Through my health transition I’ve tried many different dietary lifestyles. I’m always making tweaks and trying new things and the most clear way for me to tell how something I consume impacts me is the effect is has on my digestion. Wether you’re plant based or not, we’ve all had times of bloating, gas or other tell tale signs of something going awry internally and these 11 tips will help combat and prevent these uncomfortable feelings. Consider these more as guidelines than rules though. It’s not about perfection and every day of eating is just a micro section of a macro story so just bear these in mind, no need to stress over them. They’re meant to reduce the release of cortisol, not increase it : )
I could write a whole article about any one of these tips but I tried to keep it brief so I could cover the topic of digestion more wholly because much like nutrition, a reductionist approach to a topic as vast a digestion would ignore the complexities that are so important for garnering a deeper understanding.
Portion Size – Generally speaking, within America our portion sizes have gotten a bit out of hand. Our stomachs can only handle so much and even though the distance from our bellies to our brains is not a long journey, it takes a little while for the signal sent from out stomach saying that we’re full to reach our brains. So if we stop eating before we feel stuffed it makes digestion a lot easier. Think of it like doing dishes. Having a few dirty dishes in the sink to work through is a breeze. Letting them stack up makes it more difficult to operate. This is especially true if the foods you’re eating are dry, processed or cooked. So as counterintuitive as it may seem, eating less can actually provide more energy.
Food Combining – The day I learned about food combing was a sort of paradigm shift for me. Some aspects were quite a surprise, others felt like they were obvious oversights relative to the amount I focused on what I ate. Food Combining is more about how we eat than what we eat. At the time a major part of my diet came from fruit so learning about the different categories of fruit and how they interacted once they’re in the stomach was a major help. While a smoothie of banana, kiwi and coconut might sound like a tropical delight, it also is a recipe for gas. Mixing acid fruit with sweet fruit is a combo to avoid on it’s own, adding in the fatty fruit coconut to the mix is going to make it a rough experience because these all digest differently and their levels of acidity don’t mix well. The main food combining surprise for me was that protein (especially animal based) and starches are best eaten separately. So this means the old meat and potatoes meal is best to avoid because those 2 things take more digestive enzymes than any other types of food to digest, so by not overburdening the body with too much at once digestion will flow better leaving more energy for other processes. If the concept of food combining is foreign just do a little digging into it and the foods you generally consume, check various sources and experiment a bit.
Timing – I used to snack all day long. I’d get bored as work and nibble on little things to keep me going. Now I prefer 1 or 2 solid meals a day without snacking in between and follow intermittent fasting for physical and mental reasons. When you have those set times for lunch and dinner, the lingering thoughts of grabbing a snack dissipate. I eat between 12 – 8pm and outside of those hours let me system rest. I do drink liquids all day though because they take little to no effort to digest and there’s no change of overlapping meals, which causes fermentation in the gut. This also gets rid of late night snacking which helps with mental clarity. It’s helpful to stop eating several hours before bed because as we start to wind down for the evening so does our digestive system. By eating late at night we increase the odds of leaving food undigested which causes grogginess. Also those late night snacks often are not great foods to be eating anyways and will stick to us more than if we’d let them full digest. So by keeping a regular rhythm our bodies are able to better handle what we’re sending into them.
Movement – The benefits of walking after a meal are well known but doing just 15 – 30 minutes of movement in some form ahead of eating helps create space in the body and gets our system woken up and ready to process the meal. If we’re outwardly stagnant, we will be inwardly as well. Movements like yoga, rebounding, jogging or anything that gets your body in motion before or after digestion will aid the process immensely.
Herbs – After going plant based I felt like I had a good rotation of herbs in my diet but sprinkling my dinner with dried oregano isn’t quite what I’m referring to here. In the last year I’ve been looking into herbs much more and getting stronger, Ayurvedic herbs into my rotation, mostly through tea. So wether you’re looking to improve digestion, reduce inflammation or any bodily shift, there’s almost certainly an herb to support your endeavor. I’ve been enjoying nettle tea almost daily now after Audrey Barron of Ezra’s Enlighten Cafe laid out some of it’s powerful healing properties and I can feel a major difference. I have it at night or in the morning usually paired with a few other herbs and it helps to break down my dinner along with a whole host of other benefits. Herbs and tea can be so fun to experiment with and there’s seemingly endless varieties to choose from.
