What to Do When Traditional Foods Cause Digestive Problems
Because of the media hype and woefully inadequate information, too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food, and what does fear of food do to the digestive system? I am sure that an unhappy or suspicious stomach, constricted and uneasy with worry, cannot digest properly. And if digestion is poor, the whole body politic suffers.
-Julia Child (1912-2004)
Stomach: A slave that must accept everything that is given to it, but which avenges wrongs as slyly as does the slave.
-Emile Souvestre (1806-1854)
Digestion is one of the most delicately balanced of all human and perhaps angelic functions.
-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)
My soul is dark with stormy riot,
Directly traceable to diet.
-Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947)
These observations on a process crucial to human happiness provide both comfort and chagrin to the many who struggle with digestive difficulties today. It is some comfort to know that you are not alone with your complaints, but also deflating to see how elusive perfect digestion appears to be. If you have recently adopted a nourishing traditional diet yet still suffer from a number of garden variety digestive troubles, this can seem especially frustrating.
It is important to note that the practical findings of Dr. Price’s years of research on optimal human nutrition are most applicable to the raising of children, starting even before conception with improved nutrition for the parents. Infants and young children will show the most gratifying responses to this early care, which will most likely carry them throughout life. For the rest of us, who may be well into maturity and past the childbearing years, adopting a nutrient-dense, traditional diet is nevertheless highly recommended, yet we may have many years of doubtful nourishment and harmful food habituations to compensate for. The following suggestions and thoughts are intended to provide insights to help improve your overall digestive health, as well as increase your pleasure and satisfaction in your daily meals.
Importance of Taste
Unless you were born into a family in which traditional foodways were the norm, you may not have had the opportunity to learn early in life some of the healthy habits which naturally result in good digestion and vibrant health. This first of all includes having an early-learned sense of taste for authentic foods that can be your guiding star all your life amid the morass of sinister “foodlike” concoctions with which modern commerce floods our markets.
Without that early experience of authentic taste linked pleasurably to family mealtime rituals, one can fall prey to ersatz flavors and textures in contrivances that only bear the remotest resemblance to genuine food, if at all. This means, for example, that the mention of Pringles potato chips will induce salivation in some people, whereas the word “liverwurst” might bring forth a grimace, and “sweetbreads” utter incomprehension. Salivation is, after all, one of the first steps necessary for digestion when we sit down to a meal, and is of course linked to our sense of “this is good to eat.” What does it mean if honest victuals produce a response that is appropriate for filth, whereas utter junk initiates the pleasant anticipation of appetizing food? Loss of this greater taste faculty is as serious as blindness or deafness, but is less obvious in its manifestations.
This phenomenon is part of the post-traumatic syndrome of survivors of the modern standard American diet. Not only do many people find they must heal their bodies from years of consuming toxic and rancid vegetable oils, a chemist’s vat of harmful additives, fake soy fabrications and just plain nutrient-deficient, fractionated foods, but their palates have become atrophied as well, and may need to be reacquainted with genuine flavors, aromas and textures. While this means that some wonderfully nutritious foods will seem repugnant to some people, it also means that even if these foods are accepted and generally liked, they may be served or eaten in ways that hamper their digestion because their use is new and still rather unfamiliar to the newly initiated. To top it off, there may also be an internal voice of authority that commands you to swallow it down, no matter what, and ignore the many natural sensory responses you have to the food set before you. It’s no wonder so many people have a bellyache!
One very vital, but very often overlooked fixture in a nourishing traditional diet is the regular inclusion of soup made from bone stocks. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a soothing, delicious plate of soup, but it is peculiar how few families prepare soups regularly. In fact, genuine, generous soup plates are themselves rather hard to come by in the United States—most often smallish bowls are supposed to serve the purpose, along with tiny, almost useless spoons. In a country where cheap fast food is super-sized, and restaurant steaks are cut in one-and-a-half pound slabs, soup doesn’t even rate serious consideration. But right under our noses is not only a most appetizing aroma rising from a plate of beautiful soup, but the secret to our enjoyment of the rest of our meal and its easy digestion.
