Easy holiday foods that are gut-safe

I started watching Ina Garten on the Food Network about ten years ago, when I first attempted to make food from scratch instead of from boxes. She told me to buy “good vanilla” and “good olive oil.” So, I did that. When holiday time came, Ina’s advice was to never spare the butter and to always have extra chicken broth on-hand. I did that too. Afterall, if Ina said it, even if it was a little pricier and a bit more work, I was on it.

Her food is aspirational. Like trying to dance or sing—I’m not going to do it perfectly, but I’m going to be better for having tried. And I figure, the more I try, the better I’ll get (okay, maybe that’s not true for the singing).

But in a twist that felt like a departure from her usual commandments, this year, Ina told us to head to the supermarket and stock up on packages in a New York Times article titled, “Ina Garten’s Store-Bought Thanksgiving: To make the holiday easier for home cooks, we asked the culinary contessa to create a menu that lets premade ingredients do much of the work.”

Reading the headline, I felt gut-punched. If Ina was giving up, what hope was there for us mere mortals? But reading the article, I began to get inspired. In my book, Eat Everything, I devote an entire chapter to making more gut-friendly foods with ready-made ingredients that are less processed. Instead of just everyday foods, could the same strategy also work to make holiday meals more gut-friendly?

I decided, like my idol Ina did, to find out.

Pie is not only a Thanksgiving and Christmas staple but a classic American dessert.

holiday pie crusts without additivesAnd the filling generally isn’t the hard part. It’s the crust that can throw us off track. Could I find a decent pie dough that didn’t have emulsifiers and dough conditioners? I went to Whole Foods to find out.

Wholly Wholesome has a crust that is just flour, palm fruit shortening (which they state is “responsibly sourced”), water, sugar, and salt. No emulsifiers, but also not in stock on the day I went. Instead, Whole Foods was carrying the unrolled-out version by the same company, which contained both guar gum and locust bean gum.

These gum additives have been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome and people seem to feel much better when they cut them out.

So, I also looked at their gluten-free version even though, in general, I eat all the gluten I can. And to my surprise, no gums in the gluten-free pie crust! These gum additives have been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome and people seem to feel much better when they cut them out. There were two reasonable options for ready-made pie crust out there (and I wound up finding another at Trader Joe’s a few days later). The key is to always check the ingredient list, even from a brand you might trust.

Next up, potatoes—a holiday table must-have.

Ina suggests that there are good frozen or refrigerated mashed potatoes out there if you add enough sour cream, parmesan, butter, salt and pepper to the pre-prepared stuff. And it’s true for your gut too.There are brands of pre-mashed potatoes like Simply Potatoes that don’t have much else added to them except for dextrose (which is a simple sugar) and a few probably “okay” preservatives.

Check the sour cream for additives (the affordable Daisy brand has none!) and please take a minute to grate your own parmesan from a block to avoid gut-roiling added anti-caking agents. If you are celebrating Hanukkah (I am!), you can get shredded, frozen potatoes to make latkes—a huge time saver—with the same dextrose and probably “okay” preservatives as the mashed stuff. Just remember to defrost and then drain the shredded potatoes on paper towels to get as much of the moisture out as possible before you mix in the egg, onion, salt and pepper, and fry until golden.

Finally, the main course.

If you are tired of turkey after Thanksgiving, so tired in fact that you don’t feel like making anything at all, you could always pick up a rotisserie chicken, or three. But be careful, a lot of store-prepared poultry has flavor-enhancing additives like maltodextrin that you probably want to avoid if you are going for stomach-safe. Many stores will sell chicken that is just chicken, but don’t forget to check how it’s seasoned for a happier holiday.

We’ve been given permission to make holiday cooking easier to do, now we can also harness our ability to make the shortcuts easier on our stomachs, too.

Poop jokes aren’t my favorite, but, they are a solid #2. Okay, not the best dad (or in my case, mom) joke, but I have others! We all do. There are a lot of poop jokes out there.

