Tummy troubles like bloating, gas, heartburn, indigestion, and constipation are common concerns. Although these issues can be caused by what we eat, I am always impressed by the way simple tweaks to how we eat can help support our digestive system and resolve these issues. Here are some simple tips to improve your digestion today.
Arrive at your meal mindfully
Did you know that digestion begins even before your first forkful? That’s because of the cephalic phase of digestion, which happens in anticipation of food. Basically, when you prepare a meal mindfully, spend time cooking in the kitchen and build-up an appetite, the thought, sight and smell of food are actually causing the secretion of digestive enzymes and priming your GI tract to make the most of the meal. So rather than grabbing meals on the go, take the time to arrive at your meal. This means stopping what you’re doing, plating your food and sitting down to enjoy it. Not only can this help beat the bloat but it will boost satisfaction, too.
Keep it regular and take it slow
Skipping meals and eating too quickly are two common eating habits to break if you want to optimize digestion. First off, both of these scenarios cause you to swallow excess air. Once this happens, the result is bloating which can be painful and uncomfortable.
Rule of thumb: I consider eating slowly as taking 10-20 minutes per meal (10 for breakfast and 20 for lunch and dinner). When you eat regularly, you initiate what’s known as the gastrocolic reflex, which gets things moving in your gut in response to food entering your stomach. Plus, when you eat regularly you can avoid eating large meals and overfilling your stomach which can cause heartburn.
Get on the CHEW CHEW train
If you inhale your food…this one’s for you! The mechanical and chemical breakdown that happens when your food mixes with your saliva is an often overlooked yet key step of our digestion.
Rule of thumb: Aim for 20 chews per bite at your next meal. This may sound excessive, but the goal here is to get yourself used to completely chewing each bite before swallowing. So if you’re eating a grape for example, the peel and the flesh should be indistinguishable.
Bulk-up with fiber
Fiber is like the skeleton of all plant-based foods. Those fibrous strands of celery? They’re the “bones” that give it its sturdy shape. This is true for all plants, which is why plant-based foods are the key to upping the fiber in your diet. Our bodies may not digest fiber (think of those tough celery strands!) but that’s precisely how a high-fiber diet can help. These undigestible components add bulk to your stool, keep things moving along quickly in your GI tract, alleviate constipation while also acting as food for the healthy bacteria in your gut. Some of my favourite high-fiber foods include chia seeds, berries, oats, lentils and most of all…vegetables.
Rule of thumb: When it comes to vegetables, aim to eat one pound per day (or 2 fists per meal). If this sounds like a stretch, don’t sweat it. The key to eating more vegetables is all in the prep, and with a little strategy and seasoning, you can get there.
Related: How to prep vegetables for the week
Water participates in the digestive process, helping you break down food and keeping stool soft and easier to pass. Drinking is especially important following my earlier tip to increase your fiber intake, since additional fiber requires you to be plenty hydrated (or you’ll wind-up with the opposite issue).
Rule of thumb Look at your urine: it should be pale yellow. Dark yellow is an indicator that you haven’t had enough. Quick tip: I love to add frozen fruit to my water, because as they thaw they infuse more flavour than fresh fruit and act as little ice cubes.
Research is mounting about the mind-gut connection. We may not understand it fully, but what we know so far is that the link between the two is a strong one, so if you’ve developed a negative relationship with food and if eating has become an anxiety-provoking experience, you can be sure that it will have an impact on your digestion. For some people it can cause digestion to slow down, since the stress is diverting energy an blood flow away from digestion. For others it may cause spasms, accelerate your bowel movements. If you’re going through a particularly stressful time, incorporate some stress management techniques and self-care practices into your daily routine like deep breathing, yoga, spending time outdoors, and creating a stress-free eating environment.
Sometimes, despite implementing healthy habits, digestion just needs some help and there are some wonderful soothing foods out there. One of my favourites is peppermint, which works by calming the stomach and relaxing intestinal muscle spasms, easing GI symptoms such as gas, bloating and abdominal cramping. If you’re dealing with more important digestive issue like irritable bowel syndrome, you can talk to your dietitian about how to include peppermint oil in your diet, a more concentrated form. My favourite way to enjoy it, especially at this time of year, is steeped in tea. I simply put a handful of fresh mint in a mug with a bit of honey and muddle it with a spoon, to extract all of its oils and flavour, sort of the way you would a mojito. Then poor very hot water over top, let it steep and enjoy. I will link to a blog below with a round-up of some other of my go-to stomach-soothing teas. You’ll find foods like ginger, fennel, peppermint and bay leaf.
Related: Stomach-soothing teas
These tips are a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your digestion. I recommend that you begin tracking your symptoms in a journal along with any changes you make to easily notice any patterns. And, if you don’t see any improvement after you’ve made these changes, it’s probably a sign that something else in your diet is worth investigating, and having this journal is a great tool for your dietitian to help you.