How to Ensure Proper Nutrient Absorption
We all know that we need to eat a lot of fruits and veggies to stay healthy. However, even if we eat our vitamin-packed greens conscientiously every day it may happen that we don’t feel any health improvement, as some of the nutrients in our food are not properly absorbed. To avoid potential complications that may derive from that, here’s how to ensure proper nutrient absorption.
Improper Nutrient Absorption Triggers
Among the major factors that can negatively impact nutrient absorption are: age, diet, stress levels and even the bacteria in your gut can influence the amount of vitamins and minerals your body retains. According to a study conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine, gut bacteria plays a significant role in the body’s ability to keep well nourished. Researchers fed two groups of mice the same healthy diet. One group was additionally given the gut bacteria of malnourished children and the other group that of healthy children. The mice with the deficient bacteria presented critical growth and development issues, including skeletal features, body mass and size, while the other group developed normally. This confirmed that even with the healthiest diet, the type of gut bacteria is essential for proper nutrition and growth.
How It Works
Digestive enzymes and bacteria break down ingested food into molecules. These molecules journey through the gut to reach the upper small bowel, from where they enter the bloodstream, which carries them further to the areas where they are needed most in the body.
The amount of nutrients that you body is able to absorb can vary from 10% to 90%. Because your overall wellbeing depends on the amount of vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function to its fullest, ensuring that you absorb nutrients properly is essential to your health.
Reading labels before buying certain food products may be helpful, but it does not give you the whole story about the nutritional value of the product you’re just about to consume. More often than not, portion sizes have hardly any relevance as to the amount of nutrients you actually ingest, or the way in which the information is compiled fails to reflect how much you are or should expect to absorb at a given meal.
Unless you have in-depth scientific knowledge, figuring out the exact score of nutrients your body absorbs is more of a guessing game. Even so, there are ways you can still control and optimize the amount of nutrients that you absorb from the food you eat. Here are a few tweaks you can make to ensure you’re getting most of the health benefits that your healthy diet can provide you with.
Rule #1: Don’t Cut
We all tend to chop vegetables ‘nicely’ before we through them into a boiling pot. Well, if you want to get most of the nutrients from your food, boil vegetables whole. Experts from the US Agricultural Research Service discovered that potatoes retain 50% more potassium when cooked whole than when they are sliced or chopped. Similarly, Newcastle University researchers say that whole carrots retain 25% more falcarinol than when chopped. Falcarinol is a miraculous compound found in carrots and helps fight cancer, scientists suggest. Need more convincing? According to Dr. Kirsten Brandt lead author of the Newcastle study, cutting carrots before throwing them into the pot causes essential flavor compounds leak into the water, which if eaten as a broth is fine, but if not… you’re at a loss; not to mention that some of the nutrients found in carrots may slowly evaporate with the boiling water.
Rule #2: Enjoy Your Food
A group of Swedish researchers asked a group of Thai women and a group of Swedish women to eat the same Thai curry meal and found that the Thai group who enjoyed their food absorbed 50% more iron from their meal than the Swedish group, who took little liking in what they ate. That has led to the common belief that the anticipation of eating a dish you’re going to enjoy jump-starts your digestive system, making it more efficient at absorbing vitamins and minerals.
Rule #3: Don’t Be Afraid to Eat Fat
Some of the powerhouse nutrients that fruits and vegetables contain are antioxidants. Antioxidants have a long list of health benefits, including anti-aging and stimulating immune system response. Did you ever wonder how your body manages to absorb antioxidants? Well, fat helps them travel through your gastrointestinal system. Trials conducted by Ohio State University confirm it. People who tossed a few avocado slices in their spinach salad absorbed four times more lutein (antioxidant found in spinach) and 14 times more beta-carotene, experts suggest. Avocado is a rich source of healthy fats (146 g of sliced avocado contains 21 g of fat).
Add healthy fats to your diet, such as olives, avocado, nuts and seeds, or use their oils in dressings to boost your antioxidant absorption. Nutritionist Maria Griffiths even recommends adding a splash of oil to cooking water to soften hard veggies and pack them with just enough healthy fat to help your body absorb more nutrients from food. Plus, it gives more flavor to your dish!
But which oil to choose? A more recent animal study reveals the amazing benefits of coconut oil (saturated fat) by comparing it with safflower oil (polyunsaturated fat). Researchers looked at the effects both oils had on the absorption of carotenoids from tomatoes. Coconut oil contributed to increasing tissue uptake of carotenoids to a higher degree than safflower oil. Researchers believe that this is due to coconut oil’s medium chain fatty acids content (MFCAs), which they suspect has caused an alteration in cholesterol flux to support extrahepatic carotenoid tissue deposition.
