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10 Steps to Build and Maintain Digestive Health

When it comes to overall wellness, maintaining your digestive health is just as important as maintaining your heart health, bone health and the health of the rest of your body. And the good news is that for most people, it's a matter of taking simple preventive steps. Taking control of your digestive health can help you improve your overall health, well-being and happiness. So, don't wait until you experience digestive problems. You can start making simple, proactive changes to your diet and lifestyle today that can benefit your digestive health now, and all throughout your life.

1. Eat Your Fruits and Veggies

plums and prunesInclude a broad spectrum of colorful fruits and vegetables, including dried fruits in your diet. They're packed with important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that provide a broad array of health benefits including enhancing your digestive health.

Eat your fruits and veggies

  • Fruits and vegetables contain fiber and a broad range of nutrients important for maintaining digestive health. Read more about the benefits of fiber below.
  • Eating fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet may also help reduce your risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

2. Get Plenty of Fiber

fiber rich foodsFiber can help your GI tract stay "regular," improve cardiovascular health and regulate blood sugar levels. Fiber also reduces cholesterol levels in the blood, enhances proper bowel function, prevents constipation and diverticulosis, and provides a feeling of fullness without adding calories. It is found in plant sources, so be sure to eat a diet containing a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

Health and nutrition experts recommend eating 14 grams of dietary fiber per 1,000 calories consumed. Fiber is found only in plant food, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. It's the part of the plant that is not digested in the human body. It's important to eat foods containing both soluble fiber, such as oat bran and beans, and insoluble fiber, such as whole-wheat products. Both forms are necessary for a healthful diet.

  • Soluble fiber mixes with water to create a gel-like consistency; this slows digestion to help the body absorb more nutrients and remove substances like cholesterol. Soluble fiber may play a protective role in heart disease and diabetes. Research has shown that eating foods with soluble fiber can help control the blood levels of both cholesterol and glucose. Oats and oat bran, nuts, legumes, peas, and some fruits and vegetables such as dried plums, apples and carrots all provide soluble fiber.
  • Insoluble fiber does not mix with water but adds bulk to stool and helps move food through the digestive system. Insoluable fiber helps prevent conditions of the gastrointestinal tract such as constipation, diverticulosis (a condition effecting 10% of people over the age of 40 where sections of the colon protrude through weak spots forming what look like pouches) and hemorrhoids. Insoluble fiber may also play a role in preventing some types of cancer. Whole grains (especially wheat bran), skins of fruits, dried plums and many vegetables (cauliflower and potatoes) provide insoluble fiber.

3. Consume Adequate Protein

beans

Consume adequate protein, especially vegetable protein, as part of a healthy and balanced diet. Try non-animal foods such as beans and soy products.

In today's world, proteins are obtained from two main sources: animal foods (e.g. beef, chicken and fish) and plant foods (e.g. soy and bean sources). Although animal sources of protein contain many important vitamins and minerals, they also contain saturated fats and cholesterol. Plant proteins, like beans, soy products and nuts, contain more beneficial mono- and polyunsaturated fats but no cholesterol. When you do choose animal protein, choose lean meats, poultry and fish.

4. Get Your Nutrients from Food First

shrimp and veggie stirfryThe nutrients obtained from food play a vital role in the health of the entire body, including digestive health. The human body needs a broad spectrum of nutrients in order to function optimally throughout your lifetime. Getting the right nutrients is about more than feeling good in the present day, it's about a liftetime of health and wellness.

  • Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin essential for vision, growth, healthy skin and hair, tooth development, reproduction, and the immune system. The main form of vitamin A found in dried plums is beta-carotene, which functions as an antioxidant.
  • Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is found in limited amounts in food like salmon, tuna and fortified dairy products. Vitamin D can be produced by the human body after exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Vitamin D helps to maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus.
  • Calcium is the most abundant mineral found in the human body. It is responsible for building strong bones and teeth. It is also needed for muscle contraction, blood vessel contraction and expansion, the secretion of hormones and enzymes, and for sending messages through the nervous system. Calcium is found primarily in dairy products, some vegetables and fortified foods.
  • Potassium helps maintain normal blood pressure and is necessary for nerve impulses and muscle contractions. It is also important in maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance throughout the body. Potassium has been linked to reducing high blood pressure and the risk of stroke. A serving of dried plums (5 dried plums) provides 8 percent of the recommended Daily Value (3500mg daily) for potassium.
  • Iron is a crucial nutrient for red blood cells, which transport oxygen to tissues throughout the body. Iron deficiency anemia can develop if the body lacks the iron necessary to make red blood cells. Iron is especially important for women and children.
  • Folic Acid is a B vitamin that can reduce the risk for neural tube defects. It also protects against heart disease and stroke through its role in the metabolism of the amino acid, homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine are thought to contribute to cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline in the elderly.

