Our digestive systems continuously extract water and nutrients from an astonishing amount of solid foods and liquids over our lifetimes, all the while fending off nasty microbes and processing waste. What we put into our stomachs is so important that it affects whether we feel well, how flat our bellies are, and even our chances of avoiding certain cancers.
When it comes to digestion, women face some unique concerns. “Shifting hormone levels from menstruation, pregnancy and menopause all put a feminine stamp on your digestive tract,” says Cynthia Yoshida, MD, a gastroenterologist in Charlottesville, Virginia, and co-author of No More Digestive Problems: The Answers Every Woman Needs. Anatomy also plays a role: Women have the same digestive organs as men, but they are squeezed, along with reproductive organs, into a smaller abdomen. “This means our digestive organs don’t have much give when they get filled with excess gas, air or food,” she notes.
Keeping your stomach healthy, soothed and lean can be as simple as making the right food and drink choices. Here’s how!
1. Beat disease: citrus fruit, fiber-rich foods, leafy greens and yellow vegetables
“Strive to get 20 to 25 grams of fiber a day,” says Dr. Yoshida. For one thing, it may help protect against cancers. One 2007 study found that a high fiber intake was associated with a decreased risk for esophageal and gastric cancers. And citrus fruit appears to have a protective effect against stomach cancer, according to a survey of studies published. Light green, dark green, and yellow-colored vegetables tend to be rich in carotene, vitamins C and E, and folate, which may also help protect the stomach from cancer.
Fiber is important for overall digestive health—particularly in preventing constipation. Whole grains, spinach, cauliflower, carrots, wheat bran, apples, broccoli, beans, figs and pears are all great fiber sources. “Start slowly, adding more fiber every few days, and drink lots of water. This will help prevent the gas, cramping and bloating that can occur if you add fiber too quickly,” advises Dr. Yoshida.
Preliminary lab research shows that juices—cranberry and raspberry juices, for example—contain compounds called phenols that may prevent GI pathogens such as salmonella. And resveratrol, an antioxidant in red wine, may zap stomach pathogens while leaving the healthy bacteria alone, according to research from the University of Missouri–Columbia.
2. Help the good bugs: yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, bananas, garlic, asparagus, onions
About 100 trillion bacteria call your gut home. Improve the ratio of good to bad bacteria by eating foods that contain probiotics (various types of healthy bacteria). Probiotics, which include lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, keep the lining of the colon healthy and may improve gut motility and sensation.
To support the growth of probiotic bacteria, also choose foods known as prebiotics that naturally contain lots of soluble fiber, such as bananas, garlic, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, honey, leeks, and onions. Foods such as cheese and cereal bars that are labelled “prebiotic” usually have added inulin, a soluble fiber most often extracted from chicory root.
3. Choose foods that soothe: caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, fennel, ginger, mint, nutmeg, oatmeal
“Try foods called ‘carminatives’ that prevent or relieve gas, and are used to help the digestive process,” says registered dietitian Jennifer Salib Huber. “Cumin, for example, helps with the digestion of black beans, which is why they’re often found in recipes together. Other carminatives include caraway, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom.”
Ginger is a traditional nausea remedy, and new studies are backing up the claims. Research shows that it can help quell nausea due to pregnancy, chemotherapy and operations. A study in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology found that when healthy volunteers took ginger capsules along with a bowl of soup, their stomachs emptied more quickly. This may be useful for treating gastroparesis, or delayed stomach emptying, a side effect of diabetes.
“Oatmeal is a ‘demulcent,’ which means it gets slippery in water, helping to coat and soothe the stomach,” says Salib Huber. Cooked oatmeal is your best bet, rather than cookies or granola bars where the oatmeal is dry.
Peppermint leaf and oil have long been used to help relieve digestive disorders by relaxing stomach muscles. However, avoid peppermint if you’re prone to heartburn—those same relaxed muscles can allow more stomach acid to move up through the esophagus, says Dr. Yoshida. “The small amount of flavoring in mint gum or antacids shouldn’t cause problems,” she adds.
4. Flatten your tummy with food: avocado, brown rice, dark chocolate, nuts, oatmeal, olive oil, seeds
Choose foods from the Mediterranean diet—lots of fruit, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and low-fat cheese and yogurt; plus a moderate amount of fish, eggs, poultry, sweets and wine; and small amounts of meat. That, along with a daily exercise routine, will help you maintain a healthy body weight, advises Dr. Yoshida.
“If you lose weight, your GI tract will feel better. Carrying less weight helps prevent abdominal discomfort—that full, bloaty feeling—and acid reflux,” says Yoshida. Extra abdominal pounds increase pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, which separates the stomach from the esophagus. That pressure makes the valve open more often, allowing food and acid from the stomach to backwash into the esophagus, causing heartburn.
Excess fat in your midsection—even if your weight is within a normal range—puts you at risk for premature death, according to an American study of 44,636 women published in 2008. It concluded that women with a waist size of 35 inches or greater were twice as likely to die from heart disease and cancer when compared to women with a waist size of less than 28 inches. (To measure it, wrap the tape measure around your waist, above your belly button.) Belly fat can also boost your chances of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Some foods may actually help target your tummy fat. A study published in Diabetes Care revealed that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats (MUFA), particularly olive oil, prevented fat from accumulating around the abdomen. Other sources of MUFA include avocados, olives, dark chocolate, sunflower oil, and nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds. In a 12-week diet study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, half of obese participants ate whole-grain foods such as brown rice and oatmeal, and half ate refined grains such as white rice and bread. Both groups lost weight, but the whole-grain group lost significantly more abdominal fat.
May 2009 issue of Best Health magazine