Digestive Woes? These 5 Easy Eating Habits Will Give You a Healthier Gut
Digestive health became a significant trend last year, and it shows no sign of slowing down, for good reason. A healthy gut is the foundation of overall health and wellness, regulating immune health, supporting mental well-being, and encouraging the body’s natural detoxification functions. And yet, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 60 to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases.
For many GI disorders, medical intervention is necessary and if you experience chronic distress you should see your doctor immediately. But for some of us, the inconvenient daily bloating, constipation, or cramping can be addressed by taking small, consistent actions. The five steps outlined below have helped me stay regular and healthy for the last few years, after a lifetime of digestive discomfort. Give one or more a try, and you might just find that your digestive woes are a thing of the past.
Include both prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that act as “helpful” bacteria in our guts. And while probiotics tend to get most of the credit for gut health, prebiotics are equally important for maintaining the balance of good bacteria in your digestive system. “Prebiotics are a type of carbohydrate found mostly in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables that provide a good source of resistant starches which are not digestible by your body,” explains Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RD, CDN, founder of Nutrition by RD. Essentially, prebiotics feed and nourish the probiotics, working together to maintain the balance of good bacteria in your gut.
Many people turn to supplements to get their probiotics fix, but Ditkoff recommends getting your prebiotics and probiotics from food sources, and always consult your doctor if you’re considering supplementation. Foods naturally rich in probiotics are fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso as well as yogurt. Foods to include for your pre-biotic fix are slightly underripe bananas, garlic, onions, leeks, legumes, oats, and Jerusalem artichokes.
“When it comes to digestion, drinking water before, during, and after a meal helps your body break down the food more effectively to get the most out of your meals,” says Ditkoff. “In addition the mechanical breakdown of food water also plays an important role in dissolving vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from your food.” Another plus? Adequate hydration is important to help prevent constipation. So drink up to keep things running smoothly, not to mention the benefits of clearer skin, improved mood, and overall health.
Slow down and chew.
I used to be guilty of eating my meals while checking email or standing up at the kitchen counter, usually gulping everything down with the minimal amount of chewing necessary to get the food down my throat. However, chewing is an essential part of digestion. When we chew our food, our mouth releases digestive enzymes that start to break down the food before it even gets to our stomachs. Chewing your food well can reduce post-meal bloating and other GI issues. I find counting the number of times I chew a bite of food to be tedious and unrealistic, but next time you eat, take the time to consciously think about chewing each bite before swallowing. “Just the act of being mindful will cause you to slow down your eating and help your body digest and metabolize your meals more efficiently,” Ditkoff says.
Eliminate food sensitivities.
It’s important to know what foods affect our unique systems, and what foods might be causing inflammation or other side effects. Note that there is a big difference between being sensitive to a food and being intolerant of it. As an example, think about gluten. Some people might find that their digestion is a little off when they eat gluten, or that their joints swell after indulging in pastries. Someone with Celiac Disease, who is truly intolerant of gluten, will exhibit an immune reaction to consuming gluten that can range from extreme bloating to a body-wide rash.
Whether you are sensitive to a food or completely intolerant of it, it’s still good to know what is affecting your body. Elimination diets can be a good way to gauge adverse reactions by pulling out common allergens and then reintroducing them slowly and seeing how your body responds. Ditkoff recommends keeping a food journal as another good way to start being able to link your symptoms to the food you ate. “Keeping a food journal allows the ability to identify potential triggers and reflect on them.” However, Ditkoff cautions, all elimination diets and journaling should be done while working with a health professional to ensure that you are meeting your nutritional needs and not overly restricting intake.
Choose smoothies over juices.
Many people are drawn to juicing as a way to “cleanse” the system and get some concentrated nutrition. While the intent is good, the truth is that juicing fruit and vegetables strips them of their fiber, leaving behind just the sugar. The fiber in the pulp of fruits and vegetables can help keep your digestive system running regularly and also helps slow down the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream, preventing mid-morning crashes. Additionally, blending gives you more volume that juicing, which can leave you more satiated and less likely to reach for snacks all day long. So, when in doubt, reach for a low-sugar smoothie over a juice to keep your gut happy and blood sugar stable.