A simple digestion tip for when you’re struggling

The last few weeks, I’ve dropped back into a pattern I always wish to avoid. Feeling those frequent low-grade, lower belly aches, and sometimes feeling simultaneously heavy and like a giant airy balloon resides in my midsection. It’s most noticeable two to three hours after a meal, when the food has left my stomach and reached my small intestine, and around the time I’m either about to begin or am in the first few miles of my daily run or workout. 

Not so enjoyable.

This used to be my norm. It used to be so much my norm that if it were just these mild symptoms, I wouldn’t have noticed it  or done anything about it at all. I wasn’t quite as in tune with my body then, you could say. But then it became chronic. And got a lot worse before I figured out, with help, how to make the sour, painful digestion situation better.

So when you come to me and say, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” well, I know what you’re talking about and it’s not something that should be hush hush or shameful — at least not when you’re talking to a nutritionist. 

In the interest of providing some guidance before you start removing random foods, purchasing specialty digestive products or just holding your belly and whimpering / running to the bathroom, here’s one quick tip to improve digestion for you. 

Try One Simple Shift

It’s a shift that worked for me the last couple weeks as I switched from eating more cold/raw summer meals to putting those same foods in meals and gently cooking them.

That’s right. That’s the shift. 

Just switch to eating all your meals warm and gently cooked. 

It’s simple but especially in the end-of-summer warm days, you might have to remind yourself daily, if not with every meal, to just heat everything up. I don’t heat up some foods, and eat others raw, like including a side salad with a meal. Warm all of it up. Do a quick 30 second to 1 minute sauté of your salad ingredients in your vinaigrette in a sauté pan, if that’s easiest. Oh, and chew it all well.

Think of your digestive ability like a campfire. Too hot and everything burns up and gets singed too quickly, like that marshmallow or hot dog you’re roasting. Too cold and nothing really cooks at all. It just smolders along half-heartedly. That smoldering is what we’re trying to avoid here, since it’s most common when you struggle with symptoms of the lower GI.

If you’re interested in more simple digestion shifts, I wrote a mini-guide for improved digestion featuring no products, special foods, or diets which you can download. Or check out the last few blog articles on improving digestion for more ideas.

Summer Dal with Fennel, Coconut + Dill

At this point in the summer, it’s easy to start feeling a little hot, overheated, and irritable, both internally (mood and digestion), and externally (skin irritation and inflammation). 


Your body takes cues from nature and often reacts to what the environment is like. When it comes to your body’s symptoms of imbalance, it all comes back to digestion. Since food, and whether you’re digesting it, literally becomes the body over the coming weeks and months. 


Signals of Balance in the Summer Months
Feeling cool, calm, and optimistic with ample energy
Taking breaks rather than pushing through work (or play)
Staying hydrated and nourished
No cravings for certain foods

Signals of Imbalance in the Summer Months
Feeling hot, inflamed, easily frustrated, and hot-tempered
Overworking yourself and perfectionism
Allergic reactions
Regular headaches
Rashes
Acidic digestion and reflux
Craving spicy, sour or salty foods
Loose stool or diarrhea
Low energy

Summer’s Food Remedy

What’s surprising to some is that during the height of summer, our digestive capacity is actually lower. This is why on extremely hot days, we often have a low appetite. This may be especially apparent if you’re running lots of summer mileage but feeling less hungry afterwards or know your appetite doesn’t match your energy output. And shoving more food in when you’re not hungry or digesting it well is counterproductive since your body can’t digest and assimilate well when it’s not digesting and assimilating well!

When we look at the seasonal foods that grow in the summer, many of them are cooling and juicy. Just the opposite of how you may be feeling internally or externally! 

So when we look to what should go in our meals to balance the heat of summer, it’s best to eat foods that are easily digestible when you have any symptoms that fall in the imbalance category above. That means (gently) cooked foods that are chewed thoroughly. But it also means incorporating ingredients such as vegetables, herbs and spices, and fats/flavorings that are naturally cooling to balance the heat

For cooling vegetables, fennel, zucchini and summer squash are excellent and abundant to incorporate this time of year! So too are cucumbers, cooling mint, basil, cilantro, parsley, and dill.

That’s where this dal comes in. It’s easily digestible, flavorful, cooling with fennel, dill, and a little coconut milk stirred in, and especially important, tasty! 

