Food Freedom Friday Edition 128 - Nutrient Absorption

You are what you absorb

You often hear the term ‘you are what you eat.’ In reality, you are more likely to be what you digest. For years you have been told to always eat your fruits and vegetables as they are packed with the vital nutrients that your body depends on to function optimally. The research is clear: incorporating whole, naturally occurring, well-sourced foods into your diet on a regular basis can seriously benefit your well-being.

Unfortunately, even if you eat all the right things and take your supplements religiously, you might not feel any healthier if these nutrients are not being properly broken down, absorbed and assimilated by your body. There are specific factors that could be negatively impacting your nutrient absorption.

It is true. Everything from your age, diet, stress levels, and even your gut bacteria can affect the number of vitamins and minerals that your body actually absorbs, regardless of how nutrient dense your food intake may be.

In fact, recent studies indicate that your gut bacteria may play a larger role in the body’s ability to be well-nourished than was initially believed. Even with an excellent diet, even when fake foods and anti-nutrients have been eliminated, the right bacteria is necessary for proper nutrition and growth.

How, exactly, does nutrient absorption work?

Digestive bacteria and enzymes work to breakdown your food (and other things you consume) into molecules. The majority of these molecules travel into your upper small intestine, where they enter the bloodstream and make their way throughout your body to be used to keep you working at your best.

Monitoring your nutrient absorption is important:

Nutrient absorption can vary. The amount of nutrients that your body absorbs (from food) can range from 10% to 90%. Because your body depends on multitudes of nutrients to function at an optimal level, ensuring that you are, in fact, absorbing your nutrients properly is a key influencer when it comes to overall well-being. When you are not absorbing nutrients effectively over a prolonged period of time, you will probably begin to notice and you may wonder why you are feeling particularly sub-par.

Labels definitely do not provide the full story. Food labels are great, and you should read them carefully as often as you can, but they are not always indicative of the entirety of the nutrition facts associated with the food you are choosing to eat.  

Furthermore, sometimes the serving sizes are not applicable to your diet, or the way the data is compiled might not accurately reflect what you may be eating at that moment.

For example, although bananas are said (in some literature) to have 422 mg of potassium, that number may actually be an average based on 14 different banana samples, which had a range of potassium between 364 mg and 502 mg. Paired with the modern lifestyle, this is not a clear cut answer to how much you might be absorbing (or should expect to absorb) at a given meal.

Unless you are a research scientist with an advanced laboratory in your home, figuring out the exact amount of nutrient absorption that takes place in your body can be quite the guessing game.

The good news is that even if you do not have the precise figures for the amount of nutrients your body absorbs, there are steps you can take to take charge and optimize nutrient absorption from the foods you are eating.

There are a few areas where you can make some conscious shifts to ensure you are maximizing the absorption from your daily intake.

Consider Your Lifestyle

The modern environment is highly paced and stressful.  There are certain aspects of daily life that can have detrimental effects on your ability to absorb dietary nutrients. Take control where you can by eating a whole food, high-fiber diet (focus on high quality proteins, healthy fats an d lots of above-the-ground vegetables), avoiding harmful substances, and moving your body regularly.

Exercise is an excellent way to de-stress which is crucial in many ways. When your stress levels are high, changes in the levels of your circulating hormones tend to fluctuate which can directly affect your metabolism, nutritional balance, and even mental clarity. 

If you regularly consume alcohol, caffeine, and/or tobacco products, you might want to consider eating your meals/taking your supplements at least 4 hours from the time you indulge in your recreational activities. These specific elements tend to decrease the absorption of nutrients by stirring up temporary inflammation of the intestinal lining, negatively impacting digestive enzymes and more.

Keep in mind that while there are some lifestyle factors that can play a major role in nutrient absorption, it is not necessary to overhaul your entire life overnight! You can make subtle shifts in your daily routine to help encourage an overall healthy lifestyle and more positively impact your utilization of nutrition.

Experiment with taking an evening walk after work, getting outdoors more often or consuming foods like raspberries or asparagus which have been shown to reduce cortisol levels (that pesky stress hormone), and even make your skin glow.

Be mindful of how nutrients work together

While I will refrain from going into great detail about all of the amazingly healthy, whole foods you should be eating (there are so many), there are things you can do improve the way your body extracts nutrients from those nutritious goodies that you choose to add to your diet.

Strategically combining certain foods can actually influence how effectively your body is absorbing the nutrients.

Eating your vegetables, whether raw or cooked, with healthy fats like olive oil or avocado can enhance the absorption of the fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, E, and K. calcium absorption is dependent on these fat-soluble vitamins too, so adding fats to every meal is important for more than simply flavor! Awareness of how foods work together is a great way to streamline the digestive process and ensure you are efficiently and effectively getting what you need from the foods you are eating.

Check your gut health

There is little doubt that your gut health is the driving force when it comes to how your body absorbs nutrients. Your gut environment is home to 100 trillion bacteria (about three pounds worth) living within and comprising your intestinal tract. Although you might feel alarmed when you hear that you have such an immense number of bacteria living within you, the majority of it truly works on your behalf, keeping you healthy and happy and protecting you from less friendly organisms.

With more than 80% of the human immune system cells living within the GI tract, naturally-occurring gut microflora have a direct effect on your immune response and play an integral role in how you feel each day. While there is a huge amount yet to be discovered about the bacteria that reside in the gut, these bacteria are implicated in a variety of human functions from metabolic functioning to micronutrient synthesizing.  Mounting evidence suggests that gut microorganisms also play a crucial role in the harvest, storage and output of energy obtained from daily food consumption.

Your colon hosts about one billion bacteria per gram of stool. The majority of these bacteria are members of several helpful genera including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These bacteria help stimulate digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.

Unfortunately, these beneficial microbes are under daily attack from external forces including the overuse of antimicrobials and antibiotics, frequent consumption of processed and unhealthy foods, exposure to toxins in our environment and other lifestyle habits. While ensuring protection from microbial threats is important, many modern choices can wipe out the beneficial bacteria necessary for prolonged health and wellness.

Using a variety of fermented foods and supplementing with a high quality probiotic supplement can help populate the beneficial bacteria naturally found in the gut. This in turn supports digestive and immune health but also helping to ensure that your body is properly absorbing the nutrients it is extracting from your food.

Efficient nutrient absorption will maximize the impact of any vitamins, supplements and even medications. This often results in being able to decrease the dosage! Probiotics (in food or capsule form) are one of the best supplements you can take to make sure all of the other beneficial foods and supplements in your life are effective.

Your health scenario is unique and personal to you and your lifestyle. It is thus important to reflect on your overall picture, your needs, concerns and goals, and begin making improvements where you see fit. By limiting your stress levels, taking excellent care of your system, maintaining a diet filled with real, whole, unprocessed foods and supplementing with a high-quality probiotic, you can improve your nutrient absorption and set yourself up to achieve your optimal health and wellness.

Michal Ofer