We all experience occasional digestive symptoms but a sluggish gut can mean more frequent bouts of indigestion, heartburn, bloating and constipation. What and how we eat may make a positive difference by reducing gut symptoms and improving overall health and well-being. Read on to discover more.
An efficient digestion is key to good health, it’s the means by which we access fuel for energy as well as the building blocks for growth and repair.
What are the top foods for better digestion?
1. Focus on whole foods
Minimally processed, rich in nutrients and loaded with fibre, whole foods such as fruit and vegetables are linked to a number of health benefits including a positive influence on gut microbiota. Compare this to the long-term consumption of processed food with their low fibre and high sugar, fat and salt contents, these have an inflammatory effect on the gut and are linked to a higher risk of digestive symptoms and chronic disease.
2. Fill up on fibre
Fibre is essential for keeping the gut healthy and for it to function efficiently. Aim to include wholegrains, nuts and seeds, as well as plenty of fruit and veg in your diet. If you suffer from wind and bloating you might want to ease off on the foods associated with these problems, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, beans and pulses. The gentler, soluble fibre is useful for those with sensitive systems – focus on legumes, oats and brown rice. When you increase fibre you also need to drink more fluids to help the fibre work more effectively.
3. Choose your fats wisely
Fatty foods like chips, burgers and fried foods are high in saturated fats and are harder to digest, as a result they may cause bloating and heartburn. Although high in saturated fats, coconut oil is a useful ingredient – it’s stable at high temperatures, making it ideal for roasting. About 50% of the medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) in coconut oil are a type called lauric acid, which are processed by the body more efficiently, without placing strain on the gall bladder. Lauric acid, may help fight off unwanted bacteria, keeping the gut healthy.
4. Enjoy fermented foods, regularly
A staple in many cultures, fermented foods are trending right now – be it kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir or miso. They’re natural sources of beneficial bacteria that promote digestion, support the immune system and may increase your resistance to infection.
Enjoying fermented food, such as yogurt regularly, helps top up levels of friendly gut bacteria, supports diversity and maintains balance.
5. Fuel your gut
The beneficial bacteria in your gut needs its own fuel source, certain foods are great for this. Leeks, onions, chicory and asparagus all contain a type of fibre called inulin, which the bacteria loves. This non-digestible fibre, known as a prebiotic, is fermented by gut bacteria, stimulating its growth and helping it thrive and increase in number.
Other useful fuel sources for your gut bacteria include polyphenols – these plant compounds are found in berries, olives and even spices.
Serve up nourishing asparagus soup.
6. Ease the load
Tenderising proteins like meat and fish may help lighten the load on your digestive system. By using acidic ingredients like lemon or lime juice, vinegar and acidic marinades you can promote the breakdown of the large protein molecules in meat.
Other options include pineapple and papaya, which both contain natural enzymes, promoting protein breakdown.
7. Stay hydrated
When you increase whole foods and fibre in your diet its important you drink plenty of fluids. This is because fibre acts like a sponge soaking up water.
Ideally, drink 6-8 glasses of water or other hydrating fluids each day, this is the amount you need to replace normal water loss. Water, milk, sugar-free drinks including tea and coffee, all count.
8. Know what affects you
We all handle foods differently, some people love hot, spicy foods and have no digestive issues when eating them. Others find chillies trigger heartburn as can milder tasting garlic and onions. Lactose, the natural sugar, is another problem for some people. These people find it hard to digest lactose and as a result may experience wind and diarrhoea after drinking milk or eating cream, some yogurt and cheese. If this sounds familiar you may have lactose intolerance.
Get to know what causes your issues and go easy on these foods or even avoid them altogether.
If dairy is a problem, check out our healthy dairy-free recipes.
Are there foods I should avoid if I have digestive problems?
In addition to the food you know trouble your digestive system, consider minimising these in your diet:
- Processed carbs, that’s the white refined ones like white bread, rice and pasta – these are low in fibre and nutrients
- Red and processed meats, guidance suggests we should eat no more than 70g red meat per day
- Watch your sugar intake, including sweeteners like sorbitol and xylitol, these are often found in chewing gum and diet foods and if eaten in quantity may have a laxative effect
- If you drink alcohol, stick to the government guidelines and allow yourself at least two consecutive alcohol-free days per week.
If you experience frequent or urgent bowel movements, pain with diarrhoea, blood in your stool or abdominal cramps or you’ve experienced heartburn most days for three weeks or more, refer to your GP.
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Have you improved your digestion? How did you do it? Which foods helped you? Share your experience in the comments below…
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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