Is A Wholefood Diet Causing Your Tummy Troubles?
This is a post I've wanted to write for a very long time. Grab a cuppa, it will take a while to get through!
You see, in our quest for health, or at least, a healthier diet, many of us are choosing more wholesome food choices. That's great - that's exactly what you're meant to be doing. But for some of us, our healthier choices are causing us more trouble than ever before.
Food intolerances and allergies, stomach sensitivities, and digestive difficulties with eating certain foods are on the rise. Why? Why is it now that when we are finally so focused on changing our eating habits; and so fascinated about what we eat, how it's prepared and where it's come from, that many of us are also suffering from gut problems?
There are a number of reasons why your digestive system may not be liking your new found healthy eating plan. Some are less complicated than others but here's a breakdown of the major culprits. This is not an extensive list by any means, but may assist many of you to understand some common issues that may be occurring.
So you upped your vegetable intake, started eating plenty of fruit, and went for wholegrain or higher fibre grains. Now you're bloated constantly and your poops are all kinds of strange.
When you increase your fibre intake say, from the average 18g a day to somewhere up around the 30+ mark, your digestive system needs a bit of time to adjust. That's like trying to shove a bunch of raked leaves down a small drain pipe. Usually, a small amount goes down with the rain (drinks) no problem, but a change in weather (your diet) with an influx of debris from trees and bushes (fibre), and that drain pipe is struggling to get it all down. It requires more rain and movement of the leaves and debris to help it go through the pipe.
The same for your digestive "pipes". You can't shove a tonne of fibre into a digestive system that's not used to having much, and expect it to function optimally. You need to gradually increase your fibre if you want your digestive system to stay happy and decrease the bloating. Secondly, drinking plenty of water/liquid and moving/exercising as much as possible will really help. Don't forget to mix and match your fibre too.
The key ones are insoluble (plant fibres, brans etc), soluble (oats, flaxseed, berries, nuts etc), and resistant starch (ripe bananas, cold potatoes etc). They all have a role in digestive function. Insoluble fibres aren't broken down, help to add bulk, and speed up the exit of waste. Soluble fibre absorbs water, slows down digestion and helps things move easier.
Fructose/Glucose - Sugars
Who's quit sugar? Raise your hand. C'mon, make the person beside you wonder what you're up to on here. In our desperate attempt the cut the white "poison" from our lives, we have forgotten about (or didn't even know about!) every human body's simple genetic predisposition to not be able to tolerate a whole lot of fructose. You've cut out the white, refined sugars and syrups which is great for the most part. But when your diet looks something like this: green smoothie with mango and apple; 2 dates with almond butter for a snack; salad with honey vinaigrette, a raw food bliss ball for afternoon tea, dinner of chicken with onion, garlic and asparagus, then a slice of a raw cheezecake made on dates/honey. It sounds delicious, is healthy, looks healthy, but your gut says no. You may also be feeling pretty low or tired. That's not a "sugar cleanse" symptom.
When you cut out your sugar (mainly glucose/sucrose), you replaced it with fructose (fruit sugar). The ratio of glucose to fructose has been skewed and now your digestive system is kicking up a stink - probably literally. Glucose helps us to absorb fructose. The glucose molecules act like little transporters of fructose through the digestive system. When there are more fructose molecules than 'transporter' glucose molecules, the remaining fructose overflow gets malabsorbed. This is normal for everyone. Ever eaten a tonne of fruit as a child only to get a pain in the stomach? That's likely what happened.
You may have also swapped your sugar for sugar-free snacks and drinks. Many of these contain sorbitol. Sorbitol (420), Xylitol (967) and other sugar alcohols can cause digestive issues by themselves because they're not completely digested in the body. They continue unabsorbed into the large intestine where they cause an osmotic effect (water is drawn into your bowels) causing diarrhoea. Sorbitol is also problematic because during its travels in the digestive system, some of it is digested. The sorbitol is converted to fructose by the enzyme sodium dehydrogenase, therefore contributing to the overall gas, bloating, pain, constipation/diarrhoea situation further.
