Love your stomach: 7 gut-healthy foods

We’ve rounded up the best foods for gut health this Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day – the perfect occasion to share and express your love for special people in your lifeBut it doesn’t just have to be about caring for others. Whether you’re celebrating with someone or on your own, it’s a fantastic opportunity for self-care and showing yourself some love, more specifically your gut.

One easy way we can do that is through our diet. The foods we eat affect our gut health and this in turn affects our overall health; for example, because a healthy gut helps to regulate your immune system.

Woman creating a heart shape with her hands in front of her stomach, with healthy food and drink on a surface in front of her.Credit: Shutterstock/Monstar Studio

Nutritionist, food writer and supporter of the Love Your Gut initiative, Fiona Hunter, says: “We are what we eat.” Imagine you’re a high-performance car, she says – if you put rubbish fuel into it, you’re not going to get good performance. 

This is why a healthy balanced diet is so important. Hunter explains that it helps us to live longer but also to stay healthier for longer. While it’s important to make positive choices as early as you can in life, she says: “It’s never too late to make changes to your diet. 

“Your digestive system can become a little more sluggish [as you get older],” adds Hunter. “We only have one body, so we’ve got to look after it.”

What counts as the gut? 

Hunter says: “What we call gut health starts in your mouth and ends in your anus.” She adds the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine, which sit between these points, are all part of the digestive system. 

Although specific foods are helpful to ensure a good balance of bacteria in your gut, Hunter emphasises that variety is key. Experts recommend that you eat 30 different plant foods per week. So, we’ve rounded up the best foods for gut health to help you show your body some love on Valentine’s Day and every day after. 

Caring for your gut on Valentine’s Day

How can you help your gut on Valentine’s Day?

First, Hunter has some advice specifically for what you might want to eat on St Valentine’s. She says it’s best to avoid rich and heavy foods, which are often included in meals promoted for this occasion, as these are not a good recipe for romance. Evidence shows creamy, fatty foods aren’t the best choice for your gut health or your heart health, either. 

“If you’re not used to cooking and decide that you’re going to cook an elaborate meal containing things that you’ve never cooked before,” she adds, “that’s going to cause you to be stressed. [Stress] can affect your digestive system as well.”  

Her overall message is: “Keep it simple and keep the portion size small.” 

Fiona Hunter has a BSc (Hons) Nutrition and a postgraduate diploma in Dietetics. 

She started her career as a dietitian in the NHS; she then joined Good Housekeeping Magazine. Currently, Hunter works as a consultant for food manufacturers, retailers and public relations agencies. Her work has been featured in national newspapers and magazines as well as on TV and radio.  

1. Fermented foods

Fuel yourself with fermented foods

Jars of fermented vegetables, on a kitchen counter, which contain gut-healthy probiotics.Credit: Shutterstock/Megan Betteridge
Certain fermented foods help to restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut and aid digestion.

Fermented foods are sources of food that have had micro-organisms, like bacteria or yeast, added to them. The fermentation process is an ancient technique that was used to preserve foods, before the introduction of refrigeration. These days, fermented foods are recommended because of the health benefits they can provide. 

Some fermented foods, such as kombucha and kefir, contain probiotics (beneficial bacteria) which have been proven to restore the balance of bacteria in the gut. This, in turn, can aid digestion. 

Other fermented foods that contain probiotics include kimchi, yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut. While sourdough bread and tempeh are also classed as fermented foods, they are cooked before eating. This process can mean friendly bacteria is lost, which may mean these foods are no longer a source of probiotics. So it’s best to stick with fresh, raw varieties to reap the full benefits.  

2. Oats

‘Oh-ts’ so good

Person holding a bowl of porridge oats which are a gut healthy food due to the fibre they contain.Credit: Shutterstock/Stephanie Frey
Oats are a great source of soluble fibre which supports digestion and gut health.

The NHS says that eating more fibre and roughage from a variety of sources can help digestion and prevent constipation. The recommended daily intake is 30g of fibre, but most of us aren’t achieving that. Oats, like other wholegrains, can help you to reach it.  

“[Oats are] a very good source of soluble fibre,” explains Hunter. Different types of fibre perform different functions in the bowel. Soluble fibre dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance. This slows down the amount of time it takes for food to travel through the gut, helping us to feel fuller for longer. The gel attracts fluid during digestion, softening stool, helping it to move through the bowel more easily. 

Other sources of soluble fibre include apples, citrus fruits, carrots, Brussels sprouts, sweet potato, turnip, aubergine, peas and green beans. 

3. Chia seeds

Cheer for chia seeds

The word chia made out of chia seeds with a bowl and spoon filled with chia seeds and a red heart shape next to it.Credit: Shutterstock/Nopparat Promtha
Chia seeds are a gut-healthy food thanks to being high in soluble fibre.

Like oats, chia seeds are an excellent source of soluble fibre, with just two heaped tablespoons (around 28g) containing 10g of dietary fibre. 

Fibre isn’t digested in the small intestine, so, as Hunter says: “When fibre reaches the large intestine, the bacteria break down the fibre to produce short-chain fatty acids which are beneficial for our health; [this] generates energy and the body uses that energy to strengthen the wall of the large intestine.” 