Most traditional cuisines begin the main meal, which is usually served at midday, with a plate of soup. In fact, it is generally understood that “first course” means soup. The gelatin-rich, complexly flavored broth used as the base of the soup is made from the bones, feet, heads, tough cuts of meat, cartilage and so on from various animals. This broth is not only flavorful, but easy to digest, as gelatin attracts digestive fluids in the stomach. The addition of soup is the best way to moisten a meal, which in itself helps the process of digestion. Gelatin is nutritive, and has many healing qualities for the entire intestinal tract as it is soothing and restorative. Kaayla Daniel’s in-depth article on gelatin-rich bone broths, Why Broth is Beautiful, (www.westonaprice.org/foodfeatures/brothisbeautiful.html) details gelatin’s many other values in not only digestive health, but also for skin, bones, heart, detoxification and immune function.
It is worth repeating that bone broth is the only genuine article, and though not particularly labor-intensive to prepare, requires many hours of slow simmering to become an almost magical, healing liquid. Most restaurants and institutional kitchens purchase “soup bases” that are condensed slurries of cheap thickeners with artificial and/or soy-based flavorings, MSG, and other undesirables. Canned soups have many of the same loathsome ingredients. Real, healing, nourishing broth must be made at home, by you or someone who loves you.
Bone broth, through the vehicles of soups, stews, and ragoûts, can be the best way to reintroduce meat to the former vegetarian. Even small amounts of meat will be nutritionally enhanced by the amino acids that bone broth contributes, and the gelatin will prepare the way for complete digestion. Further, these sorts of slow-cooked dishes with several ingredients tend to harmonize themselves nicely into one nutrient-dense, and soul-satisfying meal, and are much more agreeable and digestible than a “pot luck” assortment of unrelated dishes. This is something to consider if you have a “touchy” stomach.
Lacto-fermented foods, beverages and condiments comprise a second category of nutrition necessary for healthy digestion. Ubiquitous, beneficial lactobacilli preserve foods beautifully and also alter them nutritionally for the better—their vitamin content increases while the lactobacilli produce enzymes that aid digestion. The fermentation by-product lactic acid is also a promoter of healthy flora in the intestines, and helps keep the balance among all the necessary microorganisms in check. These factors all contribute to normal bowel function.
Restoring good digestive function by introducing these fermented foods may need to be done slowly and thoughtfully. Small amounts of pickled foods and relishes have an important place in meals where their contribution of sour taste complements other flavors and “wakes up” the digestive process while also contributing a good dose of healthy bacteria. They are powerful food, though, and must be used with discretion or they can upset stomachs if consumed in excess or with sweet “cold” foods such as milk. I have attended lunches where milk, sauerkraut, kimchi and raw vegetable salads (another “cold” food) were all served together. It seems obvious that these foods should not be eaten in the same meal, but sometimes over-enthusiasm with new food choices carries one away, to the detriment of happy digestion. Lacto-fermented condiments are best used with hot, rich foods; in this combination they provide balance to the richness of the meal and aid in the digestion of fats.
Lacto-fermented dairy products are in a category by themselves as nutritious and healing foods—especially for regulating digestive functions—yet a measure of care is necessary when introducing them into one’s diet as well. In fact, real dairy products of all sorts can be something of a challenge to those who have known them earlier in life in much different guises.
Problems with Milk
You may have enjoyed commercial milk as a child, and then gradually lost the ability to digest it and so avoided it for many years. Or, you may have taken to drinking skim milk in response to the mass calling to reduce animal fat intake. You may even have only drunk reconstituted powdered milk during childhood and subsequently detest the very idea of milk—that is, until you learned about real, raw milk from truly contented cows on green pasture. You decided to give it a try, and lo and behold, it was pleasant to drink. But later it upset your stomach, gave you gas, intestinal cramping, diarrhea and/or constipation, and even phlegm. What is going on here?
