Digestion starts the moment you take a bite of food. Digestion is complex and, thankfully, beautifully orchestrated by our bodies without much thought on our part. But glitches in the system can lead to heartburn, indigestion and other discomforting gastrointestinal issues.
Here’s how to keep the digestive system in tip-top running order (and, consequently, get more nutrients from your snacks and meals).
Eating simpler combinations of foods is at the heart of certain kinds of fasts or “detox” diets. Why? Simpler combos allow your body to do its work better. You know how you become less productive when you reach a ridiculous level of multitasking—answering texts while reading e-mails and responding to your child’s request for more juice? Our digestive systems are no different. When you feel overloaded, the first step is to simplify.
Some foods work together to help your body absorb certain nutrients. Think baked winter squash paired with wholesome fats to help absorb beta-carotene; or beans, legumes or spinach paired with acidic foods such as citrus or vinegar for better iron absorption. But not all combos work so well. The speed at which melon is digested, for example, can impair longer-digesting meal elements like proteins. The same goes for some quick-digesting starches and proteins.
Stoke your digestive fire.
In Ayurveda, your digestive energy is called agni. Digestive energy is supported by activities like exercise as well as the foods you choose and the amounts you eat. Lack agni due to too many stresses on the digestive system and your digestion can become sluggish and uncomfortable.
Agni-stimulating habits include exercising, eating your largest meal around lunchtime, and taking care not to overeat in general. And sipping ginger tea between meals—which stimulates digestive enzymes, bile and saliva—can also put pep back in the system.
Again, don’t overeat.
Overloading the digestive system means that your body has to produce more stomach acid in response to the onslaught. Over time, excess acid can lead to heartburn. What’s more, undigested foods can make us feel sluggishly full, bloated and uncomfortable.
The Japanese have a wonderful term, hara hachi bu, which means to “eat until you are 80 percent full.” Why? The body actually takes about 20 minutes to register fullness. With so many meals rushed—kids’ lunches these days are under 10 minutes, and so many of us adults eat at least one meal in our cars and/or while working—it’s no wonder we can easily consume another full meal on top of the first! So, slow down, pay attention as you eat, and put down your fork before you feel completely full.