In our fast-paced, fast-food society we have totally lost the connection between our health and the foods we eat. My recent conversation with a client is a perfect example of this “disconnect.” With his permission he said I could share his story as long as I didn’t mention his name, so we’ll call him Bob. Like most of us, Bob has a very busy schedule. He works long hours, has three children and is very involved in their sports. In fact, he says he rarely misses a game. Bob skips breakfast or sometimes has a donut and coffee, mostly has fast food for lunch and eats it in the car while rushing back to work, has a snack out of the vending machine at work in the afternoon, and usually grabs a hot dog or something quick at the game for dinner. Bob’s symptoms include indigestion, “acid reflux,” gas, bloating, constipation, and painful hemorrhoids. He says that he practically lives on antacids and even wakes up to take them two or three times during the night. He went to the emergency room on two occasions for severe gallbladder attacks and had his gallbladder removed two years ago. The biggest problem with Bob is that he never made the connection between the foods he was eating, or how he ate them, and the way that he felt.
Bob is like so many of us today who rush through meals without paying attention to the reason why we eat in the first place. Even if you make conscious decisions about the foods that you put in your body, it is just as important to take the time to truly eat and enjoy them. The following tips will help you improve your digestive habits–and get the most out of the foods you eat:
1. Eat to Nourish Your Body
The purpose of food is to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to function properly–a simple concept, but hard to grasp in our fast-paced society. Rarely do people eat food with the intention of nourishing their body. Instead, most people just grab something quick and convenient to make the hungry feeling go away, or they binge on junk food out of habit, boredom, as a “reward,” or as a way to distract themselves from negative feelings. Eating for any of those reasons can lead to poor food choices, poor eating habits, and ultimately, poor digestive function. The first step in improving the health of your digestive system is to improve the quality of the food that you put in your body. The more natural your food is the better digested it will be.
The problem is that for people like Bob, it’s hard to find the time to prepare nourishing meals. Still, Bob needs to make some adjustments to his life so that he can eat real food. A good breakfast containing high quality protein and fat is critical, even if it is just a yoghurt smoothie, some hard boiled eggs or raw cheese and butter on sprouted whole grain toast. If Bob has access to raw whole milk, this would be a wonderful food requiring no preparation whatsoever that can be used at meals or as a snack. Rather than grab fast food for both lunch and dinner, it would be better to take a simple lunch to work and then eat in a higher priced restaurant for dinner. Again, raw cheese and hard boiled eggs are good choices for lunch, as are tuna salad, crispy nuts and sliced meat sandwiches made with sprouted whole grain bread. For dinner, order simple foods such as steak or grilled fish. Above all, Bob needs to learn to avoid all forms of vegetable oils (liquid and partially hydrogenated) as these are very hard to digest. Bob should ask for olive oil and vinegar for his salad dressing and real butter for his baked potato. Fried foods are the worst offender and should be avoided if at all possible.
In today’s busy world, few people take the time to really enjoy the foods they eat. Instead, it is common to either skip breakfast or grab something quick while running out the door, eat lunch on the run, and pop a convenient prepackaged dinner in the microwave. Eating when under stress or in a hurry inhibits the production of hydrochloric acid and enzymes that are necessary for proper digestion. So it is best to entirely avoid eating when under stress. Wait instead until you can take the time to eat and enjoy your food. Remember that feeding your body is a sacred event, don’t rush it!
3. Slow Down and Chew
Chewing your food thoroughly begins the digestive process, breaking food into smaller particles and mixing it with saliva and amylase. The smaller the particles of food swallowed, the better broken down it will be in the stomach and the more surface area for nutrient absorption will be available in the small intestines. If you really want to get the most out of your food, not only do you have to make good food choices, but you have to be able to break down and effectively absorb the nutrients from your food. It doesn’t make sense to invest extra time and money into preparing quality food, if you eat it quickly and forget to chew it. So, as you learn to relax and enjoy your food, really focus on completely breaking it down before swallowing, and pause before taking another bite and, most importantly, don’t forget to breathe!
