You know that saying “You are what you eat”? The reality of it is that you are only what you digest. Plenty of people struggle with proper digestion and many don’t even know it. Improper digestion can present itself as gas or bloating or more complex issues such as leaky gut or skin conditions such as eczema. So if most of us aren’t digesting the food that is fuelling our bodies through life properly, what can be done to improve it?
1. Slow Down! We’ve all heard this one before, to chew your food until it is a paste before swallowing. Putting the work into the jaw muscles instead of the digestive juices makes the whole process much less difficult on the whole system. You may notice soreness in the jaw when first increasing the number of times you chew each bite of your meal, but as with exercising any new muscle you’ll build up its strength. Slowing things down at meal time isn’t only to allow for more chewing. When we’re shovelling in our food at a fast pace, we also tend to hold the breath, then gulp in air between bites. These air bubbles can become trapped within the digestive system and ultimately need to escape. They may be uncomfortable if they’re making their way all the way through, and the social awkwardness of gas from either end can be embarrassing.
2. Food Combining: The rules of food combining are quite contrary to many popular food combinations eaten in our country today, which likely is a reason for our widespread digestive upset. The digestive system secretes several different enzymes that each break down different things. The makeup of a chicken breast is not the same as a bowl of ice cream or an apple. Proteins are broken down by protease, lipase breaks down lipids (fats), amylase breaks down starches into glucose which is what the body uses as immediate fuel & lactose (the sugar in milk) is broken down by the enzyme lactase. There’s an enzyme for every part of the food we eat. Mixing the kinds of food we eat and thus the different enzymes that are secreted can mess up our digestion. Following these guidelines will benefit your digestion in a big way: -eat fruit alone (skip the cheddar on your apple) -always eat melons alone (not in a fruit salad!) -don’t eat starches with proteins (try a gunless burger at this weekend’s bbq) -don’t mix your proteins (think cheese and pepperoni on your pizza) -limit fats (a little is necessary, lots will impede progress) -avoid starches with sugars (pancakes with syrup, jam on toast etc)
3. Eat More Raw Food: Where do all those enzymes come from? Your body manufactures some of them, but consuming raw or lightly steamed foods (enzymes intact) helps out big time. Be aware that not everything that appears raw actually is. Just because the almonds you bought aren’t roasted or toasted doesn’t mean they haven’t been exposed to some kind of heat based processing. Heat zaps the enzymes in food once it passes 48ºC (118ºF).
4. Eat Smaller Meals More Frequently: That lethargy you feel after Thanksgiving dinner is due more to the amount of food you just ingested than to the sleepy chemical tryptophan in the turkey meat. A large meal is a big burden on your stomach, especially since that much food tends not to follow the food combining rules. Small meals every three to four hours will both keep your energy and blood sugar levels more stable as well as easing your digestive burden.
5. Warm Water & Lemon: The word ‘breakfast’ literally translates to “breaking the fast”. Overnight while you’re sleeping the body is fasting because you’re not eating anything. Some people report not feeling hungry first thing in the morning, or even feeling nauseous. Sipping a mug of warm (not hot!) water with a wedge of fresh lemon squeezed into it will gently awaken the stomach and prepare it for a meal. Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day & shouldn’t be skipped as it sets the digestive tone for the entire day. Be sure that it includes some form of protein.
6. Bedtime Snacks: You’ve heard it before- don’t eat anything less than 3 hours before your head hits the pillow. If you’re still hungry and need a little something, choose a snack that will digest quickly: apple slices or celery sticks with a smear of natural almond butter will give you some fibre for staying power, a bit of protein and a touch of sweetness that many crave late at night. All in a neat little package digestible in under an hour.
7. Fibre! The digestive system begins at your teeth and includes everything your dinner touches until the waste leaves your body. Constipation is a common result of poor diet, generally suggestive of too little water or fibre intake. The body can’t actually break down or absorb fibre, it follows the rule of ‘what goes in must come out’. It provides bulk to what does exit the body, as the more there is headed outbound the more efficiently it tends to be carried on its way. Fibre wont be found in any animal products or oils: only in plant based foods. Increase your veggie intake (5-10 servings a day!) and choose whole grains over white ones.
8. Hydrate: Consuming liquids with a meal will dilute the hydrochloric acid in the stomach that breaks down food beyond the level to which it was chewed. Drink a glass or two of water 20 minutes before taking a meal. This will hydrate the body adequately allowing for enough time for the liquid to exit the stomach and the stomach acid to resume its optimal pH. If you must drink something, choose a room temperature beverage rather than something cold that will work to extinguish the digestive fire.
9. Sit Down & Eat: This last point ties in with the first one. Breakfast in the car while driving to work or an afternoon snack while picking the kids up from school isn’t the best for your digestion. Be able to focus on your meal; tasting the different parts of it, feeling the texture in your mouth, smelling it before it enters your body & of course chewing it adequately. You’ll enjoy it more this way anyways! When we’re trying to multi task; eating while doing something else, neither task is completed optimally. The body just can’t do it. If the distraction from your meal is stressful (such as driving), the body will abandon digesting your food to enter into ‘fight or flight mode’. Food sitting idle in your stomach is a recipe for feeling terrible for a few hours. Try not to overwhelm yourself with trying to implement all of these changes to the way that you eat right away. You’ll likely have about as much success as that guy who tries to quit smoking, ditch his debt & lose weight all at the same time at the beginning of January. Choose one thing on this list and make it a habit. Check in with yourself this time next week and ask yourself how it’s going so far. Maybe add another into your routine. Before you know it, your digestion will be amazing!