A Nutritionist’s Guide to Foods for Digestive System
A properly working digestive system plays a significant role in absorbing nutrients for the body. So, you must know more about it.
The digestive system is the most essential yet sensitive part of the human body. It consists of the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, and gallbladder. It is essentially responsible for breaking down foods and liquids into chemical components such as protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Furthermore, it helps the body absorb these nutrients, utilising them as energy for proper functioning. Therefore, specific foods for the digestive system can help improve it whenever there is a process breakdown.
Our bodily functions depend heavily on food, which defines our internal health. A properly working digestive system plays a significant role in absorbing nutrients in the bloodstream, which are the body’s building blocks. Hence, maintaining an equilibrium of nutrients is essential for the proper functioning of the body. In addition, an efficient and healthy digestive system plays the role of a bridge to maximise the absorption of nutrients. Therefore, consuming a nutrient-rich diet alone doesn’t benefit the body until you have good digestive health. However, plan your meals and your foods to suit your body. It can help improve your digestive system, thereby helping better absorption of the nutrients.
The Importance of a Healthy Digestive System
Your digestive tract makes up 70-80% of the immune system. It is because the external agents interact with the digestive system in the first place. Therefore, having a properly working digestive system helps defend your body against external attackers to ensure the healthy working of the body.
A balanced microbiome is a must for a better digestive system. The microbiome is an ecosystem where all the microbes persist and interact. It is reactive to the food, sleeping routine, stress level, and medications. In addition, the microorganisms living in the gut as a part of the gut microbiome help improve the digestive system. Medical science believes that we can track most diseases through the stomach. Hence, maintaining your gut health is essential.
Functions of Digestive System
There are four stages of the digestion process. The four stages are ingestion, digestion, absorption, and egestion.
Ingestion is the first stage of the digestion process. It starts as soon as the food enters the mouth and gets swallowed. The digestion process begins when the food enters the body, passing through the oesophagus to the stomach. The method of ingestion ends here.
It is the second stage of the digestion process. When the food passes through the oesophagus to the stomach, the gastric acid present in the stomach starts breaking down the food particles partially. It then passes to the small intestine for further processing.
Absorption is the third stage of the digestion process. When the partially digested food particles pass through the stomach to the small intestine, bile juice produced by the pancreas can further digest the food. In this stage, the digested food is absorbed as molecules of amino acids, simple sugar, fatty acids, and glycerol in the blood.
Egestion is the fourth and final stage of the digestion process. After food passes through all three phases and gets digested, the remaining food particles that cannot be digested move to the large intestine. The water gets removed from the large intestine, resulting in semi-solid faeces. Finally, the wastes get accumulated in the rectum, which the anus then reseals.
Top Gut-Friendly Foods
For a healthy gut, you need to eat right for a healthy gut. Eating right doesn’t necessarily mean bland foods. Instead, there’s a wide array of foods that are considered best for your gut health and its microbiome.
1. Probiotic Foods
As the name suggests, probiotic foods are foods rich in probiotics. In simple terms, they contain live microorganisms similar to those naturally present in your body. These foods are a host of friendly bacteria. After consumption, they get added to the already existing microbial community in your gut. For example, bacterial groups in probiotic foods include Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. Not all, but most fermented foods are probiotic. Examples of probiotic foods include:
Kombucha is an effervescent drink with probiotic effects. You can make it by fermenting green or black tea, good bacteria, yeast, and sugar. It shows a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Adding kombucha to your diet helps with better digestion. It can improve the health of intestinal cells, thereby supporting gut lining and its function. You can enjoy Kombucha straight from the bottle, and it doesn’t require any additional preparation.
Kefir is a probiotic-packed, fermented milk beverage perfect for dairy intolerants. It contains multiple strands of yeast and gut-friendly bacteria. For instance, it has about 30 different species of probiotics. What’s particularly beneficial about kefir would be its healing effect on the gut. Moreover, a study shows that kefir multiplied gut microbiota composition, reducing the risk of gastrointestinal disease and inflammation.