Fermented Foods / Probiotics – If you follow my instagram page you’re probably well aware of my love for fermented and cultured foods. Culinarily, I just love creating them and incorporating them into dishes because they add such a depth of flavor to all sorts of dishes. My salads often feel incomplete without a fermented component. While I do love the taste, it’s the gut related benefits that resonate with me the deepest. Having some probiotic rich foods along with a meal can help digestion immensely. However if you don’t like the taste of fermented foods along with your meal there are plenty of probiotic supplements on the market that help promote the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Take those at night, then while you sleep the billions of microorganisms will go to work while you rest.
Mood – While digestion is predominantly a physical process there are absolutely nonphysical aspects to it. If we eat when we’re in a bad mood or feeling hectic our body will be in a state of distress which makes digestion and absorption of the food much more difficult. If I need to calm myself ahead of a meal, taking some deep breaths or standing outside on the Earth barefoot are fantastic ways to get grounded so I can go into the meal in a more calm and grateful manner.
Enzymes – Much like probiotics, enzymes can be incorporated though food or supplements. Our bodies need enzymes for every function from digesting our food to blinking our eyes and by adding more than we use up we can stay vibrant and energetic. Once fresh food is heated over 118 degrees the living enzymes start to die, this is what draws so many people to raw foods. Through raw foods we can load up on enzymes and it makes operating a lot easier. If you aren’t getting much raw food in your diet, supplementing enzymes is something I highly recommend. Take enzymes along with a meal to help digest it if the meal doesn’t have enough digestive enzymes in to really be processed effectively. I’m completely raw and still use enzymes sometimes. When I do take a big scoop, I feel the benefits big time. Enzyme supplements are great while you’re fasting or with a drink in the morning because they help to clear out and break down matter thats stored within the GI tract.
Plants – You don’t have to go fully plant based to let plants help your digestion. Salads are one of the best tools for digestion because all that plant material feeds our gut microflora while the fiber helps to move things through like a broom. So even if you’re going to have a hamburger, putting it on a bed of greens and veggies instead of a bun is a move your digestive system will thank you for.
Sequential Eating – This goes hand and hand with food combining. Staying mindful of how slow or fast foods digest and eating them in the appropriate order really helps with bloating and gas. Think about 2 trains leaving a station on the same track. First a slower moving one goes, then shortly after a faster one. Thats a recipe for trouble and by thinking of food in these terms bloating, gas and other digestive issues can be side stepped. Fruit should be eaten first since it moves the fastest. Since melons have the highest water content of any food, they should always be eaten first, even ahead of other fruits. They’re really best as the first thing in the day so the stomach can be empty.
Hydration – Staying hydrated helps the body in some many ways and digestion is certainly one of them. The odd thing about it is that while drinking water is great for the body, there’s certain times where it’s better than others. Drinking water ahead of a meal can help to “grease the wheels” of your digestive system in a beneficial way but drinking water during a meal can actually slow down digestion. Drinking water along with food can dilute stomach acids and enzymes. I wish this issue were a cut and dry one (pun absolutely intended) but there’s a lot of nuances to it regarding what food is being eaten. Most food needs all the hydrochloric acid it can get to digest it so diluting that with water will inhibit timely or full digestion, while others glide through the GI tract so easily, such as fruit or leafy greens, that having some water at the time of the meal won’t disrupt digestion much at all. These foods have such a high water content they travel through the GI tract without needing to generate hydrochloric acid for effective digestion. This is one of the reasons a raw vegan lifestyle is so beneficial. Unless someones only eating nuts and seeds, all their meals will have a high water content which helps to keep hydrated. The water in plants is also some of the best water available because it has been filtered and structured through the plants. However most people don’t live this way and should do what they can to help digest foods that don’t move through the body so easily. Starchy foods need some water along with them to help move them along because they are so dry and challenging for our bodies to process. If a food is dry it will pull water from the body to digest itself leaving the body more dehydrated which can be a drain on energy. I usually drink about a liter of water in the morning to get hydrated for the day and flush out and toxins released over the night then stay hydrated through the day with fresh juices and high water content food but if you’re prone to starchy, dry foods, keep the water flowing in so food doesn’t become stagnant.
There are so many variables involved with digestion and these few tips cover a fraction of ways to aid the process but certainly don’t encapsulate everything. My hope is with some of these tips that have been helpful to me you may experience some improvements that lead to better bodily function and increased energy. If you have any questions, please send them my way and I’ll do my best to answer them.