The digestive system is a whole body process. Even our brains interfere with our gut and microbes, affecting everything from mood and metabolism to our immune systems. There is still a lot to learn about how diet and gut affect our entire body, but we do know that there are important links between chronic disease, diet, and gut health.
How does the digestive system work?
Our digestive system is a complex system with many working parts and it starts from the moment food comes into contact with our mouth. Each part of the system helps break food and fluids down into smaller pieces so that the body can absorb nutrients and move them to where they need them.
Certain enzymes in our saliva plant start the digestive process. When food travels from the esophagus to our stomach, the enzymes work with the contractile muscles, mixing the food with the enzymes. Although each person is slightly different, it usually takes about four to five hours for food to pass through the first half of the digestive system.
The small intestine is where our gut microbes begin to do their job by breaking down fats, carbohydrates and proteins. It also supports our immune health and absorbs vitamins and minerals. Bacteria in the large intestine (colon) complete the breakdown process and help maintain fluid balance.
The digestive system is also affected by hormones, nerves, and other organs such as the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder.
Diet and digestive diseases
“Like other types of chronic disease, I strongly believe that an individual’s diet influences management and, in certain cases, even the development of chronic gastrointestinal disease,” says Marta Johnson, MMN, RDN, LMNT, Nebraska Medicine. “Food is fuel, and if we don’t get the nutrients we need, our bodies will face a difficult disease that will resist time or help us maintain the quality of life we want.”
Like other chronic diseases, GI patients often have chronic inflammation, which can lead to additional health problems. The way we eat may help prevent and maintain chronic inflammation. Research reveals links between diet and inflammation:
- Foods high in saturated and trans fats may increase inflammation
- Healthy fats (such as omega-3 and monounsaturated fats) may help reduce inflammation
- Phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables may help protect against inflammation
Lifestyle also plays a role in managing gastrointestinal disease:
- stress management
- Do exercise and move around regularly
- Reducing exposure to environmental toxins, smoking and excessive alcohol
- Good sleep
Diet becomes crucial in preventing disease progression for those who suffer from certain autoimmune disorders related to the digestive system. Those with celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease are highly influenced by what they eat.
Can celiac disease be prevented or even treated with a healthy diet?
Research is limited but is growing rapidly. “The Frederick F. Baustian Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases is partnering with Nebraska Food for Health for further microbiome research,” Johnson says. “As we conduct more research, we hope to use this knowledge to prevent and treat gastrointestinal disease and help manage gastrointestinal disease more accurately through nutrition.”
A healthy diet may look different for everyone. “Nutrition and health are much more complex than just looking at the macronutrients in someone’s diet,” adds Jonson. “I enjoy talking to patients about gut health because it digs deeper than many people are used to considering nutritional education.”
The eight best foods for gut health
Foods that promote gut health contain prebiotic fiber and potential anti-inflammatory properties. Ideally, half of your plate should be plants, a quarter full of healthy carbs, and the last quarter protein. The more color on your plate, the better.
Digestion tips when adding healthy foods to your diet:
- When you increase the fiber in your diet, your body needs time to adapt. It is essential to add high-fiber foods slowly and stay hydrated to reduce discomfort. Mild bloating after eating high-fiber foods is normal and a sign of healthy digestion
- You don’t need to buy exclusively organic products or just buy fresh produce to add variety and nutrients to your diet. The salt-free canned and frozen versions are quite nutritious and can be less expensive. Watch for seasonal products, which are often on sale
- Use mindful eating techniques to help nourish your brain and gut connection:
- Be fully present at mealtimes (put digital devices aside)
- Take three to six deep breaths before sitting down to eat to calm the mind and send blood flow to the digestive system
- Take your time and chew slowly to aid digestion
Add these healthy foods to your diet:
- Flaxseeds are rich in omega-3s, fiber and antioxidants. Try adding them to oats and smoothies. The ground version may be better absorbed by the body.
- Berries like cherries, blackberries, and raspberries are excellent sources of fiber, which contain phytonutrients (antioxidants) that fight inflammation.
- Turmeric is an antioxidant, fights infections, and boosts immunity. Rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, buy the high-quality root or spice version to use with meals, chicken, vegetables or rice.
- Ginger root reduces inflammation and can help soothe nausea. Make it as a tea, or try adding it to glazes, vegetables, smoothies, or salad dressings.
- Beans aid digestion, are high in fiber, and slow digestion to help you feel full. Soak them overnight to reduce the chance of gas.
- Avocados are full of healthy fats and a fiber called pectin, which benefits gut health.
- Oats are full of soluble fiber that may help lower cholesterol, slow digestion to help you feel fuller for longer, and help control blood sugar. Add oats to berries, nuts, and seeds to add protein and antioxidants.
- Pumpkin is full of fiber and vitamin K, supports bone health, and promotes gut health. Tip: Canned pumpkin usually contains more fiber.
Foods to reduce or avoid if you are prone to digestive problems
While all foods are nutritious, some of the most common foods to avoid are artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and the habit of eating saturated fats or trans fats.
- Beware of “sugar-free” or “calorie-free” foods. This often means that artificial sweeteners have replaced sugar. While it is beneficial for diabetics, eating one or two meals a day can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
- Saturated fats are gut inflammatory and in just about any product on the shelf, including beef, pork, and pork. The best choice is lean proteins or vegetable proteins such as tofu, edamame, quinoa, beans and chickpeas
- Although dairy products are an excellent source of protein, people with lactose intolerance are encouraged to try plant-based milks or milk alternatives.
“Remember that overall health includes a range of things, including emotional, physical, and mental health,” Johnson says. “A healthy diet isn’t all or nothing. It’s about being intentional one day at a time, providing your body with whole foods and knowing there’s a healthy balance.”
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