We have all heard the phrase, "You are what you eat." Well, I believe that is only partly true. I think a more accurate phrase would be "You are what you eat, digest, and absorb." I am only going to address "eat" and "digest" in this post. Absorption information can be found in my leaky gut blog.
(As a side note, I would also like to say that it is possible to add to this phrase by including "You are what your body cannot detoxify." But this would need to be talked about in an entirely different blog post. Credit for where I learned that concept needs to be given to Dr Kevin Conners).
Ok, so, let's break down the phrase: "You are what you eat, digest, and absorb." Eat, Digest, Absorb.
To begin with, if we want to live in optimum health, we must choose foods that will nourish the body with plenty of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. We also need proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Although, everyone is unique in the percentage of
each category of those macronutrients that would best benefit them.
So what types of foods are most nourishing to the body? I think it can be said that a whole-foods, plant-based nutrition plan would benefit almost everyone. We live in a world of processed foods, trans fats and hormone-laden protein. So by simply choosing to eat foods from high quality, whole foods, we are putting our feet in the right direction.
Let's break this down further.
Whole foods means eating food that does not come out of a package, carton, wrapper, etc. Instead of eating pre-packaged plantain chips, eat the plantains. Instead of eating the protein bar, eat high quality, clean protein (which could be any combination of grassfed meats, eggs, wild caught fish, grassfed dairy, fermented soy, etc). Ever look at a package of chicken? It has one ingredient, or at least it should: chicken. Ever look at a protein bar. Darn near 20 ingredients which include soy protein isolate, brown rice syrup, and a whole host of synthetic vitamins and minerals in order to "beef up" the nutrient-density of something inherently devoid of nutrients.
Plant-based means that a great portion of our foods should come from the soil. It is even better if most of them are organic (especially those plants in which you eat the skin such as berries or cannot peel such as leafy greens). Think about filling your plate at least half full of a variety of vegetables and a smattering of fruits. Add in plant based and high quality, pastured, organic fat sources such as coconut, coconut oil, grassfed butter, ghee, olive oil, olives, and avocado.
Whole foods = not prepackaged
Plant based = comes from the Earth
"You are what you eat." If that phrase was all that there was to it, then whole foods and plant based would be all you need to know.
However, there is more to the phrase isn't there? We need to address the Digest
In our fast, paced, eat on the go, eat in the car, barely chew our food before gulping it down our throats lifestyles, digestion has gone by the wayside. We may technically be swallowing our food when we eat like that, but we are most certainly not DIGESTING our food.
In order for the body to get into the proper digestive state, we need to be in a parasympathetic state. The parasympathetic part of our nervous system is responsible for giving us enough stomach acid and enzymes to break down our food. It is responsible for shunting the body's blood flow toward our gut in order to prepare for an influx of nutrients.
It is impossible to be in a parasympathetic state and eat in a fast-paced, on-the-go, barely chewing manner. A parasympathetic state turns on when we "rest and digest."
Here are a few tips for turning on your parasympathetic nervous system before meals:
1. Hum, sing or gargle. This will trigger the main parasympathetic nerve - the vagus nerve - to go into rest and digest mode.
2. Take some comfortable, deep breaths prior to your meal.
3. Take a short walk outside in nature.
By no means an exhaustive list, those suggestions will definitely prepare the body to receive and digest the beautiful plant-based, whole foods you are about to feed it.
Once you are in rest and digest mode, we need to initiate the Cephalic Phase of our digestive process. "Cephalic" simply means "head." So cephalic phase digestion is the digestion that starts in our brain. If we give our brain the message that it is receiving food, it will prepare the body by making digestive juices that are responsible for breaking down our food so we can absorb all the amazing nutrients.
Here are some ways to boost your cephalic phase digestion:
1. Look at your food and smell your food. I am guilty of scooping my food into my mouth without ever really looking at it and definitely without ever intentionally taking my time to smell it. Smell and sight are two great ways to stimulate digestive juices.
2. Chew your food at least 30 times. I was totally guilty of chewing my food 7 times (on the go) and swallowing it. Then, I expected my digestion to still work flawlessly. Wrong!! That led to stomach pains, bloating, nutrient insufficiencies, and gas. In fact, the entire reason I got into nutrition was because I ate an avocado on the go and then got crazy intense stomach pains for hours. I knew at that point, something was wrong with my digestion. So like the true geek that I am, I decided to get my master's degree in clinical nutrition to figure out what was going on. But I digress...
3. Use digestive bitters 5-10 minutes prior to your meal. The taste of bitter on the tongue stimulates the body to make more stomach acid and more digestive enzymes, both of which are essential to breaking down our food. Bitters can be purchased at your local health food store but can be as simple as eating a few bitter dandelion leaves prior to your main meal.
Now that we are eating our food in rest and digest mode, smelling it, chewing it thoroughly and sipping on some bitters before our meal, it is time to support digestion in the stomach and upper part of the small intestine.
Digestion in the Stomach
Our stomachs NEED plenty of acid. High levels of stomach acid. Tons and tons of stomach acid. Unfortunately, allopathic medicine views heartburn and gerd as signs of stomach acid being too high. This can't be further from the truth. (If interested in a detailed analysis of this, read Dr Wright's book "Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You").
When our acid levels are too low, the body does not have all the "power" it needs to break apart our food into the microscopic vitamins, minerals, fats, carbs and protein that are required in order for our body to absorb and utilize these essential substances.
When our acid levels are too low, the sphincter muscle at the bottom of the esophagus (which separates the esophagus from the stomach) does not get the signal to close all the way. So it can stay partially open and allow the little acid that we do have to reflux back up, creating a burning sensation. This heartburn does not stem from too much acid, it stems from the fact that we have too little acid to stimulate a tightly closed sphincter.
But unfortunately, we have been taught that when we feel that sensation, we need to pop a Tums or Zantac. This creates a vicious cycle that can ultimately lead to really poor digestion and absorption of nutrients. A lack of essential nutrients can cause a whole host of symptoms from low energy to weak muscles to poor exercise recovery to headaches and more.
Boost your stomach acid by following all of the suggestions above for Cephalic Phase digestion but also really emphasize using the bitters and chewing your food. Folks also find that adding an acid such as apple cider vinegar really supports acid production and food digestion.
Alright, now take this information and apply it as best you can. Take the next meal as an opportunity to optimize your digestion and give your body plenty of wonderful whole foods nutrients to absorb and use.