5. Limit Fats and Concentrated Sweets

whole grainsInstead, emphasize complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, because they are higher in fiber and contain many of the important nutrients needed for optimal digestive health.

Studies show that a low-fiber, high-fat diet can increase the risk for some types of cancer, obesity, adult-onset diabetes and heart disease. Health and nutrition experts recommend choosing a diet that provides no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, and that most of those fats be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.

6. Stay Hydrated

glass of waterGet enough fluids from beverages and foods you eat. Include a beverage with every meal or snack.

  • Healthy digestion requires adequate fluid intake. Many factors such as exercise, weather, weight and health affect how much water is right for you. The standard recommendation is to consume the equivalent of 8 glasses of water a day. Whichever guideline you use, it is important to make sure you are drinking enough fluids throughout the day, whether it is in the form of simple water, or water-rich food sources such as soup.
  • Try adding lemon or cucumber slices to water for a refreshing twist. Decaffeinated herbal teas are also a great way to hydrate.

7. Eat Mindfully

fresh plum and pruneHow you eat can be as important as what you eat. Eat slowly, stop eating when you feel full, and avoid eating just before bedtime. Make time for proper nutrition. Take along good-for-you portable snacks, such as fresh fruit like apples and strawberries or dried fruit like dried plums, granola or almonds.

  • Eat until you are satisfied but not stuffed; there's no need to finish your plate if you aren't hungry anymore. Eating too much can cause digestive symptoms including heartburn and stomach upset. Save the rest of your meal for later or serve smaller portions.
  • Focus on your meal when you eat. Avoid working, walking around or other distractions.

Keep healthy snacks on hand that are:

  • Portable - take them anywhere; pack in any pocket
  • Easy - no peeling, no cutting, no mess
  • Convenient - look for foods that don't require reheating or refrigeration

Healthy Snack Suggestions:

  • Keep healthy snacks in your desk at work, in the car, in your gym bag and at home for when hunger strikes.
  • Keep dried fruit like dried plums in the cupboard so that you always have some fruit on hand.
  • Fresh fruit is a healthy and delicious snack option.
  • Keep frozen fruit in your freezer for when you run out of fresh fruit. Make a smoothie by mixing the fruit with yogurt or ice. Dried fruit is also a healthy way to sweeten a smoothie.
  • Whole-grain, low-fat crackers are a good way to get your whole grains. Try lower-sodium options.


8. Keep Moving

yogaExercise at least 30 minutes a day, doing activities you like, such as walking, aerobic or strength-building activities. If you can't fit 30 minutes in every day do whatever you can, when you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to work, or take a walk during your lunch break.

In addition to cardio and weight-training exercises, try to incorporate fitness into everyday life. Activities like taking stairs rather than elevators, power walking during lunch and coffee breaks, and taking the long way when walking can make a big difference.

   
9. Stay Calm

stretchingManage your stress. Stress has a direct effect on digestive health. Build time for relaxation into your daily routine.

Taking care of your emotional well-being is important for your physical well-being. Stress affects the way the digestive system functions. Depending on the way an individual's body reacts, stress can cause the passage of food through the digestive system to slow down or to speed up, which can cause abdominal pain and/or diarrhea. Digestive muscles may exert less effort and digestive enzymes may be secreted in smaller amounts when you are under stress. Stress can also worsen symptoms of conditions such as peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis. Your body and mind need time to rejuvenate and relax. Try taking a walk as part of your lunch break as a way to revitalize.   

10. Pay Attention to Your Body

eating healthyYou'll be able to feel the positive effects of healthy lifestyle choices.

  • If you feel low in energy, get up and move your body; it might just perk you up!
  • If you are satisfied, stop eating. When your stomach feels stuffed, you've probably eaten too much.
  • Think about wellness, not disease.