Most of us, especially Gen Z, know about kimchi from the ever-popular Korean dramas. It is an Asian fermented vegetable dish, primarily made with cabbage, scallions, and radishes. It is considered a Korean food staple rich in probiotic lactic acid bacteria. Eating one serving of kimchi a day allows gut bacteria to thrive. It is also helpful in suppressing inflammation and treating constipation. You can simply eat kimchi on its own, or you can pair it with rice for a flavorful kick.
Although sticky and stinky, natto is an all-natural probiotic considered healthy for women. It is a Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans. Natto offers a rich culture of bacteria that heals the gut. It also keeps gut inflammation at bay. In addition to being a gut-friendly food, natto is rich in vitamin K2 and protein.
2. Prebiotic Foods
Focusing solely on probiotic foods is not enough to sustain a healthy gut. You also need to eat plenty of prebiotic foods. Since they are composed of soluble fibres, prebiotic foods fuel your gut bacteria, maintaining the gut balance. They effectively feed the beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. All prebiotics are fibres; however, not all dietary fibres are prebiotics. Good prebiotic foods include:
Bananas, especially the unripe green ones, show excellent prebiotic properties. Its prebiotic nature mainly comes from resistant starch, which helps the gut bacteria thrive and increase in number. It, in turn, promotes better gut stability and protects against any gastric inflammation. Moreover, bananas are great at combating constipation to soften stools.
Jerusalem artichoke provides the best results for your gut microbiome by improving digestion. It is rich in a well known prebiotic called Inulin. Just consuming 20 grams is sufficient to provide you with the recommended amount of prebiotics for a day. The prebiotic potential of the Jerusalem artichoke supports nutrient absorption and boosts the stability of the probiotics we eat.
The multiple nutritional benefits of garlic are not unknown. However, some are unaware that garlic acts as a gut-friendly prebiotic, thereby boosting the growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria. Moreover, it blocks the growth of disease-causing bacteria in the gut. A study supports this claim by stating that the prebiotic effectiveness of garlic prevents certain gastrointestinal diseases.
Mushrooms are a great choice if you’re looking to add more prebiotics into your diet. It can nourish gut bacteria to promote the optimal health of your body’s microbiome. Mushrooms contain Galatians, hemicellulose, xylans, mannans, and β and α-glucans. They’re a different form of carbohydrates that support gut microbiota growth. When friendly bacteria are predominant, it promotes overall metabolism, immunity, and health.
3. Lean Protein Foods
Lean protein, from both plants and animals, promotes good gut health. They’re low in calories and saturated fat, thereby ensuring that you’re meeting the daily protein requirements without raising cholesterol levels. In addition, regular exercise and lean protein are correlating factors in better gastrointestinal health. In the meantime, high protein consumption will be counterproductive. Some examples of lean protein foods include:
Black beans are delicious, plant-based lean protein, which is part of most vegetarian and vegan diets. Its unique resistant starch and protein composition make the gut healthier by producing short-chain fatty acids. In addition, it prevents gut-associated diseases by improving the function of intestinal barriers. You can try making a salad or soup out of it. Another option would be mixing canned black beans with other vegetable dishes.
Plain Greek Yoghourt
Plain Greek yoghurt is free from unnecessary fats and extra calories without compromising its protein content. Compared to regular yoghurt, it is healthier and ensures a happier gut. In addition to being a lean protein, Greek yoghurt also offers probiotic cultures like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus casei. They work by strengthening and flourishing the digestive tract microbiota. You can simply mix a bowl of plain Greek yoghurt with fruits for a filling breakfast or afternoon snack.
Tofu, a popular soy-based product, is a good source of lean protein. It is a complete protein source for vegans looking to add all nine essential amino acids to their diet. According to USDA, 100 grams of tofu offers 9.41 grams of protein. Tofu works well for your gut when consumed in moderation. It also keeps the colon healthy. However, keep in mind that too much of anything is bad for you.
