The act of eating has a profound influence on the digestion and assimilation of the foods we consume. I frequently find that a wide range of digestive complaints can be quickly remedied by adhering to the following guidelines for proper food hygiene:
Prepare your own meals
The smells and aromas breathed in during the preparation of meals have a powerful physiological effect on digestion. More than 20% of the digestive enzymes produced by the body during a meal are secreted during the preparatory, or cephalic phase of digestion. A simple example of this process is salivation in response to the smell of food being prepared. This means that when eating out and eating leftovers, 20% of digestive capacity is lost.
Eat in a relaxed state
In order for digestion to function properly, the digestive lining must receive adequate blood flow during and following meals, allowing for optimal secretion of digestive juices and maximizing absorption of nutrients. The nervous system is the primary regulator of blood flow in the body. Under states of stress, the nervous system diverts blood away from the digestive tract to the brain and peripheral muscles. In contrast, a calm, relaxed state promotes maximal blood flow to the digestive tract. Therefore, it is critical that meal consumption be done in as peaceful of a state as possible. Take some deep belly breaths before each meal. Eat sitting down instead of standing, driving, or lying. Sharing meals with friends and family with congenial conversation promotes relaxation and digestion. Watching TV and using a computer or electronics during a meal should be avoided.
Chew your food well
The act of chewing is the single best way to improve digestive function. Each bite of food should be chewed until completely liquid before being swallowed. This process dramatically reduces the burden on the acids and enzymes in the digestive tract, allowing for much more efficient and comfortable extraction of nutrients from meals. Additionally, chewing allows food particles to be more completely mixed with saliva, which contains enzymes for digestion. The number of times a food must be chewed is largely variable in relation to the type of food. A bite of red meat may require more than 50 chews, while a steamed carrot may only require 10. While this may sound like an easy undertaking, it can be incredibly difficult to follow this advice. One trick is to put down your eating utensil between bites.
Minimize intake of beverages around meals
Consuming adequate volumes of water each day is a critical component to our health. However, caution should be taken in consuming large quantities of liquid close to and during meals. Simply put, having a large volume of fluid in the digestive tract simultaneously with a meal dilutes the concentration of the body’s digestive juices, weakening their ability to break down food properly. Ideally, consumption of liquids should be avoided 30 minutes prior to and 30 minutes following each major meal. It is acceptable to drink 4-6 ounces of fluid with meals.