By Dr. Celeste Holder
There is a lot of buzz around eating healthy, fresh food. However, one important aspect of healthy eating is often overlooked—digestion. There is no point in eating those fresh vitamin-rich foods if their micronutrients can’t be broken down and absorbed. The benefits of eating healthy foods hinges entirely on optimum digestive system function. Digestion is what helps break down the chunky bits of food into useful components like protein and glucose.
While you would likely normally associate digestion with your stomach and intestines, digestion actually starts in the mouth. Enzymes called amylases are present in the saliva in your mouth to break down starches. So, the first step to good digestion? Chewing food properly.
After chewing, food moves down a network of organs that includes the stomach and intestines. These are part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Here, chemicals like stomach acids and more enzymes break down the food. It takes a few hours for the food to move through this part of digestion in the GI tract, so this is where most digestive issues begin.
Around 60–70 million people in the US suffer from digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD occurs when food momentarily returns from the stomach back into the throat or esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach).
A lot of factors affect digestive issues, some of them impossible to control, like genetics. However, a large number of digestive issues can be avoided by following better lifestyle habits. For example, maintaining a routine eating and exercise schedule is a great way to improve digestion. This involves not eating at odd hours of the day (e.g., midnight snacks) and not eating too often or too little.
As food takes a few hours to be digested entirely, eating too close when you normally sleep will disrupt digestion. Another major lifestyle contributor to improper digestion is stress. There are strong links between stress and conditions like IBS that cause constipation. Learning to effectively manage stress will make a big difference in your digestion. You can do this by getting better sleep and practicing meditation or deep breathing.
Your diet undoubtedly has the biggest effect on your digestive function. Deciphering how food affects digestion can be quite complex because of the bacteria in your gut that helps with digestion. Everyone has unique gut flora, so what is good for one person’s digestion may be terrible for another’s. In fact, there is a whole field of study about foods that help with digestion. Here is a more in-depth explanation on the importance of gut bacteria:
One thing that most experts agree on is the importance of fiber for digestion. Fiber adds “bulk” to your food and helps it move along the GI tract. It is recommended that adults eat a minimum of 20–30g of fiber a day. Fiber is abundant in fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. To make the most of fruit and vegetables, it is better to eat them whole instead of juicing them, which breaks down the fiber.
However, not all fiber-rich foods are good. Some are quite hard to digest, such as nectarines and mangos. These are referred to as high FODMAP foods. People with IBS generally tend to do better on low FODMAP foods, such as carrots, broccoli, lettuce, and mushrooms.
Another group of foods with a lot of buzz lately is probiotics. These contain live cultures of good bacteria that are similar to those found in the gut. It is thought that they help maintain a healthy ecosystem of gut flora. However, there still needs to be more research into the exact strains of probiotics that are good for digestion. Probiotic-rich foods mainly consist of fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and kimchi. Probiotics have been helpful in the treatment of conditions like diarrhea, IBS, and Crohn’s disease.
Metabolism is just as important as digestive system function when it comes to your weight loss goals. Digestion breaks down complex food molecules into simpler ones.
So, what does metabolism do? Metabolism is how your body uses these simple broken-down molecules for energy. Like digestion, metabolism is also different from person to person. Ever felt envious of a skinny friend who eats like a sumo wrestler but never seems to gain weight? That’s because their metabolism is different from yours.
There are many factors that affect metabolism, primarily things like age and genetics. The reason it is harder to lose weight as you get older is because your metabolism slows down. The good news is that there are some things you can do to boost your metabolism.
One major thing you can do is to add HIIT training to your workouts. Here, you work out for short intervals at 80–90% of your maximum heart rate. The result is that your metabolism can be boosted for up to 24 hours after the workout.
You can also eat certain types of foods to boost metabolism. The harder it is for your body to burn and absorb a certain molecule, the higher thermic effect it has. This can boost metabolism, too. Protein has a higher thermic effect relative to carbs and fats, and it is better for your metabolism. The importance of protein is of course well known to the fitness industry, as it is vital to a myriad of bodily functions.
If you need another reason to make that spicy noodle soup you’ve been craving, note that spicy foods are well known to improve your metabolism, too. Spicy foods like chilli peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin that has been shown to increase metabolism.
Increased metabolism is another pro that can be added to the long list of herbal tea benefits. Green tea has a chemical called epigallocatechin gallate, which has been linked to increased fat and calorie burn. Studies have shown that drinking around three cups of green tea can help you burn an extra 100 calories per day.
It is not enough to just think about how to obtain vitamins and minerals from foods in your diet. You should also consider how food will be digested and used by your body. Good digestive system function relies on a healthy biome of gut bacteria, and the food you eat affects this. Though gut flora is unique to each person, a healthy balance can be achieved with whole, unprocessed foods and regular exercise.