How a Gastroenterologist Eats for Digestive Balance During Stressful Meals (and Holidays)

Photo: Stocksy/ Nataša Mandić
Holiday season is upon us, and in addition to the holly and jolly, one less-than-festive thing is to be expected: a few extra belly aches. It happens to the best of us: Espresso martinis, shopping stress, and hosting family holidays will "sit" quite right together—especially as far as your gut microbiome is concerned.

Truth is, you should never pass up enjoying some of your favorite holiday foods if they bring you joy, especially considering that gut health experts agree balancing your microbiome and getting your digestion back on track after (or even during) the holidays is more than achievable. To that end, we caught up with Supriya Rao, MD, a board-certified physician specializing in gastroenterology and lifestyle medicine, who shared some of her top tips for maintaining gut health during the holidays. Plus, her favorite go-to gut-healthy holiday dish that’s filled with cheer (and gut-friendly fiber).

Experts In This Article
  • Supriya Rao, MD, quadruple board-certified physician in internal medicine, gastroenterology, obesity medicine, and lifestyle medicine

The top nutrient for boosting gut health during the holidays

According to Dr. Rao, the gut essentially serves as the body’s well-being management headquarters. “[So much] of your health starts in your gut microbiome and all the bacteria that's present there. It essentially determines your body's inflammatory levels and the state of your overall health and immunity,” Dr. Rao says, emphasizing how often she reminds her patients (and loved ones) of the important of better understanding one's own gut microbes. "My friends and family always want to know what they should be eating for gut health. And this is not even just during the holidays, it's all the time,” she says. Her answer 99 percent of the time? More fiber.

Bummer news is that Dr. Rao says nearly 97 percent of the U.S. population isn’t getting enough fiber as it is. “97 percent is a ridiculous number,” she says, which is even more problematic since it’s typically her first line of defense in terms of nutrients for maintaining a healthy gut. That said, the doc understands that meeting a suggested 30 to 40 grams of fiber daily via healthy food alone can be extremely challenging for some, which is why Dr. Rao says she often leans on Benefiber, a prebiotic fiber supplement, to help meet her fiber-intake goals. “I'm not going to change peoples’ diets overnight. So, I feel like making small, sustainable changes in their diet, by including a fiber supplement like Benefiber can help,” she says.

This, in turn, has become her secret weapon for achieving gut health during the holiday madness, when eating more fiber is likely the last thing on your mind. “If you know you’re going to be traveling or on the road visiting family and eating meals that are outside of what you normally eat that can affect your digestion, a fiber supplement can easily be added to water or smoothies to help reset yourself a bit,” Dr. Rao says. That said, she notes that if you aren’t accustomed to consuming high amounts of fiber, it’s important to start slow and work your way up to achieve your daily intake goals. “You may experience bowel side effects if you go from zero to a hundred quickly, but with slow incorporation of fiber, you really shouldn't experience many, if any, negative side effects."

Foods that may cause digestive discomfort

There are a few foods that Dr. Rao says are smart to avoid if you have a sensitive stomach, especially around high-stress holidays. This includes highly-processed foods and/or deep-fried foods (which can cause discomfort in your digestion), plus sugary drinks and alcohol, which can cause and exacerbate inflammation.

That said, Dr. Rao doesn’t think you need to go cold turkey. “I'm not saying you should never eat any of these really palatable, highly tasty foods—the main thing is to enjoy them in moderation.” She says it’s important to always remember to slow down, and really savor the moment (literally).

A gastroenterologist's go-to gut-healthy holiday dish 

So, you’re invited to Dr. Rao’s holiday get-together, what can you expect on the table? A warm, hearty farro salad packed with tons of tasty, fiber-rich ingredients. She prepares her signature dish by layering a bed of farro on a plate with a selection of roasted seasonal veggies on top—although she says you simply can’t go wrong with sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, squashes, carrots, or all of the above. To ensure the veggies are cooked to perfection, she seasons them with a drizzle of heart-healthy olive oil, salt, and pepper, then bakes them on a sheet pan at 400ºF for about 20 minutes or so, or until the outside is caramelized to perfection.

As a plant-based eater, Dr. Rao relies on plant protein sources, such as white beans or chickpeas, and a handful of nuts, like pistachios or slivered almonds that add an enticing crunch factor. To boost the essential vitamins and minerals in the recipe, she then recommends adding a source of greens into the mix; spinach is her favorite. And to top things off, she makes a simple tangy creamy tahini dressing with a bit of tahini, freshly-squeezed lemon juice, minced garlic, salt, and pepper. “It’s a very healthy dish, but very comforting and warm food that pretty much anyone would enjoy,” Dr. Rao says. Plus, it helps you meet your daily fiber intake goals with every bite. What more could you ask for?

What gut-healthy holiday dish dreams are made of:

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