Seven Steps to Improve Nutrient Absorption
There is an old saying that "you are what you eat", but beyond that I believe it's more about "you are what you absorb, store and/or use."
Even if you eat all the right things you might not feel any healthier, be performing any better, or seeing the changes in your physique that you're after if the nutrients you consume aren’t being properly absorbed by your body.
Everything from your age, diet, stress levels, and in particular, the health of your digestive system and your gut bacteria can affect the amount of vitamins and minerals that your body actually absorbs.
What is Nutrient Absorption?
Nutrient absorption is refers to DIGESTION, or the process by which your body actually absorbs and uses (or doesn't use) the food you consume.
If this process is "off" or if your gut is unhealthy, consequently you are not going to properly metabolize the foods you eat. The process of digestion has a myriad of phases, such as processing, absorption, storage, and use, and each one of these these steps, combined with your own individual physiological makeup — can all change how your body looks, feels and performs. Your body depends on scores of nutrients to function at an optimal level, so making sure that you’re absorbing nutrients as efficiently as possible is crucial when it comes to overall well-being. Your gut environment is home to 100 trillion bacteria living within and comprising your intestinal tract. The vast majority of your gut bacteria work in your favor, helping to keep you healthy, but unfortunately, gut bacteria balance is largely impacted by the choices you make as it regards your diet and your lifestyle. If you lack sufficient GOOD bacteria, or have an overgrowth of BAD bacteria, it can impact your body's ability to properly absorb and use incoming nutrients from food.
Some factors that contribute to your gut health are beyond your control, such as age and genetics, but other factors, such as what you eat, how you eat, how you manage stress, if you exercise, etc are all within your control.
So what can you do to help your nutrient absorption?
1) Heal your gut.
Consider the addition of digestive enzymes, probiotics or prebiotics.
Our beneficial microbes are under daily attack from things like the overuse of antimicrobials and antibiotics or NSAIDS, frequent consumption of processed and unhealthy foods, exposure to toxins in our environment, smoking, drinking, lack of sleep and other poor lifestyle habits.
Supplementing with digestive enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics can help aid in digestion by populating the beneficial bacteria naturally found in the gut as well as supporting digestive and immune health.
What's more, it can ALSO help ensure that your body is able to efficiently extract the nutrients it needs from your food. And I cannot emphasize proper nutrient absorption enough. It will maximize the impact of your dietary choices as well as any vitamins, supplements and even medications you’re taking.
Prebiotics are naturally found in many foods, like asparagus, chicory, dandelion, artichokes, leeks, garlic and onions and apples. In a nutshell, prebiotics are a type of fiber that feed probiotics, or the good bacteria in the gut.
Some good natural sources of probiotics include fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kefir and tempeh. You can, of course, also take a supplement. Just be cautious in WHICH probiotic you use as there are different strains all which act differently on the gut. It helps to make sure you do your research and/or consult with a doctor or gastro first- because the world of digestive supplementation can be hard to navigate.
Your body uses water in all its cells, organs, and tissues to help regulate its temperature and maintain other bodily functions. Because your body loses water through breathing, sweating, and digestion, it's important to rehydrate by drinking fluids and eating foods that contain water Chronic dehydration in particular, is a major factor in constipation, since stool absorbs water in the gastrointestinal tract. Without sufficient water digestion slows down and stoosl becomes hard and difficult to pass. Drinking enough water also keeps your intestines smooth and flexible which helps keep the food you eat moving through your intestines and allows food waste to exit the body.
3) Try experimenting with the "state" in which you consume your food.
The TYPE of food you choose, as well as the STATE that the food is in also impacts your body's ability to digest and absorb it. Some examples:
- We absorb less energy from minimally processed carbohydrates, and fats, because they’re harder to digest.
-We absorb more energy from highly processed carbohydrates and fats, because they’re easier to digest. (Think of it this way: The more “processed” a food is, the more digestion work is already done for you.) This is why more processed carbs are recommended for pre or post workout consumption, because they are "easy" on the digestive system and rapidly absorbed.
A good example of this is cream of rice (highly processed) versus whole grain brown rice. One absorbs much faster than the other due to being broken down through various measures of processing.
Another example would be hydrolyzed whey protein powder (known as "pre digested" whey) versus whey isolate. While both are faster digesting then whole foods, hydrolyzed whey is put through a series of processes that break down the whey even further, making it available to the body at a much faster rate.