Gastrointestinal health is something that hasn’t been taken seriously for a long time—at least not since the position of attendant to the British monarch’s stool (known as the Groom of the Stool) was abolished in 1901. Considered a posting of honor (as opposed to a crappy job) for hundreds of years, as flush toilets and toilet paper became all the rage, poop was relegated to becoming the butt of our jokes (sorry).

But with the rise of DNA analysis and the ability to see just what is inside our most comedically valued organ, gut health has become anything but a laughing matter. It may be the key to unlocking better health for many of us.

Let’s examine what’s changed:

  1900s thinking:
Our gut is a long tube from our mouths to our behinds.
2000s thinking:
Our gut is a complex organ made up of our own cells along with trillions of microorganisms. It has vital impacts on our immune system, our moods, and even hormonal regulation of how much and when we want to eat.
1900s thinking:
Our gut will absorb the nutrients we need and poop out the things we don’t.
2000s thinking:
Whatever we aren’t digesting, we are feeding to those microorganisms in our guts (called the microbiome). What we eat promotes which organisms grow and where in our guts they are growing.
1900s thinking:
The total amount of calories you eat along with macronutrients like carbs, fats, and protein will determine how much you weigh and how healthy you are.
2000s thinking:
Calories and macronutrients can be important, but they aren’t the whole story. Eating ultra-processed foods (especially those with emulsifiers) can cause us to eat more and gain excess weight, can disrupt the microbiome and our gut lining, and are a contributor to the exponentially rising rates of a host of diseases.
1900s thinking:
It doesn’t matter how ingredients are processed. Adding vitamins and other supplements to ultra-processed foods is the same as getting them from whole foods.
2000s thinking:
Getting nutrition from whole foods is critically important to good health.

Our bodies, along with our microbiomes, digest whole foods differently than food that has been ultra-processed. We are just beginning to understand how an additive, when extracted from a “natural” source, may be disruptive to the synergistic relationship between ourselves and our microorganisms.

There are a lot of new and exciting discoveries being made in gut health, because ultimately, medical ideas are like diapers (okay, last one, I promise). They need to be examined and changed when they aren’t quite right.

Gluten and dairy have been deemed the enemy. For some people who have celiac disease or complete lactose intolerance, yes, these foods need to be avoided.

But what about the rest of us?

Many people abandon foods that contain gluten or dairy in the hopes of feeling better. Maybe we have joint pains or stomach trouble. Maybe we are putting on weight and don’t understand why. We start by getting rid of these foods and perhaps feel a little better. So then we hear that we should avoid other foods, like tomatoes or garlic, and drop those. Before we know it, our diets are extremely restricted, but we really don’t feel that much better. There may be an easier and far less restrictive way to improve our health.

The biggest problem in the so-called Standard American Diet, which has now become standard in the diets of almost every country today, is ULTRA-PROCESSED foods.

How can we tell the difference between processed and ultra-processed?

There are a few definitions out there, but I’ve found the simplest way to figure out the ultra-processed stuff that should be avoided is to be on the lookout for certain additives in packaged food.
Is this a perfect method? No. Nothing is perfect. Trying to be perfect is a recipe for feeling inadequate and defeated. The goal is to feel better and that means accepting what we are able to reasonably accomplish in the midst of a busy day. Avoid these additives, eat everything that is actual food, and see how much better you feel.

Carrageenan (commonly used in creams and dairy substitutes for stability)

Cellulose (pre-shredded cheeses and powdered parmesan are generally coated in cellulose. DO NOT use pre-shredded and bagged cheeses which can also contain anti-fungal agents.)