“Milk is considered cooling, nutritive, strengthening and vitalizing; also demulcent [soothing to mucous membranes] and emollient [softening]….As an article of the diet milk is peculiarly adapted for all—children, the aged, wounded, emaciated, suckling women…for patients suffering from chronic bowel complaints, gastric catarrh…and is useful in relieving irritation in the respiratory and digestive tracts or organs.”
So writes Dr. K.M. Nadkarni in his 1925 Indian Materia Medica, a text including Ayurvedic presentations of many traditional remedies. In the Charaka Samhita, an original Ayurvedic source compiled in verse about 400 BCE, cow’s milk is described as sweet, cold, soft, unctuous, dense, heavy, slow, viscid and clear. The rare epithet of “that which is free from all defects” is conferred upon milk, and it is called “an elixir par excellence.” Warm milk straight from the cow is ambrosia. However, both sage sources point out that milk requires a strong digestive fire in the person who drinks it. The elixir must be consumed with respect.
The science of Ayurveda is an ancient holistic approach to health and living life that focuses attention on the particular constitution of each individual as well as on the qualities of the foods he eats. This wisdom includes keeping in mind important mutable variables such as climate, time of year and stage of life, which all bear their influences on one’s overall state of health. The goal is balance and harmony in the body systems; the premise to understand is that like increases like, while opposites tend to balance each other.
When speaking of the use of milk in the diet, modern Ayurvedic commentators point out that in the West, milk is treated in ways not considered by the ancients. First, it is pasteurized and homogenized, which, all agree, create a mostly indigestible product for numerous reasons.
Second, milk is usually served cold, straight from the refrigerator. As milk is already a cold food by nature, ingesting it cold increases that quality, along with its heaviness and difficulty to digest. For those people whose own constitutions have a tendency toward coldness, slowness of metabolism and heaviness, drinking cold milk can provoke production of mucus or phlegm and slow down digestion. For anyone, however, cold milk will be something of a douse to his digestive fire. Depending on the inherent strength of one’s digestive capacities, this effect might be barely noticeable, or could produce an unpleasant heaviness in the stomach.
Third, milk is served unspiced. A simple way to mitigate the coldness and heaviness of milk is to warm it and add warming spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper or saffron. Honey, which is light and dry by nature, also balances these qualities.
Fourth, milk is often taken in excess, and in combination with other foods; notable difficult combinations are milk with fruit, leafy vegetables, fish and sour things. Milk is a complex and complete food, and is best regarded as such, rather than as a beverage to be consumed with a meal. It can be cooked successfully with other foods such as grains or in custards, where it lends many nutritive qualities in easily digested forms. The common American breakfast habit of eating cold cereal with cold milk and fruit is quite hard on the stomach, and the worst fruit to eat with milk is bananas (though sweet to the taste, they have a sour post-digestive effect, whereas milk’s is sweet).
These insights into the qualities of a super food such as milk may help those who wish to include it in their diet but are finding it somewhat difficult to digest because they are consuming it in inappropriate ways. You may have downed buckets of corn flakes with milk (and bananas!) with seeming impunity as a teenager, but consider that the vital force (and digestive fire) of a young person is much stronger than that of one in middle age. In youth we built body tissues as we grew and had other energy demands that a mature, modestly active adult no longer requires.
Part of the strategy of being well-nourished in the second half of life must include understanding the limits of one’s digestive capacities and maximizing their function through wise food choices and eating habits. Although raw milk does contain enzymes that aid in the digestion of lactose and other components, its inherent heavy and cold qualities may also need to be mitigated by simple means: heating it gently, adding warming spices, and/or adding honey or ghee. Ghee (clarified butter), either with milk or used elsewhere in meals, is considered light, and according to Ayurveda, confers intelligence and beauty, promotes memory, is one of the best rejuvenatives, and, very importantly, enkindles digestive fire. It also enhances the absorption and assimilation of nutrients. A cup of warmed milk with a teaspoon or two of ghee and enhanced with cardamom, cinnamon and honey is indeed ambrosial, I assure you! Try to consume dairy products as a meal by themselves, at least an hour or so away from larger meals.
