Improve your digestion

What you eat is important, but how well you digest your food is also crucial, so how can you improve this?

Here are five easy steps you can take now to maintain healthy digestion:

1. Chew your food thoroughly – this is the first vital stage of digestion. Aim to have reduced your mouthful to liquid mush before you swallow.

2. Eat less wheat – this can be a digestive irritant. Instead aim for rye bread, corn thins, oat cakes, oat cereals, wheat-free pasta and brown rice.

3. Reduce your intake of sugar and refined foods – these encourage bad bacteria to proliferate in your gut.

4. Enjoy plenty of fibre-rich fruits, vegetables and some live natural yoghurt – these help to encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut.

5. Consider supplementing digestive enzymes and probiotics (a supplement of good gut bacteria) for a month if you suffer from indigestion, stomach upsets, constipation or other digestive complaints.

Over a lifetime, no less than 100 tons of food passes along your digestive tract. This ten-meter-long tube is your ‘inside skin’ and, if you ironed it flat, has the surface area of a small football pitch. Amazingly, most of the billions of cells that make up this barrier between your body and the outside environment are renewed every four days. We spend our physical lives digesting organic matter, extracting nutrients, processing these and eliminating the rest. How good we are at this determines our energy level, longevity and state of body and mind. Digestive problems, however, are the norm for most people. A survey we undertook at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition with 22,000 people found that 71% had sub-optimal digestion. We found that one in four often experienced indigestion, while one in two often experienced flatulence or bloating. Four in five didn’t have a bowel movement every day. These are classic signs that all is not quite as it should be in the area of digestion. The immediate knock on effects are often low energy, poor skin, headaches, foggy thinking and food allergies, leading to all sorts of other symptoms – from depression to weight gain, aches and pains to arthritis. If poor digestion goes unchecked for too long it can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, stomach bugs, candidiasis, ulcers, Crohn’s, colitis, diverticulitis and even chronic fatigue. The sad truth is that most of us are digging our own graves with a knife and fork. If any of this sounds like you, the good news is that you can transform your digestion and reap the rewards in terms of extra health and energy.

Digestion Friendly Diet

Throughout the centuries, health experts have extolled the value of spring cleaning the body. In much the same way you need a holiday from work, your body needs a break from detoxifying all the by-products of a heavy or unhealthy diet. Following a detoxifying diet once a year, for a couple of weeks, can make a major difference to your digestion – and also to your energy levels. A more focussed approach would involve consulting a nutritional therapist and having a series of tests. They can gather evidence and help devise a specific diet and supplement programme designed to restore optimal digestion and detoxification. I have seen many long-term sufferers of digestive complaints and chronic fatigue syndrome derive immense and rapid benefit from doing this. But if you just want to give your digestion – and general health – a kick start, then a two-week (or one if you can’t spare that long) detox can be very helpful.

1. Good foods for detoxification

Obviously, the first step to detoxifying the body is to remove or lessen the toxic load. Some foods are almost entirely toxin-generating, while others are very detoxifying. Most, however, have good factors and bad factors.

The foods that are definitely good for detoxification include the following:

Fruit – more or less all fruits, but the most beneficial fruits with the highest detox potential include fresh apricots, all types of berries, cantaloupe, citrus fruits, kiwi, papaya, peaches, mango, melons and red grapes. Go easy on bananas – one a day only – and dried fruit is best avoided during your detox programme. Vegetables – all are great but the best include artichokes, peppers, beetroot, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, red cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, kale, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato, tomato and watercress. White potatoes and avocado should be eaten in moderation. Sprouted beans and seeds. Try alfalfa, sprouted mung beans, chick peas, lentils, aduki beans and sprouted sunflower seeds. These are available to buy ready sprouted in most health food shops and some supermarkets and green grocers.

These foods should make up the bulk of your two-week detox diet. Needless to say, choose organic wherever possible so the body doesn’t have to detoxify the pesticides.

2. Foods to eat with caution

The following foods are generally good for you, but may contain low levels of toxins. These should make up no more than a third of your two-week diet. Grains – brown rice, corn, millet, quinoa. Fish – salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, plus cod, haddock, seabass and other white fish. Meat – organic skinless chicken, turkey and wild game. Oils – use extra virgin olive oil for cooking and in place of butter, and cold pressed seed oils for dressing. Organic, cold-pressed flax oil is the best for this. Nuts and Seeds – a large handful a day of raw, unsalted nuts and seeds should be included. Try grinding them up and sprinkling them over a fruit salad. Include almonds, Brazils, hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and flax seeds.

3. Foods to Avoid

The following foods, while normally okay in moderation, are best avoided during the two weeks because they are either hard to digest, mildly irritate the gut or are hard to detoxify: Gluten Grains – barley, oats, rye and wheat (including wheat bran, spelt and kamut). Meat and Dairy Produce – milk and all dairy products, eggs and organic red meat.

The following foods should be avoided at all times:

Red meat; Refined foods; eg white bread/pasta/rice; Sugar and any foods containing it; Salt and any foods containing it; Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat; Artificial sweeteners; Food additives and preservatives (a good general rule – if you can’t pronounce it, avoid it!); Alcohol Tea and coffee; All fizzy drinks including cola drinks and squash

Detox drinks

Needless to say, during these one or two weeks, alcohol is out. It is a major toxin for the body. So too are any sources of ‘methylxanthines’, a family of chemicals that includes caffeine, tannin, theobromine and theophylline. This means no chocolate, coffee, tea and no peppermint tea either. Instead, choose from:

Fruit juice – ideally freshly made, always dilute with an equal quantity of water. Herbal teas – there is now a huge variety to choose from, sample a few until you find one you like best. Rooibosch tea – caffeine-free and tastes very similar to ‘normal’ tea. Dandelion coffee can be drunk as a coffee replacement while you are on your two-week detox diet. Once it is complete try Caro, Barleycup or Teechino.

The best drink of all is pure water and lots of it – but not around meal times, as it can dilute digestive juices and impair digestion. Aim to drink one and a half to two litres of purified, distilled, filtered or bottled water a day. This may seem like an awful lot, however water puts no burden on the body and can help to dilute toxins as they are eliminated.

Digestion Friendly Recipes

See my book the Holford 9 day Liver Detox, Food Glorious Food or the Optimum Nutrition Cookbook for lots of delicious recipes based on fresh, healthy ingredients that are naturally rich in nutrients that aid digestion, and they are largely free from digestive irritants. This will give you plenty of ideas for putting the digestion-friendly diet into practice. Further details about detoxing can be found in the Holford 9 day Liver Detox and more specific digestive health information is contained in the book Improve Your Digestion I also recommend supplementing digestive enzymes and probiotics.


To maintain healthy digestion, I recommend you take: A high-strength multi vitamin and mineral complex Essential fats (both Omega 3 and Omega 6) A digestive enzyme formula

Further help

For more detailed information on dealing with specific digestive issues, read Improve Your Digestion. Hidden Food Allergies may also be useful. You could also benefit from a personal nutrition consultation to receive a tailor-made nutritional programme.