Coconut oil is the richest natural source of MCFAs. Comparatively, most vegetable seed oils contain long chain fatty acids (LCFAs), which are not as healthy as MCFAs, experts say. Additionally, apart from their ability to boost your body’s nutrient absorbing capacity, MCFAs being smaller than LCFAs, can penetrate cell walls easily and do not engage special enzymes or lipoproteins in the digestion process. If you need more convincing to use coconut oil for cooking, here’s why you should start doing ASAP:
MCFAs take shorter to digest, thus putting significantly less pressure on your digestive system (particularly important for those of you who suffer from digestive ails);
MCFAs reach the liver immediately, where they are converted into energy. Unlike LCFAs, they are not stored as fat;
MCFAs support weight loss by kickstarting metabolism.
Additionally, coconut oil contains a considerable amount of lauric acid, which once it gets into your system is converted into monolaurin, a compound found in breast milk that boosts immunity. And… do you know one more secret of coconut oil? If you use it as your primary cooking oil, it is stable enough to resist high-heat cooking.
Rule #4: Think Small
Specialists from the US agriculture group The Organic Center say that smaller fruits or vegetables are loaded with more nutrients. Steven Hoffman, the group’s leader says that the larger a fruit or vegetable it, the more water it contains. In turn, water dilutes nutrients and decreases the nutritional value of that particular fruit or vegetable. This effect is extremely powerful in strawberries, melons and high-moisture veggies and fruits. So, think small and eat small fruits and veggies if you want to eat healthier!
Rule #5: Boost Your Insulin Levels
Insulin is considered to be a prebiotic, meaning that it feeds the ‘good bugs’ in your gut. Ross Welch, American agriculture scientist says that probiotics or the ‘good bacteria’ boost the number of proteins that increase the amount of nutrients you absorb from food. In the trial he conducted, high-insulin diets increased iron absorption by 28%. To boost your insulin levels, feast on artichoke, garlic, leeks, bananas, and asparagus. Add one or two servings of any of these a day to your menu.
Rule #6: Spice up Your Food with Black Pepper
Did you know that piperine, the hallmark compound in black pepper revs up digestion? A number of trials proved that piperine improves digestion and optimizes absorption of nutrients, including beta-carotene, co-enzyme Q10, and selenium. Sebastian Pole, Ayurvedic practitioner points out that black pepper has been widely used in Ayurvedic medicine as an appetite and nutrient absorption booster.
Rule #7: Go Bio
Did you know that the way fruits and veggies are cultivated influences their nutritional value? Truman State University experts confirm it. More recent research has shown that organic oranges contain up to 30% more vitamin C than their non-bio counterparts sprinkled with pesticides and growth-stimulating chemicals. Similarly, UCLA researchers found that organic tomatoes were richer in flavonoids (by 97%). Because organic vegetables or fruits grow naturally and hence, more slowly, they have more time to develop higher concentrations of nutrients than their non-organic versions. The same theory holds true for meat. Meat from grass-fed cattle contains up to four times more omega-3 fat and three times more anti-carcinogen conjugated linoleic acid, Jo Robinson, author of Pasture Perfect, says.
Rule #8: Combine Foods Wisely
By strategically combining certain foods and being mindful about nutrient interaction, you can influence how effectively your body absorbs nutrients. For example, if you eat carrots with red meat like beef steak, you increase the chances to absorb more iron from the red meat by a double, Ian Marber, author of Supereating, suggests. The secret behind this smart eating is that the beta-carotene in carrots supports iron absorption. Similarly, if you eat chicken with broccoli, you absorb as much as up to 13 times more anti-cancer compounds found in broccoli than by eating the broccoli alone.
Delving deeper into the ‘science’ of healthy eating, some dietitians recommend eating veggies mostly raw or partially cooked with healthy fats such as olive oil or avocado (see above), which boosts the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Additionally, cooked vegetables tend to lose most of their nutrients, while blending or juicing your greens is likely to make some nutrients easier to absorb.
Rule #9: Limit Your Calorie Intake
ED (energy density) indications we often find on food labels refer to the amount of calories a particular food product contains. The fewer calories (lower ED level) a product contains, the more nutrients it has, dietitians suggest. With this in mind, Dr. Elisabeth Weichselbaum from the British Nutrition Foundation recommends cutting down the quantity of mince in a portion of spaghetti Bolognese to half and bulking it up with veggies.
Rule #10: Keep Fruit at Room Temperature
A group of American researchers have recently found that some fruits continue to develop nutrients, including beta-carotene and lycopene (both phytochemicals) even after they have been picked provided that they are kept at room temperature. While more research is required to find out the reason why this happens, chances are high that the activity of key enzymes increases at room temperature, Dr. Penelope Perkins – Veazie from the US Department of Agriculture in Oklahoma suggests. Watermelon, tomatoes and peaches thrive at room temperature, says Perkins-Veazie.
