Soak Up More Nutrients
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In all likelihood, you think a lot more about eating foods than about digesting them. But that's an oversight that can affect your overall nutrition and health, according to nutritionist Ashley Koff, R.D.N. Your diet may be full of berries, spinach, quinoa, and salmon, Koff says, but unless your body is efficiently breaking down and effectively absorbing those foods, you're not getting their full benefits.
The digestive process is complex. It starts with enzymes in your saliva that break down the starches in your food as you chew. Acids in your stomach activate enzymes that dismantle proteins. Next, the food travels to the small intestine, which breaks down fats and absorbs most nutrients, which are ferried into your bloodstream, says Julia Greer, M.D., a professor and course director of digestion and nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
But along the way, problems arise: stress, dietary issues, food sensitivities, and even your workout can disrupt this process, preventing you from getting everything your food has to offer. That's why is pays to be proactive about improving your digestion, experts say. Making a few tweaks to how you eat can add up to other key health benefits as well, including gaining energy, losing weight, feeling less bloated and regulating your bathroom trips. These tips will maximize your healthy eating efforts. (Next up: 7 Ingredients That Are Robbing You of Nutrients)
Photo: Claire Benoist
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If you're usually the first person to clear your plate, there's a good chance you're not chewing your meals thoroughly. That's key because chewing breaks down food and activates enzymes in your mouth that help with digestion, says Woodson Merrell, M.D., an integrative medicine specialist in New York City who serves as a scientific adviser to digestive enzyme manufacturer Enzymedica. In fact, research from Purdue University found that when people chewed almonds 40 times, they absorbed more healthy fat than when they chewed them just 10 times, making nutrients like vitamin E more accessible. "Chewing breaks almonds' cell walls so that it's easier for us to digest them," says study author Richard D. Mattes, Ph.D. You don't have to count, though. Just chew until your food is a mushy consistency, Merrell says. (Try mindful eating, which can help you both chew your food slowly and enjoy it more.)
Calm Your Dining Scene
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When you're under pressure, your brain releases stress hormones that make your heart beat faster and give you a rush of adrenaline. The digestive process then slows down or stops so your body can devote all its energy to dealing with the stress. That's why being anxious or even multitasking during meals can interfere with nutrient absorption, Koff says. So try to relax as much as possible when you dine. Put your computer to sleep instead of skimming headlines, and focus on your companions over dinner. Take the chance to savor each bite. (And try these easy stress-relief techniques for a healthier mind.)
Ease Up On a Few Workouts
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Too many HIIT routines can also stress your digestive system. The physical effort of a tough workout causes your system to divert energy away from digestion, Koff says. Balance the hard-core sessions in your schedule with lower-key ones, like yoga, which can help keep your digestion on track. (Did you know yoga also revs up your immunity and quells food cravings?) Vigorous exercise can also deplete your levels of magnesium, a mineral that's critical for digestion; replenish it by eating beans, nuts, whole grains, and leafy greens. (More on muscle-boosting magnesium.)
Create Key Food Combos
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Certain nutrients are better absorbed when they're eaten together. For example, your body has a tough time taking in the type of iron found in vegetarian sources like spinach, but consuming it with a food rich in vitamin C, like red bell pepper, makes the process easier. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K, and E need fatty acids for absorption, so pair foods that are rich in these nutrients (many vegetables are) with a source of healthy fat, like nuts or oil. To get more calcium from your yogurt or kale, increase your intake of foods that are high in vitamin D, such as salmon. (These healthy food pairings help your body absorb more nutrients too.)
Take Stock Post-Meal
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If certain dishes make you bloated or constipated or give you diarrhea, you could have a food sensitivity or intolerance, which is relatively common. For instance, about 65 percent of people worldwide are sensitive to lactose, the sugar found in dairy. High-fructose foods like grapes and bananas and those with gluten, like bread and pasta, are other possible culprits. The inflammation you experience when you eat those foods can inhibit nutrient absorption in your small intestine, Greer says. If you have any of these symptoms, ask your doctor about getting tested. (The good news: You can still eat ice cream, cheese, and other indulgences even if you're lactose intolerant.)
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You've heard that you shouldn't drink your calories, but now there is a major exception: It turns out that the body is better able to absorb nutrients from certain types of juice than from whole fruit. For instance, one study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that some carotenoids were almost twice as readily absorbed from orange juice than fresh oranges. The fiber in whole fruit may bind to certain micronutrients, keeping them from being absorbed in the small intestine, says study author Ralf Schweiggert, of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. But since fiber is key for overall health, he recommends having just one serving of fruit juice a day and eating the rest of your fruit whole.
You can also have a smoothie, which retains the fiber from fruits and vegetables but still improves absorption of certain nutrients, according to the Journal of Food Science. That's because the blade of a high-speed blender breaks through the cell walls in foods better than chewing does, says study author José Miguel Aguilera of the Universidad Católica de Chile. Both Koff and Merrell advise their patients to drink vegetable smoothies (like these fruit and veggie smoothie recipes) as a way to help with absorption.
Care for Your Gut Bugs
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Up to 30 percent of the protein and carbs you eat reach your colon undigested, where your gut bacteria break them down, the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice reports. But just a few days of a high-fat diet can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in your system, throwing off this process. Consider a probiotic supplement to boost the number of good bugs whenever you're off your usual diet routine for a few days. One probiotic strain in particular, GanedenBC30, which is added to a wide range of food products, including Red Mango frozen yogurt and Purely Elizabeth Probiotic Granola, as well as Digestive Advantage supplements, has been found to help your body break down proteins. (While you're at it, take your daily probiotic regimen one step further with prebiotics.)
Try an Enzyme
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There will be times when your digestion is thrown off track, like on vacation. That's when digestive enzyme supplements can help. These pills work just like your body's own enzymes to help break food down so you can absorb the nutrients more easily, Koff says.