4. Eat Your Enzymes
Enzyme-rich foods are a great aid to digestion. But just because foods are raw does not mean they contain lots of enzymes. Raw milk and cheese are good sources of enzymes as are the tropical fruits like bananas, pineapple and papaya. Raw honey is also a good source of enzymes and would be a suggested sweetener. Bob will probably not have time to make any lacto-fermented foods, but he should find a source of lacto-fermented sauerkraut and eat this frequently with meals. If he can learn to make lacto-fermented beet kvass, (recipe in Nourishing Traditions, page 608), or find someone to do this for him, this would be most helpful of all. Four ounces taken in the morning and before bed in the evening would go a long way to helping Bob solve his digestive problems.
5. Limit Portions
Portions are way out of control in our “supersized” society. This is because the processed foods of today are so empty that no matter how much of them people eat their body is still starving for nutrients and never feels completely satisfied. This explains the intense food cravings that many people experience, cravings that lead to uncontrollable binges. One serious problem with bingeing is the tremendous stress it puts on the entire digestive system–and the rest of the body for that matter. The human stomach has a limited capacity for digestion. Overeating decreases the effectiveness of hydrochloric acid and enzymes, not to mention that the foods most people choose to binge on are processed, nutrient-depleted, junk foods containing high levels of processed vegetable oils. Not only do these foods totally lack any nutritional value, they also rob the body of vitamins, minerals and precious enzymes. One of the first things people notice when eating a diet of nutrient-dense foods is that they don’t have to eat as much to feel satisfied, and the uncontrollable cravings go away!
6. Don’t Wash Your Food Down
Most of the taste buds in this country have been programmed to enjoy certain foods, especially the denatured ones, with their liquid counterparts, like coffee and a donut, pizza and an ice cold cola, or cookies and a nice tall glass of milk (unfortunately the wrong kind of milk!). In fact, a fast-food meal would be incomplete without the half-gallon-sized soft drink to wash it all down with. The problem is that drinking all that liquid with meals interferes with the whole digestive process, not to mention all the other problems created by the ingredients in the soft drink. But even if you make conscious decisions about the foods you eat, simply drinking too much water with your meals can affect your ability to properly breakdown your food. Drinking too much liquid with meals dilutes the concentration of hydrochloric acid and enzymes needed for proper digestion. So to get the most out of the foods you eat, it is best to avoid drinking lots of liquids 20-30 minutes before and after your meals. (If you take supplements or any other pills with food, try to use no more than 4-6 ounces of water to swallow them.)
7. Enhance Your Digestion
Following these tips will improve your digestive habits and optimize your digestive function. If you still experience symptoms of indigestion, try drinking one teaspoon of raw apple cider vinegar mixed with 2-4 ounces of water with your meals. Raw apple cider vinegar is loaded with enzymes and creates a nice acid environment for good digestion.
Another digestive aid is real bone broth–old fashioned chicken soup. If you can possibly fit this into your schedule, learn to make simple chicken soup using a crock pot. Half a cup or so of chicken broth sipped with meals is a great digestive aid.
And what about those antacids? Contrary to popular belief, too much stomach acid is not the cause of indigestion and other digestive complaints. In fact, most digestive symptoms occur due to lack of stomach acid. Gas, bloating, indigestion, “acid reflux,” burning, diarrhea, and constipation are all signs that the digestive system is in need of repair. And rather than fix the problem, by making better food choices or improving digestive habits, it is common to pop an antacid to make the symptoms go away. Last year Americans spent $7 billion on antacids! That’s crazy because what happens when we take antacids is that we neutralize hydrochloric acid, a substance that is critical for proper digestion. Stomach acid helps us assimilate protein–the building block for every single cell in the body. And if protein is not fully digested, it will putrefy in the gut and cause a heavy, bloated feeling after eating. Stomach acid is also essential for the absorption of important nutrients like calcium, iron, and B vitamins. A deficiency in B vitamins alone can cause symptoms like anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Stomach acid also serves as our first line of defense if we ingest anything in our food that doesn’t belong there–like bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
In our fast-paced society, it is easy to forget how important it is to slow down once in a while and refuel our body. Learn to use those precious moments throughout the day to reconnect with yourself–your thoughts, your body, and the foods you put in it!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2002.