Now I don't exactly recommend going back to refined white sugar, but instead of swapping the white stuff for so much fruit sweetened stuff, slow down on the extra raw treats, the juices, the bliss balls, and rotate your smoothie ingredients, using lower fructose fruits like berries. Swap the sweets for more savoury foods to keep your gut happy. Skip the artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohol sweetened snacks such as many commercial protein bars, soft drinks and chewing gums. If you find certain savoury foods are irritating you and causing symptoms, see FODMAPs below.
We love convenience. That's a big reason why junk food is so popular. It's quick, easy, and keeps us going for usually a pretty low cost (short term). We are also a society that is constantly in a rush, and struggles to slow down, even to eat.
Healthy is even more convenient now that it has become a mainstream 'trend'. You can get all kinds of healthy foods to just grab-and-go. We can have our juice while we walk; or our raw food bar for 'lunch' if we don't get a chance to stop for something more substantial in between meetings. You eat your sumo salad while you reply to emails at your desk. Your protein smoothie when running from the gym to work. Yet you feel kinda queasy, kinda heavy, and a bit sluggish. Your feeling a little 'weighed down' and if given the opportunity, wouldn't mind having a little nap.
Our digestive system is so complex, and we often take this for granted. There's a couple of reasons why things are going a bit haywire here. 1. Your digestive system starts in the mouth. Saliva contains enzymes that literally start to break down the food you ingest. When you don't chew much, or you have your meals in liquid form e.g. smoothie/juice, you're missing that initial step of digestion which helps your brain tell your stomach to get ready to work, and helps to make its job a little easier. 2. You're eating too fast and too much. Slow down! All of those liquid meals are hitting your stomach at full speed - if you're downing them without paying much attention, and for the same reasons as above, you're pretty much bound to feel gross, at least for a short while. You need to focus on what you're eating, chew well, and really take time out to eat. This is mindful eating. If you struggle to eat slow, set a timer on your phone for 5 minute intervals. Eat a quarter of your meal slowly, every 5 minutes for 20 minutes.
You started trying different veggies, and Instagram made you believe that eating raw desserts and fruits all day is a great 'healthy' idea. You tried to cut back on meat, and introduce lentils, beans, and soy products. You cut back on caffeine and started having herbal teas and the odd decaf. Yet you feel lousy. You've got no energy, you look pregnant, you're gassy and you definitely don't 'feel happy inside'!
You may be overdoing it on the FODMAP foods. What are they? Highly fermentable carbs (aka, your gut bacteria love them, feast on them, and make lots of gas to fill your bowels with). They are pretty well tolerated in a balanced diet and in people with strong guts. But for those of us who are sensitive beings, an increase in FODMAPs can put our digestion all out of whack. These foods are prebiotic, meaning they feed the bacteria naturally found in your bowels. When you have lots, its like a buffet for those little critters - and everybody knows when you go to a buffet, you overdo it! So do they. They are like us also in the way they digest things. They create waste. Their form of waste are gases. Some of these gases are incredibly beneficial for our overall health and its important that we nourish the bacteria in our gut for this reason. But too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. We end up having all kinds of digestive issues - abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, gas, and tiredness. Fructose, including fructans and fructo-oligosaccharides found in certain fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, legumes etc can all contribute to digestive discomforts. Don't jump to conclusions now! Fructose is not "bad" or "poison" as some may state. It's just not tolerated by our gut very well in large doses, and in some of us, smaller serves.
This one I recommend you see a Dietitian (like me) who knows a thing or two about FODMAP foods. They can tailor a diet guide to suit your individual needs, as cutting all the FODMAP foods out is totally unnecessary for most of us long term.
Labels. Health professionals have banged on about the importance of label reading for years, and we still do, for good reason. But marketing companies know this too. They know you're time poor; that you are happy to be guided by bold highlighted phrases and key words on the front of the pack. Half the time you can't read the tiny nutrition panel anyway! So they slather their products in the buzz words to get you in. Next minute your buying organic potato chips, sugar free ice cream tubs, organic chocolate coated nuts, gluten free bread, and honey sweetened granola. The packet told you it was healthy.
Those foods despite their buzz words and healthier ingredients, are still energy dense foods that are very easy to overeat. The marketers want you to believe that 'healthy snacks' are 'guilt free'. It's a lie. They want you to buy their product. They are absolutely fine additions to a healthy balanced diet, but whenever we overeat a food, whether or not its healthier snack foods/desserts or junk, we tend to feel crappy. When our digestive system is overloaded to the point where we feel uncomfortably full at most meals, or we've lost the ability to eat to our bodies hunger/fullness cues, then our digestive function suffers. Mindfully eating your meals, and eating till satisfied instead of full, can help prevent the "food baby" and the discomfort that follows. The same goes for those 'healthier' snack foods. Keep your portions in check and try to avoid eating on the run, distracted, or standing up.
