(published in Tampa Bay Wellness, April 2013)
Do you have a “touchy” digestive system? Many people struggle with digestive problems. This could include anything from an occasional mild stomach upset, stomach flu, or food poisoning, to morning sickness, frequent attacks of gall bladder, gastritis, colitis or irritable bowel. Or even the side-effects of chemotherapy treatment.
Chronically uncomfortable digestion, such as nausea, heartburn, reflux, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea can be more than just uncomfortable; poor digestion is associated with other health complications, including malnutrition, dysbiosis, unhealthy weight gain or loss, weakness, and headaches.
Acupuncture to strengthen the digestive function is very helpful for these conditions, as are Chinese herbs tailored for the specific condition. And, for individualized dietary recommendations, it is best to see an acupuncturist trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) nutrition. In the meantime, however, this article will outline a few dietary suggestions that will help most people feel better.
We will start with the most easily digested foods first, and progress to the more difficult. Remember, these are generalizations. Everyone is a little different, so you may find that a few of the foods in some of the earlier categories need to be set aside until you are feeling stronger, or that you are okay with eating some of the later category foods sooner. And always heed any food allergies or sensitivites that you have.
STEP 1: CLEAR FLUIDS
Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea can make you not want to eat at all, but it is essential to remain hydrated with plenty of clear fluids. Warm or room temperature liquids are preferable since cold fluids can cause or worsen cramping.
One of the best clear fluids is coconut water: the liquid from the inside of the coconut, (not to be confused with coconut milk, which is a thick, white liquid made from the coconut meat). All natural coconut water is typically tolerated better than plain water and has an ideal ratio of electrolytes, minerals with a small amount of natural sugars to keep you optimally hydrated and lightly fueled.
Other good fluids to sip include clear broths and warm teas: for nausea choose ginger, peppermint or chamomile; for cramping pain choose chamomile, peppermint, or fennel.
STEP 2: CONGEE and MASHED & STEWED FRUITS
Congee is the foremost of the easy-to-digest foods in Oriental medicine, used for all types of imbalanced digestion. It is a great food to start with after you’ve been unable to eat. In addition to being easy on the system, it is said to “nourish the Digestive Qi (energy).” Congee is a thin porridge that is often used as breakfast in parts of China. There are many recipes available online, but I will give you the basic formula here:
I recommend using brown rice, millet, quinoa or buckwheat, as these are gluten-free, and usually easy-to-digest. Use 1 part whole grain to 5 parts water. Cook on low for several hours. I usually cook this in a crock pot overnight on the “low” setting.
Small amounts of various fruits, vegetables, or spices may be added, depending on your individual TCM diagnosis. Examples include ginger, cardamom, raisins, chopped carrots and apples, which add a touch of flavor and texture to the congee, but are well-cooked for easy digestion. Or your acupuncturist may prefer for you to use vegetables such as zucchini, celery, water chestnuts. Either way, go easy on the added ingredients, because the blandness of the congee is what makes it gentle on the digestion and nourishing for the Digestive Qi.
You can also put cooked congee through a blender to feed to infants and toddlers with “tummy problems”. Again, ask your acupuncturist for specific herbs, spices, fruits or veggies to add to your child’s congee for his or her condition.
Mashed & Stewed Fruits:
Another good option at this stage is a little bit of mashed banana, blended papaya, or a pudding made from the two together. Both are very easy to digest. Banana is better if you are having diarrhea. Papaya, since it contains some natural digestive enzymes, can be helpful for constipation. Applesauce (preferably unsweetened) is another great option. You can add a pinch or two of dried ginger to any of these fruits, to further assist their ease of digestion.
You can also try some stewed fruits, such as pears, prunes and figs, particularly if you have constipation.
STEP 3: OTHER WHOLE-FOOD STARCHES & FRESH FRUITS
When your system can handle more solid foods, try some plain baked potato or sweet potato (remove the skin initially if you need to), winter squash (such as butternut squash, acorn squash or pumpkin), cooked summer squash (zucchini or yellow squash), and cooked root vegetables (such as carrots, beets, or daikon radish).
You can also have plain whole grains such as rice, quinoa, millet and buckwheat. If you are not gluten sensitive, you can add oatmeal (the old-fashioned kind, not the instant), or whole grain toast. In fact, all cooked starches should be well tolerated at this point, except for dry beans. Avoid butter, oil or sauces for now, and no spicy foods.
