More Than Just Fiber for Digestive Health

Foods, nutrients, and lifestyle habits are important factors that keep you and your digestive system healthy.

Here's a list of foods and nutrients and their role in the digestive system:

Getting Your Fill of Fiber

First and foremost, you need to consume 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day, says Lisa Schnepp, RD, Major Health Partners in Shelbyville, Indiana, affiliated with Indianapolis Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol and slow the absorption of sugar. Since it helps keep your full longer, it can help with weight-loss too. There are two kinds of fiber: Soluble fiber (oat bran, nuts, seeds) and insoluble fiber (wheat bran, whole grains, vegetables)-and your body needs both.

Other smart digestive do's:

  • Drink plenty of fluid
  • Chew food thoroughly
  • Eat slowly
  • Limit fatty foods
  • Consider smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day
  • When adding fiber to your diet, increase slowly and combine with adequate fluid

Other Nutrients You Need

While fiber gets all the attention for keeping the digestive system running smoothly, it's certainly not the only key to a healthy GI tract. When your digestive system is working optimally, it breaks down the food you eat into nutrients your body needs. But many digestive disorders can lead to deficiencies in several nutrients, says Schnepp. Below is a list of those nutrients: what they are, what they do, and where to find them:

1. Magnesium: Aids in the function of the nervous, muscular, and cardiovascular systems. Absorbed in the small intestine, this mineral is found in green vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Many antacids and laxatives contain magnesium, and when taken in excess, can lead to diarrhea.

2. Calcium: May protect against colorectal cancer, it's found in dairy, leafy greens, and fortified foods. Supplements can cause gas, bloating, and constipation—especially the carbonate form of calcium, says Schnepp.

3. Iron: The body uses iron to make hemoglobin. It's found in beef and eggs and plant-based foods such as bean and lentils. Inflammation of the small intestine can cause an iron deficiency.

4. Beta Carotene: This antioxidant helps maintain eye and skin health. It's found in broccoli, carrots, cantaloupe, and squash. A vitamin A deficiency increases risk of diarrhea.

5. Vitamin D: Found in fatty fish, milk, and sunlight. Those with fat malabsorption may need supplements. Vitamin D assists in the absorption of calcium and could have a role in the prevention of colon cancer.

6. B12: Those with stomach and small intestinal disorders (Crohn's disease) may be unable to absorb enough B12, found in fish, poultry, and meat, as well as fortified cereals. The vitamin is needed for the production of red blood cells.

7. B6: Helps break down protein, fats, and sugar, and maintains a healthy nervous system. Deficiency can be caused by malabsorptive disorders. Found in organ meat and fortified foods and cereals.

8. Probiotics: Bacteria that help maintain natural balance of micro flora in the intestine, it's found in yogurt with live, active cultures, and fermented dairy products. It prevents diarrhea, gas, and constipation; and can treat antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

9. Prebiotics: These non-digestible carbohydrates act as food for probiotics; found in whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey, and artichokes.

Before you increase intake in any of these nutrients, consult with your doctor. Many are ingested adequately through the foods we eat, eliminating the need for supplementation. Supplements may have side effects and be contraindicated for certain people. Only your doctor can determine if you are deficient in a vitamin or mineral.

Dr. Liesa Harte reviewed this article.



Lisa Schnepp, RD, Major Health Partners in Shelbyville, Indiana, affiliated with Indianapolis Gastroenterology and Hepatology.