White Meat Chicken
Skinless, white meat chicken is perfect for those looking for gut-friendly lean protein. The breast is particularly easy to digest. It is suitable for stomach issues like cramps, diarrhoea, and nausea. Adding bone broth to shredded white meat chicken is an ideal gut-healing dish. Make sure not to include dark meat cuts like drumsticks and thighs.
4. Fibre-Rich Foods
Fibre is a holy grail for better digestion and a healthy gut. Fibre helps ease the digestion process by adding bulk to the stool, which allows it to move easily and quickly to avoid constipation. In addition, it absorbs water efficiently. Therefore, consuming a fibre-rich diet helps stool soften and move through the large intestine. You can eat fibre-rich foods to aid digestion. Recommended daily fibre intake stands between 22 to 34 grams a day for adults. Some examples of fibre rich foods include:
The health benefits of avocado always come from its rich fibre content. In addition to being a tasty fresh fruit, eating avocados for breakfast, lunch, or dinner can boost your daily fibre intake by 9 grams. Thus, making it suitable for fostering gut health. Moreover, avocados support the microbial diversity in the gut, resulting in better digestion and breakdown of fats.
Chia seeds are well known for their fibre content. They contain 27 grams of fibre per 100 grams. In addition, chia seeds benefit digestive health and absorb water up to 15 times their weight. Therefore, consuming them can improve intestinal health absorption and positively affect gut flora.
According to a study, chia seeds increase villi’s surface, length, and width. Villi are finger-like projections that essentially help in the absorption of nutrients. They also increase the number of goblet cells, which play a vital role in maintaining the health of the intestinal wall.
Beetroot, the blushy pink root vegetable, is an excellent source of fibre and is beneficial for the digestive system. The fibre present in beetroot can substantially reduce the risk of diseases causing inflammation in the colon, such as bloating, gas, and irregular bowel movements. It also has laxative properties and helps cleanse the colon and regulate bowel movements.
Beetroot also contains betaine, a compound that helps improve gastric acid production. It leads to reduced bloating issues and food intolerance. In addition, it controls the growth of bacteria and yeast in the digestive tract. A balanced amount of gastric acid aids in better digestion or food breakdown and nutrient absorption.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Green leafy vegetables are a boon for many digestive issues. They are an excellent source of fibre that adds bulk to the stool. Furthermore, due to their quality of absorbing water efficiently, they soften the stool. As a result, they make the digestion and excretion process more efficient and smoother. Apart from their fibre content, green vegetables are rich in magnesium, which helps improve muscle contraction in the gastrointestinal tract to improve constipation. These vegetables include spinach, brussels sprouts, and broccoli.
5. Anti-inflammatory Foods
Anti-inflammatory foods are vital since the gut is susceptible to inflammation. People suffering from inflammation within the gut also experience additional symptoms like nausea, fatigue, chronic constipation, and abdominal pain. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods helps in managing gastric issues in a much better way. It also contributes to the long-term health of your gut. Helpful anti-inflammatory foods include:
Despite being small in size, berries always top the list of anti-inflammatory foods. They’re available in multiple varieties with high nutrient density. Berries are rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which combat inflammation. When it comes to chronic gut inflammation, berries stimulate the release of certain chemicals to regulate your immune system. Thus, protecting the gut. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are some best options to try.
For a better gut, eat more fatty fish. It shows healthy levels of anti-inflammatory substances that can help cool down inflammation. When an unwanted inflammation happens, it takes a toll on the gut. For example, your gastrointestinal conditions worsen, leading to ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Fatty fish has omega-3 fatty acids, which support the anti-inflammatory pathways of the body. Thus, promoting a healthier gut with a greater variety of good bacteria. You can try adding anchovies, sardines, and salmon to your diet.
