“IT’S NOT WHAT YOU EAT, IT’S WHAT YOU ABSORB”
When it comes to nutrition, that’s the golden rule. You hear a lot about how eating a healthy diet will improve your health, but that’s only IF you absorb the nutrients from your food. For most healthy people, this isn’t a big problem, but if you have a digestive disorder or if you’re eating a plant-based diet, there are things you can do to enhance the absorption of nutrients.
While this may seem obvious, many of us don’t chew well enough. The result of poor chewing is often seen in the toilet – when undigested bits can be seen. If you have an ostomy, the importance of chewing cannot be understated, since poor chewing habits can lead to painful (and dangerous) obstructions.
Chewing not only helps us to break down the tough cell walls of plant foods (cellulose), it also increases saliva and enzyme production so our food can be broken down easier.
While there is no strict number of chews to aim for, try to liquefy the food in your mouth as much as possible before swallowing. It might help to set down your eating utensils after every bite, so you aren’t tempted to quickly chew and swallow. Some people make a conscious effort to could the number of chews – sometimes up to 40 chews before swallowing.
Like chewing, blending helps to break down the cell walls of plant matter, which makes digestion of food and absorption of nutrients a lot easier. There are lots of things you can blend, like smoothies, dressings, spreads/dips, soups, and sauces. If you have trouble eating whole nuts, blend them into a salad dressing or in soups to add creaminess to your dish.
Dry blending is a great way to get important nutrients out of difficult to eat foods – like whole flax seeds. Dry blending flax seeds into a powder can make it far easier to use in meals, but also easier to digest and absorb, since whole flax seeds can’t be broken down in your digestive system.
Juicing is another great way to get concentrated nutrients into your body, but unlike blending, juicing removes the fiber from foods. This could be helpful if you have IBD, since fiber can sometimes aggravate symptoms. If you get into juicing, try various recipes to see what works – some juices with dark greens may be too strong, so focus on sweet or mild fruits and veggies like apples, carrots, cucumbers before going into more complex juices.
Cooking food is another great way to enhance nutrient absorption. Cooking, like blending and chewing, helps to break down the cell walls of plants, but it also can enhance certain nutrients, like lycopene. For an ostomate, cooking allows you to enjoy foods that are difficult to eat raw, like kale or broccoli.
How you cook your food makes a difference. Some cooking methods like boiling or pressure cooking lead to greater nutrient losses compared with baking or microwaving. This video (courtesy of www.nutritionfacts.org) neatly summarizes a study which compared these cooking methods:
There are certain foods, that when combined with other foods, can enhance the bioavailability of nutrients in that meal. Vitamin C has been known to increase iron absorption, so adding vitamin C-rich foods, like greens, peppers or citrus to your meal will allow your body to absorb the iron easily. If you take iron supplements for anemia, taking it with orange juice will also be of benefit.
Recently, onion and garlic have also been found to enhance zinc and iron absorption too. Adding onions and garlic to grain and legume dishes can help mitigate some of the inhibiting effects of phytates found in those foods.
Like the nutrient-enhancing foods, there are certain foods/nutrient combinations that should be avoided for maximum absorption of certain nutrients. Here’s a list of some to keep an eye out for:
Tannins. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, then you may be inadvertently limiting iron absorption, since the tannic acid found in those drinks (and some other foods) are known to inhibit iron absorption.
Phytates, which are found mostly in grains and legumes can also inhibit mineral absorption. Using some of the tricks mentioned above to enhance nutrient bioavailability, some of these healthy foods shouldn’t be avoided (or simply eat a little more of them at each meal).
Oxalates, which are known to inhibit calcium absorption, are commonly found in spinach, rhubarb, swiss chard and beet greens. Cooking helps to reduce the oxalate content of these foods and consuming moderate amounts don’t usually cause problems unless you have kidney problems.
If you are on medication, make sure that you check with the pharmacist or your doctor to see which nutrients your meds interfere with.
Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A, E, D and K require fat to be properly absorbed, so if you’re having a nice salad, add some healthy fats like avocado, nuts/seeds or flax oil to give it a boost. Please keep in mind that not all fats are created equal, so stick to whole, plant-foods if you plan on adding fat. There is still debate whether refined oils, like olive oil or flax oil, should be included in our diets. I don’t personally shy way from olive oil, but I try not to overuse it either.
If your bowel is diseased, you may not be able to absorb nutrients properly. Those of us who have IBD in our small intestine are especially at risk of this. There are other ways in which we can get certain nutrients, that don’t require them to be taken orally.Injections are common for B12, Vitamin D and iron when levels are especially low due to IBD. In some cases, however, injections may be replaced by using sublingual (under the tongue) supplements. I personally take B12 under the tongue as a vegan, but also because I have Crohn’s disease and can’t rely on my gut to do a perfect job with absorption. My B12 levels in over 14 years have been on the high side of normal.
Vitamin D (a.k.a the sunshine vitamin) is often supplemented since most of us can’t/don’t get enough natural sunshine for our bodies to naturally produce this vitamin (actually a hormone). While injections are used in some cases, the more common form is either pill, drops or fortified food. Tanning beds can also be used to produce vitamin D, but if you are on medication which increases skin cancers, you may want to limit your exposure to these beds.
Vitamin D has also been shown to be better absorbed with larger meals [SOURCE]
Liquid supplements can help with absorption, especially if you have an ostomy and use an extended-release supplement, which is something ostomates should avoid.
There are a few things that I’d like to note, which don’t fall into a specific category, but are worth knowing.Calcium absorption can vary widely depending on the source. While many people believe spinach is a great source of calcium, for example, the calcium in spinach isn’t very bioavailable. Here’s a handy chart, courtesy of www.veganhealth.org which gives a list of common foods and their calcium absorption levels, as you can see, the differences between certain foods can be quite large. Be sure to get a reliable source of calcium, especially if you are taking drugs like prednisone, which can weaken bones. Note however that calcium supplements have been found to interfere with iron absorption.
If you are taking a vitamin D supplement, there’s evidence to suggest that taking it with a large meal will enhance absorption.If you’ve had portions of your bowel removed, especially your small intestine, then you may be at risk for malabsorption of certain nutrients. Talk to your doctor and get tested, since you may need special supplements or injectable supplements to compensate.
I hope this post has given you some ideas if you’re currently suffering from deficiencies. This list is by no means complete since science is always changing, but I’ll keep posting about up-to-date information as more becomes available.