Often during nutrition coaching sessions, I get a lot of questions about intolerances, indigestion, and general weariness that stems from bad food choices. Two major culprits are bloating and inflammation. These are two huge factors that determine overall body health as well as composition of fat and muscle due to their influence on the body and its functions.
Your gut operates as a “second brain” with its own unique set of hormones that comprise what is referred to as the enteric nervous system. “Its main role is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination,” explains Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology.
There are quite a few factors that play into gut health, here are the 4 most common:
- Carbonation: Fizz can cause gas to get trapped in stomach/gut. Typically this is pretty uncomfortable and causes bloating for a short period of time.
- High Sodium Intake: Sodium promotes water retention in the cells of our bodies. This is when that feeling of being heavy, squishy, or spongey comes into play. When we retain water, our natural ebb and flow of fluid becomes halted, and we can begin to experience feelings of mild dehydration as well.
- Low Fiber Intake: If you have low fiber intake, gut bacteria can begin to eat away at the lining of the stomach causing gastral distress and inflammation.
- Low ratio of Omega 3 fats to Omega 6 fats: A higher concentration of omega 6 fatty acids leads to inflammation in the gut, joints, and the rest of the body.
So what can we do to fix these issues? Well, there may not be a magical potion I can whip up for you, but there are three key ways we can adjust our diets:
// FIBER //
Up first comes my friend, fiber. Sources of fiber include fruit with skin, vegetables, beans, oats, nuts, seeds among others.
Fiber adds bulk to foods, which in turn makes you feel fuller, longer. In THIS study by The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, they found that high fiber diets had nearly the same success rate as calorie restricted diets in effects on body composition. Basically, you can restrict calories by 300 per day, or you can eat more fiber, and you won’t even want to eat those extra 300 calories in the first place!
For my insulin resistant folks out there, fiber helps to control blood sugar levels. In people with diabetes, fiber — particularly soluble fiber — can slow the absorption of sugar and help improve blood sugar levels. A healthy diet that includes insoluble fiber like vegetables and wheat grains may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
And lastly, fiber helps lower LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque – a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible. If you have a healthy heart and want to keep it that way then keep LDL cholesterol as low as possible, as it is a leading factor in heart disease. Fiber will bind to this cholesterol, and then eliminate it through normal body processes.
// SODIUM:POTASSIUM RATIO //
Sodium is a mineral and electrolyte that naturally occurs in almost all foods, but is most commonly associated with salt. When it comes to minor bloating, we often first jump to the conclusion that we are taking in too much sodium. While this certainly can be the case, we also need to examine our potassium intake. Sources of potassium include avocados, potatoes, leafy greens, beans, and yes bananas too.
Sodium and potassium play a vital role in the body – they balance fluid retention in the cells of our bodies. You can think of this as a seesaw with sodium on one end opposite potassium. As your sodium level rises the level of the seesaw rises meaning you are retaining more fluids. To balance this out, we simply need to intake more potassium while monitoring intake of sodium.
While the puffy feeling of being bloated is temporary and a nuisance at most, water retention plays a major part in another gut issue, which is constipation. A higher intake of potassium will help to alleviate constipation, allowing fiber to finish the job it’s meant to do. This is why foods that are high in fiber and potassium play a key role in keeping us happy on the toilet.
Potassium, being an electrolyte, also plays a vital role in heart health and muscular function. Potassium aids in muscular contraction making it important for normal digestive and muscular function.
//OMEGA 3:OMEGA 6 FAT RATIOS//
Omega 3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, fish, beef, plants, and walnuts.
Omega 6 fatty acids include poultry, eggs, wheat, most nuts, and sunflower, soy, corn and sesame oil.
Several sources of information suggest that human beings evolved on a diet with a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids whereas in Western diets the ratio is 15:1 to as high as 17:1! Basically, we used to eat a lot of fish, vegetables, and nut oils and then over time we discovered that delicious oils (such as sunflower, safflower, soy, corn, and sesame) can be extracted and used to make foods taste awesome at the expense of our inflammatory health.
In a study by The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health it was found that, “Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and a very high omega 3:6 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 exert suppressive effects.”
To summarize omega 3’s and 6’s, we want to increase intake of foods such as fish (or fish oil), avocados, beans, leafy greens, and flax. We also want to reduce (not remove) foods such as vegetable oils and fatty meats.
You can check out all of the awesome benefits of omega 3 fatty acids in THIS article from the University of Maryland Medical Center. This isn’t to say that omega 6 fats are just downright bad. They do have benefits too that you can read about HERE. What we need to focus on though, is the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats.
The most important takeaways:
- Reduce intake of carbonated drinks, replace with flavored water if necessary.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables for fiber, potassium, and healthy fats.
- Limit sodium intake to fewer than 2.5g per day. Balance out with potassium to reduce water retention and bloating.
- Increase omega 3 fat intake while decreasing omega 6 fat intake to reduce inflammation and increase joint and heart health.