Food Gums (commonly used in shelf stable products like dressings):

  • Acacia Gum
  • Cellulose Gum (Also called: Carboxymethylcellulose)
  • Gellan Gum
  • Guar Gum
  • Locust Bean Gum (Also called: Carob Bean Gum)
  • Xanthan Gum

Inulin (Also called: oligofructose, oligofructose-enriched inulin, chicory root fiber, chicory root extract or fructooligosaccharides)

Lecithin(can be derived from soy, sunflower, or other sources and are used in many different packaged foods, so may be the most difficult to avoid—just do your best, but don’t sweat if you are consuming a little of it)

Modified fill-in-the-blank Starch (used in shelf stable products)

Maltodextrin (used as a flavor enhancer and stabilizer in shelf stable products)

Monoglycerides/Diglycerides (used in breads, especially those that stay soft like flour tortillas that don’t need to be kept frozen)

Polysorbate 60/80  (commonly used in frostings and desserts)

The following are generally used as sugar substitutes. Please just use real sugar (in moderation) and NOT these:

Glycerol (glycerin/e)





Stevia (Stevioside)


How should you talk to your doctor? Short answer: Like you would talk to any other human. It’s your doctor’s job to listen.

Here goes the longer answer.

This week, I gave a lecture to first-year medical students on how to take a medical history from a patient. I’ve delivered this lecture for the past seven years. The central message I impart to the students is one that reaches back to the beginning of modern medicine, but is no less relevant today.

Sir William Osler, a physician from the 1800s, stated it most clearly when he said, “Listen to your patient. (They are) giving you the diagnosis.”

I put this quote up on a slide for the students, who are new to medical school, but who have nevertheless heard this quote already from several faculty before hearing it from me. I tell them, “We repeat it a lot, but then we ignore it.”

I ask the students, “If it is so important to listen to our patients, why don’t we?”

“There’s not enough time.”

“We’re too busy.”

“We have biases.”

“We forget how important it is.”

The students call out all the right answers. What used to a be a 30-minute office visit has been cut down to 15 minutes, if that. Computer work and paperwork have increased at an astronomical rate, further cutting into patient care time. We rush to judgement, abandoning the idea that we should be thinking about all possible diagnoses before narrowing our focus. And, in an era where blood tests and imaging studies abound and require only a click of the computer mouse to order, minutes can be saved by just doing that, at the expense of giving our attention to the person in front of us.

Over the next three hours, through practice patient interviews and other small group exercises, I try to convince the students that no matter what the external forces pressing on them are, when they have a patient in front of them over the course of their careers, they should try to block out the rest of the world and just listen. They will have many more practice and empathy-building sessions over the next several years of their medical education, but eventually, they will enter the real world. And the real world does not pay doctors to listen to their patients. It pays them to go quickly and “efficiently” through their day.

So, what’s a patient to do?

I have a friend who is dealing with a very serious health issue. She tells me how she brings copies of her tests and CDs of her scans along with her so the results are always on hand in case the doctor doesn’t have them. She tries to be as brief as possible and show little emotion to her obviously harried physician, who she fears will dismiss her if she is too “difficult.” Instead of being able to focus on what she needs from her visit, she tries to bond with the doctor over shared interests and manage the doctor’s needs. And my heart breaks for her every time I hear about her latest visit. In addition to dealing with a miserable diagnosis, she has to expend mental energy to try to figure out how to make the most of the time with her physician.

It shouldn’t be this way, but for so many patients, it is. As medical professionals, we have to do better. Someone who comes to us for care and compassion deserves just that. There are some medical facilities that give their physicians the resources to be able to spend more time with their patients. There are physicians in private practice who have, through a combination of good luck and good business sense, figured out how to keep a practice afloat and give their patients the time they need. In some areas, these practices can be hard to find, or even if they exist, they are not necessarily on your insurance plan.

