane, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the University of Miami Health System and director of UHealth’s Comprehensive Women’s Health Alliance. “Every single body is different. The GI tract moves differently. Everyone’s microbiome is a bit different.”
The simplest advice?
“Eating a well-balanced diet that is primarily plant-forward, with as little processing as possible, is a good overall life recommendation. We know that packaged foods with lots of emulsifiers and preservatives can cause a lot of GI symptoms,” Dr. Shane says.
Beyond that, it takes time and effort to determine how certain foods affect you.
How can you tell which foods don’t agree with you?
“Common digestive issues like bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea are often triggered by food,” Dr. Shane says.
So, what did you eat that didn’t sit well with you?
“People are terrible at remembering what they ate unless it’s written down, so I always ask my patients to keep a detailed two-week food diary,” she says. “A medical professional like your doctor or a registered dietician can take a critical look at your current diet. Those with training can notice patterns of some common repeat offenders that cause symptoms.”
Many people are lactose intolerant.
That’s an easy one to look out for. Lactose is sugar that’s naturally part of milk, cheese, butter, cream cheese and sour cream, and it’s in many baked goods and restaurant dishes. If your doctor suspects that lactose is contributing to your digestive issues, they may recommend you try a short but strict trial of a lactose-free diet to confirm or reject this possibility.
Do you think that gluten is a problem for you?
“It’s pretty trendy to be gluten-free, but the number of people in the world with celiac disease is extremely low,” says Dr. Shane. Those with celiac disease cannot tolerate any amount of gluten (a protein naturally found in many grains), and consuming it can lead to inflammation in the small intestine. When reviewing your food diary with your provider, discuss whether they recommend eliminating gluten from your diet for a while.
“Overall, I don’t recommend taking things out of your diet without assistance,” Dr. Shane says.
“Especially for women, I don’t recommend removing groups of foods from your diet without professional guidance due to the real risk of becoming overly restrictive with foods, which can lead to added stress and food-avoidant behaviors,” she says.
“That being said, you won’t know if something is bothering you without stopping the exposure for a while and seeing how you feel.”
These dietary trials are called “elimination diets,” as you thoughtfully and temporarily eliminate a single allergen, irritant or inflammatory food ingredient or type to see if your symptoms improve. Cutting out a few possible offenders at the same time won’t help you and your doctor identify which one is problematic for you.
Work with a registered dietitian to ensure you maintain a balanced, diverse and nutrient-rich diet — especially when taking certain foods off the table.
Nutritional supplements aren’t recommended to replace essential vitamins and minerals when you don’t have a nutritional or caloric deficiency.
“Instead of probiotic supplements,” for example, “we recommend foods that are naturally rich with probiotics,” Dr. Shane says. “This includes anything that is naturally fermented. Your body knows what to do with it. It allows these good bacteria to set up shop in your microbiome and get to work in the right place.”
Whether restricting or expanding your food choices, it’s always best to fill your plate and fuel your body with real, whole foods. The daily goal is to consume enough calories, protein, (non-trans, unsaturated) fat, fiber, and complex carbohydrates to give you energy, keep you satisfied, and promote bowel movement regularity without unhealthy weight gain. A dietitian can introduce you to foods, ingredients, cooking preparations you haven’t tried yet, and creative recipes your whole family will enjoy.
Sometimes food isn’t the problem.
A gastroenterologist can help determine if your frequent/recurring GI symptoms are signs of an underlying GI problem like acid reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, a bacterial infection (like H. pylori) or another condition. Once you have a diagnosis, changing your diet with guidance may help relieve certain symptoms, but medical treatment is necessary to manage these conditions and avoid serious complications.
In addition, “the cyclical nature of women’s hormones certainly play a role in normal GI motility and digestion,” says Dr. Shane.
“For example, it’s normal to become more constipated around and after ovulation (the middle of the cycle), and it’s also normal to feel more bloating and have looser stools during menstruation. Some women are more sensitive to these changes.”
Menopause can also change how your body responds to certain foods, alcohol and caffeine.
Learn about the 10 most common GI complaints in women.
The future of health care is personalized medicine.
Every woman’s health needs are unique and change throughout your life. Figuring out what works and doesn’t work for you takes time and a health care provider who considers all of your symptoms, diet, level of physical activity, genetics, sleep quality, stress level, and lifestyle.
The Comprehensive Women’s Health Alliance at the University of Miami Health System provides expert-led care for women of all ages, including gastroenterological care. Women’s Nurse Coordinators can guide you through your health journey.
To schedule an appointment with a nurse navigator, call 855-34-WOMEN (96626).
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UHealth’s news service.