Fennel seeds are tiny green bulb-like seeds with magnificent health benefits. Their use has existed for ages in medicines. Fennel seeds contain laxative properties and antioxidants like Anethole, Limonene, Pinene, Myrcene, and Cineole. In addition, they are rich in calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Fennel seeds also contain significant vitamins such as vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin B.
The anti-inflammatory nature of fennel seeds helps ease digestion and helps reduce gas. Also, magnesium aids in intestinal muscles movements easing out digestion. In addition, the antioxidants in fennel seeds lower inflammation behind indigestion, constipation, nausea, colic, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Ginger has been a part of Ayurvedic medicine for ages to treat and cure certain illnesses. It is rich in polyphenols, vitamin C, B carotene, flavonoids, and tannins. These antioxidants present in ginger reduce inflammation. Thus, helping in particular issues related to digestion such as gas, bloating, stomach ache, indigestion, and intestinal cramps.
Tea made with ginger can efficiently help relieve bloating, abdominal pain, and cramps. It also stimulates saliva, gastric acid, and bile juice production. It ensures the absolute breakdown of food. Ginger also aids in gastrointestinal motility, which leads to reduced intestinal cramping.
Foods to Avoid for Maintaining Healthy Digestive System
1. Fast Foods
Fast foods slow down the digestion process as unhealthy fast food lacks fibre and water content. Therefore, consuming them in excess results in constipation and indigestion. In addition, inflammation-causing elements of fast foods may also lead to peptic ulcers.
High sodium content in fast food can cause bloating, stomach ulcers, and even stomach cancer. In addition, sodium reduces the absorption of water. As a result, it makes the stools even harder to pass through the intestine, which then causes pain and wounds.
2. Spicy Foods
Spicy food can disturb digestion when consumed excessively. It can lead to digestion and gastric issues such as stomach pain, gastritis, acid reflux, and heartburn. In addition, too much spicy food can make the stomach’s surface fragile.
When the spicy food passes through the large intestine, it causes severe inflammation. In defence, the body releases more water in the intestine, resulting in loose motion.
Dairy foods can interrupt the digestion process for lactose-intolerant people. Lactose intolerance is an issue that arises when a person’s body lacks in producing an enzyme called lactase. It is responsible for breaking down sugar in milk leading to loose motions. Therefore, lactose-intolerant people need to avoid consuming dairy products.
Consuming too much dairy products can also cause nausea, diarrhoea, stomach ache, and even vomiting when consumed too quickly at once. However, the body takes time to digest dairy products. Therefore, consuming them in excess can cause the issues mentioned above.
Alcohol, when consumed in moderate quantities, occasionally may not cause any irritation in the stomach. But drinking can irritate the stomach and restrain the absorption of nutrients. It also causes abdominal cramps and diarrhoea.
Symptoms of Poor Digestive System
Bad breath can indicate a poor digestive system. It can result from an imbalance between good and bad bacteria in the gut. You can treat it by adding probiotics to the diet.
People may experience food intolerance when they lack any particular enzyme to break down food particles. The undigested food particles can cause diarrhoea, stomach ache, and cramps. Therefore, one may include supplements containing that specific enzyme to correct the issue of food intolerance.
Constipation can result from a lack of water and fibre in the body. In addition, when the stool gets hard, it gets difficult to pass through the intestine. It also causes pain, swelling, and fissures in the anal. Therefore, one should consume more fibre, increase the water intake, and consume food containing laxative properties.
Poor Skin Health
Poor digestive health can disturb skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea. These occur when the body struggles to digest food or faces problems such as constipation.
You might also face dry, dehydrated, and flaky skin when the body lacks the lipase enzyme responsible for digesting fat. All these hinder the absorption of nutrients. Therefore, one should correct all these issues in the first place to improve absorption of nutrients through supplements.
Health Risks of Poor Digestive System
1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBD)
People can experience irritable bowel syndrome when they notice pain before and after bowel movements. Furthermore, it causes diarrhoea and constipation quite often.
Symptoms may include bloating, white mucus with stools, and incomplete bowel movements. Stress, mental trauma, and infections can be the significant reason behind IBS. It can be treated by including dietary changes and reducing stress.