I can ask you to find a doctor who will give you the time to listen, but I imagine that you’ve tried this already. So, as much as it pains me to say it, my friend is doing what she needs to do to be heard and treated appropriately. Bring your important records with you (never assume the doctor has them). Be ready to summarize your story as “efficiently” (yes, I hate this word in medicine) as possible. For some people, bringing a typed-out version of their story can help. Tell your doctor all the issues you would like for them to address at the beginning of the visit so you can be sure that something you may need isn’t left until the end when time may have run out. And importantly, be your own advocate. If something isn’t right, say so. If something isn’t working, say so. Ultimately, your doctor wants you to get better. They want to help, but the system we all find ourselves in isn’t conducive to forming a strong patient-doctor relationship. There are some who are working to change this, but as always, change can never come fast enough.


A few years ago, my not-quite-teenage son began commenting on whether or not the food I was making was a “superfood.” Salmon and blueberries had been designated by him as “super” and not because they were particularly tasty (although I think they are). According to my son and the latest articles he had perused on the internet, there was supposedly a magical array of nutrients in the food that would somehow help us to live longer.

“The search for superfoods (or whatever they were called back then) has been a time-honored tradition since at least the 1950s, when American physiologist, Ancel Keys traveled to countries around the Mediterranean and documented their lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and other ailments.”

I was just glad he was eating salmon and blueberries and let him keep on thinking they were magically super since I was also super exhausted trying to get my kids to eat foods that were nutritionally sound. So, if nutritionally sound was being rebranded as super, I wasn’t going to argue the point.

The allure of finding a faraway magical food or foods, is in many ways like the quest for the Fountain of Youth, and so, my son had hit on a historically popular trend. The search for superfoods (or whatever they were called back then) has been a time-honored tradition since at least the 1950s, when American physiologist, Ancel Keys traveled to countries around the Mediterranean and documented their lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. He posited it was something in their diet. It was called the Seven Countries Study and like its name implies, Keys looked at food from seven countries—which happens to be a lot of countries and a lot of different foods. The common threads in the so-called Mediterranean Diet, were identified as olive oil, fish, fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, and wine.

Scientists wondered what exactly was in those foods that was so super and began doing research studies that added nuts or wine or olive oil to see if those things in isolation were helpful. Many of those studies (though poorly designed) showed that they were. And so, in the coming decades, Americans were encouraged to eat more of those foods. Not a bad idea, but not the whole story either. Despite switching over from canola oil to olive oil and from white pasta to whole grain pasta (which isn’t exactly traditionally Mediterranean), our higher rates of disease persisted. It turns out that you can’t take out two or three components of a healthy diet and add them to an unhealthy diet and viola—expect similar results. Even worse, you can’t extract a chemical or two, package them in a supplement and declare victory over disease.

Resveratrol was supposed to be one of the substances that made blueberries super and was also found in red wine. But instead of having to find berries out of season or drink wine which was high in calories (and also one would be limited by the alcohol content if one were sensible), a pill was created. Why bother with actual foods and beverages if one could just find a magic pill? Better yet, pill purveyors could charge upwards of $100 a bottle and so advertised their wares heavily. By offering the secret to longevity with barely any effort required, daytime talk shows brought in lots of viewers, clinics sprung up, and people parted with billions of dollars. And yet, our life expectancy has not increased.

What is starting to be increasingly recognized by researchers is that it isn’t one substance or a handful of foods that make the Mediterranean Diet special. It isn’t even the Mediterranean. There is longevity to be found around the world (see: “Blue Zone” below) where there are fewer chronic diseases and people live longer lives (but even Blue Zones are somewhat Western-centric and undoubtedly there are many other places that would qualify). Blue Zone residents practice lifestyles where they eat whole, fresh foods, have communities ties, and walk or do a fair amount of physical work. This is what was going on in the Mediterranean when Keys visited.

And yet, as my son made clear, we are still looking for the magical super foods, or even more reductive, magical supplements, when the answer for how to eat and how to live has been staring us in the face for decades (Hint: the answer isn’t in a supplement).


My mother’s mother, who had lived with us, passed away when I was still quite young, so I don’t remember too much about her. But I do remember the prunes.

