Digestion is a process that we often take for granted. We intake food at least three times daily and simply expect it to be broken down completely. Have you ever wondered whether you are digesting the food you eat properly? Symptoms such as belching, flatulence and partially digested food particles in the stool may indicate that you are not.
Our modern fast-paced lifestyle has led to a variety of health problems, with one of those being digestive disorders. Eating while on the run, chewing food half-heartedly and eating food devoid of nutrients leads to nutritional deficiencies. I have compiled a list of ten top tips to ensure that you are absorbing the food you eat to your best ability.
1. Chew slowly and thoroughly
This is the number one tip for optimal digestion. Chewing food until it is mushy (around 20-30 times) allows food particles to be digested more easily. It promotes enzyme activity in your saliva, which breaks down large food molecules into smaller particles.
2. Stress less
When you are stressed the autonomic nervous system goes into parasympathetic mode, or ‘flight or fight’. This means that the body’s energy is concentrated in the muscles and extremities, diverting activity away from the digestive system. The sympathetic nervous system however is also known as ‘rest and digest’, as this is the correct state you should be in when eating. Eating when you are stressed leads to digestive problems as partially broken down food particles will pass through your digestive tract. Sitting at the dinner table is the best way to eat for optimal digestion. Eating while watching television, driving, or racing around the house does not allow your food to be properly digested.
3. Step away from the water jug
Water and other liquids are best consumed away from meals as they dilute your stomachs digestive juices and salivary enzymes. It is preferable to drink liquids at least half an hour before meals and 2-3 hours after a meal. This does not mean you should not drink water, drinking around eight glasses actually benefits digestion, but is best sipped throughout the day.
4. Fill up on fibre
Fibre cleanses the bowel and helps to keep you regular. Processed foods are usually devoid of fibre, so it is important to concentrate your diet on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. If you follow a diet of these foods, you will not have a problem with constipation. Remember that when increasing your fibre intake, always drink more water or you will end up with the opposite effect.
5. Add some bitters
Bitter tasting foods such as rocket, apple cider vinegar in water and umeboshi plums can be utilised around half an hour before meals to encourage the flow of digestive juices from the stomach.
6. Replace the good bacteria
There are many factors that affect the balance of good bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract, which affect the absorption of nutrients through the intestinal wall. Certain medications, alcohol, stress and antibiotic use are the most common denominators, and this is when supplementation with a probiotic may be necessary.
Probiotics are good bacteria that help to replace the balance of good bacteria in your digestive system. Prebiotics are basically fibres that allow probiotics to recolonise the gastrointestinal tract, and without them probiotics will not survive. They can be particularly useful for flatulence, bloating and constipation, also during and after the use of antibiotics.
7. Soak your beans
It is quite common to experience flatulence when you are starting to add legumes and beans to your diet. They are a concentrated source of fibre, and contain starches that can be difficult to digest if your body is not used to them. Soaking them from dried overnight is beneficial, and adding a piece of seaweed such as wakame to your soaking and cooking water can rectify this problem.
8. Kick the caffeine
Tea and coffee contain tannins that bind to nutrients in the food you eat, particularly minerals such as iron. If you are prone to iron deficiency I recommend that you drink tea and coffee at least 2 hours before or after meals to optimise nutrient absorption.
9. Avoid food that don’t agree with you
I quite commonly come across patients who tell me they eat dairy food even though they are lactose intolerant, as well as those with gluten intolerance eating gluten and suffering the consequences afterwards. It makes much more sense to listen to your body and only eat foods that agree with you as an individual. If you are feeling nauseous, have abdominal cramping or reflux on any given day, eat simply and choose foods that are easy to digest. Don’t put extra strain on an already sluggish digestive system.
10. Investigate underlying medical conditions
There are a number of digestive disorders that will prevent the proper absorption of nutrients, with some examples being hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid), gastrointestinal dysbiosis (imbalanced bowel flora), liver disorders and even diabetes. Chewing your food properly while you are relaxed will assist all of these conditions, however further medical treatment is necessary.
- Published: 14 May 2012
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