Unless you have some sort of superhuman, super-awesome digestive system, you probably have experienced some form of digestive distress at some time or another. Whether you’ve dealt with belly bloating, abdominal discomfort, gas or occasional diarrhea or constipation, it’s never fun and can be downright uncomfortable (and embarrassing). And you may be left wondering: Is it something I ate? While there are many factors that can come into play, it very well could be. But it might also be something you didn’t eat. After all, there are some foods easy on the stomach and much easier to digest than others.
Why is digestion so important?
Having your digestive system working as it should is important because it’s how our bodies break down the foods we eat into small enough parts to be absorbed and used for energy, growth, and repair. For example, this system breaks proteins into amino acids, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into simple sugars. But the fact of the matter is that this vast system has many other roles and responsibilities as well.
You see, the large, complex digestive system is made up not just of the GI (gastrointestinal) tract—which starts at the mouth and ends at, let’s just say “the other end”—but also includes the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. This system also houses the community of gut bacteria, or microbiome (aka gut flora), which offers a big assist when it comes to digestion and absorption.
Believe it or not, an estimated 70% of the immune system resides within the GI tract, so supplying foods that are easy on the stomach isn’t just important for a healthy digestive tract, it’s also key to maintaining general health and well being.
What are some of the top foods easy on the stomach?
Supporting a healthy digestive system starts with the foods we eat. While there are numerous benefits to a high-fiber diet, when the tummy is in trouble, you’ll want to look for foods easy on the stomach, such as:
- Sweet potatoes
- Skinless chicken breast
- Lean meats and fish
- Unsweetened yogurt and kefir (look for live, active cultures)
- Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles
- Ginger (in moderate amounts)
- Hydrolyzed whey protein (one of the “pre-digested” foods easy on the stomach)
When looking for vegetable foods easy on the stomach, you’ll want to reach for those that have been cooked or canned, as they tend to be easier to digest.
Once your belly is feeling better, then you can focus on incorporating higher fiber foods, such as raw vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, as they help support a healthy digestive system by keeping the friendly gut bacteria healthy and happy.
What are the worst foods for digestion?
Of course, our bodies are designed to digest foods, so when foods are “difficult to digest,” which is often accompanied by unpleasant side effects (such as gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort), it may be a sign that the system isn’t working properly. For example, we tend to produce fewer digestive enzymes (the compounds responsible for breaking down the food we eat) and stomach acid as we get older, and stress can hamper digestion quite a bit as well.
Somewhat surprisingly, fiber is often considered a culprit because it can slow down digestion, and certain types of fiber can lead to gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. Interestingly, some people seem to be a bit more sensitive to those effects than others.
That doesn’t mean a low-fiber diet is in order—at least indefinitely—although it may be a useful tool in the short-term for some. Fiber is very important to health, including healthy digestion. But if you haven’t been eating enough, it’s better to start slowly. And as mentioned above, if you’re already experiencing problems, you may need to temporarily cut back.
High-fat foods can also be problematic, especially as we get older. This can be traced back to lower production of digestive enzymes, stomach acid, and bile, which are all important for the breakdown of fats. Some better high-fat foods easy on the stomach include coconut oil, MCT oil, butter, and ghee, which contain short- and medium-chain triglycerides.
Other foods that can cause issues with digestion include:
- Spicy foods
- Fried foods
- Acidic foods
- Highly processed foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- Some sugar alcohols
- Unfermented dairy foods
- Caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and soft drinks
Can anything else improve how well we digest food?
Absolutely! Here are five simple tips:
- Remember how digestion starts in the mouth? Chew your food completely to start the process off right.
- Staying hydrated is also important, so drink plenty of water.
- Stress can play havoc on your digestion, so take steps to avoid burnout.
- Get—and stay—active, as exercise can improve how all of your systems function, including your digestive system.
- Listen to your body. If you are experiencing a troublesome tummy with gas, bloating, or other signs of digestive distress, etc., it may be your body trying to communicate with you. You might have a food intolerance, you might be dealing with too much stress, or you might need to visit your healthcare professional. Listen to your body and then take action to help it heal.