Sorbitol and artificial sweeteners
When you see the words "sugar-free" you probably think that the product must be good for you—or at least better than the version that's chock-full of sugar. That's not always the case. Things like sugar-free gum, candy, and other foods contain an ingredient called sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that the human body digests and metabolizes very, very slowly, according to Donald Tsynman, MD, at Manhattan Gastroenterology. This slow digestion process can lead to gas, bloating, and diarrhea, not unlike artificial sweeteners in general. (Sorbitol is definitely a no-no when you have a cold or flu!) Christina Tennyson, MD, associate physician at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tries to limit her consumption of artificial sweeteners, which are slightly different from sorbitol, saying, "I'd rather have a teaspoon of sugar, which, you know, I don't think is terrible."
It isn't groundbreaking news that soda is bad for you. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that gastroenterologists avoid drinking soda. In fact, Dr. Tsynman says he tells patients, especially those who are overweight, that if they were to change one thing right away, it should be to switch to water. Soda is filled with large amounts of sugar, and the more you ingest, the more you put your body at risk for obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, and other complications such as heart disease. And diet soda, although it technically doesn't have real sugar, isn't much better, as it contains artificial sweeteners, which, again, can negatively affect digestion. The carbonation in sodas can also cause problems, potentially leading to GI distress with belching and reflux, according to Dr. Tsynman. (Related: Eating these foods could make you bloated.)
Dr. Tsynman recommends avoiding "anything that comes in boxes, cans, or bags," which is code for processed foods (not food that is simply sold in packaging for convenience, like iceberg lettuce or shredded carrots.) The processed foods to avoid chiefly are frozen and pre-made meals. They're generally stripped of their nutrients and fiber, potentially causing constipation, and are filled with additives, especially salt, which can be harmful to those with high blood pressure or kidney disease. Processed cereals and protein bars frequently contain chicory root or inulin, which are commonly difficult to digest and can make you feel very bloated and gassy. (Related: These are signs you're eating too many preservatives.)
We know that a high-salt diet can contribute to high blood pressure. Several studies have also found links between salt and obesity, heart disease, and stroke. "I don't personally add salt to anything, except for two things, potatoes and corn on the cob," says Beth Schorr-Lesnick, MD, assistant professor of medicine at New York Medical College. "That's not a GI thing. It's a blood pressure thing." Check out the signs you're eating too much salt.
"If you want an apple, eat an apple, because you get the fiber of the meat or the pulp," says Dr. Tsynman. Fruit juices, such as apple juice, however, are filled with sugar and devoid of fiber. In fact, they're not much better than soda. These juices are the result of fruit being pasteurized, pulverized, and filtered into liquid form, so they lack many essential nutrients and vitamins, not to mention fiber. Another perk of eating real whole fruit—it's more filling because of the intake of fiber, according to Dr. Tennyson. If you're looking to lower your sugar, check out the best and worst drinks for diabetics.
Specialty coffee drinks
Coffee can lead to acid reflux, but if it's a non-negotiable part of your morning routine, it's important to stick with the basics and avoid what Dr. Tsynman calls "crazy designer coffee drinks." Like soda and fruit juices, these drinks are packed with excess sugar (after all, whipped cream isn't just fluffy milk) and have very little—if any—nutrients. Coffee can also lead to increased symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is why Dr. Schorr-Lesnick recommends patients with this disorder cut coffee as well as chocolate and peppermint tea out their diets. Think you might have GERD? Check out these silent symptoms of GERD.
You may relish a giant T-bone, but according to Dr. Tennyson, "there is a connection between red meat and increased risk of colon cancer," so she tries to limit her intake of burgers and steaks as much as possible. Dr. Schorr-Lesnick says she "rarely" has red meat because the risks of eating red meat—"cholesterol and colon cancer and heart disease and all those things"—outweigh the benefits. A healthy, well balanced diet, however, can be different for each person. For example, Dr. Tsynman eats red meat in moderation as part of a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
French fries and fried chicken may be seriously delicious, but fried foods can be difficult for your body to digest, leading to gastrointestinal distress and increased symptoms of acid reflux. (And unless you're craving a heart attack, steer clear of these horrifying fried foods at state fairs.)