People don’t become obese overnight. A pound here, a pound there—it’s an incremental process. Still, at such a rate, it may only take a few years before we’re 20, 40, 50 pounds heavier than our ideal weight.
Even though the process builds up gradually, we still see it happening. Clothing that once fit perfectly is now in the Goodwill bag. Our energy has gone down, and cravings for unhealthy foods have gone up. We don’t feel like ourselves, but even with these red flags, it can be hard to summon the necessary motivation to increase our workouts, or to plan, shop, and prepare meals more carefully.
Exercise and diet certainly play a central role in achieving a healthy weight, but there’s one critical and often overlooked factor: digestion. Poor digestive function can contribute to excessive weight gain and obesity by impairing the critical processes that convert food into energy. Processed foods and poor eating habits can aggravate this cycle of destruction, so that even when someone adopts a healthier diet, long-term damage to the digestive system can still impede weight loss efforts. Luckily, there are natural solutions that can help bring digestion—and the bathroom scale—back into balance.
Food has many contexts: pleasure, medicine, comfort, sustenance. But perhaps most importantly, food is energy—and healthy digestion is central to converting food into long lasting energy our cells can use. Quite often, the same foods that expand our waistlines also sabotage our cellular energy metabolism and, in turn, our efforts to lose weight.
While a poor diet can contribute to weight gain and reduced motivation, a good diet combined with exercise and targeted supplements can help us lose weight and increase our vital energy. But first, we need to get our digestion on the “right tract.”
The Friendly Bacteria
One measure of digestive health is nutrient breakdown and absorption. Poor nutrition and nutrient absorption means our body isn’t getting enough fuel, which can drain vitality and encourage us to eat more.
In recent years, researchers have discovered the importance of bacteria in promoting nutrient absorption, manufacturing certain nutrients, and supporting other measures of digestive health. These friendly bacteria also control inflammation, fight off pathogens, improve mood and brain function, support immunity, and even help manage how the body stores fat. In fact, science is just beginning to uncover the numerous roles these friendly flora play in maintaining health.
Antibiotics and processed foods destroy healthy bacterial colonies and throw our microbiota—a term used to describe our personal bacterial ecosystem—out of balance. This condition, called gut dysbiosis, can generate inflammation and weight gain and may be linked to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
So how do we take care of the bacteria that are taking care of us? One step is to provide more bacteria. There are numerous fermented foods—such as yogurt, miso, kefir, and sauerkraut—that are rich in friendly bacteria. In addition, the fermentation process makes their nutrients easier to absorb.
We also want to emphasize whole foods with lots of fiber as well as prebiotics, which are specific nutrients (such as fructooligosaccharides, or FOSs) that feed good bacteria. Prebiotics can be found in garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, onions, and other foods.
Enzymes are important for aiding digestive function, too. They’re found abundantly in foods such as fresh sprouts, pineapple, papaya, and other raw fruits and vegetables. Enzyme supplements can also help.
Restoring Vital Energy
Priming nutrient absorption through probiotics, prebiotics, and enzymes is an important step, but it’s still only part of the process. Digestion is a weakest-link scenario. We can support nutrient absorption all we want, but it won’t make a difference if we’re not eating nutrient-rich foods.
There’s a cause and effect between good (or poor) nutrition and our cellular mitochondria—the organelles that produce the majority of our cells’ energy. Better nutrition translates into more efficient energy production; this means eating well and optimizing nutrient absorption.
For long-term health across all areas, we need strong, healthy mitochondria. But the effects are particularly noticeable when it comes to weight control and energy. Inefficient mitochondrial energy production can encourage the body to store glucose as fat, rather than use it as fuel. In turn, this feeds chronic inflammation, furthering the cycle of destruction by damaging mitochondrial function even more. Small wonder that poor nutrition can make us feel lethargic.
So what constitutes a healthy diet? There are all kinds of books and articles—and even infographics on the subject—but the guidelines are quite simple: eat unprocessed, whole foods. Emphasize lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, sprouted legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains; olive, coconut, and other healthy oils; and plenty of water. Don’t forget to include the fermented, cultured foods mentioned previously.
We should exclude some foods and beverages. Stay away from processed foods because they tend to be high in trans fats, salt, and sugar, as well as unpronounceable chemicals that fuel inflammation, disrupt cellular signals, impair digestion, and much more. The bottom line is that processed foods are worse than nutritionally inert: They can damage the body over time.
There are also foods we should seek to moderate, such as red meat. I put caffeine in the same category because it can generate an acidic environment in the gut. Alcohol should also be consumed in moderation.
For those who have food sensitivities, it’s a good idea to just say no. That’s especially true of gluten and dairy products. Again, for those unfortunate few, these foods can be highly inflammatory and do damage to the gut environment. On the other hand, many people may not even know they have food sensitivities or allergies; their digestion and overall health just gradually weakens over time. The best way to detect subtle food sensitivities is to have your doctor test for them. Alternately, you can follow what’s called an “elimination diet,” during which you remove common allergy-producing foods, such as dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, grains, sugar, etc., for a few weeks and then gradually add them back one at a time, while monitoring your symptoms.
Herbs, Spices, and Supplements
There are a number of supplements that encourage nutrient breakdown and assimilation, support digestive enzymes, and reduce inflammation, all the while supporting healthy metabolism.
Black pepper, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, and other spicy herbs have long been recognized for their ability to sooth gastrointestinal discomfort. In addition, they stimulate digestive enzymes and support healthy microbiota by fighting bad microbes—and they also have other benefits.
For example, black pepper can impact metabolism and weight. Research has shown that piperine, the component that makes pepper spicy, also reduces fat storage. In fact, this spice works on the DNA level to prevent fat cells from being formed in the first place.
In addition to various herbs and spices, the nutrient chromium polynicotinate supports energy production, digestion, and healthy metabolism.
I recommend two formulas for better digestion and metabolism: Integrative Digestive Formula and Integrative Metabolic Formula. Integrative Digestive Formula soothes digestive discomfort, enhances nutrient absorption, and balances the digestive system. This formula incorporates spices, medicinal mushrooms, digestive enzymes, and nutrients with tangerine, licorice, and other botanicals to support overall digestion and absorption. Integrative Metabolic Formula contains alginates from kelp, ayurvedic herbs (such as gymnema leaf, holy basil, and cinnamon), and other ingredients to support mitochondrial function and promote healthy insulin and glucose balance. This formula also helps reduce cravings for unhealthy foods.
By improving gastrointestinal health, we increase nutrient absorption, making fuel more available for cells throughout the body. In turn, mitochondria take advantage of this nutrient-rich environment to produce more cellular energy. It’s worth noting that mitochondria are more heavily concentrated in muscle cells—including the heart.
We can see each link in the chain: Digestion improves metabolism, which boosts cellular energy and overall health. Most importantly, focusing on proper digestion gives us a powerful momentum to build long-term health, maintain a balanced weight, and take great care of our bodies.
By Isaac Eliaz