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Featuring cooling summer ingredients, this is a dal to eat when the weather is hot, dry, and irritation-inducing—and when you’ve been feeling the same!

Prep:  15 minutes  | Cook: 40-50  minutes  | Serves: 4

1 ½ cups red lentils
1 tsp. turmeric
5 cups water
1 ¼ tsp. mineral salt, divided
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. mustard seeds
½ tsp. grated fresh ginger root
1 large onion, diced
1 large fennel bulb (~500 grams), diced
1 handful fresh dill (~15 grams), minced
2 tsp. hot chili sauce, or ½ a hot chili, minced
14 oz. / 400 ml lite coconut milk (1 can)
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lime, to taste
1 cup dry brown rice, soaked for at least 4 hours
2 cups water
Sliced crisp fresh greens, such as cabbage or romaine, to serve

  • Rinse the red lentils until the water runs clear; then put in a large pot with the turmeric and ½ tsp. salt, and cover with 5 cups of water. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until cooked – that is, when the lentils start to break down and merge together when stirred. 
  • While the lentils are cooking, heat the oil in a large sauté pan over a medium heat and, once it’s hot, add the cumin, mustard seeds, and ½ tsp. salt. Thirty seconds later, when they pop, add the onion, fennel, and ginger, and cook, stirring every now and then, until soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. You may need to add in a couple splashes of water. Cook with a lid on.
  • Add the chili sauce or chilies and dill. Stir and cook for a couple minutes more, then tip into the lentil pot along with the coconut milk; if the mixture looks as if it could do with being a bit looser, add a little water. Bring the mix up to a bubble, then take off the heat and stir through the lime juice.
  • To make the rice, drain and rinse from it’s soaking liquid. Then combine in a small pot with 2 cups of water, and the remaining ¼ tsp. Salt. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, cover and cook for 40 minutes. 
  • Serve the rice, sliced fresh greens and dal in a serving bowl. Garnish with a couple of sprigs of dill as desired.

Notes: If you’ve been feeling especially inflamed, reduce the hot chili sauce and mustard seeds by half.

The Six Tastes for Balanced Meals and Digestion

For a long time, it’s felt appropriate to share a food as medicine approach to eating in this space, but I’m not so sure I’ve adequately explained how to do this other than to share meals that are largely based on whole, minimally processed from-nature ingredients. 

I know you want to eat food and meals that taste good, and are also good for you, but it’s important to recognize that everything we eat also has an effect.

That effect can be incredibly subtle or super obvious and I don’t mean just the effects of the caloric, macro or even micronutrient content of your meal, but because each subtle flavor within a food and meal will affect your body and your mind. 

Particularly when you eat in the same pattern of meals and flavors day in and day out. 

The Six Flavors 

There are six primary flavors within foods and ideally, all six flavors are incorporated into main meals, and at least four flavors are enjoyed at breakfast when we tend to eat a smaller amount. The six flavors are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

Now, what foods have which flavor? And what are their effects? 

Sweet 

The SWEET taste comes from foods that contain natural sugars: sweet root vegetables like carrots, squash, beets, all fresh and dried fruit, whole grains, natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses, and fresh dairy products such as milk, butter, and ghee. 

The sweet flavor builds tissues within the body, calms the nerves and nervous system, and relieves hunger. It’s the flavor you likely reach for when you’re eating to soothe an emotion or for comfort. This is natural since the flavor of our first food of milk is sweet. That food-memory association between sweet food, love, and being comforted is particularly strong. 

If you are dry, thin, nervous, anxious, scattered, or have nerve disorders, more naturally sweet foods are indicated and may be missing in adequate amounts in your meals – these are the whole grains, root vegetables, sweet fruits, and natural sugars. 

Salt 

The SALTY taste comes from foods that are naturally salty including seaweeds like kombu, arame, wakame, and nori. Some water-based vegetables are also naturally a little salty including celery, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers. And of course, natural salt such as sea salt or pink mineral salt provides this flavor. Adequately cooking our foods in salt, and adding in a teaspoon per serving of dried seaweed when cooking beans or other stewy meals is an excellent way to build the salty flavor into a meal that will help us to retain the water we consume and have tissues that are more deeply hydrated, as well as provide a natural source of iodine – a critical and often missing nutrient for optimal thyroid health. 

