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The best diet for leaky gut is full of nutrient-dense whole foods, with a diverse range of fruits and vegetables.
Arguably, this is the best diet for all human beings, leaky gut or not.
Evidence tells us that one of the causes of leaky gut is modern, processed food, especially sugar, refined carbohydrates and industrial fats.1 So it makes sense that the best diet for leaky gut would exclude these.
Eating a healthy diet should be simple, but in reality, knowing what’s good for you and what isn’t is a minefield. Official advice from health authorities seems to change every week, food trends come and go and what you ate as a teenager may no longer serve you well today.
Read on to find out about leaky gut, and what you should be eating for great gut health. You can also find out more on our conditions page.
Your gut has a barrier that plays a critical role in keeping you healthy. It allows for the absorption of nutrients from your food, and stops larger food particles, bacteria, fungi, and parasites from entering the rest of your body.
Essentially, it’s the wall between the outside world and you. When this wall doesn’t do its job properly, you’re more likely to develop health conditions like allergies and autoimmune disorders.2
You have over 100 trillion microbes living in your gut. Together, they make up your microbiome.
There’s a massive link between dysbiosis (an imbalanced microbiome) and leaky gut,3 but we don’t know for sure which causes which. It’s likely that they both cause each other, in a kind of vicious cycle.
That means that looking after your microbiome will help leaky gut, and looking after your gut lining will help your microbiome to thrive.
The good news is that a mostly plant-based, unprocessed diet does both.
A lot of different things can interfere with the function of your gut barrier:4
Leaky gut doesn’t happen alone. It’s always part of a picture of poor gut health, and is often accompanied by conditions like IBS, autoimmune disease or allergies. Solving your health puzzle is never a quick fix, but testing can help you find a good place to start.
For example, a Gut Health Test could reveal you have dysbiosis, a yeast overgrowth or an H. pylori infection. Tackling these issues will also address leaky gut.
The fastest way to start healing leaky gut is to clean up your diet.
However, nothing is a quick fix. It takes more than a couple of weeks of cutting out pizza to get good gut health.
Because everyone is different, everyone’s ideal diet is different too. For example, some people like to include lots of whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice and oats in their diet. Whole grains feed their good gut bacteria, regulate their bowel movements and maintain their energy levels throughout the day.
For other people, grains can exacerbate their gut dysbiosis (thus fuelling leaky gut), resulting in bloating, diarrhoea or constipation.
Still, there are some diets which have been found (in general) to be helpful for leaky gut:
As a general rule, eat real food. That means food that our ancestors all around the world a thousand years ago would recognise as food.
Today, in most countries in the West, we have the luxury of whole foods from every corner of the earth. If your ancestors were from Europe, they probably wouldn’t recognise a pineapple, but it’s a nutrient dense, fibre-filled whole food that people in the tropics have been eating for thousands of years.
If you focus on missing out on the most common foods in our modern environment, like bread, chips and treats, you’ll feel deprived. Instead, explore the endless real-food options you have in your local supermarket.
Eat real food! If it walks on the earth, flies in the sky or grows in the ground, it’s real food.
It’s easy to get lots of fibre on a whole foods diet. That’s because it occurs naturally in whole plant foods: fruits and vegetables.
Fibre is great at preventing and/or healing leaky gut because it feeds the good gut bacteria in your large intestine. When those bacteria eat, they produce a host of different chemicals that fulfil important functions in your body. Some of those chemicals, like butyrate for instance, play a key role in tightening the junctions in your gut lining.
We’ve known for years that fibre is crucial for the health of your gut and beyond. Recent research has revealed that preventing or healing leaky gut is a key part of its power.10
The highest fibre foods are:
Not to be confused with probiotics, prebiotics are food for gut bacteria. You can buy prebiotic supplements, but they’re readily available in everyday foods.
Some examples are:
Grains can either be whole or refined, which people usually call ‘white’. Whole grains include the outer husk, and are a good source of fibre, as well as vitamins and minerals like magnesium, iron, and b vitamins.
Most of the grains in a typical modern Western diet are refined, which means removing the outer husk and along with it the fibre and most of the nutrients.
Whole grains are a trusted source of fibre, which has earned them the respect of many health experts, and many people enjoy them and the health benefits they bring. They contain a lot of starch though, which can worsen intestinal symptoms, like IBS, if you have an imbalanced microbiome. They’re also high in lectins, which can irritate your gut.
