All your life, you’ve been told to “eat your greens!” or “carrots help you see in the dark!” Well, there’s plenty of truth to these commandments of good health.
Fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods are packed with the vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function properly. Every one of your billion-plus cells needs high-quality nutrients in order to do its job.
But what many people don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between eating nutritious foods and actually absorbing what’s in them!
You may be eating a diet that’s wholesome and nutritious, but for some reason, you don’t actually FEEL healthier or more energized. This can be very discouraging. After all, why would you choose a salad over a donut if you don’t see and feel the benefits in your body?
The thing is, while it’s certainly good that you’re eating the right foods, your body may not be absorbing the nutrients. Why? Well, let’s take a look.
There are many different factors that can influence your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. The most important of these include your age, diet, lifestyle habits, psychological stress, genetics, and also your gut microbiome.
All of these factors can help or hinder the amounts of vitamins and minerals that you obtain from your diet each day.
Recent research has actually shown that your gut bacteria may have more to do with this than previously thought.
A study conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine has suggested that if the many billions of bacteria in your gut are out of balance, you may suffer from poor nutritional absorption. (1)
In the study, two groups of mice were fed a range of healthy foods every day. However, the first group were given a dose of the gut bacteria taken from malnourished children, while the second group were given the gut bacteria from healthy children.
The first group (given the bad bacteria) suffered notable problems with poor growth and slow development. The second group (given the good bacteria) were much better off in terms of development, body mass and skeletal growth.
The researchers concluded that a healthy diet isn’t enough for overall wellbeing: the right mix of bacteria is also necessary for proper absorption.
As you’re well aware, when you eat food, it goes to your stomach. But that’s only part of the process! Once in your gut, your gut microbiome and digestive enzymes go to work, breaking your food down into molecules small enough for your body to absorb.
Most of these molecules will then travel from your stomach down into the upper portion of your small intestine. Here, they move into your bloodstream and begin their journey through your body.
Your body’s ability to carry out this process is important because nutrient absorption can vary significantly.
Some research suggests that the amount of nutrients that your body absorbs from food you eat can be as little as 10%. When it’s optimal, it can be 90%.
But because every part of your body depends on nutritional absorption in order to carry out its daily tasks, you should be aware of just how efficient your own absorption rate is.
The amount of vitamins and minerals you’re taking in each day is integral to both short-term and long-term health.
Failing to absorb those nutrients properly for a long period of time can have serious consequences for your body and your mind.
It’s also important to realize that nutritional labels on the foods you eat aren’t going to give you the complete picture.
Even if you’re in the habit of reading labels (and you should be!), you aren’t always getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals that the product might suggest you are.
Sometimes this is due to the serving size, natural variability in the product’s composition, or simply the way the data have been arranged.
For example, you might read on the internet that a banana contains around 398 mg of potassium. However, the particular banana you had with your lunch might not have anywhere near that much. The information you read online may be an estimate based on many different sample types of bananas that fit within a range of 360 - 502 mg of potassium. (2)
Now, when you add these discrepancies to a typical modern lifestyle and the other factors that could hinder absorption, it’s easy to see why these figures are very vague indeed. Unless you had the technology to analyze exactly how many nutrients you’re absorbing each day, it’d be very difficult to figure out exactly how much is going into your cells every time you eat.
But don’t get discouraged just yet! There are plenty of ways to help your body optimize its nutrient absorption so that you DO notice the difference!
Modern life is indeed stressful, and plenty of things about your daily routine can have detrimental effects on how well you absorb dietary nutrients.
Simple things you can do to counter these negative effects include eating plant-based foods as often as possible, along with plenty of fiber.
Make an effort to limit harmful substances such as alcohol, excessive sugar, cigarette smoking, and antibiotics.
Alcohol and tobacco are particularly detrimental to nutritional absorption, so if you must indulge, try to keep them at least four hours away from your ‘healthy time’.
Exercising every day is also vital for better absorption. Keeping active will help your body (and mind) to release pent-up tension and stress.
Stress can alter the hormone production and even the levels of hormones circulating in your bloodstream, which in turn can directly affect many aspects of your health: your metabolism, cognitive function and energy levels.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean joining a gym or running marathons! A regular daily walk can make all the difference.
There are plenty of reasons to suggest that eating certain foods together – and keeping certain foods apart – can help with digestion.
Many board-certified licensed nutritionists advocate strategically combining certain foods in order to improve the efficacy with which your body is able to absorb nutrients.
For example, it’s been found that eating raw or lightly-cooked vegetables with healthy fats (such as olive oil or avocado) can improve the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
It’s also worth noting that some cooked vegetables can lose their nutritional content. Eating them raw, or blending or juicing them, may make the nutrients more bio-available and easier to absorb.
These and other tricks show how proper food combining can be a good way to assist your body’s digestive function and ensure you’re actually getting what you need from your diet.
As mentioned above, your gut health is a major player in how well you take in nutrients.
Within your gastrointestinal system reside around 100 trillion bacteria, all working to keep you well. They do this by supporting your body’s immune system defenses, breaking down food products, fighting off pathogenic bacteria and yeasts, creating specific nutrients for your bodily functions – and dozens of other roles!
You may not realize it, but around 80% of your immune system cells are in your intestines. That’s why your gut microflora can have a direct effect on your immune response and also play an important role in how you feel.
Recent research has shown that your gut flora are implicated in hundreds of functions, from how you metabolize carrots to the intricate uptake of vitamin A. Scientists also believe that your gut microorganisms can have a role in the way energy is harvested, stored and produced – particularly in terms of what you eat.
One study from Southern Illinois University showed that your colon contains about one billion bacteria per gram of stool. Bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are involved with stimulating the breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients. (3)
But when your beneficial microbes are depleted due to medications (especially antibiotics), poor diet, toxins, stress, and other unhealthy habits, they are less able to do their work in helping you absorb vitamins and minerals.
Even if you think you’re fairly clean and healthy, the truth is that many of your daily activities can wipe out your much-needed beneficial bacteria.
So, what can you do? Well, first things first – help those bacteria out! Start taking a high-quality probiotic supplement that contains a variety of beneficial strains. This can help to re-establish and support your gut microbiome, boosting your digestive and immune health. At the same time you’ll be enhancing your ability to both break down and properly absorb nutrients you’re eating.
When your nutrient absorption is optimal, you’ll be maximizing the effect of all the vitamins and minerals in the food you eat.
Even if you already take a multivitamin to fill in the gaps from not getting enough ‘real’ foods each day, consider adding a probiotic supplement to your regimen to ensure you’re really getting those nutrients mentioned on the product label.
Remember, your body can’t run on empty calories! You need a wide variety of nutrients every day in order to fight off disease and support energy levels.
Because everyone’s health profile is unique to them, take some time to examine exactly what’s going well and not so well in your lifestyle. When you tackle your stress levels, maintain a wholesome diet and focus on nutritional absorption, you really will feel better!