Recently it seems a large number of my friends are either getting married or having babies. I’m far from either of those life events, so wrapping my head around the fact that some of the lovely ladies I know are mamas-to-be just feels weird. Some of them post photos of their baby bumps, and I can’t help but laugh because even with little humans growing inside of them, I’m pretty sure my non-pregnant belly could rival theirs depending on the time of day you catch me at! Well, at least that’s how it was up until I made a few dietary changes.
I don’t really remember having major gut issues until the middle of 2103. They’ve been pretty under control recently, but I attribute this to a non-stop curiosity about the potential causes, experimentation (some of which was rather painful), a lot of time spent reading, and asking heaps of questions.
Around this time last year, I decided to go to a naturopath because I was dealing with some extremely uncomfortable stomach situations. I already had a good grasp on the foods that were known troublemakers for me – anything fried, some dairy, and foods with high sugar content – and avoided them at all costs. My breakfasts typically consisted of smoothies packed with raw greens (mostly kale and spinach), among other superfoods. Lunches and dinners were usually great big salads with a rainbow of veggies, some sort of lean protein, a bit of healthy fat, and occasionally a small portion of whole grains like quinoa or rice. At first glance, one might think I was doing it all right.
After getting an allergy test done, I learned that I had a strong sensitivity to gluten, crab (which I rarely eat), and to my great horror, spinach. The naturopath also suspected that I had leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability. In case you missed it, I wrote a great big post on my diagnosis here. While there’s some controversy regarding whether or not the allergy test I had done (an IgG test) is actually valid, I decided to go along with the naturopath’s recommendation which was to eliminate spinach, one of my favourite greens, from my diet for at least 6 months.
You might be wondering “did she stop eating greens?!” and the answer is no. I don’t think I ever could! But I learned about the importance of rotating greens in order to limit my exposure to oxalates found in raw spinach, which is an undigestible compound that occurs naturally in order to protect the leaves from environmental dangers.
Because I’m a nutrition and wellness nerd, I didn’t want to stop there. I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out and still experience the occasional bloated belly, but the difference is that now, the pain is gone and if anything, it’s usually just a watermelon baby in there! With that said, there are a number of things that have helped and if you experience similar issues, I think you’ll find these useful.
***Once I got typing, I realized this was going to be one of the longest posts I’ve ever written so I’ve split it into 2 parts. Part II will be posted soon, so stay tuned!***
1. Hydration – drink water!
You already know this, but hydration is essential for so many of the body’s functions, from nourishing the skin to aiding in digestion, to being able to think properly. Water helps to move food along the digestive system, and without it, partially digested food will take longer to move along, leaving you feeling sluggish, full, and yes, potentially very bloated. Contrary to what you may think, water will not bloat you up. Drink lots!
2. Watch your fibre intake…
I’m not just talking about the fibre in whole grains, but also the fibre in fresh produce. A lot of people don’t get enough, but getting too much can be problematic too. Back in my weight loss days, I was all about getting the most bang for my calorie buck which meant eating huge amounts of fruits and veggies. I still have a big appetite for these two food groups and they regularly make up about 70% of my grocery cart. The thing is that plant based foods contain a mix if soluble and insoluble fibre, which requires work on the part of the digestive system to break down.
While fibre is great for “keeping things moving”, gas is produced while fibre-rich foods are being broken down and in some cases, it can do the complete opposite of keeping things moving. As I mentioned in my post about my Quest bar addiction and why I gave them up, all the fibre in the bars (which comes from IMO, or isomalto-oligosaccharide) is a surefire recipe for backing up the pipes…. if you know what I mean. 😉 Quest bars aside, fresh produce is high in fiber and can cause issues if you consume lots of it.
3. …And be careful with raw foods.
There’s also the issue of raw vs cooked vegetables. There are a few ways to decrease fibre content, including cooking and peeling these foods. Have you ever tried switching from your usual way of eating to an all- or mostly-raw diet? If you experienced digestive discomfort, specifically with cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, and bok choy, this could be the reason. Yes, cooking can decrease the amount of health-boosting phytochemicals in these foods, but we are what we absorb and if you can’t digest the food you’re eating (or if it’s zapping you of all of your energy in the process), then that’s probably worse, right?
Based on what I’ve learned, I think raw foods were part of my leaky gut problem. As mentioned earlier, raw spinach contains oxalates and I was exposing myself to LOTS of them by going through several pounds of spinach in my smoothies each week. There’s also something called goitrogens, which are substances found in foods that can suppress thyroid function if eaten raw and in excess. Which ones? The cruciferous ones, including raw kale, which I was also consuming plenty of in my smoothies. Just like cooking can decrease oxalate content in spinach, it can also dramatically cut the goitrogen content in foods.
If you want to learn more about goitrogens, oxalates, how these impact the thyroid and gut, and how to heal it, Dr. Chris Kresser is one of my go-to experts and has a whole bunch of super valuable information on his website. I recommend starting with this podcast episode (which has a transcript if listening isn’t your jam) and this blog post.
To sum up this point, f belly bloating is a problem for you, try cutting down your raw veggie portion sizes, chewing your bites more before swallowing, and steaming or stir frying veggies rather than eating them raw all the time.
4. Aim to eliminate as many artificial sweeteners as possible
This was a big one for me, especially since a lot of the products I got used to eating while losing weight in my late teens were laced with aspartame. I won’t lie – I still chew gum and actually find that it helps me concentrate sometimes. However, if you’ve ever chewed through an entire 60-piece container, you’ll know about the gut pain all that aspartame and air-swallowing causes. NOT fun.
I found my stomach issues were significantly reduced when I cut back on gum chewing and got rid of the other artificially sweetened “foods” in my diet. Watch out for them in yogurt, protein powders, drink mixes, bars, and condiments. Now if I add sweetness to anything, it’s either a bit of stevia, or a small amount of maple syrup or honey. But ultimately, sugar is an aging food, so I’ve done a few things to tame the cravings and aim to keep most of my sugar intake to fruit.
5. Make time to relax and de-stress
Food is important, but I can’t emphasize enough the effect of stress on the gut. If you’re a long time reader you’ve already heard me talk plenty about this here. And while I’ve seen the effects of stress on my digestion several times in the past, this summer’s trip to Vancouver was even further proof that the gut really is a second brain. Prior to leaving, I felt puffy and tired. I’d had some busy weeks both at work and socially, and was also studying for an exam at the time. The trip couldn’t come fast enough, and within a day of arriving in Vancouver, my stomach distention had gone down significantly. I was absolutely amazed. My focus was on maximizing every moment of the vacation and all the tension I felt prior to leaving was the last thing on my mind. Has this ever happened to you?
Obviously, we can’t be on vacation every day. Therefore, since coming back I’ve committed to unwinding time at least 3 times per week where I just chill out and do things that relax me, like reading magazines, journaling, cooking (not for photography purposes) or giving myself a mani/pedi. None of these things involve electronics, which seems to be a pretty important factor that contributes to whether or not I actually feel more relaxed afterward. In addition, I schedule more time with my friends because they always make me happy and it feels so good to have others to talk to. Often times, they’re going through the same issues and in the end we always find things to laugh about.
Right, that’s enough for part 1! Part 2 will be coming up in a couple of weeks with another 6 tips, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’d like to know…
- If you’ve dealt with ongoing bloating, stomach distention, or other gut issues, what have been some of the most helpful things for you?
- What are your favourite ways to de-stress? Do you find a significant difference in your digestive health when you do/don’t make time to do these things?