Whether you are gaining, maintaining, or cutting, having a digestive system which is functioning smoothly can be life-changing. No one wants to walk around bloated, sluggish, and “backed-up”. The challenge is, when things aren’t working properly and we’re feeling frustrated, it can be difficult to determine what the true cause of our digestive distress is. A few recent consultations on improving digestive functioning prompted the idea for an article on this topic. Over these next few paragraphs, my goal is to equip you with a variety of ideas and strategies that can help you improve your digestive functioning if, and when, you experience issues.*
*This article is not intended to replace a consultation with a qualified health-care professional. If you are experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort, feel free to give these strategies a try, however use your own judgement and seek professional help if needed.
Gluten & Dairy
Consuming gluten and/or dairy does cause adverse (and sometimes damaging) effects in certain individuals. The key word is, certain. If you truly are sensitive to gluten and/or dairy, or you have a medical condition which warrants their avoidance, then you already know to avoid these things. However, if you don’t have a known issue, then identifying potential allergens or other sensitivities is where you are.
There are a variety of ways you can determine if your physiology reacts adversely to ingesting these (or other) foodstuffs, however before you do, you may want to consider asking yourself these questions:
“Do I have probable cause to think that it is “x” which is causing my issues? Have I ever experienced issues from ingesting “x” before?”
It is not my place through this article to tell you that you do, or do not, have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a degree of lactose intolerance, etc. I bring this topic up to elicit conscious questioning in those who are thinking gluten, dairy, etc., may be to blame. They very well may be, however before potentially cutting out foods from your diet you enjoy (and which provide other beneficial nutrients), you may want to consider trying some of the below options first, or at the very least see a physician who has expertise in these areas to assess your theory.
Fiber- I have covered this topic in-depth in a previous article (https://3dmusclejourney.com/how-to-use-fiber-when-dieting/), so I won’t spend much time on it here.
Fruits, veggies, whole-grains, beans, etc., are all high in this funny little indigestible carbohydrate called, fiber. Too little can cause issues, too much can cause issues, and an imbalanced ratio between the two types (soluble fiber and insoluble fiber) can cause issues. For a detailed explanation of each fiber type, where you can find it, and how it acts inside the body, check out the article linked above.
The main points concerning fiber I want to touch on in this article, are:
1) “Too much” and “Too little” are relative terms. For example:
If it is recommended that someone consume 38 grams of fiber per day (according to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division), but they are currently only consuming 10 grams per day, if they increase their fiber intake to the recommended level too quickly this can cause problematic issues even though they are consuming what they “should be”.
If you are going to increase your fiber intake, do so gradually over time; do not increase your fiber intake too much too quickly.
2) Rough guidelines for total daily fiber intake are:
38 grams/day for most men*
25 grams/day for most women*
14 grams per 1,000 calories*
*These are guidelines, and as with all guidelines they should be adjusted when necessary to fit the individual.
Fluid Intake- Consuming an adequate amount of fluids is one of the most overlooked nutritional variables. It’s not because we don’t know that consuming an adequate amount of fluids is important, on the contrary, I believe in most cases it’s because we’ve come to know this statement too well that we undervalue its importance. Don’t let the simplicity of this variable fool you! Not only is adequate hydration important for performance and overall health, but fluids help move solids through the digestive system. And to link this section with the previous one, if you are going through a dieting-phase (or a gaining-phase for that matter) and are consuming a high-fiber diet, your body needs extra water to process the higher amounts of fiber to prevent constipation.
To achieve adequate fluid intake, many people find it helpful to front-load fluids in their day (in the morning when they first wake-up and during the first part of their day), and/or to condition the habit of having a beverage with each meal.
While this is a summary-style article and I don’t want to get too lost in the details, I think it would be inadequate to leave this section without some sort of guideline. Many factors (activity level, climate, health status, etc.) affect your fluid needs on a daily basis, however to condense everything into a few simple concepts:
1) Let thirst and urine color be your guides
2) The current adequate intake according to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division for total water (water consumed through food, drinking water, and other beverages, such as coffee, juice, milk, etc.) is:
3.7 Liters per day for most men (~125 ounces)*
2.7 Liters per day for most women (~91 ounces)*
*Keep in mind that these recommendations are for the general population (not athletes); how and where you train will affect your fluid requirements.
**One additional tip before moving on, is that drinking hot liquids helps to promote bowel movements. It doesn’t have to be coffee—hot tea, water, and other beverages work as well.
Daily Patterns- Your morning routine, meal frequency, and activity level are all factors that can affect your digestive functioning. If you are experiencing gastrointestinal (G.I.) discomfort, consider adjusting how you start your day. Do you start your day relaxed, or do you wake-up to a screaming alarm clock, hit snooze 4x, then frantically rush around all morning to avoid being late? Adjusting how you start your day is another simple, yet very effective fix for many G.I. issues.
Within “our community” (evidence-based approaches to health and fitness), we often hear about the negligible importance of nutrient-timing and meal-frequency. And while this is true for fat-loss, there are other benefits to adjusting your meal-frequency outside of its minimal effect on body-composition. Regardless if you are cutting or bulking, consuming a large number of calories (and food volume) in one sitting can cause G.I. distress in many people. In this regard, increasing your number of meals per day and meal frequency can be a simple strategy for alleviating G.I. distress. Also, many people find that establishing a semi-structured eating routine helps to promote consistent bowel movements.
Similar to the meal frequency statements, another common generalization is that cardio isn’t necessary. And again, while this is true for fat-loss, many people find that if their activity level drops too low they start to experience negative repercussions outside of an effect on their body-composition. Regardless of what your current strength and physique goals are, if you are experiencing G.I. discomfort and your activity level is very low due to your job and/or overall lifestyle, consider increasing your level of activity during the day. One easy way I help some of my clients do this, is to have them use a pedometer to track their number of steps during the day. If the number of steps they are taking is very low, we will set a daily step goal for them to achieve moving forward to help them increase their level of physical activity throughout the day.
Sugar Alcohol- Erythritol, isomalt, lacititol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol are all types of sugar alcohol. For some people, consuming sugar alcohol causes digestive discomfort. The amount someone can “tolerate” is individual, so trial and error will help you determine the amount you can comfortably consume.*
*If you have a low tolerance for sugar alcohol, eating foods that contain it with other foods (versus on an empty stomach) can help reduce negative effects.
I bring this last topic up because many “diet-foods” contain sugar alcohols, and if someone has a low tolerance for them but isn’t aware that they can cause issues, they wouldn’t even think to examine this variable in their diet.
Of course, this isn’t everything that affects your digestive health, however it is a great list to start from. If you are experiencing even mild discomfort, examining (and altering if necessary) these variables can be hugely rewarding.
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