Updated: May 14
It isn’t just what we eat but what we digest and absorb from our food. Therefore, to have optimal health, we have to be able to digest our food efficiently. Proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals as well as water all contribute to our nutritional status.
Digestion process explained
Digestion starts when we look at our food which stimulates the release of salivary enzymes. The mechanical breakdown of food begins in the mouth when food is chewed into smaller pieces and mixed with saliva.
Once swallowed the food enters the stomach and mixes with gastric juices. These juices including hydrochloric acid and enzymes begin to break down the food. The muscular contractions of the stomach wall churn and mix the food, creating a thick liquid called chyme. Chyme enters the small intestine where most nutrient absorption occurs.
Digestive enzymes are released from the pancreas into the small intestine which continue to break down food. Bile is also released from the gallbladder after being made in the liver to help your body digest fats and the fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K. Bacteria in our small intestine also contribute to digestive enzymes to break down our food. Nutrients are absorbed through the wall of the small intestine and transported to the liver for further processing.
Any remaining food particles that cannot be broken down or absorbed in the small intestine pass into the large intestine. The colon absorbs water and electrolytes from undigested material. Bacteria in the large intestine help to break down any remaining nutrients. The remaining waste material is formed into solid feces and eliminated from the body.
Again, why is proper digestion so important?
Our body needs energy and nutrients to function properly which we can easily get from the foods that we eat. Digestion breaks down the food we eat into nutrients our body can absorb. These nutrients are then used for energy, growth, cell repair, hormone synthesis and more.
Five things you can do to improve digestion
Focus on Mindful Eating-
Avoid distracted eating (i.e., looking at phone, computer, TV or driving while eating). Sit down at a table and take a few deep breaths. Look at your food. Seeing and smelling your food activates our salivary glands to start the process of digestion.
Chew your food thoroughly-
Chewing your food thoroughly helps to break it down into smaller pieces, which makes it easier for your digestive system to process. It also stimulates the production of saliva, which contains enzymes that help to digest carbohydrates. If you do not chew your food properly, this may cause intestinal gas, bloating and malabsorption of nutrients.
Add bitter foods to your plate-
Bitter foods work by stimulating the digestive system to produce more digestive juices, including stomach acid, bile, and pancreatic enzymes. Incorporating more bitter foods into your diet will help to improve digestion and absorption of nutrients and have a positive impact on metabolic health. Download this list of bitter foods.
Drinking enough water is essential for good digestion. Water helps to soften stools, prevent constipation, and keep the digestive system functioning properly. Limit fluids during meals, however, in order to prevent your stomach contents from being too diluted which could impair digestion.
Eat a diet rich in fiber-
Consuming a diet that is high in fiber improves digestion by promoting regular bowel movements and preventing constipation. A wide variety of nutrient dense foods is key. Include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans as a foundational part of your diet. These fibers also act as prebiotics for your good bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics act as “fertilizer” to improve the health of your gut microbiome. These bacteria also help us digest our food.
If you want to take a greater look at your gastrointestinal health, check out additional information on the GI Map.
Cassidy Rhoads- RDN intern was a major contributor to this article.