You can usually tell when your digestive system isn’t in top form, because you experience bloating, discomfort and the symptoms of IBS. There are a number of ways to improve your digestion and I am going to cover the commonly known ones, such as assessing your diet and the lesser known methods like Food Combining.
To begin my research, I did a quick google search of how to improve your digestion. The top result is an article on the best ways to ‘naturally’ improve digestion. It starts with the suggestion to eat fewer processed foods and more whole foods, which we can expect as the cure for most general health-related issues. Some foods are more likely to trigger the systems of IBS than others, such as dairy products and alcohol but even certain vegetables are not ideal for IBS sufferers as they can increase gas, like cabbage and cauliflower. In contrast, foods high in fibre encourage regular bowel movements.
As I dug further into my research I discovered that although the substance of your diet is a key factor, when you eat and what order you eat in can be equally influential in maximising your digestion. In addition to aiding weight loss and potentially increasing energy levels, intermittent fasting is thought to offer a break from constant digestion. One of the most popular schedules of intermittent fasting is the 16-8 method. This is sixteen hours of fasting, followed by an eight hour eating window. It sounds intense but some people will already been eating in accordance to this. If you start eating at 9am you would finish by 5pm. When you start/ finish eating is dependent on your schedule. For example, I wake up later and usually don’t feel hungry as soon as I wake up, whereas I often snack in the evenings. Therefore, I would start eating at 11am or 12pm and finish by 7 or 8pm.
The question is, is sixteen hours of fasting really necessary? Arguably, only four hours of fasting is required between meals to allow all elements to be fully digested. Some meats, like bacon, and some dairy can take an average of four hours to be digested. In comparison, many fruits or vegetables only take 30 minutes to an hour. Committing to intermittent fasting may reduce unnecessary snacking but sixteen hours is not essential for digestion.
I discovered another way of eating thought to maximise your digestion through instagram. Kenzie Burke, the creator of a ’21 Day Reset’ guide, promotes Food Combining. This is where you pair different food groups together in your meal to maximise digestion, as some foods struggle to digest together. The ‘rules’ include eating fruit first thing as it digests the quickest and not mixing starches with proteins. In practice this could mean having fruit for breakfast, then a starch such as potato with veggies for lunch and then a protein with veggies for dinner – so meat or dairy. She also recommends pairing nuts and seeds with veggies only and has a category of neutral foods like coconut yoghurt and nut milks that can be paired with any foods.
Burke has been the target of criticism that her guides promote eating disorders, as they could be seen as restrictive. Although I agree they could be potentially triggering for eating disorder sufferers, since it may cause a hyper-fixation on food, Burke always emphasises that her portion sizes are large and she will often have seconds. When it comes to any type of diet I am skeptical because it is hard to see how you can maintain a healthy relationship with food, whilst abiding by so many rules. In defence, Burke claims food combining is a lifestyle not a diet and that she still eats intuitively.
It is important to note that most of the principles of food combining are not backed by scientific evidence. I stumbled across this article, which outlines some food combinations that have been proven by science. Although Kenzie Burke did not invent food combining, she has a following of other 100,000 people on instagram, many of whom she has influenced to try FC out. Frequently she posts before and afters of her guide users, that credit food combining as the cure for their bloating and discomfort.
I have considered trying food combining for 7 days to review it for myself and see if I do have the supposed benefits of more energy and less bloating. If this is something you’re interested in seeing an article or youtube video on, let me know in the comments.
To summarise, there are lots of alleged ways to improve the quality and speed of your digestion but not all of them are supported by science. If you want to see an improvement, your best options are probably eating as many whole foods as possible and waiting 4 hours in between meals. Once you’ve tried your best at this and still suffer the effects of poor digestion, consider seeing your doctor for an IBS diagnosis.