(not to mention your pocketbook)
I’ve talked a little about this before, but I recently had a conversation which led me to want to more fully explain this crucial element of my philosophy of nutrition and health.
Obviously, digesting food is a really good thing. But why can not digesting food be a potentially hazardous thing? Doesn’t undigested food pass through the hollow tube of the digestive system and out into poop?
A good way, I think, to consider this question is to imagine putting a bowl of, for example, ready-to-eat (i.e. reconstituted) rice cereal in a nice, toasty, non-sterile location and keep it at 98.6 degrees for approximately 24 hours. What’s going to happen to the cereal? Well, whatever hungry microorganisms happen to be in the area may happen to land on it, and happily find a very friendly place to live and start a large, rapidly reproducing family!
What microorganisms happen to land and colonize depends on the “terroir” of this 98.6 degree environment – the microorganisms that are already in abundance within the system, on its surfaces, in its air. If a microorganism has already established a firm foothold in this environment, it’s going to be much more likely to take over whatever new food sources are introduced into the environment.
So that’s all fine and dandy, if you’ve got a great terroir in your gut environment, with lots of healthy lactic acid-producing bacteria, which will encounter the new foods and happily gobble them up, producing as byproducts compounds which are more readily digestible by the gut tissue, and even beneficial to keeping a healthy balance going in the whole system.
BUT. If the gut terroir is not optimal, if there are bacteria – or more significantly, yeasts – hanging out in your optimal 98.6 degree environment which are not good for gut health – which produce unpleasant byproducts, which colonize areas of the gut and destroy its healthy tissue, not only preventing it from absorbing any nutritional benefits from any food it might have readily digested with little difficulty, but also damaging the integrity of the great big hollow tube of the digestive tract – and thereby introducing the potential for undigested food particles to enter the blood stream, causing the body to mount an immune reaction towards those particles, a process which, with sufficient repetition, results in food allergies.
Why do so many more kids have food allergies these days? This is one of the very credible reasons, in my opinion, as to why.
How do you know if you have a healthy terroir in your gut? Well, there’s a pretty good chance that you don’t. But a few clues include: regular loose stools, diarrhea, or constipation; gas, bloating, and belching; one or more food allergies; bowel health issues such as IBS and Crohn’s disease; bad breath; stinky gas and poop.
Yup, I said stinky poop. “But, you say, poop IS stinky, that’s kind of the nature of poop!” Well, yes and no. Some poop is MUCH stinkier than others. Just like some gas is stinkier than others. I can’t say that my poop comes out smelling like roses these days, but it’s definitely not as smelly as it used to be. And I can substantially confirm, and my husband will back this up, that my “silent but deadly” episodes creep up much less frequently these days, and are significantly less stinky, as I have followed steps to improve my gut health.
Another factor in ascertaining gut terroir is age. Babies are born with a sterile gut. Their exposure to bacteria in the birth canal and through whatever they are fed after birth – breast milk or homemade formula or powdered skim-milk- and soy-based formula – gives them the inoculating microorganism populations which will colonize the environment of their gut walls and significantly determine their growth, development, and health for much of the rest of their lives. I’m not trying to be dramatic here – this is truly, in my opinion, a vitally serious issue.
But back to my original problem. What happens when food doesn’t get digested – when food comes back out in poop? Ideally, poop should be primarily composed of dead microorganisms and some sloughed-off cells from the digestive tract. For one, to have food come back out in poop is an extremely inefficient means of using the digestive tract – it does not make sense that the human body would have a system set up which didn’t fully do what its purpose is to do.
But moreover, not all of that undigested food is probably coming out in the form in which it entered the body. It may not be digested, but it’s probably been and being eaten by something – by opportunistic microorganisms which are thrilled to take advantage of all this lovely free food being provided to them. And some of these microorganisms are likely not ones which you want to have reproducing and populating your gut terroir. The more opportunities they get to take advantage of undigested food, the more they’re going to reproduce, and the more likely you’re going to have more serious problems down the road related to digestion.
I think I’ll end here with a few brief observational corollaries to the logic above.
1) It’s really important to look at your poop, and think about what its form and content says about what you’ve eaten recently, and what you are or are not digesting well.
2) Babies should never be given foods that they can’t digest (for example, rice – or any grain – cereal as a first food). This just encourages pathogenic microorganism populations to take hold in their guts, as they have lots of food available to them that the baby’s gut isn’t digesting.
3) Non-digestible, non-soluble fiber is not necessarily beneficial, per se, for health. Especially if pathogenic bacteria start feeding on it. Extrapolate to whole grains, Metamucil … you get the picture …
4) When you’re eating food that you don’t digest, you’re basically throwing your money (or labor, if you grew the food yourself) down the toilet. Literally.
Photo Credit: Images_of_Money on Flickr.
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