The way we digest food tells us a lot about how well our metabolism is functioning. Smooth digestion = an efficient metabolism and one that can burn fat well. Remember: gas, bloating, heart burn and indigestion are not normal. Read on to see how well your digestion stacks up.
Food enters our mouth…
At this point, not a heck of a lot of digestion is taking place except the release of salivary amylase to start the breakdown of carbohydrates and chewing to help make our food smaller before it reaches the stomach. Our taste buds can relay messages to our brain letting us know the type of food we are consuming (is it sweet? is it bitter? is it fatty? etc). This assists the rest of our digestive system in getting prepped for the food to enter our bodies. For example, bitter foods can help stimulate the production of digestive enzymes needed to help breakdown food in our stomach and small intestine. This is also where artificial sweeteners can really throw off our hormones. When our tongue tastes something like saccharin (a super super sweet artificial sweetener), our brain may get the message that we are eating a ton of sugar and we need to release a lot of insulin (in the cephalic-phase insulin response) in order to be prepared for this sugar assault we think we are about to go through. Insulin is a storing and locking hormone so essentially we are preparing our body to go into storage mode. When no sugar actually comes into our blood stream (since we were eating a non-caloric, artificial sweetener), this insulin release can lead to bad blood sugar fluctuations throughout the day.
More on chewing…
Chewing is actually a very important thing. So take time to taste your food and chew it!! This helps the release of appropriate digestive enzymes. You are signaling to your stomach that food is on its way. It also helps slow down our eating which will lead to the appropriate satiation signals from our brains telling us when we are full. When I started counting how much I chewed my food, I realized I was a horrible chewer. I averaged about 8-12 chews per bite of food. That’s like a hungry dog chomping on a hotdog. I was pretty much swallowing my food whole. No wonder my stomach was having problems! Once I actually started chewing my food 30 times or so (as is recommended), my stomach not only felt better but I also felt fuller sooner. This allowed me to eat less food without any feelings of deprivation.
Forget about Prilosec, our stomach acid should be high….
Once food leaves our mouth it travels through the esophagus to the stomach. Our bodies need lots of stomach acid! Let me repeat this: our bodies need lots of stomach acid! Stomach acid is key to break down food (especially protein) and needed to liberate certain nutrients from our food such as iron. So if you get heart burn, stop popping Tums. This is a temporary bandage that ultimately does more harm than good. Heart burn happens when the esophageal sphincter at the top of the stomach does not close completely. This can happen due to eating a trigger/inflammatory food such as chocolate or coffee or gluten. It can also happen from over-eating or from not having enough stomach acid to begin with. In order for the esophageal sphincter to close completely and prevent acid reflux, its signal to close tightly is having a very acidic stomach environment. If this isn’t the case, then it may only partially close, allowing some acid to reflux back into our esophagus. Yuck. This gives us the thought that we have too much stomach acid, hence we pop an acid blocker pill when in reality low stomach acid is actually the issue. So what causes low stomach acid: stress, lack of sleep, aging, drinking too much water (especially with meals), eating inflammatory foods, being vegan or vegetarian. Signs of low stomach acid include heart burn, feeling like food just sits in your stomach and putrifies, a bloated belly after meals, anemia, lots of belching after meals, an inability to digest protein-rich meals. There are things that can be done to help with this like taking digestive bitters, apple cider vinegar or betaine HCl prior to meals. These things can greatly improve heart burn and our stomach digestion.
Absorption in the small intestine…
From the stomach, our food enters the small intestine. It is here that the absorption of all of the nutrients we just ate occurs. Our small intestine is a long tube with a lining that looks like shag carpet. The vitamins and minerals and nutrients we eat get absorbed through this shag carpet and into our bloodstream for use by our body. Our absorptive capabilities are so great in the small intestine due to the fact that we have so much surface area with which we can pull in nutrients. Due to the "shag carpet" inside our small intestine, if we were to pull our small intestine apart and lay it out, some estimates put it as large as a tennis court. This is a lot of surface area in which to absorb nutrients. When we eat foods that are inflammatory to us (like gluten) our shag carpet loses its ability to absorb. The shags are held together as something called "tight junctions". Eating gluten has been shown to release a substance called zonulin which basically breaks apart tight junctions and causes gaps to form or "leaky gut." When this happens (as it does in celiacs disease), it doesn’t matter what we eat, our body won’t really be able to absorb it and utilize it. All in all, make sure you are eating an anti-inflammatory diet in order to keep your small intestine healthy.
On to the large intestine…
In the large intestine, we have tons and tons of beneficial probiotic bacteria. These bacteria feed off of the fiber we have eaten and has passed all the way to this point. These bacteria take this fiber and ferment it into short chain fatty acids which our intestinal cells use for energy. These bacteria also produce important vitamins for us such as vitamin K. It is of utmost importance for us to keep these bacteria healthy by eating more fiber for them to feed off of, less sugar (which causes a microbial imbalance) and eating probiotic rich foods each day such as traditionally fermented saurkraut and kimchi, kombucha, beet kvass or take a probiotic supplement (with at least 50 billion CFU).
And then it’s time to use the potty…
Being the mother of an almost three year old boy, potty time has taken on a whole new meaning. My husband and I have spent countless hours trying to teach our son how to use the bathroom. Most recently, he noticed corn in his stool. This gave me a moment to teach him about what happens to the food we eat and where it ends up. Ever since then, he has been really excited about analyzing his bowel movements. Go figure! While the rest of us usually pay no attention to our stool, we should because it can tell us some really amazing clues about our digestion and metabolism. Here is a bit of advice on bowel movements:
You want to make sure you have a good bowel movement every day. Some people go more (like after each meal) and that is completely fine. You want your transit time (the time it takes a meal to leave your body once you eat it) to be approximately 18-36 hours. Anything much faster or slower could be indicative of poor digestion. To test this, eat something you know will show up in your stool (corn, beets, blueberries, etc). And then just time how long it takes from consumption to bowel movement containing that food. This is your transit time.
It should be brown. This is due to bile that helps with digestion. If it is much lighter, then you could be eating more fat than your body can break down or your body, for some reason, is not producing enough bile. If your stool is black (and you haven’t eaten something that will darken it like beets or pepto bismal) then call your doctor. Also call your doctor if you have mucousy stool.
Your bowel movements should be about 1-2 inches in diameter and about the length of a banana.
Take the next few days to observe your digestion. How long is your transit time? What about the frequency and consistency of your bowel movements? Are you eating anything that really slows your digestion down? Are there foods you eat that cause excessive gas and bloating. These observations can tell you quite a bit about how well your digestion is working and therefore, how well your metabolism is firing.