Every morning, my Bubbeh (grandmother in Yiddish), would have a handful of prunes with her breakfast. I had a vague sense that it was to help her in the bathroom and it was something that older people just happened to eat regularly—like soup. I’m not sure where these ideas came from, but I suppose I must have seen other older people eating prunes while discussing their digestion. At some point, I had also decided that they were somehow not delicious and politely declined prune-containing desserts when they were infrequently offered to me.

So, you can imagine my surprise when one day, desperate for Hamentashen (Jewish holiday cookies) and finding only prune-filled ones remaining, I decided to go for it and eat the geriatric flavor which turned out to be my new favorite. You can further imagine my surprise when I discovered that prunes are not only delicious, but actually magical.

“a serving of prunes a day helps with constipation more than a similar amount of psyllium fiber”

While doing some reading on constipation for the book I am currently working on, I fell down a rabbit hole of research, with one article leading me to look up another and that article leading me to look up yet another. This path ended at a well-done study published in an obscure journal called “Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics” which showed that a serving of prunes a day helps with constipation more than a similar amount of psyllium fiber (the stuff most often recommended for constipation). The authors of the study were gastroenterologists from the University of Iowa who carefully selected their patients to make sure they didn’t have other diseases and then did something called a “cross over” so that the same people switched and got the same treatments separated by a week. It is a way to compare like to like and probably the best way to do a study where you can’t keep the treatment a secret (called blinding).

Even if the prunes had worked just as well, it should have been big news. But they had actually worked a bit better. Here’s a truly natural and fairly inexpensive way to help with constipation—a problem about 20% of people are thought to suffer with. And yet, ten years on, I hadn’t heard about this miracle cure. Perhaps I had been lacking in my keeping up to date with guidelines? So, I looked up the American Gastroenterological Association guidelines on constipation. Nope. No mention of prunes. Then I went to their website geared towards the lay-person. Surely they would suggest that people pop a couple prunes (more like 12 to be consistent with the aforementioned study) before bringing out the medications. Also no!

Are the authorities on the GI system as biased against prunes as I once was? It would seem so.

This isn’t to say that prunes will work for everyone. The study, while well done, was small in size with only 40 participants, and people who haven’t discussed their constipation with their doctors may need a medical work up to make sure there isn’t a more serious condition underlying the slow stools.

But for now, I’ll be keeping a bag of prunes in my pantry. Just like my Bubbeh did.


In the past decade, we have learned that the more ultra-processed food you eat, the higher your risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, gastrointestinal maladies, and maybe even dementia. The problem is, these so-called foods are getting harder and harder to avoid. A recent JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) article notes that kids’ consumption of a substance called ultra-processed foods has increased significantly in the past 20 years, going from about 61% to 67% or what is now two-thirds of their diets.

Kids’ consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased to 67% of their diets.

Why are ultra-processed foods so hard to avoid?

The reason these substances are hard to avoid is that they’ve been manufactured and marketed to look like real, actual food, but perhaps a bit cheaper and flashier. Take pizza, for example. My husband likes to make pizza. He makes a dough from scratch with the following ingredients: wheat flour, water, yeast, salt. He makes his sauce from scratch too with tomatoes, salt, pepper, a little bit of sugar, garlic, basil, oregano. The cheese, he buys, but it contains only milk, cultures, and salt. Compare that to the ingredients of a frozen supermarket pizza (which may not be any better, ingredient-wise than the take-out pizza you get from your local chain). Can you picture what all the individual ingredients in my husband’s pizza look like in your mind’s eye? Now can you picture what all the ingredients listed on the frozen pizza look like? I can’t.

I’m not arguing that my husband’s pizza is health food. It isn’t. It’s a processed food. It’s not a banana or an apple or kale for that matter, but it’s still recognizable as food to our bodies. The stuff that we are all now consuming, and our kids are consuming at an alarming rate, isn’t. Your mind can’t picture what some of the ingredients widely used in 67% of kids’ diets look like and your body isn’t quite sure what to do with some of them either. They are more than just processed. They are ultra-processed.

