Our digestive system is the core of the body's functioning. It's where much of our power is derived from. What we put into this core is highly responsible for our body's energy, performance, mood and overall wellness—we are what we eat. In today's world there seems to be a large disconnect with the foods that we put into our digestive tract and the effects they have on our overall health.
We seem to believe that we can eat anything and our digestive tracts can tolerate anything and magically we will remain in excellent health. However, this is not reality. A lot of the disease that exists today, in my opinion, is related to poor nutrition and poor digestion. Every positive nutritional choice that we make helps us to create healthy and strong cells in the body, enabling us to live without illness.
More: Digestion 101
By fueling the body with foods closest to their natural state such as foods from the ocean and trees or plants grown in nutrient rich soils, we are keeping as close as possible to eating foods in the state that nature intended; whole foods with "life force". Eating whole foods will lead to healthier digestion and as you will see below, digestion is the root to good health.
As athletes we expend a lot of excess energy during training. In turn we also need to consume more calories than the average person in order to replenish our glycogen stores, repair damaged muscles, nourish the body and maintain general health. This means our digestive tracts are put under more stress. It is especially important that athletes have a strong digestive system to break down this food so that we can absorb its nutrients within the body.
Think about your digestive tract as your foundation. Build your house on a strong foundation. Otherwise when you put a lot of stress on it, it can crumble. Let's take a look at what can break down and build up our digestive tracts so that we can begin to pay more attention to our own and be sure we are building our health as athletes on strong foundations.
The Digestive Tract
Digestion begins in the mouth the moment when we begin to chew our food. Carbohydrates can be completely digested in the mouth by the enzyme amylase found in the saliva. (Don't forget to CHEW your food! Slow down. YOUR STOMACH HAS NO TEETH!)
Once you swallow your food it moves through a long tube called the esophagus, then passes into the stomach where digestion continues via stomach acids and digestive juices which work to break down proteins. Stomach acid serves many important functions including aiding in mineral absorption (including iron), killing bacteria and parasites as well as stimulating the small intestine to prepare for further stages of digestion.
From the stomach, food passes into the small intestine, at which point it is further broken down by bile, which emulsifies fats. Additional enzymes secreted by the pancreas work on proteins, fats and carbohydrate digestion.
Those of us who choose to eat quickly and not chew our food properly and choose to eat a diet high in processed foods are putting excess stress on the pancreas to excrete enzymes into the small intestine. The reason: carbohydrates arriving in the small intestine are less digested when not chewed properly in the mouth.
Furthermore, processed foods, lacking enzymes, do not support the digestive process as they do not deposit enzymes into the body. Choosing to eat healthy wholesome foods for your "daily meals" (I am not referring to PERFORMANCE NUTRITION such as on bike, pre- and post-ride nutrition which are purposely processed as this serves a specific need) adds live enzymes into the digestive tract to support digestion. Shop the perimeter! That's where the whole foods are!