Getting a stomach ache is the WORST! The pain, or sometimes the feeling that you’re going to ralph at any second, is just another thing that moms have to deal with every once in a while in addition to the gazillion other tasks they must complete in a day. There’s no way to prevent those fluke tummy tumults–food poisoning, for example–that hit unexpectedly. There are, however, some general guidelines you can follow in order to stay as far away as possible from the other stuff–indigestion, constipation, gas, diarrhea, etc.
Your stomach’s day-to-day well-being depends a lot on the food you eat. Not a surprise! You don’t necessarily have to eat like the fitness and nutrition experts on The Biggest Loser to be feelin’ fine, but for the best digestion processes you’ll want to at least put a little thought into it.
Liz Lipski, Ph.D., a clinical dietitian and author of Digestive Wellness, says that "if you don’t digest your food properly, your cells don’t get what they need to function optimally."
We all want our cells to function properly! But if you only have a basic-at-best understanding of the digestive system like myself, here’s something you might now know: the gastrointestinal tract is extremely important to the immune system, the disease-fighting ninja of our bodies!
Yes, "two-thirds of the immune system is in the digestive tract," Lipski explains. "There are more neurotransmitters in the GI than in the brain and more nerve endings than in the spine," she adds.
Clearly, it’s in our best interest to help our tummies stay healthy and happy. For some, this may be simply adding or subtracting a few ingredients from your diet. For others, a complete stomach overhaul is in your future. Regardless of where you’re at, here are ten of the best and worst things you can eat to improve your gut’s quality of life.
1. Red meat: According to a 2008 Cancer Research study, a high amount of saturated fat is linked to cancer of the small intestine. Guess what has lots of saturated fat? Red meat. Choosing lean cuts of lamb, beef, and pork can help you avoid this problem. Opt for protein- and iron-rich legumes, or grill a Portobello mushroom instead of a burger–it’s meaty and tastes great between a bun!
2. Processed meat: You know how no one is quite sure what hot dogs are made of? These guys, along with lunch meats and sausages, are chock full of saturated fats (see above), sodium, and nitrates. The more processed meats you eat, the higher your risk for colon cancer becomes, possibly because they are cooked at extremely high temperatures, which can increase carcinogens, according to Jennifer Gruenemay of Lifescript.com. To avoid these items, keep your meat cuts lean and fresh. When in doubt, stick with proteins from legumes and grains.
3. Hydrogenated oils: Trans fats are created when liquid oils are hydrogenated, allowing them to be solid at room temperature. But beware: they are not natural! They’re a cheap way to make food have a longer shelf life, but they are worse for you than you probably imagined. They actually increase bad (LDL) cholesteral, decrease good (HDL) cholesterol, and are connected to the development of colon cancer. The FDA requires that food labels specify if they contain trans fats, but food companies can claim "zero trans fat" if they contain fewer than 0.5 grams per serving. Now that you’ve been informed, be a responsible consumer: if you see "hydrogenated oils" on the label, there are trans fats in the product! Packaged, processed foods tend to be high in trans fats and hydrogenated oil, so do the healthy thing and purchase natural, fresh food for your family.
4. Gluten: Around 2 million Americans are gluten intolerant, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and more and more people are being diagnosed with Celiac disease each day. Unfortunately, gluten is in just about everything: barley, rye, spelt, wheat and a myriad of other foods such as processed meats, soy sauce, ice cream, cheese, cookies, pasta, ketchup, salad dressings and more. This sensitivity can cause severe stomach pain, as well as chronic headaches, aching joints and muscles, depression, concentration, memory problems and poor energy levels, according to Lipski. Unfortunately, completely eliminating gluten from your diet is the only way to rid yourself of these annoying tummy troubles; neglecting to do so can cause futher health implications.
5. Lactose: This substance is the main sugar found in milk, and hence, most dairy products. Between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, according to the NIH, but some do fine with small amounts of dairy. Lactose-free products are becoming more prevalent, so there is good news for those who suffer from this uncomfortbale conditon. Cultured dairy products such as yogurt may help because they break down lactose, while aged cheeses, like Cheddar and Swiss, are also easier to digest because they contain less lactose.
Your gut will thank you…
1. Dietary fiber: We’ve all heard it–fiber keeps everything moving along smoothly through the digestive and beyond. A lack of fiber can clog you up, which is potentially dangerous for your organs. "If you don’t have regular bowel movements, you’re retaining wastes that your body has finished with," Lipski says. "It’s like not moving a stinky garbage bag out of your kitchen.” Another advantage of fiber is that is helps prevent against cancers of the small intestine and colon, according to a 2008 study in the journal Gastroenterology. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes are the best way to stay full of fiber.
2. Probiotics: This sounds gross, but it’s true: four pounds of your weight come from all the tiny bacteria that live in the digestive tract and aid in digestion! These good bacteria are actually found in some foods, including yogurt. Yogurt contains live cultures that help break down lactose (as mentioned above), so make sure the box or cup says "live" or "active" before you buy it to ensure you’re getting the most out of your yogurt experience! Sugary varieties are abundant, but try to stay away–the sugar helps the bad bacteria in your GI tract thrive. Add berries or honey to plain, unsweetened yogurt for a kick of flavor.
3. Prebiotics: Remember probiotics from the previous paragraph? Meet prebiotics, the former’s food! "Bacteria multiply very quickly but need food once they reach the intestines," Lipski says. Prebiotics keep probiotics full and energized, and also reduce the number of disease-causing bacteria that try to sneak into the digestive system. Another benefit of prebiotics is that they make the intestines more acidic, which allows the body to absorb nutrients more easily. These little helpers are already in many of the foods we eat, but onions, garlic, leeks, legumes, bananas, asparagus, sunchokes, and especially lentils contain them in larger-than-usual quantities.
4. Gluten-free grains: Just because you’re not gluten intolerant doesn’t mean you won’t feel better if you stop eating it. Consuming many types of grains is a healthy habit, whether you’re intolerant, tolerant, just picky, or what have you! Quinoa ("keen-wah"), for example, is a lovely choice to start with because it is a complete protein, providing all eight amino acids. This rice-like, gluten-free dish is high in fiber and has more minerals than a multi-vitamin (well, I didn’t fact check that, but you get my point!).
5. Fermented foods: "Fermenting or culturing makes food more digestible by actually ‘predigesting’ it for you," Lipski says. How nice of them! The body has an easier time absorbing the nutrients of fermented food, so it’s like giving yourself a much deserved break. Pickles, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, tempeh, Japanese tamari or soy sauce, and sourdough are all reliable fermented options.