Once you can easily digest the plain, cooked starches, you should also be able to digest most fresh fruits, though citrus and tomato may still be a challenge. Eat your fresh fruit at room temperature, instead of chilled, for better digestion.
STEP 4: COOKED VEGETABLES & GREEN SMOOTHIES:
As your digestive system continues to strengthen, you can eat a variety of cooked vegetables, but initially avoid the cruciferous ones (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussel sprouts).
Avoid using too much oil or butter to cook your vegetables. Steaming or roasting them is better than frying. You can also sauté them in broth. Go very easy on the flavorings, spices or sauces, at least at first, until you feel your digestion can handle them.
For protein, you may eat a small amount of plain, cooked whole beans (not refried beans) with your cooked vegetables. If you eat meat, this is where you can start to add small amounts of organic roasted chicken or wild-caught, small species fish. Be sure to cook both of them very well, to kill parasites and bacteria. Use animal protein more as a meal accent, and not as a large part of the meal.
You can also start adding some raw, green, leafy vegetables to fruit smoothies. This way, you receive the benefit of the green leafy vegetable, but it is blended for easier digestion. Green smoothies are a wonderful way to intake green leafies, while only tasting fruit. Start with spinach or leaf lettuce, since they have very little of their own taste.
There are many green smoothie recipes available online, but you can take this simple recipe and improvise: Add 1 cup of spinach to 1 banana, 1.5 cups of berries, and 1 cup of water or coconut water and a few pinches of dried ginger or cardamom. Blend until smooth and enjoy. Avoid adding ice, dairy or sweeteners.
STEP 5: RAW VEGETABLES, FATS & PROTEINS:
At this stage, you can to add in raw vegetables and salads. Of the raw vegetables, those which are fruits (tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, zucchini and yellow squash) are the easiest to digest, while the cruciferous (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc) are the most difficult, and you may need to only eat them cooked.
Iceburg lettuce is difficult to digest, and has the least nutrients of all leafy greens, so use romaine, leaf lettuce or spinach for salads. You might find that the darker leafy greens, such as kale, swiss chard, or collards need to be cooked for you to digest them well.
Fats & Proteins:
Of the fats and proteins, avocado is the easiest to handle, and a few olives are fine for most people. Both coconut and peanuts can be a problem for those with gall bladder congestion. Other nuts and seeds in small quantities are fine for some, but those with diverticulitis will likely need to avoid them. If you eat animal-based foods, organic chicken and wild-caught, small species fish, as well as organic egg whites may be eaten in small amounts.
Vegetable oils, butter/margarine, fatty meats, and dairy products should be eaten sparingly if at all. These foods are very heavy and put a lot of burden on the Digestive Qi.
FOODS TO AVOID
Besides those fats and proteins listed above, other foods to avoid with poor digestion are wheat (including white flour and whole wheat), sugars, artificial sweeteners, greasy foods, highly processed foods, and chemical additives. Some people with reflux or heartburn may also need to avoid spicy foods. The most highly allergenic foods are dairy, corn, wheat/gluten, peanut, and soy.
Some people find that proper food combining makes all the difference for their digestion. Food combining is based on the chemistry of digestion: starchy foods require alkalinity to digest, whereas proteins and fats require acidity. And fruits are best eaten without any other type of food because they digest much faster.
The premise is that when you combine foods which require opposite types of digestive environments, then the chemical reactions neutralize each other, causing digestive stagnation, fermentation & putrefaction. This can lead to digestive distress, poor nutrient absorption, overgrowth of bacteria/yeast, lowered immunity, fatigue, pain and other illness.
There are many sources for learning about food combining, but to make it simple: Don’t eat starches with fats or proteins; Non-starchy vegetables can be eaten with EITHER starches OR proteins/fats, but not both; Eat fruit alone; Allow 40 minutes after eating fruit, 3 hours after a starchy meal, and 4 hours after a protein/fat meal before eating a different type of meal.
When your Digestive Qi is strong, your digestion is smooth and effortless, you have vibrant energy, and your whole body functions better. Try these suggestions. But, if you find your digestive problems are persisting, I encourage you to seek an acupuncturist trained in nutrition to help with your individual condition.
Also, for more on Nutrition from the Oriental Medical perspective, See Nutrition, Part 2.