The human body is a very complex system, and sometimes, seemingly the slightest thing might set it askew. Maybe it was a bowl of ice cream, dinner at a new restaurant, or an experimental recipe. Or maybe it’s something that’s a bit more frequent, and too often, you’re seemingly searching for relief.
One of the most probable suspects of common, occasional digestive woes is that there’s an imbalance within your gut bacterial ecosystem, called the microbiota. While not all that appetising to think about, it is quite fascinating.
Did you know there are 100 TRILLION bacteria living within your gut right now? That’s about three pounds worth. In fact, there are approximately 10 microbes lining your intestinal tract for every cell in your body. That’s a virtual forest living in the gut. These little fellows, called intestinal microbes, feed off of the food that we eat, helping with digestion and absorption, yet they have other very important roles.
For one, they help the immune system function properly. They also help by producing B and K vitamins. And perhaps most important, they consume waste, which prevents pathogenic bacteria from overwhelming the system (or even buying a bit too much real estate). Healthy bacteria, in fact, promote a healthy inflammatory response as well as help promote weight management, appetite control, and healthy carbohydrate metabolism.
As you can see, digestive health is about way more than digestion and absorption or even a little bloating or gas! Healthy bacteria are the good guys in our guts. And we want to make sure we have a healthy balance of them. But how?
A number of factors can upset the balance (leading to an imbalance called gut dysbiosis), including aging, environment, food choices, stress, medications, and more. Fortunately, if you’re looking to support a healthy gut microbiota, one of the first and best places to look is in your fridge.
Here are the top 3 easily digested foods, followed by the top 3 that might just be killing your gut.
The Top 3 Easily Digested Foods
You probably knew yogurt would be on the list, but not all yogurt is created equally. And it’s not just a matter of taste. What makes yogurt one of the most easily digested foods? It is the little bacteria, the health-enhancing probiotics, that create it through the process of fermentation. They’re called “live active cultures.” You’ll want to make sure they’re listed on the label and alive and well. After all, by definition, probiotics must be alive when consumed.
The other caveat is a big one: watch the sugar content! Sugar is great… for feeding bad bacteria, which contradicts why you’re eating your yogurt in the first place. Instead, we recommend buying plain yogurt and adding fresh fruit if you prefer it on the sweeter side. Or, use yogurt not as a dessert but as a sour cream substitute. (Try mixing a spoonful with a ripe avocado for a delicious, creamy veggie dip!)
And if you must go with sweetened versions, shoot for 15 or less grams of sugar. Organizations like the American Heart Association recommend consuming less than 25 grams of added sugar, which, when consumed in excess, may contribute to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. For an extra boost of protein, choose Greek yogurt. When choosing yogurt, it’s best to go organic, which tends to have more omega-3 fats, fewer omega-6 fats, and more conjugated linoleic acid than conventional dairy.
2) Fermented Veggies
Fermented veggies, like sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi, are made through the process of lacto-fermentation. As a result, they are robust sources of the all-important the probiotics we’re looking for, including Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus plantarum, which is regarded as one of the top probiotics for inhibiting bad bacteria and promoting health gut function. This is why they own a spot on out list of easily digested foods.
Buyer beware: many store-bought versions of pickles and sauerkraut are pickled in vinegar and do NOT contain live active cultures. So seek your fermented veggies in the refrigerated case, soaking in their own brine (water and salt mixture) rather than in vinegar.
Kimchi is a special type of Korean fermented food. It’s made with cabbage, radishes, onion, and spices—loads of spices. So if you’re in the mood for something spicy and delicious that naturally supplies active cultures, you might want to give it a try.
Sorry, one more caveat: Because fermented veggies are made with salt, if you’re watching your sodium intake, take a look at the nutrition facts panel and enjoy in moderation.
3) Fibrous Foods
While they don’t necessarily supply probiotics, fibrous foods do help support digestion and regularity, and most of us, quite frankly, don’t eat nearly enough. In fact, According to the American Dietetic Association, the average American consumes only about half the recommend daily intake.
Certain fibrous foods also contain “prebiotics,” which help probiotics grow and flourish within our guts by providing the food they love to eat. In addition, fiber helps keep our systems running smoothly, removing waste through and out of our intestines. The best prebiotic-rich foods include garlic, leeks, onions, dandelion greens, asparagus, bananas (particularly green bananas), barley, oats, apples, wheat bran, and jicama.
Veggies, of course, as well as fruits like berries are great sources of fiber as are beans and nuts.
Optimize Your Digestion
Now that you know our favorite easily digested foods, it’s just as important to know which ones to avoid. Here are a few of the worst culprits to wreck your gut:
These 3 Foods Wreak Healthy Digestion
1) Artificial Sweeteners
Above, we mentioned that sugar feeds bad bacteria. So you might think artificial sweeteners are a better option. Think again. In fact, artificial sweeteners may be even worse. Two recent studies, one in animals and one in humans, found that commonly used artificial sweeteners (i.e., sucralose and saccharin) significantly altered gut bacteria (reducing the good guys) in a short amount of time—in as little as 5 days in humans. Even after weeks of no artificial sweetener use, the beneficial microbes still had not completely recovered balance.