If you’re new to chia seeds, try adding them to cereal or porridge, or mixed into yogurt, or sprinkled on top of a salad. 

4. Asparagus

Awesome asparagus

Man and woman looking at a laptop surrounded by vegetables, with the woman holding a bunch of asparagus – a gut-healthy food that helps with constipation.Credit: Shutterstock/Lucigerma
Asparagus contains insoluble fibre which can help with constipation.

Unlike chia seeds and oats, asparagus is high in insoluble fibre. “[Insoluble fibre] passes into your large intestine and absorbs water to create a bulk that produces a larger and softer stool. So when you go [for a poo], it’s easier to pass,” explains Hunter. 

She recommends the Bristol stool chart as a useful resource for checking stool consistency.  

“What we should be aiming for is something that’s quite soft and large and you can pass quite easily, without straining,” she says. “You should have a bowel movement ideally every 24 hours. If you don’t go for more than three days, you’re constipated.” 

5. Water

Water wins

Woman drinking from a glass filled with water.Credit: Shutterstock/fizkes
Staying hydrated is key for helping fibre to perform its role and keep your gut healthy.

Hunter emphasises the importance of staying hydrated for a healthy gut. “If you’re not drinking, the fibre can’t do its job,” she explains.  

Instead, your body will absorb fluid from the contents of your large intestine, which can cause your stools to become hard and difficult to pass. What’s more, stools that are sitting around in your large intestine aren’t great for your gut microbes. 

To avoid this, aim for around 1.5 litres of fluid per day, but you may need more depending on your circumstances. Why not invest in a measuring water bottle or download a water tracking app to keep tabs on how much you’re drinking? 

6. Garlic

Go garlic!

Handshot of a man using a pestle and mortar to crush garlic.Credit: Shutterstock/Victoria Sendra Hueso
Garlic can support the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut.

Garlic has a range of benefits for gut and wider health, including feeding the friendly gut bacteria that are thought to support your immune system. There is also some evidence that it can work against unhelpful changes in gut bacteria that are linked to obesity. Research also suggests that a garlic extract taken for three months increases gut microbe diversity in people with high or raised blood pressure. Some of the research into garlic and gut health has been carried out on mice, so more research based on humans is still needed, including into whether there are any differences in the impact of garlic supplements compared with whole garlic as a food on gut health. 

Closely related to garlic is the leek, which Hunter explains provides similar benefits, since they both contain a prebiotic fibre called inulin. Prebiotics are carbohydrates which are not broken down in the body, and which provide food for the friendly bacteria in the gut. 

However, if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may find that foods in the onion family, like garlic, can worsen symptoms due to being high in fructan. Fructan is a type of fermentable sugar (or FODMAP) which is poorly absorbed in the small intestine. This means it can aggravate the gut and cause symptoms in some people. If you have IBS or a related condition, speak to a dietitian before adding or removing these from your diet.

7. Red wine

Reap red wine benefits

Two glasses of red wine sat on a wooden barrel surrounded by red grapes.Credit: Shutterstock/Rostislav_Sedlacek
The grape skin in red wine contains polyphenols which are beneficial for gut bacteria.

Not only is the colour a symbol of love, but this drink has been proven to be beneficial for our gut health. A 2019 study showed people who drank red wine had a wider variety of gut bacteria compared with those who drank other alcoholic drinks. Greater diversity of gut microbes is considered healthier. 

The reason is in the grape skins. When red wine is being made, the skins are left in contact with the grape juice whilst it ferments into wine. Grape skin has lots of polyphenols (natural antioxidant compounds found in plants), which feed gut microbes and help them to reproduce. 

Overall, alcohol can still damage your health and the NHS recommends drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week but if you’re going to drink alcohol with your Valentine’s meal, red wine is the gut-friendly choice (along with a glass of water, of course)! Or if it must be bubbles, pink champagne, like rosé wine (both are produced either by allowing the skins to stay in contact with the grape juice for a short time, or by blending in a small amount of red wine), contains more polyphenols than standard champagne. 

A few additions to your diet can make improvements to your health. For more ways to show yourself some love today and all year round, check out these food tips to help you sleep. 

Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her


Gemma Harris is a Staff Writer for Fitness at Exceptional. Gemma has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on fun fitness challenges such as completing 40 weighted dead bugs daily for three weeks. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing. 

Gemma has written about various topics from combatting the spread of health misinformation on social media and her experience of taking mental health medication, to sleep stories and mindful gardening. Previously a freelance journalist, she has produced content for leading health journals such as Gastrointestinal Nursing and the British Journal of Healthcare Management, as well as multimedia health and lifestyle platforms, including, StomaTips, Fit&Well, LiveScience and

She is the proud owner of two adorable guinea pigs who are far too spoilt and have become her writing companions. When she is not writing, Gemma can be found walking in nature, at a yoga or spin class, swimming, doing an at-home YouTube workout, snuggling up with a self-help book or meditating. She is also a member of a local running club. These experiences help to influence and shape the content she creates. And because life is all about balance, Gemma also enjoys having cocktails with friends. 

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