Most of us know that the human body needs to eat to replenish energy, and that eating the wrong foods can cause health problems and even indigestion. Conversely, we may also overlook certain foods that may help our bodies function better. Read on to learn which foods work together to not only improve digestion, but also to keep harmful bacteria moving through your system.
Food serves many functions including regulation and fuel for energy. Certain nutrients help with the digestive functions by combining with foods to keep the body working as designed. These vital nutrients include probiotics, fiber, fat and water. There are also other foods that may contribute to the digestive process, including ginger, which have a bit more folklore than scientific research behind their effectiveness.
The human gut is home to millions of bacteria, some of which are helpful and can play a major role in immunity. It also generates certain nutrients, such as vitamin K, which is necessary for blood clotting (Purchiaroni and Tortora, 2013). While other bacteria may not be as useful, it’s often a fight for survival between the good bacteria and the bad bacteria. As living bacteria, probiotics help provide the body with more of the good bacteria and aid with maintaining that delicate internal balance. Probiotics may also assist with issues pertaining to bloating and constipation. One of the more common food sources of probiotic is yogurt (Heller, 2001). Plain, regular or Greek style, yogurt contains live, active cultures of bacteria that provide these health benefits.
To help the process of digestion and aid the work of probiotics, the body requires fiber to function effectively. Unlike other foods, fiber isn’t absorbed by the body; rather, it’s pushed through the body in several forms to keep the digestive tract clean and healthy.
There are two types of fiber: (1) soluble fiber, which dissolves in water and passes through as a gel; and (2) insoluble fiber, which stays in its original form and pushes food through the digestive system. While insoluble fiber helps with bowel movements and constipation, soluble fibers such as those found in oats, fruits and some vegetables can help lower cholesterol and aid in controlling diabetes by slowing the body’s absorption of sugar.
Contradictory to popular opinion, fats not only help the digestive system, they are essential to a healthy diet. Like many foods, there are “good” and “bad” fats, and moderation is needed in order to function effectively. A healthy diet includes small amounts of “good” fat from unsaturated sources such as plant oils (olive, corn, etc.) to provide the overall benefits to the body.
A function of fats in the digestive system is to work with fiber and water to keep the intestinal systems clean, while also helping the body absorb vitamins. Researchers have found that including fat in a high-fiber diet can also increase feelings of satiety by filling the stomach and slowing the process of digestion (Samra, 2010).
Essential for life, water comprises approximately 60 percent of the human body. Although there are a number of ways to replenish the water we need, the easiest and most common method is consumption. While most of the water consumed is absorbed into the large and small intestines along with vitamins and minerals, a portion of the water is used to “flow” through the system- keeping digested foods moving through the bowels. Water also works within your dietary tract to break down and soften foods so the body can absorb the nutrients.
Although not an essential nutrient, ginger is in a class of traditional foods believed to settle the stomach and help digestion. Although research has not found a specific element or reason for the root’s properties, studies do point out that many cultures rely on ginger for its digestive-calming properties. Researchers have conducted double-blind tests to observe ginger’s effects on nausea and gas. They found those who took ginger reported it to be generally effective in alleviating symptoms that cause gastric distress (Bode and Dong, 2011).
The human body has an amazing digestive network that requires a balance of nutrients to operate properly. Not surprisingly, these are the same elements that are essential for a healthy diet. As with anything, balance is key to enjoying better health and encouraging your body to function at peak capacity.
Bode, A.M. and Dong, Z. (2011). Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press.
Heller, K. (2001) Probiotic Bacteria in Fermented Foods: Product Characteristics and Starter Organisms. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73(suppl), pp. 374S-9S.
Samra, R.A. (2010). Fat Detection: Taste, Texture, and Post Ingestive Effects. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press.
Purchiaroni, F. and Tortora, M. (2013). The role of intestinal microbiota and the immune system. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, 17 (3), pp. 323-333.