I don’t know a better preparation for life than a love of poetry and good digestion.
– Zona Gale
Without further ado, Ladies & Gentlemen, human digestion:
Alright, now that you know the basics, let’s move on to the finer points.
In order to digest your food properly, you need certain digestive enzymes that historically have been present in the food we eat. Not anymore. Pesticides, cooking and food processing have destroyed most of the enzymes in our food that we need in order to properly digest it. We cannot produce enough of these enzymes on our own anymore due to nutritional deficiencies and stress. Good digestion also requires “friendly” gut bacteria, which we also have less of due to the nutrient-deficient soil that our industrialized food is grown in, food processing, use of antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, chlorinated water…you get the idea. This results in an abundance of “unfriendly” bacteria and fungi like yeast and candida, which makes us crave the simple carbohydrates like sugar and wheat that the unfriendly bacteria require as fuel. We then proceed to eat more of that stuff and even fewer natural, plant-based foods, which results in ever fewer enzymes and good bacteria, overgrowth of the bad bacteria, less nutrient absorption, more bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and more unhealthy food cravings. Vicious circle. You see, if you can’t properly digest food, you can’t absorb its nutrients (if the food actually contains any). If you can’t absorb the nutrients, you can’t nourish your cells and you are going to feel really crummy. Also, if this continues for a while you can open yourself up to a horror house of degenerative disease. You may also continue to be hungry, even if you are eating large amounts of food. Clear?
When you decide to blog about health and nutrition (and talk about it at parties and family get togethers), people will inevitably ask: “So what should I eat?” I refuse to answer that question. It’s a loaded question. It implies that there is a right way and a wrong way to eat. I no longer believe that. I believe that you should eat in a way that allows your body to function optimally. It’s as simple as that. I have experimented with many different styles of eating over the years and I am close to finding the perfect nutrition plan for me. I encourage you to set out to find the perfect nutrition plan for you.
In my first post I mentioned that Dr. Keith (my code name for my primary care physician) ordered a food analysis test at my first visit. It is a very basic test (mine was called E95 Basic Food Panel). This test can tell you if you have any “food intolerances” or “food sensitivities”. This is not the same as “food allergies”. An allergy will make you itchy or puffy–you know how your cousin’s throat closes and she has to go to the ER if she eats peanuts? That is an allergy. A food sensitivity is a little different. Nutritionist, J.J. Virgin, who advises her clients to avoid foods that they are sensitive to, provides the following definition of food sensitivity:
Food sensitivities develop when incompletely digested proteins from the food we eat pass through our intestinal wall and enter our bloodstream. (This can happen when we have something called “leaky gut,” a byproduct of our stressful lives, poor food choices, medications, poor digestion, and more.) Then, our immune system identifies these protein particles as foreign and mounts an immune response by releasing a swarm of compounds (called IgG4 antibodies) to attack the foreign invaders (called antigens). This immune response is an inflammatory process that can cause reactions at various sites in the body….Some of the sites where this can occur are the small and large intestines, skin, kidneys, ears, sinuses, head, lungs, and joints. Since IgG4 reactions occur several hours or even days later, there may be no obvious association between consuming a food and an adverse reaction. This is why it can be so difficult (if not impossible) to identify which foods are causing the problem—that is, unless you test.
While Ms. Virgin’s program unfortunately focuses primarily on weight loss, she is the first mainstream nutritionist with a book deal and a TV career that I have heard discuss the issue of food sensitivity and, to her credit, she does mention how identifying these food sensitivities can help treat disease as well as result in weight loss. In her book, The Virgin Diet, she discusses at length the seven most common foods that many people are sensitive to: gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, corn, peanuts and sugar. FYI, these are also among the most common foods containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Not good. Anything that is genetically modified in a lab is not food. To ensure stellar digestion, you should avoid any foods that you are sensitive towards, as well as GMOs, as they will cause or exacerbate all the digestion problems discussed above.
The one thing I would recommend is that you do your best to avoid processed food of any kind. More than anything else, this is the food that will give you the most digestion problems. Make sure that the food you eat is as natural as possible. What is natural food? Food. You are a grown-up. I don’t have to explain to you what food is. What is unnatural? Anything that is made in a factory and has ingredients that you have difficulty pronouncing. Beware of anything that comes in a box or a can—read the label very carefully. I would also be wary of any food that makes a “health claim”—”high in fiber!” “Low-Fat!” “Omega-3 Enriched” “Sugar-Free” “Vitamin D Fortified”. Those nutrients are corrupted. They are useless to your body. They do not naturally occur in that food and therefore have been added to it in a lab by the company that manufactured it and it is unlikely that your body will be able to absorb any of those added nutrients. Remember: If you can’t absorb it, it’s worthless.
Add as many fresh plant foods as possible–lots of vegetables and fruit. If you like animal foods, eat them. But avoid those that are industrially processed. Look for meat and dairy products from grass-fed, pastured animals. If you like cookies, eat cookies. I happen to love them. But eat them after you have had a real meal. Don’t skip dinner because you had 500 calories worth of cookies at lunch and you are afraid of overeating. This is a classic bonehead “dieting” move. I used to do it all the time. A bit about starchy carbohydrates: Gluten (which is in most grain-based carbohydrates) causes intestinal problems for many people. But unfortunately, a belly full of spring lettuce mix, just doesn’t feel the same as a belly full of starches. Here are some guidelines: Avoid anything instant, go for root vegetables and tubers like sweet potatoes and carrots. Squash is good, too. Rice is tricky. While wild rice (which I love) has lots of vitamins and minerals it also contains stuff that can be problematic for your intestinal tract. Read more about that here. Again, eat the fresh stuff first and if you still want the junk, eat it after.
If you have health insurance and you can afford it, I would recommend having the food sensitivity test. Here is a link to where you can find a doctor who will likely know exactly what you are talking about when you request this test. (Just select “integrative medicine” from the drop-down menu and search by your location.)
If getting this test is out of your price range, just keep track of how you feel in the hours and days after you eat those seven foods mentioned above. Or, as J.J. Virgin recommends, give them up for a few weeks, then reintroduce them. You will very quickly be able to identify which ones cause you problems. A note on dairy products: They contain two potentially problematic substances: lactose (milk sugar) and casein (milk protein). Some people can’t digest lactose, others can’t digest casein, some have trouble with both. My issue is primarily with casein, which explains why cow’s milk, cottage cheese and yogurt (the higher protein dairy products) cause me problems, but I do just fine with organic butter, certain cheeses or cream (they are almost entirely made of fat). If you are going to eat dairy products, look for organic full-fat dairy from a grass-fed animal. Remember, the less tinkering someone does with your food the better.
So start with the fresh plant foods, then add other things and see how you do. There is a great way to flood your system with vitamins and minerals that may help repair your intestinal tract, detoxify you, and get you started in the right direction. It was very popular in the 80s and has recently made a big comeback: Juicing. Consider it. This is the juicer I have.
This little experiment is worth doing. Your digestive track will thank you.