Foods That Are Difficult to Digest

Tagliatelle on plate with fork
Plate of pasta with cream sauce (Image: John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The natural composition or preparation of some foods makes them difficult to digest and can cause embarrassing flatulence, bloating, cramps and diarrhea. Medical problems, such as celiac disease, age-related physiological changes in the digestive process, food allergies or food sensitivities can also increase the number of problem foods.

Wheat, Barley and Rye Products

Wheat, barley and rye contain gluten, which is a protein some people find difficult to digest. Foods that contain these grains can include pasta, bread, baked goods and cereal, as well as less-suspect foods such as gravy, salad dressings, sauces, beer, broth, fried foods and seasoned snack foods. Gluten sensitivity causes symptoms such as lack of energy, mental fatigue, bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Eating a gluten-free diet relieves the symptoms, but can cause nutritional deficiencies. Eating a gluten-free diet that includes milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, fruits, vegetables, legumes and gluten-free grains, such as quinoa and millet, can help those who have gluten sensitivity maintain adequate nutrition, states Colorado State University Extension.

Milk and Milk Products

Lactose, which is also called milk sugar, presents digestive problems for some adults. During the digestive process, an enzyme called lactase breaks down lactose into simple sugars your body can absorb. Lactase production begins to slow down by age 2, states Dr. Dennis O’Neil of Palomar College. Without enough lactase, undigested lactose passes into your large intestine, where bacterial fermentation produces gas, bloating and stomach cramps. To combat the symptoms of lactose intolerance, avoid foods such as milk, soft cheeses, butter, ice cream as well as lactose-containing prepackaged foods like creamed vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, pudding, custard, cakes and chocolate. Alternatively, you can buy lactose-free products, take lactase tablets with your first bite of lactose-containing foods or add lactase drops to milk.

Foods That Cause Acid Reflux

When you eat, the food travels down your esophagus into your stomach. Some foods cause digestive difficulties because they relax or weaken the lower esophageal sphincter, which is also called the LES. Located at the bottom of your esophagus, the LES prevents acid reflux, which occurs when food and stomach acid back up from your stomach into your esophagus. Symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn, inflamed vocal cords, chronic cough and pain that mimics the chest pain associated with heart problems, according to the UC Davis Health System. Foods that can weaken or relax your LES include fatty, fried foods, citrus fruits, tomatoes, chocolate, garlic, onions, spicy foods and caffeinated beverages.

Soluble Fiber

Soluble fiber makes foods such as beans, oat bran, apples, citrus fruits and vegetables difficult to digest in the small intestine. Because the small intestine does not have the enzymes needed to digest soluble fiber, these foods pass undigested into your large intestine for digestion and absorption by gas-producing bacteria. Consuming large amounts of foods containing soluble fiber produces intestinal gas and bloating, according to The Wellness Corner at Towson University.

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