If you like eating whole grains, we recommend you soak or sprout them, which minimises levels of lectins and other potentially problematic chemicals, like phytates, which can block the absorption of nutrients like zinc and phosphorus.11
We know from the latest research that certain foods can worsen leaky gut.
If you’ve switched from regular fizzy drinks to diet versions, you might think you’re being healthy.
Unfortunately, many of the artificial sweeteners in diet drinks have been shown to impact gut microbes, causing knock-on effects like blood sugar swings, resistance to insulin and cardiovascular disease.12
As we explained above, the microbes that make up your gut microbiome directly influence your gut lining, and play a big role in leaky gut. So, anything that negatively affects your microbiome is likely to exacerbate leaky gut too.
Sweeteners are ‘foods’ made in a laboratory, and best avoided. However they’re unlikely to do you much harm if you have them occasionally.13
Animal products get a bad rap these days. However most studies showing the negative effects of meat use processed or factory farmed meat. These products have a different nutrient profile to pasture-raised, organic meats.
Even fresh, unprocessed factory-farmed meats have starkly different levels of nutrients to animals who are allowed to graze on their natural foods. Organic, free-range meat has far lower levels of inflammatory omega-6 oils and far higher levels of the healthy, anti-inflammatory omega 3s.
Several studies suggest that animals fed grass-based diets raise our levels of vitamin a and e, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase, compared to grain-fed ones.14
The evidence is now overwhelming that processed meats are bad for your health, in many different ways. Processed meats can cause cancer and reduce diversity in your microbiome, at least partly through some of the compounds they contain, such as nitrates and heterocyclic amines. Many of your gut bugs don’t like them, so they die off and leave a space for dysbiosis to set up shop.15
When it comes to fats, keep them as natural as possible. If you could extract it yourself—for instance from an olive, nut or seed—you’re good to go. Obviously you may need a bit of mechanical help, like a press, but the key here is to avoid highly processed, industrial fats.
Be careful of the oils extracted from the following:
These industrial seed oils may contribute to conditions such as IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In one study, mice fed a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids from corn oil had an increase in inflammatory gut bacteria, leading to leaky gut.16
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen worsen leaky gut.17
One study found that aspirin had a direct effect on the permeability (leakiness) of the guts of people with Crohn’s disease: the more aspirin they took, the leakier their guts became.18
If you need some inspiration to get going on your path to a great gut, try this diet protocol for a week. Research tells us that you can start to heal leaky gut in as little as three days! To know more about how food can help to heal leaky gut, check out our blog The best foods for leaky gut.
Breakfast: porridge made with almond milk, banana, berries and cinnamon
Lunch: spinach salad with avocado, tahini dressing and salmon
Dinner: home-made vegetable curry with brown rice
Breakfast: omelette with peppers, tomatoes and onions. Green smoothie
Lunch: sushi with miso soup
Dinner: chickpea chilli with quinoa and guacamole
Breakfast: smoothie made with coconut milk, frozen berries, protein powder and nut butter
Lunch: jacket sweet potato with salsa and sweetcorn
Dinner: roast chicken and roasted vegetable tray bake
Breakfast: banana pancakes made with banana, eggs and oat flour
Lunch: salad with leftover chicken, roasted vegetables and olive oil dressing
Dinner: bolognese made with organic beef mince and courgette ‘spaghetti’
Breakfast: fruit salad of kiwi, raspberries, melon with coconut yogurt, sprinkled with flaxseeds
Lunch: home-made broccoli soup made with bone broth, onions and garlic
Dinner: baked trout with chips cooked in olive oil, peas and green beans
Breakfast: scrambled tofu with roasted squash and mushrooms
Lunch: Israeli salad with chopped cucumber, tomatoes, olives and hummus, and a tuna steak
Dinner: slow-cooked beef stew with sweet potatoes and greens
Breakfast: huevos rancheros (grilled eggs in tomatoes) with avocado
Lunch: lettuce wraps with chicken, asparagus and home-made coleslaw
Dinner: nut roast with roast potatoes, vegetables and onion gravy
Alexandra Falconer MA (Dist) DipCNM mBANT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist specialising in IBS and related conditions. A graduate of Brighton’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, she is committed to fighting the root causes of chronic illness and bringing functional medicine to everyone who needs it.
Before her natural health career, Alex was a journalist and copywriter. She continues to write for magazines and media agencies, and now combines her two great passions—writing and health—by creating content that empowers people to claim their right to a healthy body and mind.
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