The 15 Worst Foods for Your Stomach
These "belly bullies" are most likely to upset your digestive system, throw your gut bacteria out of whack, cause inflammation, and make you pack on the pounds.
Be nice to your belly
With all the food temptations out there—fast food, baked goods—it’s easy to tax your tummy with some poor choices. But even if you’re eating healthy food, some of the high-fiber choices can do a number on your digestive tract. Check out our experts’ advice on keeping your stomach happy.
1. Carb-dense foods
Mention “carbs” and the word is bound to create a buzz. The reality is that not all carbs are bad, though. Aviva Romm, MD, an integrative women’s health specialist based in Western Massachusetts with an interest in food, herbs, and mind-body practices, says that complex carbs like sweet potatoes, squash, and brown rice—so long as they’re not eaten in excess—are beneficial in keeping belly fat down. “The real problem,” she says, “is when you eat simple carbs—things like processed flour products such as white bread or white rice.” Dr. Romm explains that unlike complex carbs, which makes good use of energy and blood sugar levels, simple carbs cause sugar and insulin spikes. Eating these foods regularly for long periods of time may lead to obesity, insulin resistance, inflammation and more.
Found in: Bagels, white rice, white pasta, white breads, donuts, muffins.
2. Unhealthy fats
Three types of dietary fat are linked to inflammation and thus contribute to excess belly fat: Trans fats, saturated fats, and omega-6 fats. You might be thinking, “Haven’t trans fats been banned from food?” Yes and no—the Food and Drug Administration has rules on the books to eliminate the fat, but the deadline keeps getting extended. For some products, the deadline is January 1, 2019 (but anything made before that date could contain the fats). Some manufacturers have petitioned the FDA for extensions—they’ll still be able to use trans fats until 2021. And then there are the exceptions to the trans fat ban—some uses of refined oils are still allowed under the ban, which means the fat can turn up processed foods. Finally, zero doesn’t actually mean zero: A food label can read “0 trans fats” and still have under a half-gram of trans fats per serving.
The fact that trans fats are still around is an issue beyond belly troubles. For example, experts at the Mayo Clinic explain that trans-fats, commonly found in baked goods and fried foods, can increase your risk of heart disease. Dr. Romm says that good quality fats like olive oil and avocado are ideal. These fats, she explains, are not only beneficial for healthy cellular function but play a role in keeping you from overeating.
Found in: Packaged foods (trans fats); processed and high-fat cuts of meat, full-fat dairy, some candy (saturated fat); corn oil, grape-seed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil (omega-6 fats).
3. Processed meat
Though tasty, processed meats are very high in calories and saturated fats. It’s not only bad for your stomach, but it can also lead to heart disease and stroke. “Processed meats are very difficult for many people to digest. They can sit in the intestines for longer because they are difficult to break down,” warns Julie Rothenberg, RD, a licensed dietitian nutritionist based in Florida. They don’t contain any fiber, so they aren’t good for digestion.
Found in: Cold cuts, hot dogs, ground meats.
4. Fried foods
Fried food tends to overwhelm the stomach, resulting in acid reflux and heartburn. Rothenberg says that fried foods sit in your stomach similarly to processed foods. It takes the body much longer to digest fried foods due to their high-fat content, making them foods that cause belly fat.
5. Milk and high-lactose dairy foods
According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), a key component to keeping your tummy happy is the avoidance of FODMAPs: Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols. But all you need to remember is that basically, these are rapidly fermentable carbohydrates that can aggravate your gut. Some people aren’t sensitive to any FODMAPs, some experience symptoms after eating only certain ones, and other people develop gradually worsening effects with each exposure.
Lactose, found in all animal milk, is the best-known FODMAP. Lactose is broken down in the small intestine by an enzyme called lactase. Our bodies produce less lactase as we get older (since its main purpose is to help babies digest breast milk), which means dairy foods that contain lactose can torment our tummies over time even if they didn’t before. That may have to do with genetics; interestingly, the IFFGD says that insufficient lactase levels may be influenced by that as well as ethnicity, noting that almost 100 percent of Asians and American Indians have low lactase levels and many gut disorders.
Found in: Milk, regular (non-Greek) yogurt, soft cheeses, dairy-based desserts.
6. Excess fructose (in apples, honey, asparagus)
Foods with a lot of fructose (another FODMAP) can contribute to gas, bloating and diarrhea—common irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) hallmarks. Research published in a 2015 issue of Medical Hypotheses explains that “fructose malabsorption” can intensify IBS symptoms, and is common among IBS patients. The good news? They note that “restricting fructose in the diet can lead to symptom improvement.”
Found in: Certain fruits (apples, mangoes, watermelons); certain vegetables (asparagus, sugar snap peas); sweeteners (high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, honey).
7. Garlic, onions, and high-fiber cousins
Certain foods like onions, wheat and garlic contain a kind of fiber called fructan. For some people, fructan is difficult to digest and can lead to flatulence. According to a 2014 issue of Current Gastroenterology Reports, restricting this fiber (you guessed it—another FODMAP) in your diet could reduce a range of GI disorders. Still, more research is needed as there are several factors that may be driving each person’s food intolerances.
Found in: Grains (barley, wheat); vegetables (artichokes, onions, garlic); legumes (black beans, kidney beans, soybeans); additives (inulin).
8. Beans and nuts
Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat them, the more you, well, have gas. All jokes about this longstanding rhyme aside, it holds significant truth. Nutrition experts at the Mayo Clinic explain that beans are a common gas-producing food, as is cabbage and broccoli. It all has to do with bacteria in the colon and the digestion or fermentation of undigested food. They suggest removing one food at a time to monitor when your gas improves. This way, you’ll discover the culprit and know to avoid certain items.