You've killed your colony. Well, sort of...
You haven't really had the best diet for quite some time, and you've gradually moved towards a healthier diet. Kudos to you, seriously! You may be ready for your dietary changes, but you digestive system might not be. Or alternatively you've had a nasty case of the flu and required antibiotics; had a bad bout of gastro, or suffered from an illness that has resulted in lots of medications for a long time.
A diet high in processed refined foods isn't very ideal for supporting the bacteria that live inside your gut. It's typically low in fibre and micronutrients, and doesn't have quite the same benefits for promoting happy little gut critters. If you've just recently switched to a more wholefoods based diet, you may need to give yourself some time to adjust to the higher fibre content and nutrient density - drink plenty of water and stay active! Consume probiotic rich foods such as kombucha, kefir, yoghurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, and fermented/cultured vegetables daily to help boost your numbers of healthful bacteria. A probiotic supplement can also help.
If you're in the latter group and have been sick, taking antibiotics and some other medications, or suffered a bout of gastroenteritis, you're in a similar position, but probably a bit worse. Antibiotics destroy bacteria, thats their job. But they're also not fussed which ones they destroy. An antibiotic is like sending a bomb into your gut - killing the 'bad guys' and taking civilians with it. Taking a probiotic supplement and eating probiotic rich foods are essential in these cases. Good bacteria are your digestive helpers! Boost them up.
You've gone more raw
Raw food is such a hot trend at the moment. It's very nutritious, and actually really delicious! If you haven't gone fully raw or attempted to, then you've likely tried to up your raw food intake e.g. salads, juices. smoothies, raw desserts. It sounds great, with converts boasting benefits of improved health, better skin, and weight loss; but what isn't often discussed, is the digestive difficulties you may be having!
You've started eating more salads, more snacks of veggie sticks, and opting for 'lighter' meals - thats fantastic! You should have these! But not all of us can do well on a diet predominately made up of 'cold' foods. In Summer we can typically handle more of this style of food because of the hotter weather, but in Winter and in general, cooking our food makes it easier for us to digest. Based on the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine, our digestive system has to work harder to digest these cold foods. This may end up causing your digestive discomfort, a heavy feeling, and bloating. How to reduce your symptoms? Enjoy raw food 'un-cooking' as part of a more balanced diet. Opt for a mix of warm vegetables and cold vegetables in your salads, and cook your veggies where possible - many vitamins and minerals are actually 'unlocked' when you cook them!
Stress about our plates
How many times lately have you heard something is bad for you that you thought was ok to eat? Holy moley, it seems like everyone is in on this 'health trend' to make a quick buck. If it's not selling you the latest superfood or potion, then it's telling you that they have the answers to your diet problems and that you should cut out this, and that, and this too. So you do, and you try, and you fall off the "wagon", and then you try again, and then you're frustrated because you can't seem to 'stick to it', and the results were kind of ok when you did it strict, but you can't seem to stay on the regime/cleanse/plan long enough to get the results. The supplements become an expense you don't want anymore; the books, the recipes, the ingredients are kind of confusing, and you read on social media, in the news, in a magazine that the things you cut out, are actually not bad, or they're infact good for you! Someone says one thing, another says something else. Why has our curiosity about food made it so damn complicated?!
Media scare tactics, fear mongering, and folks spruiking they have the "answer" are a dime a dozen lately. Everyone has their own opinion on food, because, well, frankly, we all have to eat. We all grew up differently, have different backgrounds, have different lifestyles, have different old wives tales that our grandmas told would cure everything. We have become so fixated on the tiny details of food, that we start to lose the joy of eating. We are becoming afraid of food, and we are stressing ourselves out over what we eat. Because so much of our food supply is apparently "poison". Let's face it, the big companies with their processed foods and money-saving ways aren't really doing anything for our health, and they're not interested in that anyway. But stressing out over everything we eat all the time isn't going to fix the issue.
