As anyone who reads Nigel Slater’s column will be only too aware, eating can be an intensely pleasurable experience. However, while many of us undoubtedly enjoy our grub, we may not be so keen on what it may do to us once we’ve eaten it. For a fair proportion of the population, eating can signal the onset of problems with indigestion, heartburn, bloating and belching. Because such unsavoury symptoms can sometimes be induced by a medically treatable condition, persistent trouble should really be taken to the doctors. However, my experience in practice is that for many individuals plagued by digestive strife, there is simply nothing to find. In such cases, I have found that just a few simple dietary adjustments can often restore a state of calm to a troubled digestive system.
From a physiological perspective, the primary function of food is to nourish the body. However, before we can extract whatever goodness food has to offer us, we must first break it down into bits small enough to make it through the gut wall into the body. Acid in the stomach, along with bile and enzymes lower down in the small intestine do the bulk of the digestive work, and convert the food we swallow into an accessible form. However, digestion does not always work as well as it might. Poor digestion can cause food in the stomach to stall, where it may end up feeling like a brick sitting under the ribs. Also, food that sticks around in the gut tends to ferment, with bloating and belching being the result. The key to curing indigestion is often to take steps to rev-up the digestive process.
One very simple but effective way to improve the body’s digestive capacity is to do as our grandmother told us and chew our food – properly. The act of chewing mixes food with saliva which contains and enzyme that starts the breakdown of starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta. Plus, chewing breaks food up into smaller pieces, which allows the acid in the stomach to penetrate the food and do its digestive work. Crushed ice dissolves far more quickly in a G and T than an ice cube, and its no different with food in the stomach. Ideally, each mouthful of food should be chewed to a cream before swallowing.
The body only has a finite capacity to digest food, so the more we eat, the greater the risk of indigestion. Semi-starving ourselves during the day, only to gorge ourselves in the evening is generally a recipe for late night indigestion, particularly if our raging hunger causes us to forego any useful mastication. As a rule, eating smallish meals quite regularly makes relative light work for the digestive tract.
One other tip for improved digestion concerns something known as food combining. It involves keeping protein-based foods (such as meat, fish and eggs) away from carbohydrate-based foods (such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta) at meal times. The body digests proteins and carbohydrates in relatively distinct ways, so in theory, keeping them apart can make lighter work for the digestive tract. A piece of fish with vegetables (no potatoes) or pasta with a tomato sauce is a generally easier prospect for the body compared to fish and chips or spag Bol. My experience is that food combining is most useful in the evening, when the body’s digestive capacity tends to take a natural dive. One other nifty little trick for improving digestion is to drink a cup of dandelion coffee before main meals. In herbal medicine, dandelion is believed to stimulate digestive function, thereby priming to gut for the meal to come. Look for dandelion coffee in your local health food store.