A New Nutrition Classification

That’s why in 2009, a new nutrition classification system, called NOVA, put ultra-processed foods into its own category.

We have to be able to name a thing as a first step in figuring out what to do about it, so NOVA groups foods into four categories:

  • Category 1 is made up of foods that are unprocessed or minimally processed. Unprocessed foods are eaten as nature gives them to you—an apple, banana, or kale. If you take the kale and bake it into chips, you’ve processed it, but minimally (it’s still basically kale).
  • Category 2 is made up of what are called processed culinary ingredients like oil or salt. Nature does not give us oil or salt directly. We have to make them from basic starting points (pressing olives in the case of oil and grinding whatever it is that salt comes from—rocks? The sea?). They should be used sparingly to enhance the flavor of Category 1 foods.
  • Category 3 foods are processed foods. It generally is how we have historically preserved food to last a bit longer. Bread and pasta are processed. Real cheese and yogurt are processed. The ingredients used to make them have to go through a few steps to get to their final stage, but they are essentially still wheat or milk.

Category 4 are the ultra-processed foods. NOVA says these are made up of: substances that are of “rare” or of “no culinary use” or are “additives whose function is to make the final product sellable, palatable and often hyper-palatable. Food substances of no or rare culinary use, employed in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods, include varieties of sugars (fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, ‘fruit juice concentrates’, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose), modified oils (hydrogenated or interesterified oils) and sources of protein (hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, and ‘mechanically separated meat’). Classes of additives used only in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods, are flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, and foaming, anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, gelling and glazing agents.”

Category 4 foods are the culprit in many diet-related diseases…

Here’s what I want to communicate clearly—Category 1 foods are best, but Category 2 and 3 foods are fine as long as we don’t go crazy with them. Category 4 foods are the culprit in many diet-related diseases and now we can identify them (at least when we have access to the list of ingredients).

What’s the next step?

Well, according to the JAMA study, in the past 20 years, there was a notable DECREASE in the consumption of sugary beverages by kids. This is probably due to numerous campaigns to steer kids away from sodas. So, we know how to make our diets healthier and it’s not just about avoiding fast food. Ultra-processed foods are in pricier restaurants too. They are in our school cafeterias and in our homes, though the JAMA article notes that the more we eat at home, the less ultra-processed foods we tend to eat. If we can put them in, we can take them out. We didn’t always eat ultra-processed foods. They are a relatively recent invention. Like sodas, we can learn to limit them or cut them out entirely. NOVA means “new” in Portuguese and it’s a good, new way to think about what we eat this year.

What makes something trashy?

Urban Dictionary tells us that “trashy people contribute little or nothing to society.” They are flashy, but don’t have much substance. No one wants to be called “trashy.” And we shouldn’t call people “trashy”—everyone deserves respect. Some food, on the other hand, deserves no respect. There is definitely some trashy food out there.

 Similar to a celebrity who hires a publicist to make sure he is photographed at a soup kitchen, so that no one is paying attention to his sexual harassment charges[AG2] , trashy foods cover themselves in clever packaging that hails them as “organic” or “high in fiber.”

Dr. Carlos Monteiro, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, calls this trashy food, “ultra-processed” because he’s classier than I am.

Dr. Monteiro developed the NOVA food classification system, defining the ultra-processed stuff as, “made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact (whole) foods.” This makes a lot of sense to me. However, when nutrition professionals were asked to place food into one of his four NOVA categories (ultra-processed being the 4th one), there wasn’t much consistency in where ultra-processed stuff should go.1[AG3]  

Which begs the question—why can’t we agree on what an ultra-processed (trashy) food is?


I’m not big into conspiracy theories, but in this case, I’m going to have to go with the possibility that the ultra-processed food industry has been working for decades on muddying the waters of what an ultra-processed food vs. a processed food vs. even what a whole food is. [AG4] If the celebrity has a publicist, trashy foods have an army of them.