The formation of gallstones occurs inside the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a sac that stores the bile juice produced by the pancreas. Bile juice gets utilised in the small intestine to digest the food further. The symptoms are minor such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, high temperature, and pain below the ribcage. Jaundice can also be a significant sign in people having gallstones.
3. Ulcerative Colitis
Ulcerative Colitis (UC) is an issue where a person experiences inflammation in the rectum and the large intestine. The symptoms include long-term diarrhoea, sudden weight loss, tiredness, and abdominal pain.
4. Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
Small intestine bacterial overgrowth is a digestive issue that arises when bacteria travel to the small intestine. The symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, and constipation. The treatment consists of proper medication under the guidance of a physician.
The digestive system is an essential part of the body that contains 70-80% of the immune system. Everything we eat impacts the body and sometimes a considerable change. “We are what we eat”. 80% of the diseases can be tracked right in the gut. Therefore, keeping track of digestive health can create significant changes in the proper functioning of the body. Our body utilises the nutrients absorbed by the intestine through the food we eat into energy and other internal functioning. But suppose our digestive system does not perform efficiently. In that case, even a nutrient-rich diet can’t help the body’s functioning improve due to improper absorption of nutrients. Therefore, it is essential to treat poor digestion first to cure any other bodily issue because that’s where the root cause lies.
Including fibre-rich and antioxidant-rich foods in the diet, such as chia seeds, beetroot, green vegetables, fennel seed, and ginger, can significantly improve digestive health. In addition, one should avoid higher consumption of fast food, spicy foods, alcohol, and dairy foods to restrain digestion issues like bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, and indigestion.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q. What causes poor digestion?
A. There are many reasons for poor digestion or indigestion. A sedentary lifestyle, medication, nutritional deficiency, and certain medical conditions are the major causes of poor digestion. You can correct it through a proper diet and an active lifestyle.
Q. What are the symptoms of poor digestion?
A. There are several symptoms of poor digestion. However, they are curable if you take proper care. Bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain are the few symptoms of poor digestion or indigestion.
Q. What happens if your digestive system is not working properly?
A. A non-healthy digestive system can bring significant problems your way. Some minor issues can develop when someone is facing poor digestion. You can notice minor problems such as bloating, vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain, cramps, heaviness, and acidity. However, it can also develop significant problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease if the minor digestive issues persist.
Q. How do you reset your stomach?
A. One can reset the digestive system by including dietary changes and providing minimal rest to the body. You can also take good and sound sleep and change the sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle. These steps can help heal the stomach and restore the health of the digestive system.
Q. How do I know if my digestion is good?
A. One may know if their digestion is working correctly by some good signs the body possesses. The good symptoms include good appetite, once or twice a day emptying of bowels, mild bloating, gas, and occasional indigestion. You can achieve a sound digestive system by improving your eating habits and incorporating stomach-healthy foods.
Q. Can fasting reset your digestive system?
A. Yes, fasting can have a significant impact on the digestive system. Intermittent fasting can improve the digestive system by cleansing and flourishing the gut flora. It can have a positive long-term effect on gut health. Fasting helps in controlling the microbiome and healing the tissues of the gut.
Q. How can I clean out my digestive system overnight?
A. You can take several detoxifying concoctions at night to cleanse the colon. You can do an overnight colon cleansing with something as simple as just a glass of saltwater. Adding lemon juice and apple cider vinegar can also work wonders overnight to empty one’s stomach quickly.
Q. How do you empty your bowels every morning, one-minute routine?
A. There are some important notes which can help one empty their bowels quickly in the morning. Warm water with lemon on an empty stomach can ease bowel movement in the morning. Eating a fibre-rich breakfast consisting of fruits such as strawberries, bananas, and apples also plays a vital role in clearing the bowels. Besides the food, some yoga asanas in the morning specifically for enhancing bowel movements are a great way to go.