Many people underestimate just how vital good digestive health is to our overall wellbeing, and often only pay attention when something goes wrong. Accredited Practising Dietitian Bobbie Crothers has five golden rules to make taking care of your digestive health easy.
Taking care of our digestive health is crucial – a healthy digestive system can help minimise the risk of developing serious diseases, such as bowel cancer, as well as help to avoid stomach pain and bloating. However, what you might not realise is that good digestive health also impacts on many areas of our general day-to-day lives.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t think about our digestive health until things go wrong. It’s not until we find it difficult to go to the toilet, experience excessive bloating, abdominal pain, heartburn, a bout of diarrhoea – or worse – that we find ourselves at the doctor. So, how do you proactively manage your digestive health? Here are the fundamentals broken down into five simple rules so you can get started today.
1. Eat a variety of high-fibre foods
Dietary fibre is a must when it comes to taking care of our insides. Many of us are still not getting enough in total, or are not getting the right types, according to a new roundtable report on diet and bowel health developed with the help of experts from CSIRO and The Gut Foundation. In fact, the key outcome from the report is that different fibres do different things, and are more effective in combination than individually when it comes to promoting digestive health. This makes it important to not only boost your total fibre intake, but to get a mix of different fibres in your diet.
The three main types of fibre are soluble fibre; insoluble fibre; and resistant starch.
Soluble fibre slows the time it takes food to pass through the stomach and small intestine, which helps with the absorption of nutrients. Soluble fibre is found in oats, barley, psyllium, fruits with the skin on, vegetables, legumes and fibre supplements such as Metamucil or Benefiber.
Insoluble fibre speeds up the time it takes for waste to move through the large intestine, which helps to produce larger, softer stools, increases the number of trips to the toilet and reduces the time toxins stay in the bowel. Insoluble fibre is found in wheat-based cereals, (especially those with wheat bran), pasta and quinoa.
Resistant starch is fermented by good bacteria in the large intestine, which produces short chain fatty acids (a type of fat) that are important for the health of cells in the bowel. Resistant starch is found in legumes, firm bananas, and cold, cooked pasta and potatoes.
Many food products that contain good amounts of different types of fibre will list the 3 different types separately on their nutrition information panel. Currently there are no specific guidelines on what the right mix of fibre is, so you should try to eat a variety of the foods listed above. Ensuring you get enough total fibre in your diet is still key: men should aim for at least 30g per day, and women, for 25g. To help you, we’ve put together some examples of foods and the total amount of fibre they contain.
Quick fibre counter
The recommended daily intake for fibre (total) is 30g for men and 25g for women.
Wheat bran cereal
Mixed grain bread
Cooked regular pasta
Cooked wholemeal pasta
Cooked white rice
2. Rebalance with probiotics (good bacteria)
There are around 10 times as many bacteria in the large intestine as there are cells in our bodies. That’s a lot of bugs when you consider our bodies are made up of more than 10 trillion cells.
While the role and the benefits of these good bugs are not entirely understood, we do know that having the right balance of good bugs in our digestive system is important for digestive health. Here are a few things we do know about why these bugs are so important:
They ferment or break down fibre in the bowel to produce nutrients for the cells that line the bowel, which helps keep the lining of the bowel healthy.
They help keep the correct pH balance (acidity to alkalinity) in the large intestine, making it an environment that’s beneficial for intestinal cells and maintaining the balance of good and bad bacteria.
They contribute to stool weight, which helps to make our stools bulkier and easier to pass.
They crowd out any nasty bacteria that enter the digestive tract, preventing them from multiplying and making us sick.
To tip the balance towards good bacteria, there are two things we can do. One is ensuring our diets are high in dietary fibre (especially resistant starch) as it promotes their growth. The other is to include foods in our diets that contain these bacteria, otherwise called probiotics. Probiotics are most commonly found in yoghurt and probiotic drinks. You can also take probiotic supplements, such as Inner Health Plus. While probiotic supplements are a convenient way to get more of these good bugs, you get added nutrients when you choose a probiotic yoghurt instead – calcium, protein and B vitamins to name a few! But if you want a top up, have recently taken antibiotics (which can kill off the good as well as the bad bugs when we’re sick) or had a bout of diarrhoea, probiotic supplements can be a good addition to your diet.
3. Don’t skip carbs or breakfast
A recent survey conducted by the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council showed an alarming decline in Australians’ consumption of grain-based foods such as breads, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta and noodles. It showed Australians mistakenly believe the recommended intake of grain-based foods is only 2.5 serves per day, when it is actually a minimum of 4 serves per day. This finding is of significant concern, as it is grain-based foods and the fibre they contain that play a key role in keeping our digestive health on track. The finding could be partly due to the prevalence of headlines in recent years linking low-carbohydrate diets to weight loss – which can encourage people to unnecessarily cut carbohydrates, such as grains, from their diet.
