Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I love food, but I often feel worse after eating. Plus, I can’t get my weight down. Help!
-Janet R., Brooklyn, N.Y.
A: Good digestion is the root of good health. There’s a saying (attributed to Russian folklore) that one digs one’s grave with the teeth, which should serve as encouragement to choose good foods and take the time to prepare and enjoy them-in moderation. There is no one “perfect diet” that is optimal for all. And balancing the need for what’s best for you with what’s environmentally sustainable complicates matters further.
There are three basic macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. They are molecularly similar, but distinct. Proteins (amino acids) are the building blocks for all tissue (e.g., skin, organs, bone marrow, and blood), and your central nervous system is basically made of fat. Carbs, particularly the fluffed-up, bleached variety, provide little, if any, nutritional benefit. Moreover, they often contain harmful preservatives and colors that undermine your health. Other processed foods can be pretty yucky too. We’re very lucky in the U.S. to have food labels on all our processed food. Read them. In general, the more ingredients a product contains, the worse it is. Especially if you have no idea what the ingredients are.
A visually appealing plate with vibrant, recently living foods will go a long way to improving your digestion. The digestive process begins with appreciating delicious cooking smells and seeing an attractive plate. The brain gears up for food and starts sending signals to the mouth (generating saliva) and the stomach (producing stomach acid).
Did you know?
Tropical fruits tend to ferment more easily than other fruits. Eat them alone to avoid digestive issues.
Digestive Health Do’s and Don’ts
- Avoid acid blockers if at all possible. They are a major contributor to poor digestion. You need your stomach acid.
- When you sit down to eat, allow yourself to focus on the experience. Turn the TV off and keep the
conversation light. Proper digestion requires a relaxed mind.
- Chew your food thoroughly-there are no teeth in the stomach! Dense foods such as meat should be cut thin, cooked on low heat, eaten in small portions (a big steak is pretty much a gut bomb), and chewed thoroughly before swallowing.
- Avoid liquids with your meals because they will only dilute your digestive juices. A little sip of water or wine is fine, but try to drink most of your daily water between meals, first thing in the morning, and/or while exercising.
- Stop eating three hours before bedtime.
- Eat the protein part of your meal first because it takes the longest to digest.
- Eat fruit alone; it’s the perfect snack. In general, don’t combine fruit with grains or protein. (Topping oatmeal with a few berries isn’t a problem, though.) Tropical fruits, in particular, tend to ferment more easily, so eat them solo.
- Drink kombucha with your fruit. Kombucha is a fermented drink made from black tea. All fermented foods (e.g., sauerkraut, kefir, miso) can help improve gut health. They are teeming with beneficial bacteria (probiotics), which help break down macronutrients, produce enzymes, enhance absorption of nutrients, neutralize infections, and more.
- Try putting your utensils down between bites, and stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. Because 20 minutes after a meal, you will be 100 percent full. If you eat to 100 percent full at a meal, you will feel, and eventually look, overstuffed.