Found in: Most beans and some nuts (cashews, pistachios).
9. Natural and artificial sweeteners
Sugar alcohols, low-carb sweeteners naturally found in some foods and added to others, are another FODMAP. Foods that contain them, therefore, are among the foods that cause belly fat that you should consider avoiding. FODMAPs don’t easily pass through our cell walls, so gut bacteria digest them, which can cause gas and bloat. Keep an eye out for mannitol in particular. Information from Yale-New Haven Health in New Haven, CT, notes that the naturally-occurring sugar found in pineapples, carrots, and more can linger in your intestines for a while. The result? Uncomfortable bloat and diarrhea.
Found in: Some fruits (apples, blackberries, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums); vegetables (cauliflower, mushrooms, snow peas); artificial sweeteners (isomalt, mannitol, polydextrose); sugar-free foods.
10. Fat-free foods
Many people think that choosing the fat-free option makes it healthier or better for weight loss. But in reality, fat-free foods won’t make you feel as full as if you ate full-fat foods, explains Dr. Romm. She says that high-quality fats like ones found in olive oil and avocados are one of the best good fats to eat since your body requires them for healthy functioning. “But most Americans are getting unhealthy fats, which can create rampant chronic inflammation,” she says. “Plus, the nice thing about fat is that it has so much energy in it that it makes us feel full longer, more energized, and more likely to snack less.” So, don’t think fat-free means less belly fat. In actuality, quality full-fat foods are good for your body…and that includes your belly.
It’s not just your liver that may suffer effects of a night out drinking. Alcohol carries a lot of empty calories with it, and drinking a lot of it can also slow down your body’s fat-burning processes. (Hey, they don’t call it a “beer belly” for nothing.) “Alcohol converts to sugar just the way starches do,” says Robin DeCicco, a Holistic Nutritionist of The Power of Food Education in Ramsey, New Jersey. “Therefore, the same effect regarding an increase in fat storage/belly fat will happen.” Furthermore, she says that alcohol can decrease inhibitions, making you more likely to reach for foods that can put on the pounds like desserts. She suggests considering drinks that are lower in sugar and not using sodas and diet beverages as mixers. “Hard liquor like tequila and vodka are best,” she says, as is using lemon or lime or seltzer.
12. Fructose-sweetened beverages
Fructose-packed drinks are not ideal for your tummy either. You might already know that soda can have adverse effects on your health, but be aware of more sneaky culprits like fruit juice and sweet tea too. As for soda, the Mayo Clinic specifically warns about it, noting that carbonated drinks release carbon dioxide gas which can contribute to belching and general stomach discomfort. They suggest avoiding it altogether. But if you must, consider drinking slowly. This can help reduce the chances of swallowing air.
13. Breakfast pastries
Muffins or scones may have little bits of blueberries in them, but don’t assume that they’re actually a healthy option. They’re still processed and packaged, explains Dr. Romm, so they’re still culprits for belly no-nos. She says that processed flour products such as muffins, white bread, and white pasta, can interfere with your body’s ability to maintain proper energy and blood sugar levels. Ultimately, this can lead to obesity and other health issues.
14. To-go salads
Not even salad is safe?! you’re probably wondering. But don’t worry, salad itself isn’t one of the foods that cause belly fat. It’s when you get a pre-packaged salad that usually comes with a little—or not-so-little—cup of thick dressing that can counteract the nutritional value of the salad. “I like to ask for olive oil and vinegar on the side and to also use spices to add flavor instead of dressings,” DeCicco says. “Look for paprika, black pepper, rosemary, garlic and onion powder, or lemon juice to add flavor to any salad.” Other things that may contribute to belly fat when it comes to grab-and-go salads, she explains, are croutons, fried wontons, crackers, candied nuts (which are coated in sugar), cheeses, and excessive amounts of dried fruit.
15. Salty snacks
Salt in any form is a major culprit for belly fat, mostly because it causes your body to retain lots of water, which leads to bloating and weight gain. In fact, a study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2019 explains that bloating is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints—and sodium is likely to blame. Among the 412 participants in the study, it was found that “higher dietary sodium increased bloating, as did the high-fiber DASH diet.” The study explains that high-fiber diets may increase bloating; however, this could be due to dietary sodium intake. Decreasing sodium, therefore, may help. Furthermore, salty snacks like potato chips and cheese puffs also contain lots of hydrogenated oils. Translation: Hydrogenated oils are bad fats.
- Mayo Clinic: "Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health."
- Julie Rothenberg, RD, a licensed dietitian nutritionist based in Florida.
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: "The Low FODMAP Diet Approach: What are FODMAPs?"
- Medical Hypotheses: "Is Fructose Malabsorption a Cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?"
- Current Gastroenterology Reports: "Dietary fructose intolerance, fructan intolerance and FODMAPs."
- The Mayo Clinic: "Belching, intestinal gas and bloating: Tips for reducing them."
- Yale-New Haven Health: "Eat Any Sugar Alcohol Lately?"
- Hillary Lewis Murray, Founder & CEO of Lumi, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
- USDA Food Data Central: "Muffins, blueberry, commercially prepared (Includes mini-muffins)."
- The American Journal of Gastroenterology: "Effects of the DASH Diet and Sodium Intake on Bloating: Results From the DASH-Sodium Trial"
- Aviva Romm, MD, integrative women's health specialist, Western Massachusetts
- Robin DeCicco, Holistic Nutritionist, The Power of Food Education, Ramsey, New Jersey