When most people think about weight loss, they think about better nutrition, cutting out "bad" foods, and getting more exercise. But you may be overlooking an important aspect of weight loss - digestive health.
Do you experience bloating, belching, a feeling of over-fullness, constipation, or have problems with certain foods? These can all be signs that your digestion is poor and needs to be addressed in order for you to achieve optimal wellness (and weight loss).
Your digestive system is the mechanism in which your body breaks down, absorbs, assimilates, and eliminates food and all of the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and more that it contains. Even if you are eating the most nutrient-dense, health promoting foods on the planet, if you are unable to properly break them down in your digestive system and absorb the beneficial nutrients within, you can suffer from malnutrition and health issues.
What's more, anywhere from 70-80% of our immune system is in our gut, where friendly "good" bacteria can fight off bad bacteria that can lead to sickness, and chronic bloat-causing gas. The bacteria in our gut even plays a role in regulating our metabolism.
How do you restore digestive health so that your body can achieve wellness?
Eat More Bacteria
Probiotics, or "good" bacteria, such as Lactobacilli and Bifido bacteria, are naturally present in your gut. They help to maintain intestinal and gut health by preventing the colonization of pathogenic organisms, or "bad" bacteria.
Probiotics not only encourage a healthy digestive system, but they can also support a healthy immune system as well. Unfortunately, anytime you are prescribed a dose of antibiotics to help fight off an infection, you are killing off the good bacteria in your system that needs to be replenished. Many people like to follow a round of antibiotics with a probiotic supplement to restore the natural supply of good bacteria.
Eating foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha are a great way to get probiotics back into your system, but the absolute best way to keep your probiotic levels up and boost your health and weight loss efforts is to include fermented vegetables into your daily diet. Fermented vegetables not only create these good bacteria, but they also create new cultures that increase B vitamins, preserve nutrients, enhance the absorption of minerals, and cause the vegetables to break down more easily into a digestible form.
When digestion happens inside your gut, it is enzymes that get the job done. Digestive enzymes are proteins that facilitate the chemical breakdown of food into smaller, absorbable components. Each enzyme goes to work on a specific type of food: amylase enzymes breaks down starches into sugar molecules, protease enzymes break down proteins into amino acids, and lipase enzymes break down fat.
When we eat raw fruits and vegetables, we are consuming food enzymes that enable proper digestion. However, food enzymes are destroyed at temperatures above 118°, so cooking food can eliminate the very enzymes needed to digest it. Including raw fruits and vegetables with meals can help improve the amount of digestive enzymes we are getting, as can including a high quality digestive enzyme supplement. Signs that you may need assistance from digestive enzymes can include feeling consistently bloated or gassy two to four hours after a meal, or feeling like food is just "sitting there" hours after eating.
Don't Forget Fiber
Notice we didn't mention which enzymes break down fiber? That is because humans lack digestive enzymes that break down compounds from plant cell walls like cellulose, pectins, and resistant starches - otherwise known as fiber. Instead of being broken down in our bodies, fiber survives the digestive process intact and travels to the colon where it can provide food for the bacteria located there and help bulk up and remove waste.
Think of fiber as an industrial strength, natural cleaner for your gut. Foods rich in fiber are prunes, pears, mangos, apples, berries (such as raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries), squash, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, to name a few. Including fiber rich foods can help move things along and help prevent constipation that can lead to gas and bloating.
Add Bone Broths
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, the elimination of soups and stocks from our diets has contributed to digestive problems as well as joint problems. Stock and soups made from the bones of chicken, turkey, duck, beef, lamb, and fish (just like our grandmothers used to make) are anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and contain nutrients which help build the integrity of the digestive tract. When a person is suffering from a digestive disorder, a soup based on bone stock can bring fast relief.
The GAPS diet, or Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet, is designed for people with severe and serious digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, etc. The cornerstone of the GAPS diet is homemade meat or fish stock, and soups made from this homemade bone broth/ stock.
Choose the Right Fats
Fats are not always the enemy to good digestion, optimal health, or to weight loss. Certain fats, such as coconut oil, can actually be very beneficial. Studies have shown that coconut oil can help our bodies mount resistance to viruses, illness causing bacteria, yeasts, fungus, and candida that can often strike those with less than optimal digestion. Coconut oil is mainly composed of medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs, such as lauric acid. These are very similar to the MCTs found in breast milk. Coconut oil is also easy to digest. As soon as the MCTs in coconut oil make contact with saliva and gastric juices, the digestive process begins. Look for cold pressed, raw coconut oil that has been minimally processed to get the most beneficial and health promoting nutrients.
Remove Hard to Digest Foods
Certain short-chain carbohydrates can be incompletely absorbed in the gut and then can be fermented by bacteria. Unlike a beneficial fermented food, like our fermented vegetables and sauerkraut, these undigested and fermented sugars can lead to gas, pain, and other digestive issues. Avoid refined sugars, processed foods, "bad" fats like refined or hydrogenated vegetable oils, processed foods, and artificial sweeteners.
Some foods that can be hard to digest in one form can actually become beneficial in another form. For example, if you struggle to digest dairy products, you may be able to digest kefir - a dairy product that has been lacto-fermented and includes beneficial bacteria. Nuts, legumes, and grains are all great sources of fiber, but can be hard for some people to digest in a raw form. Instead, experiment with soaking and sprouting nuts, legumes, and grains. This process replicates germination, activating nutrients, neutralizing enzyme inhibitors, and promoting the growth of vital digestive enzymes. The result is fiber-rich foods that are much easier to digest.
When you think about a gut-healthy, digestion-healing process, it sounds very much like the advice that dietitian would give you to shed pounds. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, some raw and some fermented. Enjoy home-made soups made from bone broths and vegetables. Eat fiber rich foods, but soak and sprout them for better digestibility. Avoid refined sugars, processed foods, and bad fats, while enjoying beneficial "good" fats. If you put your focus on a healthy gut, you just might find yourself with a smaller waistline, too.
Kelly Harrington, MS, RD
Registered Dietitian for Healthy Goods