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Eating Well for Digestive Health

If you're like most people, you may have gas, constipation, or heartburn every now and then. These symptoms are so common that many people just live with them. But you can avoid many of these problems simply by making better food choices.

Eating to avoid gas, bloating, and flatulence

These uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing symptoms can be caused by swallowing too much air, eating foods that make a lot of gas, or having a reaction to a food that your system has trouble digesting. It’s normal to pass gas 18 to 20 times a day. If flatulence or bloating becomes more of a problem, try these tips:

  • To avoid swallowing too much air, avoid carbonated beverages. Don’t drink through a straw, and, in general, eat and drink more slowly. Rather than gulping, savor each mouthful.

  • Avoid chewing gum, especially gum that contains sorbitol. The air you swallow while gum chewing may cause gas. Sorbitol causes flatulence in some people.

  • The protein in milk is hard for many people to digest, a condition called lactose intolerance. If milk products give you gas, try cutting back on how much of them you eat or drink to see if the symptoms go away. The protein in grains such as wheat and rye are also hard for some people to digest. Talk with your healthcare provider if you think you might have problems with these foods. A blood test may be done to see if you have celiac disease.

  • Some people are sensitive to other foods, including FODMAPs, gluten, and wheat. Sometimes you can change your diet to decrease the amount of these foods you eat, and see if your symptoms improve. You can talk specifics with your provider. 

Eating to avoid heartburn

Everybody gets occasional heartburn. If you have heartburn often, especially if it wakes you up at night, you could have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Talk with your healthcare provider about frequent heartburn. Try these tips to help avoid it:

  • Stop smoking and only drink alcohol in moderation. That means no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.

  • Stop eating at least 3 hours before you go to bed.

  • Eat smaller meals more often.

  • Avoid foods that are known to cause heartburn, especially fatty foods and foods and beverages with caffeine, chocolate, and peppermint.

  • Raise the head of your bed 6 to 8 inches. 

Eating to avoid constipation

Just about everybody gets constipated every now and then. It's not usually considered a problem unless you're having bowel movements fewer than 3 times a week. Before reaching for a laxative, you should know that the most common cause of constipation is your diet. Other culprits include dehydration, too little physical activity, and overuse of laxatives. Try these tips to get more “regular”:

  • High-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole, grains prevent constipation. Too many low-fiber foods, such as cheese, eggs, and meat, can cause it. Aim to get 25 to 35 grams of fiber in your diet each day. Some high-fiber cereals offer more than half that amount in just one serving.

  • Not getting enough fluids is another cause of constipation, but some fluids are better than others. Your best bet is to drink water. Caffeine, colas, and alcoholic beverages can actually dehydrate you and make constipation worse.

  • Get some exercise every day. Walking 30 to 45 minutes a day. It will help with your constipation. It will also improve your mood and your fitness level, too.

  • Ask your healthcare provider if any of the medicines you’re taking might be causing constipation and if there are any alternatives.

  • In rare instances, constipation may be due to a serious problem, such as colon cancer, especially in people over 50 years of age.

More eating tips for better digestion

No matter what your digestive health issues are, you’ll probably benefit from choosing whole foods over processed foods. Processed foods are foods that have been changed by food companies before you eat them. Whole foods are foods that are eaten in their natural state, like that shiny apple or juicy tomato.

Processed foods often have a lot of added (and unwanted) fat, sugar, and salt. A lot of their original nutrients may be lost as well. For instance, whole grains have their outer shells removed to become processed grains, such as white flour. As a rule, whole foods are better for your digestive health and your overall health. Here are simple swaps to make:

  • Choose brown grains, such as brown rice and steel-cut oatmeal over white grains, like packaged pasta and white rice.

  • Choose whole fresh fruits and vegetables over canned fruits and vegetables.

  • Avoid processed junk foods, desserts, sodas, juices with added sugar, canned soups, and snack foods.

  • Shop around the outside perimeter of your grocery store to find the whole foods.

Most digestive complaints are short-lived and harmless. But if you notice any unusual symptoms that don’t go away, call your healthcare provider.

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