If you are dry, drink plenty of water but are still dehydrated, experience constipation or find that the meals you cook taste “flat,” incorporating the salty flavor during the cooking process, rather than at the end, can be especially helpful. 


Sour

The SOUR flavor comes from foods such as lemons, lime, vinegars, unripe fruit, and fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, soy sauce and tamari. Many individuals either avoid sour foods or over-do them in meals. Both not enough and too much can cause problems. Adding in just a little squeeze of fresh lime juice or a little spoonful of apple cider or white wine vinegar at the end of cooking meals is frequently just enough of the sour flavor to lubricate tissues and stimulate the digestion process.

If you tend to run extra warm or frequently experience hot, agitated emotions, experience acid indigestion or reflux, have loose or sticky, incomplete stools, rashes, inflammation, or itchy, acne-prone skin, you may be over-doing the sour taste in your meals. 

Pungent

The PUNGENT flavor comes from hot and spicy peppers, black peppercorn, onions, garlic, ginger, mustard, horseradish, wasabi, raw radishes and turnips, asafoetida, cinnamon and cloves. 

This flavor increases heat and stimulates digestion and metabolism. As such, you should incorporate it into your meals in slightly larger amounts if you are routinely cold, experience poor circulation, or have low digestive fire –meaning you don’t digest or tolerate foods well

But for many others, too much pungent flavorings causes extra heat, excessive sweating and inflammation, skin rashes, acne, or eczema, agitated emotions, acid indigestion or reflux, and loose stools and diarrhea. 

If you tend to be a person that’s eternally on the move, both physically or mentally, and find it difficult to slow down your mind or pause for a relax break or day, it’s safe to say you may also benefit from cutting out too much of the pungent flavor — take a couple weeks without onions, garlic, and spicy peppers and then take note of how you feel.

Bitter

The BITTER taste is one many of us avoid. That’s unfortunate because the actions of bitter are to stimulate the digestion process by telling the body to begin releasing essential digestive acids and enzymes. The bitter flavor also helps the liver performs its routine detoxification process (necessary to get rid of waste products, excess hormones, and toxins), and it lightens tissues that are puffy and retaining water. 

Bitter foods include aloe vera, dandelion leaves and root, dark leafy greens, all vegetables in the brassica family, burdock root, eggplants, Jerusalem artichokes, sesame seeds and oil, dark chocolate, coffee, and fenugreek seeds.

Like the pungent flavor, we want just a small amount of bitter flavors in our meals — not an excess. Where many people tend to consume too much bitter is in the form of coffee. Coffee is a stimulant, and caffeine can be particularly troublesome for the liver, especially if you have hormonal imbalances. Try to reduce your coffee intake to no more than one to two 8-oz. cups in the morning if you enjoy coffee regularly. 

Astringent

The ASTRINGENT taste comes in beans and legumes, cruciferous / brassica vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, unripe bananas, pomegranates, cranberries, and most herbs and spices including basil, bay leaves, caraway seeds, coriander, dill, fennel seeds, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, turmeric, vanilla, coffee, tea, wine, and alcohol. 

The astringent flavor helps us to absorb water, and dry and tighten tissues. I’ve used an alcohol-based (astringent) toner on my face a couple times a day for years, and to no surprise, I’ve also tended to experience frequent dry skin. The astringent nature of my facial toner is a wonderful example of what happens internally when we consume astringent foods. This can be excellent and necessary, in small amounts! 

If you experience chronic diarrhea or varicose veins, two examples of the tissues not being able to hold onto their fluids, astringent foods or herbs may be beneficial in slightly larger amounts. On the other hand, if you have routinely dry skin, or a dry internal condition like constipation, eating and drinking less astringent foods will be helpful. 

Six Flavors in Balance

Above all, a great way to begin to understand the effect of the different flavors and particular foods is to really pay attention to the flavor of the foods you are eating. Can you taste the sweetness when thoroughly chewing a whole grain or a steamed carrot? Can you pick out the drying, astringent effect as you take a sip of black tea, coffee, or wine? Do you notice how you internally heat up after a sandwich with spicy mustard or a bowl of particularly spicy soup? And then what do you notice in the minutes or hours afterwards?

When you begin to eat more meals that have a balance of the flavors, you’ll also notice that ongoing digestive symptoms and food intolerances might begin to reduce and eventually may even go away. And because meals simply taste better without being elaborate or extra complicated, cravings or over-eating begins to be less of an issue.

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.