2) High Fructose Corn Syrup
While good bacteria thrive and proliferate with healthy fibers, pathogenic bacteria (the “bad” guys) thrive on sugar—and they like it sweet! They enjoy cookies, cakes, and processed foods, and they seem to be especially fond of the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is used to sweeten everything from soda to salad dressing. Did you know HFCS makes up 42% of all calorie-containing sweeteners? Because regular sugar has similar effects on gut health, it’s often best to leave it on the table too.
If you’re worried that fruits may have the same detrimental effect with their naturally occurring sugars, the fortunate answer is no. Not at all. Because of the way nature packaged these delicious foods with both fiber and antioxidant-rich phytonutrients, they have a positive effect on gut health as mentioned above.
3) Refined and Trans Fats
Refined vegetable oils, which are rich in omega-6 fats, are all too common in the Western diet. And research is showing that this isn’t a good thing. For one, the heavy imbalance in omega fatty acids (too much omega-6, not enough omega-3) has led to a whole host of negative health effects, including, you guessed it, an increase in bad bacteria leading to an unhealthy inflammatory response, making it one of the least easily digested foods
More Benefits of Omega-3
On the other hand, fish oil, which is rich in the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, has been shown to enrich the gut with beneficial bacteria from the Lactobaccillus and Bifidobacterium families.
Increase the first three easily digested foods in your nutrition plan while decreasing the last three, and your gut will likely thank you. As an extra measure of defense, you may also want to invest in a high-quality daily probiotic supplement. With more and more research demonstrating the positive effects of a thriving probiotic population in the gut, it’s a simple “insurance policy.”
Scientists at the University of Illinois designed a weight-loss program in which one group ate the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein, while a matched group ate two times the RDA recommended amount. Both groups also exercised. The RDA group lost 12 pounds of fat in 16 weeks, while the higher-protein group lost nearly 20 pounds during the same time period. The RDA group also lost two pounds of muscle. This suggests that you need more protein during a weight-loss program, both to lose fat and to preserve your muscle.
“But wait,” protein naysayers will bark. “Won’t eating all of that protein jeopardize your cardiovascular system? It’s bound to clog your arteries.”
To put that concern to the test, researchers pooled together a group of subjects with high blood pressure and less-than-ideal cholesterol, and tested the impact of adding more protein to their diets. (The OmniHeart study) No one was allowed to gain or lose weight during the test, so any changes couldn’t be chalked up to the benefits of dropping a few pounds. Some subjects ate a diet with 18 percent of their total calories coming from protein, which is pretty close to the USDA’s recommended amount. A second group upped their protein intake to 28 percent.
The higher-protein group showed better health across the board. People in that group had greater decreases in blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. What’s more, their estimated 10-year risk of heart disease decreased compared to those on the lower protein track. Had these subjects been allowed to lose weight, the results may have been even more dramatic.
So what is optimal? If you go by science, about 30 percent of your calories should come from protein.
At that level, you won’t have to worry about deficiencies, and you’ll know you’re getting enough of the nutrient to lose fat while also improving your heart health. Have some protein at each of your meals and snacks, and you’ll hit the target with ease.
Protein and Energy
Allow me to pause our protein discussion to talk about your blood sugar. When you eat a meal, your body breaks down carbohydrates into individual sugars and dumps them into your bloodstream. It doesn’t matter if those carbs come from broccoli or biscuits. Your body needs energy, and this is how it’s produced. The result is an increase in your blood-sugar levels.
Now, your body is very particular about blood sugar, just like Goldilocks was particular about her porridge – it wants your blood-sugar levels to be just right (70 to 99 milligrams per deciliter, for those of you interested in numbers).
When you eat a big meal, your blood sugar increases a lot. This makes your body freak out. Your pancreas responds by releasing the hormone insulin. Insulin’s job in this case is very simple: Get the excess sugar out of your blood. It does this by going “door to door” throughout your body, knocking on the entry points of muscle and fat cells to see if they’ll open and take in some sugar until blood levels return to just right.
If your body overreacts, your pancreas will release too much insulin. That insulin will knock on too many doors, pulling too much sugar out of your blood. Now you have a new problem: hypoglycemia (hypo = low; glycemia = sugar). You’ll start to feel tired, or hungry, or perhaps both. You get tired because your body’s most immediate energy source, the sugar in your blood, is suddenly depleted. You want to eat because low blood sugar is one of your body’s most powerful hunger signals. Your body will crave carb-rich foods to get your blood sugar back up again, even if you just ate.
Here’s how protein plays into the equation. Protein can help displace those carbs. The amino acids that form the building blocks of protein provoke a much-lower insulin response than the one triggered by a high-carb meal. So consuming more protein will have a less dramatic affect on your blood sugar.
