A smooth running digestive system relies on the right foods at the right time.
Of all our bodily functions, we probably focus more on our digestive system than any other. I’m sure one reason for this is that we have plenty of opportunities to touch base with our digestive tract and take a reading. After all, you get signals from your digestive system all day long – everything from “Feed me!” to “Could you loosen the belt a little!“ and “Air comin’ your way!” Your digestive system has a way of speaking up, and that has a lot to say about what you put in it as well as how much and how often.
Many of us eat too much or eat too fast. We don’t eat enough fibre. We skip meals and then subject our systems to a gigantic plate of food. Considering how much use and abuse our digestive systems have to withstand, it’s a wonder we don’t suffer more than we do. Gas, bloating, “having a hard time going”—not a day goes by that someone doesn’t complain to me about one of these common digestive problems.
Let’s look at what you can do to ease any strain on your digestive system.
Get enough fibre
Fibre is the structural portion of a plant, so it’s found in good-for-you foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Our busy lifestyles contribute to the problem. When we’re eating on the go, we’re less likely to find fibre-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Aim to have a fruit or vegetable with every meal or snack, toss some beans into a soup or salad, and choose whole grains over refined “white” breads, cereals, rice and pasta.
Get some “good” bacteria
Your digestive system is home to thousands of strains of beneficial bacteria that help to break down foods that are resistant to normal digestion. This allows you to obtain more nutrients from your foods. The bacteria in your system also help to keep the growth of other potentially harmful bacteria at bay, thus promoting healthy digestion.
While the idea of consuming bacteria in your diet may not sound appealing, the probiotic bacteria found in yoghurt and other fermented foods can promote digestive health. Aside from yoghurt, you can pick up some of these “good” bacteria in other fermented soy products, as well as in pickled foods like cucumber pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Meet your fluid needs
Fluid helps the fibres in foods to “swell,” which helps to add more bulk to the material passing through the lower digestive tract. This keeps things running smoothly. Watery fruits and vegetables go a long way towards meeting fluid needs, but it’s still important to drink fluids throughout the day, too.
Get regular exercise
Exercise isn’t just for the muscles you can see—it’s good for the smooth muscles of your digestive tract, too. Exercise stimulates the muscles to contract, which keeps things “moving along.” Exercise is also a great stress-reducer, which makes it particularly good for those whose digestive systems act up when they get stressed out. Don’t go too long without eating When you go too long without eating, a couple of things are likely to happen: you’ll eat quickly because you’re so hungry, and you’ll eat too much because you’re starving. Either way, you could end up with a touch of indigestion. Your digestive system is likely to be a lot happier if you eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day.
Take your time... making dietary changes
Often when people are bothered by gas, they figure the best thing to do is to eliminate ‘gassy’ foods like beans or broccoli. But rather than eliminating these healthy foods, try eating just small amounts over several days to give your system time to adjust.
Take your time... eating and eliminating
When you eat too fast, not only does it lessen the enjoyment of your meal, but you’re more likely to swallow air which can lead to gas and bloating.
When you eat too quickly, you’re more likely to overeat since it takes your stomach about 20 minutes to tell your brain that you’re full. This can lead to further digestive discomfort. Lastly, when nature calls, be sure to listen. Too many people put off visits to the restroom if the urge to “go” strikes at an inconvenient time. Sure, the urge may pass, but if you put it off, you’re more likely to have trouble getting the job done.
MS, RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND
Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training