Rule #11: Consider a Few Lifestyle Changes
There are not enough hours in a day and we’re constantly on the run and stressed out. However, a few lifestyle tweaks can always help. This being said, you can consider eating a whole food, avoid harmful substances (ladies especially, try to avoid paraben-based cosmetics), fiber up your diet (gradually, if you don’t normally use to eat a lot of fiber), and last but not least work out regularly (aim for 3-5 times a week).
Physical activity is an amazing way to de-stress, detox, and burn fat by kickstarting your metabolism. When your stress is maxed, your hormonal levels tend to fluctuate, which can negatively impact your metabolism, nutritional balance and mental clarity. Working out as little as 20-30 minutes a day helps release the so-called ‘happy hormones’ and enhances nutrient absorption.
Did you know that alcohol, caffeine and tobacco affect nutrient absorption? You may either wish to reduce your intake of any of these or if you do indulge, then it’s best you allow at least 4 hours from the time you had your coffee or smoked before you take your supplements or eat. All these substances are known to cause temporary inflammation to the stomach lining and make digestive enzymes less effective.
Keeping this in mind, you can slowly but surely start making a few shifts toward a healthier lifestyle by cutting back on coffee and tobacco (if you are a smoker) as well as alcohol (do not exceed one glass of red wine a day). However, don’t be too drastic all of a sudden, any lifestyle change as healthy as it may be it can do more harm than good as it may put a lot of pressure on your body and have the opposite effect. Take small steps by experimenting! Start by taking a short walk in the evening after dinner or drink tea to boost your metabolism, eat more fruits and veggies like raspberries or asparagus that are rich in fiber and lower cortisol levels (the so-called ‘stress hormone’).
Rule #12: Check Your Gut
A healthy gastrointestinal tract supports nutrient absorption. That is why it is crucially important to make sure your gut flora is healthy. The little bugs living in your digestive system are beneficial as they produce essential enzymes that help break down food. However, these good bacteria are highly specialized. For instance, the Lactobacilus genus of probiotics were named after the carbohydrate they break down – lactose (sugar found in milk) – into lactic acid and lactase (enzyme). This is one of the major reasons why culturing was invented, since only a limited number of individuals with a specific genotype are able to produce lactase later in life. Most of us lose this ‘skill’ rather soon after weaning from breast milk.
Sometimes the good bacteria in your gut are overpowered by bad bacteria enabling infections to spread throughout the body. In situations like this you may need to stimulate production of good bacteria either by taking probiotic-based supplements or eating more probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, pickles or dark chocolate. In any form you take them, once they get into your system, the good bacteria prevent the overgrowth of their bad counterparts by competing for food as well as attachment sites in the tissues of your food canal.
Probiotics play a vital role in digestion and nutrient absorption so that you can take most benefits from the food you eat. Actually, without probiotics, your body will not be able to absorb certain undigested carbohydrates like sugars, starches and fiber. These tiny friends in your gastrointestinal tract convert carbs into primary sources of energy and produce a support layer of cannot-do-without fermentation byproducts like bacteriocins (infection busters), beta glucans (immunity boosters), and surprise, surprise … the whole vitamin B series, to name only a few of the nutrients that they have the ability to produce. That is why keeping your digestive flora healthy is essential.
If you constantly experience infection-related complications, including frequent gas and bloating along with cramping it may be a sign of damaged bacterial flora. If this sounds like you, perhaps it’s high time you paid a visit to your doctor and had it checked.
Rule #13: Look After Enzymes
Other digestion-boosting agents in your gut are enzymes, which also aid nutrient absorption. They are composed of amino acids and normally secreted by the body to support chemical reactions that would not occur at normal, physiological temperatures. In other words, they do the magic in the gastrointestinal tract and are vital to your health.
Did you know that over 3,000 different types of enzymes have been identified and experts say that there are yet another 50,000 more to be discovered? Highly specialized, each enzyme has a different function. Some of these include:
Proteases – separate proteins from amino acids, by breaking their bonds and transferring them ‘loose’ into the bloodstream. Pepsin starts this job in the stomach, while the small intestine secretes proteases to complete the process and enable amino acids to travel through the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream.
Lipase – produced by the pancreas, it mixes with the bile, which converts fats into fatty acids and monoglycerides that are tiny enough to permeate the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream. Once they get into the blood, the digested fat particles work their magic by producing new compounds like hormones and cell walls. The extra fat gets stored in the fat cells.
Carbohydrases – as their name suggests, break down carbohydrates into simple sugars. This process begins in the mouth, where the amylase in saliva has the first go at it (that is why it’s important to chew your food well). The process is continued in the small intestine, where amylase produced by the pancreas further breaks the starches and sugars into single molecules (glucose, fructose, galactose). When these compounds enter the bloodstream they produce energy. Any excess is stored in fat cells.