Another common example is wheat, with many people deciding to cut it from their diet in the hope of gaining relief from their digestive problems. However, unless you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease or an intolerance, banning wheat from your diet isn’t recommended without consulting a doctor or dietitian. Wheat, and in particular wheat bran, is high in insoluble fibre (see point 1. above). Eliminating wheat from your diet limits grain-based foods and makes it harder to get the fibre you need. The same is true when it comes to avoiding high-carbohydrate foods at breakfast. Around 1 in 4 of us skip breakfast, despite it being a key opportunity to boost your fibre intake.
“To meet the adequate intake of fibre for a healthy digestive system, breakfast is a very important meal”, says Gut Foundation dietitian Katherine Collings. “If you don’t have a good source of fibre at breakfast it’s very hard to reach the suggested intake through your other meals”.
A bowl of your favourite high-fibre cereal with skim milk and yoghurt, or a couple of slices of wholegrain or rye bread as part of your breakfast will give you a head-start on your fibre needs.
4. Get enough fluids
Drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated helps maintain digestive health. During digestion up to 10 litres of fluid enter the digestive system; 2 litres from the foods we’ve eaten, 2 litres from stomach juices and another 4–5 litres from the liver, biliary system (gallbladder and bile ducts), pancreas and secretions from the small intestine. While most of this fluid is reabsorbed into the body, it shows how important fluids are for healthy gut function.
The exact amount of fluids we need depends on individual body size (both height and weight), the temperature and how active we are. A good guide is around 1.5–2 litres (approximately 6–10 glasses) of water a day. Try to drink enough so that your urine is very pale yellow or almost colourless, except for first thing in the morning when it’s usually a darker yellow colour. The fibre in your diet also absorbs water during digestion, so as you increase the amount of fibre you eat make sure you are getting your 1.5–2 litres of fluids a day. Along with plain water, you can also count other fluids such as tea and coffee as part of your daily fluid intake, but water is best.
5. Look at the bigger picture
It’s no secret that diet and lifestyle habits affect your general health and wellbeing, but you may not have considered how some factors affect your digestive health. Smoking, alcohol, caffeine, high-fat foods and even stress can all have a negative impact on the digestive system. Research also shows having a higher body mass index (BMI) is linked with digestive health issues such as abdominal pain and bloating. On the other hand, studies have shown being active and eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and other high-fibre foods is linked to fewer digestive health issues.
We’ve listed some of the more common factors that can cause digestive issues in some people without them realising what the cuplrit is. Identifying whether any of these may be a problem for you could also help you to better manage your own digestive health.
Many of us experience a predictable trip to the toilet after our morning coffee. This is because caffeine is a stimulant. It’s great for perking us up, however it can also have a stimulant effect on the bowel, causing digestive discomfort and loose stools, says Collings. She recommends monitoring how much caffeine you consume. If you find coffee upsets your system, try herbal tea or decaf.
Smoking also acts as a stimulant, which can cause muscle contractions in the wall of the bowel, leading to loose stools or diarrhoea.
Alcohol acts as an irritant in the gut. Even a small amount can cause changes in bowel habits and the consistency of stools, says Collings.
Ongoing stress can have an effect on our digestive system, and cause symptoms like diarrhoea and nausea.
Foods high in fat can also impact the digestive system. “Fat in any form may have an impact on muscular activity of the bowel and can cause pain and bloating”, says Professor Terry Bolin from The Gut Foundation.
10 foods for digestive health*
Firm bananas – high in resistant starch
Burgen Rye Bread – contains all three types of fibre
Ski Activ Digestion Yoghurt – contains probiotics and soluble fibre
Kellogg’s All-Bran Fibre Toppers – very high in insoluble fibre
Canned chickpeas, lentils or beans – high in soluble fibre and resistant starch
Uncle Tobys Bodywise digestive balance bars – contain all three types of fibre
Oats – high in soluble fibre
Cold cooked potatoes – high in resistant starch
Wonder White Hi-Fibre Plus – contains all three types of fibre
Yakult Light – contains probiotics
*These are just a few specific foods – remember to include plenty of fruit and vegetables and high-fibre grain-based foods in your diet every day.
Five warning signs that things are not right, and when to see your doctor:
If you see blood in your poo or on the toilet paper.
Diarrhoea that lasts for longer than 48 hours or is accompanied by other symptoms such as severe stomach pain, fever, vomiting or nausea.
Severe and sudden constipation.
Nausea that lasts more than 24 hours and/or is accompanied by severe vomiting.
Stomach: The first stop after the oesophagus. The stomach muscles churn food and acids help to break it down before it moves into the small intestine.
Small intestine: Food continues to break down and nutrients are absorbed into the blood. Fluid and fibre pass through to the large intestine.
Large intestine: Consists of the colon and the rectum. The colon is where the breakdown of fibre and re-absorption of water occur, and where waste is stored until it is transported out of the body via the rectum and then the anus.
Bowel: The bowel includes the small intestine, the large intestine and the rectum.
Anus: Where waste exits the body.
Approximately 60% of Australians are not getting the fibre they need – and most aren’t getting the mix right either.
We all have our own individual and distinct gut bacteria. Bacteria contribute about 1–2kg to the contents of the bowel.