Yet another good example would be peanut butter versus whole peanuts. Researchers actually found that almost 38% of the fat in peanuts was excreted through the stool, whereas seemingly all of the fat in the peanut butter was absorbed.
We also absorb more energy from foods that are cooked and/or chopped, soaked, and blended versus foods that are raw. Those processes help break down plant and animal cells, increasing their bioavailability and easing the burden on our digestive system to break them down and metabolize them. Raw vegetables and foods are VERY hard to metabolize and break down. In fact, when eating raw starchy foods such as a sweet potato, you absorb nearly NOTHING. But after cooking the starches are much more available, tripling the number of calories absorbed.
Cooked and cooled starches DECREASES the amount of calories we can extract from them, due to the fact that cooked and cooled starches form what is known as RESISTANT starch which is (as the name implies) a starch that RESISTS digestion.
By changing how you prepare your food, you can improve the way your body extracts the nutrients it needs. Try lightly steaming or cooking your vegetables, eating nut butters instead of raw nuts, or blending or juicing which can also help with nutrient absorption. Avoid eating food that is burnt or really well done as it tends to reduce nutrient availability.
4) Chew your food well, and eat SLOWLY.
This might sound "stupid" or trite, but trust me, it makes a huge difference.
Digestion begins the moment you start chewing and saliva is released into your mouth. You may not realize it , but your saliva contains enzymes that help break down food from large particles to small particles, making it easier for the body to digest. According to researchers, this process also makes it easier for your intestines to absorb nutrients from the food particles as they pass through. So if you are constantly inhaling your meals, chances are you aren't chewing your food properly nor giving your body the time it needs to release the enzymes that can help with the breakdown and absorption of foods.
Take smaller bites and chew your food slowly. Wait a few moments between bites of food and resist the urge to continuously shovel.
You want to chew your food until it's really lost its texture. Another good tip is to wait to put food and fluids into your mouth until you have swallowed and to set a timer when you eat so that you take a full 20 minutes or so to consume your meal.
5) Reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption.
Alcohol affects nutrient absorption in a couple of ways.
First, it decreases the secretion of digestive enzymes, meaning your body has a harder time breaking down food. Second, alcohol simultaneously damages the cells lining the stomach and intestines, making it harder for the nutrients you consume to enter the bloodstream.
Studies have found that anything over 1-2 drinks a week can have a NEGATIVE impact on the digestive system.
6) Work on stress management.
You may not know it, but your brain and your gut are VERY closely linked. This intense connection has been studied for years but researchers are just beginning to understand the impact emotions, feelings and thoughts have on your digestion. If you've ever been seriously stressed and suddenly experienced poor digestion- it's not by coincidence. Chronic stress in particular, has been shown to force a state of depletion in which incoming nutrients cannot be used effectively. This is due mostly to the lowered state of your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest system). As you continually place your body in "stressed" mode, digestion slows, nutrient absorption lessens, and HCL levels in the stomach become ineffective. Essentially, if your body is repeatedly acting as if it is in danger due to stress, you will not properly digest or absorb the nutrients in your food.
One way to help enhance the health of your stomach and your nutrient absorption is to manage your stress to the best of your ability.
7) Pay attention to how your body responds to the foods you eat.
Nearly 74% of Americans report having digestive problems in response to the foods they eat- whether they are diagnosed with an actual illness or not.
That's NOT normal, healthy or OKAY.
If you consume a meal and suddenly are nauseous, get cramps, are bloated, or have a change in bowel habits, that is a sign from your body that it clearly didn't respond well to something that you ate. Rather than continuing to consume foods without regard for how they impact your body, start paying attention to how your body responds to what you eat and take some notes. This can help to pinpoint foods that may be problematic or troublesome for your body.
For example does your body get funky when you eat dairy?
Or that new protein bar you bought?
Too much fruit give you gas?
These are things to pay attention to and make note of, because if your body is responding negatively, chances are it's not DIGESTING optimally. A really great exercise to do is keep a food journal for a week or two and jot down how your body responds to varying foods you eat.
By following some of the above suggestions, you can, hopefully, increase the health of your gut, and therefore your ability to metabolize the food you eat and generate the results in your fitness that you're after.