Tip 1: Chew Your Food
Sounds obvious right? But often we just don’t chew enough! You’d be surprised how many of us eat too fast and don’t chew our food thoroughly before swallowing. Kids are often the worst culprits, wolfing down their food in no time ready to bolt from the table. But many adults also eat too quickly, especially when we’re on the go or distracted like watching telly. Thinking about how we eat is just as important as thinking about what we eat.
Chewing is actually the first stage of digestion. It’s an important first step because if we don’t break down our food properly we can’t absorb all the goodness it contains. Chewing breaks food down into smaller pieces and also stimulates saliva which activates enzymes in the mouth. For a more comfortable feeling after eating and to improve nutrient absorption, focus on slowing down when eating. And how many times should you chew before swallowing? There is no ‘magic’ number but aim for around 30 chews on average before swallowing. Soft foods can be easily broken down with fewer chews, but tougher foods – plant fibres and animal proteins should be chewed at least 30 times.
Tip 2: Up Your Fibre Intake
Most people don’t get enough fibre in their diets. Typically, we’re getting less than half the recommended amount of 25g for women and 30g for men each day. Kids are also often not getting enough fibre which could be leading to digestive issues like a sluggish bowel
Fibre is essential fuel for your gut. It comes from plants and feeds our beneficial bacteria as well as nourishing the cells that line the digestive tract. When paired with good hydration, fibre keeps your digestive tract moving along as it should.
The three main types of fibre are:
- Gel-forming (soluble) fibre – dissolves in water to form a gummy gel that slows gut transit and supports bowel regularity. Examples include oats, psyllium, legumes, pectin from fruits and vegetables.
- Bulk-forming (insoluble) fibre – also called ‘roughage’, it doesn’t dissolve but does attract water to the bowel to soften stools making them easier to pass. Examples include bran, whole grains, the outer skin of fruit and veg, seeds, brown rice.
- Fermentable (resistant starch) – either soluble or insoluble but primarily feeds our beneficial bugs to produce energy for the cells in our colon. Examples include unripe (green) bananas, al-dente pasta, cooked and cooled potatoes.
Tip 3: Hydration is Key
Tip 3: Hydration is Key
Water is the most essential nutrient for the body and one we can’t live for long without. Its importance to digestion is just one of its many vital functions. At the most basic level, adequate hydration helps with the digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients. It mixes with food to help soften it and help its passage through the digestive tract. It aids in the breakdown of food, dissolving nutrients so they can be absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to cells. It also supports normal elimination, supporting an optimal speed of material through the digestive tract, and keep stools soft and easy to pass.
Dig a little deeper though and you discover water makes up 95% of the gel-like mucous that lines the digestive tract. This mucous layer protects the cells lining the gut and provides a nourishing home for our friendly gut bacteria. Water also helps support the smooth flexibility of the muscle layer of our digestive tract, keeping a healthy wave of motion the whole length of the passage.
Tip 4: Fasting is Great for Digestive Health
Going without food for periods of time – or fasting – can have some fantastic benefits to digestive and total-body health. Fasting taps into an evolutionary adaption where our body’s resilience was boosted when food was scarce. One of the benefits fasting provides, is a concentrated period of rest from the energy-intensive process of digesting. But that’s not all. When we haven’t eaten for a few hours, our gut launches its own intestinal ‘house-keeping’ function. Nerves in the gut trigger muscular contractions along its length which cleanses the bowel of undigested food, bacteria and dead digestive cells. This process is noisy and is responsible for our stomach growling but it’s interrupted as soon as we eat. So next time you hear a rumble in your stomach and think ‘it’s time for food!’ – pause for a second, and think again. Giving your gut a rest of 3-4 hours between meals ensures this cleaning program is uninterrupted.
Tip 5: Exercise, but not After Eating
Regular physical activity has many benefits for great gut health. Too little, too much, or exercise done at the wrong time though can spell trouble for digestion. Regular exercise strengthens the entire body, including the digestive tract. When we are fit, our muscles are more efficient and less blood needs to be diverted away from our digestive system to fuel our muscles. Plus, regular exercise enhances the healthy balance of our gut microflora and improves gut function. When we have too little activity in our lives, our intestinal transit tends to slow down which can lead to a sluggish bowel. When we increase our physical movement we improve muscle function and can stimulate an urge to go to the bathroom. But don’t exercise too quickly after eating or too hard in general as this diverts blood flow away from your GI tract. Digestion takes time so allow at least 1-2 hours after eating, and 2-3 after big meals, before exercising.