Is there anything worse than eating a delicious meal only to suffer from painful bloating or a trip to the bathroom soon after? I've experienced this unpleasant scenario firsthand, but I'm also not alone. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, up to to 70 million people are affected by digestive diseases. So why does this network of organs and tissues that transform our food into energy and nutrients cause us so many problems?
To find out, we tapped "medicinal chef" Dale Pinnock. His latest book, Eat Your Way to a Healthy Gut, tackles the most common digestive complaints—bloating, constipation, IBS, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's and ulcerative colitis), reflux, and food intolerance—and explains why food can be the culprit and the remedy.
"The reason we have so many digestive maladies is that this system is one that is exposed to a whole host of less-than-desirable things," explains Pinnock. "Much of the food that makes up our modern diet doesn't do us any favors. Some are taxing on digestive processes, some negatively affect specific tissues in the gut, but many have a negative influence on the vast bacterial colony that lives there, that are involved in regulating so many aspects of short and long-term digestive health."
Ahead, Pinnock outlines the top food culprits, why we all need to start chewing properly, and a successful action plan to banish bloating when it does occur. Don't forget to scroll to the end for three exclusive recipes from his new book that will soothe your gut and bloat—stat.
MYDOMAINE: What are some of the top food culprits that are inhibiting gut happiness?
DALE PINNOCK: It's almost impossible to give a definitive list as we are all unique, but one of the big ones is sugar and refined carbohydrates. This is because of the impact that they have on gut flora. This may seem a recurrent theme but gut flora are responsible for taking care of gut tissue, regulating key responses, and the breakdown and synthesis of certain nutrients.
MD: Why is the digestive system so sensitive to stress?
DP: The digestive system is so sensitive to stress because the hormones released during the stress response can influence digestive rhythm the secretion of certain enzymes even the rate at which food moves through the digestive system.
MD: What are the most common digestive issues/problems that plague us?
DP: Obviously, there are some very serious digestive complaints, but the common everyday issues tend to be bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or a whole mixture of all of those, and this is what people tend to refer to as IBS.
MD: The first place of digestion is the mouth, in particular the chewing. How does chewing impact our digestive health?
DP: Every single part of the digestive process gives rise to the next. Each part signals to the next part that it needs to kick into action. So if we rush food, if we don't chew food properly, we can be putting additional strain on the next stage of digestion, which takes place in the stomach.
Our saliva is host to several important digestive enzymes the main one being amylase. So chewing food properly really does kick-start the first stages of digestion.
MD: Bloating is also a huge problem for many people. What are the primary causes?
DP: This is a very difficult one to answer universally. Bloating really is a symptom. The causes behind it are numerous and varied. For some people, they are just eating too fast and actually swallowing air when they eat. For others, they are not producing enough key digestive enzymes. Then in other people, it may be that their gut bacteria are out of balance, and that can cause quite aggressive bloating too. So to get to the root cause can sometimes take a lot of detective work.
However, there is quite a lot that we can do to manage the symptoms while we are trying to get to the bottom of what's actually going on. Things such as taking digestive enzyme supplements, using things like peppermint tea that can actually ease the symptoms and reduce bloating, just a couple of examples of how we can at least manage symptoms whilst trying to fully figure out what is causing the problem in the first place.
MD: What is a successful action plan for treating bloating when it does occur? What works?
DP: In line with what I said above, there are a few key ways in which you can manage symptoms. I would always recommend that someone take a good quality probiotic as the first port of call. And then if bloating continues to be quite aggressive, then looking at supplements such as peppermint oil, and a digestive enzyme supplement.
In the long term, you really need to get to the bottom of why you are getting the symptoms of bloating in the first place. What I recommend people do in that instance is keep a symptom diary. By keeping a record every day of what you're eating and how it makes you feel, you may in time start to see the patterns arising. You may start to see that certain foods or certain ways of eating will trigger attacks of bloating, whereas others do not.
MD: What are your top tips for great digestion overall?
DP: There are a few key behaviors that can improve overall digestive health.
The first is make sure that you have got good-quality, fiber-rich foods in your diet every single day. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses, whole grains: These are all fantastic fiber sources. Fiber is important for several reasons. Firstly, it helps to physically move the contents of the digestive system along. It starts to take on several times its own weight in water, which causes it to swell. As it swells, it stimulates stretch receptors that are found within the gut wall. When these receptors are stimulated, they then cause contraction of the gut wall otherwise known as peristalsis. This rhythmical contraction, make sure that everything is moving along its way nicely—I think you get the picture.
Secondly, fiber is extremely important for the health of our bacterial colony. Many complex carbohydrates that make up dietary fiber actually work as a food source for the bacteria that live in the gut. This bacterial colony breaks down more complex long-chain carbohydrates, and in doing so, several things begin to happen. The bacteria increase in number, and they also secrete byproducts such as butyrate that will actually stimulate repair mechanisms within key gut tissues. In other words, they maintain the health of the environment, so keeping them healthy is of vital importance.
The third thing we can do to massively improve digestive health is to increase our water intake. Water allows the dietary fiber to swell up and stimulate the responses described previously. And the final thing is to get back to basics when it comes to the food that you are eating. Processed foods devoid of nutrients, fiber, healthy fats, and all of the good stuff is going to create an unfavorable environment for our gut flora to flourish and will also put excessive challenges upon normal digestive processes.
If you want to turn your gut health frown upside down and banish bloat, try Pinnock's delicious recipes below.
The beauty of this dish is that not only is it a super-easy curry to make, it is also packed with powerful anti-inflammatory compounds and prebiotic components, too.
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. ginger root, grated
2 green chilies, finely sliced
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 heaping tsp. turmeric
1 3/4-lb. (800-g) sweet potato, skin on, chopped
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) vegetable broth
2 1/2 cups (150 g) spinach, coarsely chopped
Large handful of cilantro leaves, coarsely torn
1 tbsp. toasted slivered almonds
1 tbsp. dry unsweetened coconut
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and cook the onions, garlic, ginger, and chilies. When the onions have softened, add all the spices and heat until they are becoming fragrant.
Add the sweet potato and broth and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the sweet potato is soft.
At this point, add the spinach. Once the spinach has wilted, the curry is ready to serve with cilantro leaves, topped with the slivered almonds and sprinkled with the coconut.
This is a gorgeous dish and great all year round. Try it with a big fresh salad in the summer or with cooked veg on the side in the winter. Filling, tasty, and fresh.
Scant 1 cup (200 g) ground turkey
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp. kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 tsp. dried oregano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 red bell peppers, halved and seeded
4 to 8 tsp. grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.
Mix the turkey, egg, olives, oregano, and generous amounts of salt and pepper together.
Stuff this mixture into the 4 pepper halves, then top each with 1 to 2 teaspoons of grated Parmesan.
Bake in the oven for 50 minutes. Serve with a side salad or cooked vegetables.
I originally designed this exotic-tasting, refreshing dish to be a dessert, but it could easily make a fantastic and indulgent breakfast.
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. honey
2/3 cup (150 g) plain yogurt with active live cultures
1 tbsp. rolled oats
1 tbsp. blueberries
1 tsp. flaxseeds
In a small bowl, mix the ground cardamom and honey into the yogurt.
Place the oats into a tall glass. Spoon half the yogurt on top of that, then add most of the blueberries. Top that with the remaining yogurt and sprinkle with the remaining blueberries and the flaxseeds.
Eat your way to a healthy gut with more of Pinnock's recipes and advice in his new book, below: