You may have heard the sunny expression, “Eat the rainbow.” It’s a popular phrase for good reason. Think of a beautiful rainbow of fruits and vegetables. What a happy image!
The idea is that you will achieve optimal health by eating a wide variety of these plants. They are considered whole foods, which are the most nutrient-dense forms of nutrition.
Also called functional foods, fruits and veggies are your body’s best friends. Regular consumption is statistically proven to lower risks for cancer and other chronic disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes, and also to aid in the prevention of those diseases .
Not to mention healthy digestion! It’s one of the many reasons I am passionate about the plant-based way of life.
However, if your body is not adequately absorbing the nutrients and phytochemicals from whole foods, you’re unfortunately not benefiting from them as much as we’d like to think. This study from Oxford University Press’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is especially informative if you want to dive deeply into the science behind it .
The main takeaway is this: that life-affirming kale salad is not going to give you as much bang for your buck without you taking action for optimal absorption. You may still suffer from chronic inflammation or other issues.
The key is optimal digestive health is to make sure your body is actually absorbing nutrients from whole foods. It is super important to pay attention to this factor in the digestive process.
Fortunately, there are specific proactive measures you can take to make sure you’re getting all the benefits you possibly can from the full spectrum of the nutrition rainbow.
Nutrient Absorption and the Digestion Process
Nutrients from whole foods are vital to the health of the human body, precisely because nutrients are what your cells use to operate properly. The more nutrients your body gets, the higher level at which it will function.
The primary way the body gets nutrients is via digestion. A smaller amount enter our body in other ways, such as vitamin D from sunlight which gets soaked up by the skin.
So how does it work? The digestive system breaks down nutrients to a small enough level where your cells can osmose them to grow and repair themselves. This happens in two ways:
Mechanical processes – mastication (chewing) in the mouth, squeezing by the muscles in the stomach and mixing of fluids by the various organs.
The Digestive Heroes: Stomach acid, enzymes and healthy bacteria
These three interconnected heroes form the trifecta of digestive health. They are the key to maximizing nutrient absorption, and they each directly affect one another.
When all three are at optimal levels, your digestive system and ultimately your overall well-being are going strong. When depleted, the effects can involve serious health consequences.
Hydrochloric acid (HCl) is secreted by the stomach in the digestive process. The acid breaks down food after it has been chewed. It then activates important enzymes and prevents overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria in the gut.
Sufficient HCl levels are vital to absorbing many important vitamins and minerals such as calcium and iron. It reacts with phytochemicals in whole foods to effectively release their nutrients. Without stomach acid, nutrients within foods stay dormant and are not released.
Unfortunately, HCl can diminish over time. Taking heartburn medication regularly also depletes HCl levels, over time, causing the very problem it is advertised to prevent.
People with lower levels absorb less nutrients, particularly B vitamins and minerals, and are at greater risk for a variety of health problems including cancer, asthma and food allergies.
Curious about Vitamin B? We had a lot of people ask questions too, so I created this crash course to Vitamin B to help out. Check it out!
These are the complex proteins that come into play to stimulate the release and absorption of nutrients from the foods you eat. There are three specific groups that break down protein, fat and carbs.
Bacteria produces the digestive enzymes in the small intestine, and they work hard from there for the remainder of the digestion process. God bless those little enzymes! ☺ Even beyond, they aid the body in fighting many maladies. These enzymes require specific PH levels in order to operate efficiently .
Because they are made by the gut’s good bacteria, any imbalance in the bacterial ecosystem will affect enzymes negatively. Highly acidic foods, like red meat, also pose a threat due to their unfavorable pH levels.
While I follow a full plant-based diet, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing for you. Try transitioning to more plant-based meals, note how you may feel lighter and more energized and free in your body, and go from there!
The presence of beneficial bacteria in the gut is absolutely crucial to the absorption of nutrients your cells need. As mentioned above, they actually make the enzymes needed to break down food in the small intestine.
In the large intestine, they are hard at work disintegrating remaining food particles. Though the science is somewhat new, we know that gut bacteria are responsible for the synthesis of micronutrients.
Unfortunately, many of the options at the supermarket today are not so friendly to probiotics, or healthy bacteria. They are compromised by processed foods, frequent over-the-counter drug use, and antibiotics found in dairy and meat.
Aside from poor nutrition due to low nutrient absorption, insufficient probiotic levels are associated with obesity, diabetes, mood disorders and many other health problems.
6 Practical Steps to Absorb More Nutrients
You can take specific measures to get more of the nutrients your body needs from the nutritious foods you love. Try the following tips to ramp up your digestive heroes and feel great!
1 – Maintain a plant-based diet.
Fruits, vegetables and roots have the most nutrients in them per volume. Plus, your body is evolutionary designed to break plants down more effectively than any other food group.
Try simple stir-fries, soups and stews for dinner, throwing in beans, lentils, organic tempeh and veggies, if you are confused what to replace your chicken and veggie dinners with!
2 – Take the right kind of probiotic daily.
Keep those healthy bacteria populated and healthy. With all the threats to gut bacteria in our environment, taking a daily probiotic is a no-brainer. Not all are created equal. Choose a brand with soil based organisms (SBOs).
3 – Limit processed foods, meat and alcohol.
These are the enemies of the digestive heroes. They deplete HCl and destroy good bacteria, meaning less enzymes and less nutrients.
4 – Eat more raw foods.
Incorporating more raw foods into your diet by eating fruits and vegetables of the rainbow will ensure higher nutrient absorption versus cooking them .
Though there are marked exceptions (more iron gets absorbed from cooked spinach versus raw), diets rich in raw foods have a myriad of health benefits.
5 – Take (amazing) supplements that matter (not the ones that don’t!).
In addition to your daily probiotic, adding digestive enzymes and supplemental HCl to your routine will help greatly if you are nutrient deficient, as taking digestive enzymes helps your body increase nutrient absorption.
If you’re already eating the colors of the rainbow, the nutrient-rich foods full of the good stuff, you’re on the right track. Take the steps to make sure your body is equipped to truly reap all the benefits of the good stuff by absorbing the maximum amount of nutrients possible!