The first suggestion is to focus on easy to digest food. I see countless clients who suffer with IBS and digestive issues and when I go through their food diary I am hardly surprised. Their diet consists of lots of salad, spinach, kale, sweet corn, beans, lentils, quinoa, bread, pasta, oat cakes, rice cakes, protein bars, popcorn, and so on. All these foods are really difficult to digest and yet they are the cornerstones of their diet. If you are unable to digest the food you are eating this will not only cause digestive issues, it will also mean you get a lot less nutrients and therefore less energy.
On top of being difficult to digest, a lot of these foods are very low in calories. I know ‘calories’ is a dirty word in the mind of the general public, but it is a measure of the energy available to power your body. We use anywhere between 15-30% of our calories just to run our digestive system. If someone is eating foods that are difficult to digest and gives them little in return, then it is no wonder they have low energy. With less energy, the body has fewer resources and so digestion is turned down further, which then makes the situation worse. It’s a vicious cycle resulting in more digestive upset and less energy.
So instead of low calorie, hard to digest food, I want people to eat things that are going to give them the biggest bang for their buck. Foods that are high in calories, high in macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat), high in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, etc. and are easy to digest so you can get access to all these nutrients. The foods that generally fall into this category are: Carbohydrates: root vegetables (must be well cooked) and fruit (particularly tropical fruit) Protein: white fish, shellfish, broth, meat (how much and which cuts depends on the person), eggs, and dairy (if you can digest it)Fat: saturated fat, which will normally be butter and coconut oil (but also includes lard, tallow, suet, ghee, and bone marrow). Olive oil is fine as long as it is not heated above 180 degrees C.
The next tip is to eat regularly. I know fasting is very much in vogue at the moment but from working with lots of clients I can say that on the whole regularity is a better option. From a metabolic perspective most people struggle to go more than 2-3 hours without eating, let alone trying to go for long periods. I use body temperature and pulse to help work out how regular this should be but in a general sense the worse health someone is in, the more often they need to eat. The idea is to be drip-feeding energy into the body.
Each snack or meal should be a complete meal. What I mean by this is that it should contain carbohydrates, protein and fat. While each macronutrient has been maligned by some health cult, they are all important and you shouldn’t be avoiding or restricting any of them. Each is important as part of energy regulation and digestion and deficiencies, in any, will catch up with you. While lots of people report short term health improvements by giving up carbs or cutting out fat, long term this is not sustainable and will come back to bite you.
When sitting down to eat, you should be looking at your plate and making sure it has some of each macronutrient. Once clients are doing this at a basic level, we can then look at what the right ratios are. What percentage of carbohydrates, protein and fat gives them the best results. This will vary from person to person and meal-to-meal but a good starting place is normally 50:25:25 for carbohydrates:protein:fat (this is as a percentage of total calories, not grams). It is important to pick exercise that is appropriate for where your health is at and what you are eating. So often people are living off a 1200 calorie a day diet made up of foods that are difficult to digest and supplementing it with five intense exercise classes a week. While in some cases this might give you a better body from a cultural and aesthetic perspective, from every other angle it creates problems.
It will put you in a huge energy deficit, making you tired and lethargic. Even if at first you feel on top of the world and like you have more energy this is due to raised stress hormones not improved health. It will lead to digestive issues due to people’s persistence to eat like a ruminant animal despite missing the appendages to make it work. With the inability to break down the foods of choice, the digestive system becomes overburdened and the alarm bells start ringing – gurgling, bloating, gas, pain, loose stools, constipation, the list goes on. When picking exercise, make sure you are up to the tasks you are choosing. In my experience most people do exercise that is too much for them. They don’t want to start slow and build up with their body; they want to go in hard in a futile attempt to get abs in four weeks or a bikini body before that holiday in two weeks time.
The final piece of advice to help with energy and digestion is to eat in a relaxed environment. I know it is sounds simple and most people know it in a theoretical sense, but no one is doing it. People eat meals while rushing around or eat their lunch while siting in front of their computer working. Every meal doesn’t have to be a long drawn out affair but giving yourself time to eat where your only focus is the food in front of you makes a huge difference. Even if it is just 5-10 minutes, it helps. We have two sides of the autonomic nervous system, sympathetic (fight and flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). You need to be in a relaxed state to digest your food properly and if you are rushing around and not giving your body a chance to slow down, your ability to digest your food is minimised.
Hopefully these tips can help to improve your digestion and increase your energy. I would love to hear your comments below on ways that you increase your energy and foods that improve your digestion. I would also love to hear about the opposite, things that drain energy or wreak havoc on your digestion. I shared my ideas and would love to hear yours.
Chris Sandel is our resident nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. For daily health tips and articles you can follow his Facebook page. If you have any questions or comments about the blog piece or want to get in contact about setting up a consult you can email him on email@example.com.