You Are Not What You Eat – You Are What You Absorb (Part I)
Eating well isn’t enough – you also have to digest, absorb and eliminate well for optimal health.
You are not what you eat!
When you hear the saying "you are what you eat" you need to remember that’s only true if you are digesting and absorbing your food. Otherwise, you can be eating the best food, even sourcing specific foods for their nutritive value, but wasting a lot of time and money, because your digestive system isn’t delivering these nutrients to your bloodstream.
Your digestive process starts in your mouth, using your teeth to grind your food up, releasing enzymes, tiny compounds that change the structure of your food, which starts the process of digestion. Before your food can be used, it has to be broken down and digested, and your teeth start the process.
The saliva that is released into your mouth when you start chewing helps to break food down, as well as helping to lubricate the food so that it's easy to swallow.
The food then finds its way into your stomach, where digestive juices break the food down into smaller components before it moves off into the small intestine, where the liver and pancreas provide digestive juices too, enabling the further breakdown of nutrients. Absorption of these nutrients occurs here too.
Tiny compounds with an important task
Digestive enzymes form a very important part of the digestive process, as they help to break down the nutrients into smaller components. For example, when eating carbohydrates, the digestive enzyme ptyalin is released in your mouth, via saliva, to break down the carbohydrates. The more you chew the better the process of digestion can begin.
These digestive enzymes are released at different stages along the digestive process, so if you don’t have enough of them, your food will not be broken down into the smaller components that contain the nutrients you need.
Although carbohydrate digestion starts in your mouth, proteins get digested in your stomach, using hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsinogen, which, when combined, produce a powerful enzyme called pepsin, which is capable of breaking protein down into smaller components, and eventually into amino acids, through enzymes called proteases.
Fats and oils are digested differently
Fats and oils have to be digested in a completely different way because they are not water-soluble as carbohydrates and proteins are. As fat repels water, the same water-soluble enzymes can’t digest it.
Your liver produces bile, which is stored in the gall bladder, and which breaks the large fat pieces down into smaller pieces of fat so that the enzyme lipase has an easier time in digesting the fat. If it's not doing its job properly, you will end up feeling tired and also experience nausea after eating foods that contain fats and oils.
It is quite simple to solve indigestion
Indigestion occurs when you don’t have enough of these special enzymes to break down carbohydrates, as well as proteins and fats. The result is that partially digested food ends up in the small intestine, providing food for the bacteria that live there, producing gas, bloating, and digestive pain.
If you don’t have enough enzymes, instead of feeling satisfied and energized after a meal, you will feel listless and tired.
Unfortunately, if you’re not digesting your food properly, your body cells cannot make the enzymes required for digestion, because they aren’t getting the nutrients required to make them, so it's a vicious cycle.
How raw foods can help
So, the first thing to do to remedy this situation is to supplement with digestive enzymes, as this will help your food to digest properly, giving you a chance of getting to the next stage of absorption.
The next thing you can do to help your body to digest your food more efficiently is to eat more raw foods, as they contain enzymes. Cooked foods are lacking in enzymes, so you end up needing so much more to do the job of digestion. Raw foods release enzymes when they are chewed thoroughly, so you can’t get away from having to chew your food well.
Food combining and how it can be helpful
Food combining has been popular with people who have suffered from digestive complaints because their bodies have been given a respite from trying to digest a variety of foods at the same time, because protein, carbohydrates, and fats are digested differently.
However, most foods aren’t exclusively either carbohydrates, protein or fat, so avoiding the combining of concentrated proteins and concentrated carbohydrates makes more sense. After all, legumes such as beans and lentils contain both protein and carbohydrates, and many cultures around the world have eaten these foods, combined with rice and other grains, without suffering from any digestive difficulties.
However, there are some pointers that you can keep in mind, to help your digestive system work more efficiently, by relying on what we know about how early man ate:
- Eat concentrated proteins and concentrated carbohydrates separately – don’t eat a steak with mashed potatoes
- Most fruit should be eaten separately from concentrated protein and carbohydrates. Fruit digests very rapidly, and we would probably only have eaten fruit on an empty stomach in any case, as fruit was not available all year round, like it is today. As fruit moves through your stomach quickly, in about 30 minutes, it makes sense not to eat it with protein, which can take up to four or five hours to digest properly.
- Acidic fruit, such as citrus, pineapples and berries, can be eaten with nuts, with no ill effects, while bananas, coconuts, apples and pears can be combined with carbohydrates, such as oats and millet.
Combining carbohydrates and protein can help blood glucose
However, if your digestive system is working well, adding protein to carbohydrates helps to keep blood glucose more stable, enabling even energy levels. So, eating an apple with some almonds, as a snack, for example, will be beneficial.
As you get older your stomach produces less stomach acid
Stomach acid is also an important requirement for optimal digestion, as it’s required for protein digestion, and also mineral absorption, as well as being an important defense against infections because it sterilizes the food that you eat.
Therefore a lack of stomach acid will mean indigestion from protein foods, as well as a potential for developing food allergies, as undigested protein molecules may cause difficulties in the small intestine by crossing into the bloodstream and causing allergic reactions.
The production of stomach acid, also known as hydrochloric acid, declines with age, and a zinc deficiency is also responsible for a lack of this important compound because it’s required to produce stomach acid.
Bad breath, indigestion indicated by bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, are all indications of low stomach acid.
Unfortunately, stress also inhibits stomach acid production, as your body is more interested in survival than digestion.
Supplementing with a digestive enzyme containing hydrochloric acid as well as zinc can help your body produce more stomach acid.
What if you are producing too much stomach acid?
The other side of the coin is the production of too much stomach acid, and this can occur due to inflammation of the stomach wall, which happens when alcohol, tea, and coffee, as well as chilies are consumed in excess. This doesn’t only cause pain, it also suppresses the production of healthy, protective mucous stomach lining, which further increases sensitivity to the aggravating substances. This can eventually lead to stomach ulcers, apart from the ulcers that occur due to a bacteria, called Helicobacter pylori.
Consuming vegetable proteins instead of concentrated animal protein can also help reduce excess stomach acid.
The large intestine, or colon, primarily prepares the waste material – what’s left over after absorption – for elimination from the body. Although there is some absorption of nutrients in this area, its main function is to pass waste along to the bowel, then to the rectum, using peristalsis, a consistent series of wave-like muscular contractions. Cholesterol, dead blood cells, as well as old hormones, are also eliminated from the body in this way.
Eat when you are calm and chew well
If you eat on the run, not paying attention to each mouthful, you will not only end up with a pain in your stomach, if you do this regularly, but you’ll also end up cheating yourself of the nutrients that are in the food.
Pay attention to what you are eating and how you are eating it, taking care to chew each mouthful until the food turns into a ‘liquidy’ pulp. Also make sure you are properly awake, as being half asleep will impact your digestion in a very negative way too.
If you manage your life by squeezing food into the tiny spaces that are left over after accomplishing all your other goals, your digestive system will eventually rebel, and ill health will be the logical result.
Cichoke AJ. Enzymes – the sparks of life. BC: Alive Books; 2002.
Erasmus U. Fats that heal, fats that kill. Burnaby BC, Canada: Alive Books; 1993.
Fahey JW, et al. Broccoli sprouts: An exceptionally rich source of inducers of enzymes that protect against chemical carcinogens. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1997 Sep 16; 94(19): 10367-72.
Hagiwara Y. Green barley essence. Connecticut, USA: Keats Pub; 1985.
O’Keefe SJ. Food and the gut: ARP Walker Lecture. S Afr Med J 1995 Apr; 85(4): 261-8.