Guess what stress does? It causes digestive problems. You know why? Because when you're in flight or fight mode, your body is primed for action, not to rest and digest. If you're constantly wound up, stressed out, anxiety riddled, then you're digestion is compromised. Don't be so hard on yourself if you eat something that wasn't on "the list", or in "the guide". If something feels good to eat and generally you're pretty healthy, and you know that it's not doing your body any real long term damage, then eat it, enjoy it, and stop stressing about it! Quit labelling your diet!
Obviously coeliacs have to say they are coeliac, and people with Diabetes need to stick to their own sets of guidelines. But for the majority of the population, there is no prize for sticking to a labelled diet. You are not competing for health. There is no need to be so hard on yourself when you simply want to live life well, and enjoy some treat foods on occasion. This doesn't mean you should go out and binge, or eat rubbish all the time. Make your personal health a priority and eat to nourish 80-90% of the time. Forget what others are eating, what diets or regimes people are promoting, and listen to your body. Your body will tell you exactly what it needs if you just listen. Relax at meal times, and make them something special so that you aren't rushing around like a crazy person and trying to shovel food in. Your digestion will likely improve without the need for cutting things out of your diet!
Cutting it out
Along the lines of the previous topic, many of us are so focused on what we should cut out of our diets to help improve our health, rather than being focused on putting the good stuff in. There's paleo, vegan, fruitarian, alkaline, macrobiotic, Dukan, gluten free, low carb high fat, the list goes on and on. By the time you've cut out what everyone else tells you to cut out for good health you're left with nothing! Now you're feeling restricted, and probably suffering from digestive problems and moodiness.
When you mess with different diets e.g. back and forth from high fat to low fat, your body adjusts pretty well, but your digestion can take a bit of a hit. Your gut bacteria can change within a day or two to adapt to the different types of food you're eating. If you have a higher carb diet, you'll find there's likely more gut bacteria that help to digest these carbs; when there's less carbs and more meat and protein, you'll likely find theres a higher amount of more protein loving bacteria. But your overall digestion may not be able to adjust so easily. An increase in fibre, in fructose, in sugar, in protein, in fats, whichever it is, can cause different digestive problems if you're not used to having such high amounts. Often with higher protein lower carb you can become constipated, gassy, bloated. With higher fibre (including more whole grains, veggies and fruit) you can get abdominal pain, bloating, gas and sometimes diarrhoea. With higher fat you can get diarrhoea, oily bowel movements and perhaps malabsorb fat soluble nutrients. Higher protein, well….I think most of us know the stench of this one...
This not only leaves us feeling pretty awful, but it also plays on our mind - literally. It's a very new area of science but the connection between our brains and our gut, the gut-brain axis, is very real. When you're gut isn't happy, it's likely you're not that chirpy either. When you keep cutting out certain foods and are left with minimal variety and foods that don't feed your gut bacteria to keep them happy, you'll likely be suffering some sort of digestive issues, which may likely have a roll on effect to impact your mental health.
Not to mention how lousy you feel when you're diet is so restricted you can't enjoy a social life! Instagram and social media are great tools for motivation but many of us are becoming obsessed with healthy eating to the point where it is negatively affecting our daily lives. You can read more on this here. You may not realise it, but your loved ones may think you're being extreme. If things get out of control, and you find yourself really anxious or guilt ridden when it comes to eating say, something with sugar as a rare treat, or you're adamant about sticking to your rigid restrictive diet plan, this may be a sign of orthorexia. If it sounds like you, do seek help from a professional.
When you've lost the enjoyment out of eating, and food has become too complicated, it's never a better time to simplify. Just enjoy real food. Eat plenty of vegetables, lean protein, high fibre grains and dairy if tolerated, and fresh fruits. Avoid getting caught up in different labelled diets, different people's diets, and stop comparing yourself to others. Your body is unique. Treat it right by eating well, moving plenty, and save your sanity by enjoying some treat foods occasionally. Stop labelling your diet. Reduce stress around food, and start enjoying life and the fun of food again!
If you'd like some personalised guidance with your diet, I am always available to assist you. I offer a personalised dietary analysis via email, which examines your current diet for essential nutrients, and guides you with some tips and changes to help you reach your goals, or ensure you're meeting your needs. I also have face to face, Skype or telephone consultations if you'd like to make an appointment.