How To Make Foods Easier To Digest & Support Your System, From A Dietitian
Most of us don't have a so-called stomach of steel. In my private practice, I focus on personalized nutrition advice and often work with people who have sensitive stomachs for a variety of reasons. I've found that each individual person responds to food differently, and general nutrition guidelines don't necessarily apply to everyone.
In fact, some of the healthiest foods don't agree with many people. For example, raw and fibrous foods can be hard to digest for someone with enzyme deficiencies, whereas some people have a lowered ability to digest and break down a family of carbohydrate sugars called FODMAPs.
Certain people will experience symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, and even constipation when they eat particular foods, especially in large amounts.
However, that doesn't mean that people with sensitive digestive systems necessarily need to avoid these foods forever. I generally recommend being careful about how much they have and using some strategic techniques to make those foods easier to digest.
Types of easy-to-digest foods.
While food affects everyone a bit differently, generally speaking, there are some types of foods that are easier to digest than others. In my experience, foods that are easier on the stomach are "predigested"—in other words, they're treated with temperature, fermentation, grinding, or more. Below, I've outlined some of the primary ways to make food easier to digest:
Cooking or heating.
Applying temperature or heat to your foods can help break them down and make them easier to digest. As for proteins specifically, I'm a big fan of stewing—in other words, cooking meats, lentils, and beans for a longer time at a low temperature. This might look like a traditional stew in a cast-iron pan, or the newly popular sous vide method—whatever method, cooking these proteins more slowly can help to make them much easier to digest.
This technique applies to raw produce, too—especially when it comes to high-fiber vegetables and fruits. When you're cooking up your veggies or protein with oil, it's important to go for healthy, high-quality options like olive oil, sesame oil, or coconut oil.
Some of my favorite ways to apply this method include baking apples with spices or whipping up veggie soups and stews.
Sprouting or soaking.
In addition to cooking your food, soaking your beans and lentils in advance makes them easier to digest, according to traditional cooking techniques.
Opting for sprouted grains or nuts can be similarly beneficial. You can even sprout nuts and seeds yourself by soaking them in water overnight—just be sure to always choose organic, high-quality options.
In my experience, using these techniques helps micro-activate the foods' biochemical compositing. This allows it to be more bioavailable and easier to digest.
Fermenting or pickling.
Fermented foods contain good probiotic bugs that are healthy for your gut and support overall digestive health. For example, cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, radishes, cauliflower, cucumbers, and carrots are easier to digest after they've been pickled.
That's because when these foods are fermented via naturally occurring bacteria, that bacteria predigests the food for us, making it easier for digestion. Some examples of these fermented or probiotic foods include sauerkraut, tofu, kefir, and yogurt.
I personally love pickling an array of summer vegetables to enjoy for breakfast, a side dish, or later during winter.
Grinding or blending.
Using a grinding process reduces the particle size of food and makes it easier to digest—particularly when it comes to nuts and seeds. For this reason, I often recommend organic tahini and nut butters.
Recipes for easy-to-digest meals.
There are a number of ways to use the above methods to create healthy, easy-to-digest meals. One of my favorite options is sautéing greens like bok choy, Swiss chard, kale, and spinach with a healthy oil. I also love adding alliums (such as onions, leeks, garlic, scallions) to a veggie stir fry or sauté. They're an excellent source of prebiotics and add a lot of flavor to any simple vegetable or tofu dish. I'm also a big fan of this greens recipe from Ayurvedic chef Divya.
Another one of my go-to meals is blended vegetable soup, made with anti-inflammatory herbs and lower in potentially irritating ingredients like pepper or garlic. (Try the digestion-supporting pumpkin soup recipe I created for mbg.)
Things you can do to support and optimize your digestion.
One of the best things you can do to optimize digestion is supporting your microbiome with colorful fruits and vegetables high in fiber, prebiotics, and polyphenols. Exposing yourself to a variety of microbes is key to gut health diversity (think probiotics and fermented foods), which makes our digestion stronger and more resilient. Additionally, I recommend avoiding or limiting artificial sweeteners, cured and processed meats, excessive sugars, and alcohol whenever possible.
I'm also a big proponent of taking a personalized approach to all things digestive health. Consult with an integrative health specialist or a nutritionist, uncover any food sensitivities and intolerances, then create a personalized nutrition plan for your individual optimal health and digestion.
Ultimately, strategically nurturing your digestion is important for your overall health. Other benefits include high-quality sleep, better energy levels, less inflammation, and a greater sense of calm. Choosing foods and preparing them in ways your body agrees with can make a world of difference.
Ella Davar, R.D., CDN, received her education in Nutrition Science from New York University, and an Integrative Nutrition Certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Her book, Driven Women Wellness: Your guide to self-care, offers a cohesive list of priorities, plan of action and hacks that help her clients reach their wellness goals while managing busy lifestyles in a healthy way. Davar specializes in integrative anti-aging nutrition and lifestyle interventions to help women of all backgrounds manage weight, stress, diet, and various health conditions.