When you think of nutrients needed for digestion, it’s likely that only one comes to mind – fiber. Nutritional fiber from food (versus supplements) is definitely important for digestion, but it’s not the only important one we need to consider when choosing healthy foods to plan our meals. Whether you suffer from digestion problems or not, it’s important to keep mindful of nutrients needed for digestion to prevent any issues down the road, or simply to get the most nutrients from your foods.
The entire digestive process is meant to help you absorb the nutrients from your foods so they can be used in your body to keep you healthy, energized, and keep your gut healthy. Since your digestive tract houses more bacterial cells than the cells in your body, it’s pretty important that you feed it well. Otherwise, unhealthy bacteria cells can proliferate and make us sick, leading to bad digestion, disease, and even poor mood health.
Certain nutrients can help keep your gut healthy and best of all, they’re found in a variety of delicious, plant-based foods.
Here are some of the most important to focus on:
Magnesium shortage is a hot topic these days due to the way our soil has been subjected to factory farming, use of pesticides and herbicides, and overall environmental distraught that’s depleted the natural minerals originally found in soil. One of those that is essential for our health, including digestion, is magnesium. Magnesium is found in all plant-based foods (lucky us!), but it’s important to choose the healthiest sources and ensure we’re getting quality versions of these whole foods. Organic will ensure your foods have the most mineral content and will keep your body free from harmful chemicals and pesticides that could possibly alter your digestive tract.
Plant-based sources of magnesium are abundant and are better sources than animal foods that your body can easily use. Here are some of the most award-worthy: greens, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, grains, pseudo-grains (quinoa, millet, amaranth, teff, buckwheat), wild rice, winter squash, some vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes, cacao, spirulina, dried figs, dates, and bananas.
See more magnesium-rich foods here.
Calcium isn’t just essential for our bones, teeth, and nails. This important mineral is also necessary for a healthy nervous system function that affects digestion. When you consider foods that optimize gut health, it’s always smart to consider which ones benefit the nervous system and help calm you down. The effect this has on your gut is huge. When you’re relaxed, digestion works incredibly well; when you’re stressed, it’s as erratic as a rollercoaster ride. Avoid eating when you’re stressed and be sure to get adequate amounts of calcium and magnesium through your foods as much as possible. Calcium and magnesium compete for absorption in the body, so consider eating foods rich in both minerals. Two great examples are greens and seeds.
Calcium is found rich in many plant-based foods. Some of the highest sources are: dried figs, white beans, oranges, collards, the superfood fruit known as baobab, chia, almonds or almond butter, kale, sesame seeds, and tahini (sesame seed butter), broccoli, and some other beans and legumes. Amaranth and teff are also two super-seeds (pseudograins) that offer incredible sources of calcium. Fortified almond milk is also a great source and if you eat soy, tofu and soy milk are also good sources.
See more sources of plant-based calcium here.
Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is one of the most beneficial nutrients for your gut. So much so, that it’s been proven to aid in fighting colon cancer! It also has beneficial effects on hormone health that in turn aid digestion. Calcium is also better absorbed with adequate Vitamin D intake during the digestive process, making Vitamin D even more important. A Vitamin D deficiency can lead to weak bones or osteoporosis, colon problems, depression, and general digestive issues because of the way this vitamin affects so much of our nervous system, digestive system, and bone health.
Getting enough in a plant-based diet is difficult without supplementation or fortified options. Mushrooms are the only true source of high adequate vitamin D intake outside of products made with Vitamin D2 often derived from plant-based yeasts. It’s better to take Vitamin D3 in the form of supplementation, though you should look for vegan Vitamin D3 to avoid those processed with lanolin (sheep’s skin).
Everyone will need different amounts of this vitamin, so consider supplementation to get the most benefits. For now, start eating more mushrooms; just be sure to buy organic since mushroom is a fungi and pesticide-laden options could harm your health more than help.
Vitamin B12 is a hot topic when it comes to nutrient needs on a plant-based diet (and any diet, really). Derived from bacteria from the soil, this nutrient, and other B vitamins, all affect digestion due to their effects on metabolism, absorption of nutrients, and mainly due to their effect on the central nervous system. All B vitamins help optimize brain and central nervous system health, which improves your mood, lowers anxiety, and can even help you focus better and improve your energy. A sense of calm is crucial for healthy digestion since you digest foods better (and therefore nutrients), when you’re calm rather than when you’re stressed. Vitamin B6 and Vitamin 12 are two of the best nutrients for this matter, but all B vitamins are equally important.
Lucky for us, Vitamin B rich foods are found abundantly in plant-based foods. Here are some of the best: greens, broccoli, grains, seeds, nuts, bananas, figs, carrots, oranges, tomatoes, psuedo-grains, cacao, winter squash, coconut, dates, asparagus, avocados, and most beans and legumes. Nutritional yeast, spirulina and fortified non-dairy milks or soy products are some of the only food sources of Vitamin B12, however. It’s advisable to take a supplement if you do not eat these foods, preferably one that’s in sublingual form, which your body absorbs quicker in the bloodstream. A 2500-5000 microgram dose is usually more than enough and should be taken with meals for optimal absorption.
See more about B vitamins on a plant-based diet here.
Vitamin A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble vitamins, so guess what that means? You don’t absorb them if you eat a fat-free diet. Sure, your body has fat stores of its own it can use to some degree, but you need some healthy fats in your diet to optimize how fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed and stored. They also keep your brain and metabolism in check, and even reduce inflammation in the gut if you choose good sources. For example, avocados which are alkaline, assist in good health, along with raw coconut which has been shown to fight harmful gut bacteria. Nuts, seeds, (especially hemp, chia and flax) are also great sources of omega 3 fats that benefit your mood and digestion as well.
Of course, we can’t forget the most important, as mentioned above – fiber! If you’re fearful of carbs, keep in mind that only healthy, complex carbs will provide the fiber you need not just for digestion, but also for optimal heart health and regular cleansing of toxins in the body. Complex carbs give us energy and help build lean muscle, fuel good gut health by feeding good gut bacteria, and they also aid in optimizing our mood due to how they help produce the hormone serotonin in the body. Still, some people’s bodies will digest carbs differently and many people find they feel better when they eat moderate carbs by eliminating high starch and natural foods high in sugar like fruit. If this is the case, be sure you still include carbs that are mostly fiber, which isn’t digested but rather used in the body to regulate your system (and it even helps keep your weight down).
Fiber-rich, low starch foods include: chia, flax, psyllium, pumpkin, berries, greens, asparagus, celery, herbs, cauliflower, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, coconut, and avocados. Other healthy carbs that are good for your gut and will help give you energy are: sweet potatoes, bananas, dried figs, all beans and legumes, winter squash, nuts, apples, and most all whole grains, produce, and whole, plant-based foods.
Don’t forget to get enough protein, (which is easy to do on a plant-based diet) and ensure you get enough colorful-rich produce to get the most nutrients in your diet possible. It’s also important to include probiotic-rich foods and prebiotic-rich foods in your diet to keep your good bacteria in line.
Eating a wide variety of plant-based foods will give your digestion exactly what it needs, but if you need additional help, see more on digestion with these articles: 5 Green Foods Good for The Gut, 10 Foods That Regulate Digestion, The Best Prebiotic Foods for Optimal Digestive Health, Simple, Healthy Foods That Are Easy to Digest, and Fermented Foods That Improve Your Microbiome and Digestion.
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