According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), upward of 60 to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases. 234,000 US citizens die of digestive-related disease every year and 1.9 million are disabled. Digestive disease and disorder cost the US over $100 billion per year.
The crazy thing about those numbers is they are preventable.
Food for Digestive Health
The Western diet and lifestyle is linked to growing numbers of allergic and autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Worse yet, these trends are spreading across the globe.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has developed what they hope will become a new trend we can share with our global neighbors. It’s called “The New American Plate.” Based on an expert panel report conducted by scientists in the US and UK, these dietary and lifestyle recommendations could help dramatically reduce overweight, related diseases and cancer cases worldwide.
How Your Digestive System Works
The digestive system begins in the mouth and ends at the anus. The organs involved in digestion are lined with a mucous membrane that contains digestive enzymes. These enzymes help you break down and absorb nutrients. The nervous system, the hormonal system and the circulatory system are also involved in digestion.
Food goes through four stages of breakdown, the first of which begins in the mouth. Salivary enzymes play a large role in digestion. Chew, chew, chew!
After swallowing, smooth muscles in the digestive tract moves food through wave-like contractions called peristalsis. The stomach stores food in its upper portion, adds digestive enzymes to food in its middle portion, and the lower portion does the majority of the mixing of food and digestive juices and then propels food along to the small intestine.
The pancreas, gallbladder and liver contribute to digestion in the stomach. Carbohydrates spend the least amount of time there, protein requires more work to break down, and fats need the most work.
Absorption of released nutrients occurs through the intestines and waste is pushed into the colon, where fluid and electrolytes are absorbed and the rest excreted.
Villi, small finger-like projections, cover the lining of the small intestine. It is here that the transfer of nutrients occurs.
Carbohydrates and Fiber
Digestible carbohydrates are starches and sugars. They are easily broken down and absorbed. Indigestible fiber moves slowly through the digestive tract, scrubbing the walls as it goes and slowing the movement of food so that it can be digested and the nutrients absorbed.
The American Food Pyramid doesn’t distinguish between easily digested carbohydrates and indigestible fiber. French fries, processed breads and white rice are instantly converted to blood sugar and wreak havoc on your health. Fibrous carbohydrates clean you out, fill you up and help you to combat bacteria and toxins as they increase the absorption of nutrients.
It is ironic that scientists first broke down food through processing and refinement to aid digestion and improve health. Once only available to the wealthy, these unhealthy food choices are now some of the cheapest foods we can buy.
The American College of Gastroenterology reports that most Americans eat only 10-15 grams of fiber a day while the recommended intake is 20-35 grams per day and I personally recommend 30-50 grams of fiber for optimal health. When you increase fiber, added fluids are also necessary to move them through your system.
Besides fiber, one of the things missing from the Western diet is healthy doses of probiotics. We live in a world of bacteria and if it weren’t for some of them, we wouldn’t be able to adequately break down food and absorb nutrients. Probiotics, beneficial bacteria, also improve the immune system.
Traditionally, every cultural cuisine in the world contains daily doses of probiotic bacteria. Fermented food and drink are universal staples in traditional diets, whether they are the fermented dairy drink kefir, sourdough breads, fermented soybean, pickled cabbage, cured meats or cultured cheeses.
Research has found that probiotics can ease irritable bowel syndrome, prevent allergies and infections and even shorten the duration of the common cold. They compete for space with bad bacteria, promote the release of natural antibodies in the digestive tract and can even attack unhealthy bacteria directly in some cases.
Gary Huffnagle, researcher at the University of Michigan Health System says that there is also a link between probiotics and obesity, a connection that the agricultural system has recognized for many years. Livestock are routinely dosed with antibiotics, which kill both good and bad bacteria, to fatten them up.
Cultured dairy is one of the best sources of probiotics, and many people who have problems with lactose find that naturally cultured products don’t bother them. That’s because processes like pasteurization and homogenization destroy probiotic bacteria, which normally help to break down milk sugars and proteins, making them more digestible.
Foods that encourage probiotics to grow are apples, beans, berries, red wine, spices and tea.
The New American Plate
Research has shown that the American preoccupation with diets is a faulty one. Diets don’t work and as the American Institute for Cancer Research says, “they distract us from the larger issue of overall health.”
The New American Plate isn’t a diet but a life change. It’s not a temporary measure meant to make you look better in a bathing suit; it’s a recommendation to slowly transform the way that you eat so that you get healthy and remain healthy for the course of your life. Its emphasis is on increasing plant foods, reducing meat intake, avoiding processed foods, and educating ourselves about portion sizes.
Many of us grew up thinking a healthy meal was a “square meal:” a large portion of meat, a large portion of starch and a smaller portion of (usually-over-cooked) vegetables. That old American plate is definitely square: square as in old-fashioned, out-of-date and decidedly unhealthy.
The AICR gives an easy visual cue for eating better: when you look at your plate, two-thirds of it should contain plant foods and one-third or less should be made up of meat, dairy or other quality protein sources.
They’re not talking about white rice or instant mashed potatoes when they say plant food either. They’re talking about a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and a smaller portion of carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa, beans and sprouted whole grain bread.
Eating the minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables is easy this way. A single serving is only ½ a cup.
Diversity is important and the way you prepare your food makes a difference as well. Non-organic, grain-fed grilled meats contain cancer-causing carbon, and raw vegetables or lightly steamed vegetables contain larger portions of vitamins and minerals than cooked.
Meat should be the side dish; not the central star of your meal.
The AICR recommends that you slowly transition to The New American Plate so that your body can adjust to increasing amounts of fiber and your eyes and taste buds can get a rich education. Small changes made over time are more long-lasting than radical transitions.
One of the best things about The New American Plate is that it’s still a “super-sized” meal but the AICR also recommends that you become familiar with proper portion sizes. Measuring your portions just once or twice can help you better “eyeball” portions.
The USDA has provided guidelines for “eyeballing” proper serving sizes:
- A half cup of chopped vegetables looks like half a baseball
- A full cup of green, leafy vegetables looks like a complete baseball
- A medium fruit is about the size of a baseball and a ½ cup of chopped fruit looks like half of a baseball
- A quarter cup of dried fruit is about the size of a golf ball
- A half cup of rice is about the size of half a baseball
- A 3-ounce serving of meat looks like a deck of cards
- 2 ounces of cubed raw cheese resembles 4 dice
Physical Activity and Stress
The amount of exercise you get has a big influence on digestive health. Both the AICR and Dr. Andrew Weil recommend that you get at least 30 minutes of physical activity in daily and make stress management techniques common practice.
“Exercise does more than tone your heart and muscles,” says Weil; “it also tones your intestines and is essential to bowel movements.”
“Stress,” he adds, “can interfere with relaxation of the whole body, including the bowels.”
Many digestive disorders are stress-related. Try breathing exercises, massage therapy, relaxing music, prayer or nature walks.