Protein also triggers the release of a hormone called glucagon. Glucagon is the yin to insulin’s yang. While insulin takes sugar from your blood and pushes it into muscle and fat cells, glucagon gets your fat cells to release stored fat into your bloodstream, where it provides fuel for your muscles, brain, and everything else that uses energy. Meaning that of all the types of food you can eat, protein is the most efficient for your body: It controls insulin and helps incinerate fat.
A Better Burn
When we talk about about burning calories, we tend to focus on exercise. But our bodies are constantly using energy throughout the day and night. Even when we’re sleeping, we’re still breathing and pumping blood. Our brains are dreaming. We’re still digesting food and finding places to store it. And not all foods are digested equally.
The components of food—protein, carbohydrates, and fats —require different amounts of energy to digest and process, just as different types and intensities of exercise burn more or fewer calories. Scientists call this metabolic cost the thermic effect of food (TEF).
Protein has a much higher TEF than carbs or fat. That is, simply eating more protein means your body is burning more calories during the process of digestion. In some cases, doubling your protein intake will bump up the number of calories you burn throughout the day. That’s one reason why protein, all by itself, helps you lose weight.
The Building Blocks of Muscle
During digestion, your body breaks down protein into individual amino acids. It uses them in many different ways, putting them together like a child combines Legos to build a castle. (Fortunately, your body does this in a more consistent way than your average elementary schooler.) These castles are your muscle tissue. To build them, you need an adequate supply of building blocks.
But imagine that the Legos did more than just stack on top of each other – they took part in your castle construction by telling you when to build your towers and walls. That’s what the amino acids in protein do. They aren’t just inert pieces of food waiting to be broken down. They actively signal your body to build muscle.
The most important amino acid in this process is leucine, which is found in just about every protein-containing food you’d ever eat. But in order for leucine to optimize and maximize your ability to turn protein into muscle there needs to be a certain amount present—a protein threshold, if you will.
Scientists estimate that this threshold is about 30 grams of protein. You can build muscle with less than this amount or more, but this dosage is what research has found is ideal for optimal functioning.
Once built, muscle is metabolically active, meaning it burns more calories than fat even while you’re at rest. (It scorches through a lot more when you’re active.) And the more muscle you have, the more effective and efficient you become at every activity, which helps you burn more calories.
The All-Day Protein Diet
I recommend consuming lean protein throughout the day. Here are some quick and easy ways to work this essential nutrient into every meal.
*BREAKFAST: eggs, egg whites, lean breakfast meats, Greek yogurt, smoothies with protein powder.
*LUNCH OR DINNER: salmon, chicken breasts, extra-lean ground turkey, extra-lean ground beef, turkey or chicken sausage, lean beef (top round, shoulder roast, skirt steak), tuna, cod, tilapia, shrimp, tofu.
*SNACKS: Nuts and seeds, roasted edamame beans, protein bars (pick bars with at least 10 grams of protein and no more than 30 grams of carbs), protein shakes.
Regular exercise can improve your health no matter your age, but as you get older, you might notice changes that affect your activity level. Muscle mass begins to decrease as you age, which can throw off your balance as well as slow your metabolism. You might find yourself more motivated to exercise as you get older to help ward off chronic diseases, control excess weight and stay active for life.
Loss of Muscle Mass
The amount of muscle and fatty tissue you have will change with age. Your body fat can increase by up to 30 percent, which leads to a loss of lean muscle tissue and can affect your sense of balance. This can make it difficult for you to perform exercise activities you once enjoyed. The loss of muscle also lowers your metabolism, because your body uses more energy to maintain muscle tissue than it does fat. As a result, you might find it harder to keep excess pounds at bay once you get older, and you may need to work out more often than you used to.
Your energy levels might decrease with age, making the idea of working out unappealing. But if you keep up with your workouts, you can actually improve your energy level and mood. Regular exercise can enhance the health of your cardiovascular system, helping your body to circulate your blood more efficiently and boost your energy throughout the day. It can also ward off depression and stress and help you sleep better, and all of these benefits will motivate you to get more activity into your life as you age.
To stay healthy with age, you need to take care of your body, and this means doing things that help prevent certain chronic diseases. Your bone mass begins to decline once your enter your thirties, putting you at risk for conditions such as osteoporosis. If you are concerned about developing this condition, perform more weight-bearing exercises, such as running and tennis. Regular cardio activity will also help you control high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as ward off type 2 diabetes and some kinds of cancer.
No matter your fitness level, mood or motivation, regular exercise can help you stay active for life. Change your routine according to your concerns as you age. For instance, to help with balance, take up yoga or tai chi. Take a dance class to strengthen your bones, or go for a daily jog to improve your heart health and boost your mood. Don’t let age keep you from the activities you enjoy, and look for exercises that fit your fitness level and goals.