Yogurt and kefir are lacto-fermented products that can aid digestion. They may be the only dairy products that some people will be able to tolerate well. Ayurveda cautions not to take these foods cold, however, and never with sweet milk. I, for one, cannot stomach cold yogurt or clabbered milk or kefir, but I love them warmed to body temperature and have no problems digesting them that way. Adding a bit of salt also increases their digestibility. The traditional Indian postprandial digestive drink lassi was not originally a sweet liquid dessert, but merely yogurt stirred one part to four with warm water and a few pinches of ground cumin, coriander or ginger and salt, and is good for most constitutions.
The current practice of drinking milk or yogurt in smoothies with fruit, blue green algae and 47 supplements is a sure recipe for digestive strain and upset, either immediately or over time. Ayurvedic practitioners note that these sorts of dietary “clashes” actually inhibit digestive enzyme function, create confusion within the body’s metabolic systems and confound cellular intelligence. “Green juice” brews can produce similar discord in the stomach and beyond, creating residues that the body must expend vital energy to get rid of, while the function of digestive enzymes is compromised and nutrient assimilation is questionable.
Rhythm and Routine
Finally, a few words should be said about rhythm and routine in our daily mealtimes. Everyone benefits from a regular schedule of mealtimes, for most people three times a day, although some are happier with two, and some, especially those who are underweight and ill, with four or five smaller meals. Regular meals help your body know when to be hungry, and you should only eat when you are truly hungry—that is when your digestive fire will be strong.
For those of us who are mature adults and exert only modest amounts of physical activity, it is normal to have a moderate appetite. In this case it is very important to “spend” our caloric allowance each day very wisely, both in terms of nutrients we take in and digestive exertion. Breakfast and lunch should be the most important meals of the day as our capacity to digest fat, for example, is greatest in the morning and early afternoon, and these times will be the best for larger, heavier meals. Sipping warm, mild ginger tea (made simply by chopping ginger and steeping it with boiled water for a half hour in a teapot) will help keep digestive fire strong during mealtimes.
Supper should be a much lighter meal, with at least a couple of hours between it and the time you go to bed. Our digestive faculties are winding down as the day closes, and going to sleep with an empty stomach allows the natural processes of organ rest and repair (as well as sound, uninterrupted sleep) to occur unimpeded.
Several years ago I got into the habit of eating two meals a day: a hearty breakfast that allowed me to work outside until about 2 o’clock when I stopped for a two-hour dinner. After dinner and a short rest, I could work again for several hours until the early evening, when I would prepare for the leisurely close of the day. I had found I wasn’t truly hungry for a third meal and discovered that without it, I slept more soundly and awoke feeling light and alert.
Although I wouldn’t lightly recommend my pattern for others as general advice, you might seriously consider making supper a very light meal if you find that you feel heavy and sluggish in the mornings and your tongue is thickly coated when you awake, and perhaps especially if supper is right now the heaviest meal of your day. Some foods that may be giving you digestive difficulties at suppertime may not do so earlier in the day. A very light supper will help you be hungry for a hearty breakfast, too.
It helps to remember that when we have improved the quality of our meals, we may not need the quantity we have been used to. It is possible to make ourselves sick by merely eating too much of a good thing, just as a fire fed with too many logs will be snuffed out. To help digestion proceed smoothly, learn to stop eating when your stomach is three-quarters full.
“Our lives are not in the lap of the gods, but in the lap of our cooks,” said Lin Yutang in The Importance of Living. Our material and spiritual happiness is founded on the quality of our daily offerings of food to our “internal fire sacrifice.” Yet even with the most beautiful, nutritious food, it is up to us to invest our mealtime rituals with unhurried attention, peaceful surroundings and pleasant companions in order to digest it well on all planes.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2007.