Digestion!!!!!(!!!!!)

If I had to guess, I’d imagine that most people see a headline like “Digestion”, and gloss over it.  It’s not nearly as sexy as “5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your WOD”, or “Rich Froning Says “x” Helped His Workouts 1000%” or “From Zero to Muscle Up in 1 Hour”.  Be that as it may, I can almost guarantee that most people would benefit wayyy more from putting this article into practice than those articles.  Digestion is something we do everyday, and for the most part, I feel as though people have no idea how badly they’re screwing it up.  

As we go through our daily meals, most of us get our intake of nutrients through a variety of ways.  Some meals are prepared intentionally, eaten while sitting down and actually enjoyed. Some are thrown into a blender and chugged while running out the door late for work.  Most fall somewhere in the middle.  

As a whole, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve lost our respect for the rituals of food consumption.  In this day and age, where food is incredibly easy to come by, it’s become a “hassle” for most people to buy some meat and vegetables, prepare those products, and sit down to eat them in a relaxed fashion while recognizing that every bite is (ideally) a step in the direction of health and longevity.  

Instead, having someone else prepare your meals while you eat them in front of the tv or on the run is more the norm.  

Unfortunately, this is leaving out an enormous part of the digestive process.  

What most people don’t recognize, is that digestion starts in the kitchen. Preparing a meal, or being around the food being prepared if you’re not the chef in the family, allows you to see, smell and taste the food that you are about to ingest for a significant period of time before you do so.  These senses signal the body and digestive tract that, “hey, food’s coming, get ready!”  Why do you think your mouth waters when you even start to think about food?  That’s a reaction that happens throughout all of your digestive organs.  When you drive through your nearest fast food place, or grab something to go, you miss out on most of that process.  Sure, your mouth waters and you initiate a slight response while in the drive through window, but for the most part, you probably open up your meal and dive right in seconds after.

The second part of the process that gets screwed up is chewing.  Wait, what? Chewing? I know, put food in mouth, chew enough so you don’t choke to death, swallow, repeat as soon as you can, right?  No, not quite.  The mouth is much more than a garbage disposal mounted on your face meant to smash things up just enough to fit them down your throat hole.  The mouth serves a very important purpose of liquefying, lubricating and releasing digestive enzymes of it’s own before the food goes down.  If this doesn’t happen, and you’re just swallowing hunks of meat, it puts much more strain on the digestive system, and that food will to sit down there for much longer than it’s supposed to and possibly even ferment.  Mmmmmm, can you say/smell gas?  Chewing takes time, but it’s valuable.  I’ve heard the number 20-30 chews thrown around before, but a. that makes my OCD flare up (it has to be either even numbers or sets of 5), b. it really depends on the food, and c. counting your chews really takes some of the fun out of eating.  Instead, I recommend two things.  One, chew your food enough so it feels like it’s mostly liquid in your mouth.  Two, don’t drink water (or anything) with your meal.  Having to “wash down” your food means you didn’t chew it enough (or that you need a lot more practice in the kitchen).  Seriously, I know this sounds a little wacky, but do it, your body will thank you.

Third, have some respect for your meal.  If you’re eating anything of nutritious substance, something died for you to eat that.  Take your time and enjoy it. Sitting in front of the TV does not facilitate enjoyment.  This isn’t just some bullcrap about sentiment either.  This is so you’re paying attention to the process and you know when you’re full instead of a.  eating til your plate (not an effective serving size) is empty, or b. until your show is over.  

Now that we’ve got some basics out of the way, let’s talk about some ancillary topics of smoothie/shake digestion and post workout nutrition.  

You may be thinking, well, if I’m supposed to chew my food enough to be liquified, maybe I should just chuck everything in the blender and drink all my meals.  Unfortunately, no, that’s not a great idea.  This skips all of the things listed above, and doesn’t prepare your digestive system for any of the tasks it’s designed to do.  So, if you make a smoothie with a banana, some protein powder and some peanut butter, blend it all up and chug it down, the process of chewing a banana, chewing the peanut butter and chewing the protein that the powder is replacing has all been lost.  Your gut gets a straight shot of all of those things with no preparation.  In fact, there is some debate about whether or not your system sees these unchewed foods as intruders.  After all, they skipped past the bouncers at the door and jumped straight on the dance floor, ignoring the cover charge and dress code.  A good rule is that whole food is always better, and secondary, if you have to have your smoothie, it should be made up of stuff that you could imagine sitting down and eating.   4 Kale Stalks, 4 Celery Stems, 1 Cucumber, 1 Pear, ½” Ginger is not something you could comfortably eat, so it’s probably not a great idea to blend it up and slam it...

So where does that leave us in our post workout shakes?  Well, you can probably guess by now, but I’m going to tell you that you should make your post workout meal whole food and not something you can chug down in an instant.  This could probably be an entire article in itself, but I just want to touch on a few aspects of post workout nutrition.  One, yes, whole food is almost universally better.  Unless you are doing a very long event or multiple events throughout a day, eating a meal within an hour or so of your workout is ideal. But, what about my post workout window?!  Aren’t I supposed to jam as much protein and carbs to my starved muscles as possible as soon and as quickly as possible?  No, no you’re not.  Imagine for a second that you’ve just finished your hour session at CrossFit.  You’ve lifted some heavy weights, and you’ve done a pretty intense 12 minute workout involving running, burpees and pull-ups.  You finish up and walk out the door.  You’re probably still sweating, breathing hard and your heart rate is still elevated.  Now, your body, as smart as it is, has no idea whether or not you just had to lift a barbell off the ground 15 times, or you had to move a bunch of boulders to protect yourself from tigers, nor does it know that during that intense 12 minutes that you were just exercising and not escaping from a mob of angry pirates.  So during that session, your body allocates all of its resources to your respiratory system and your muscles so you can be as best prepared as possible to meet the demands.  In other words, all of your blood goes from the stuff that isn’t and won’t be used in this emergency to the things it needs.  This means that you need to wait until you are settled down from that exercise session to eat your post workout meal. What does settled down mean?  Well, I’ll give you an excellent clue.  Since your reproductive organs and responses also get shut down during this “fight or flight” response, if you couldn’t be ready for sex, you aren’t ready to eat.  

Now, how does that relate to the “I’m so busy that I literally have to eat on the run between “x” and “x” person.  Well, you probably can guess by now, but it’s not a great situation.  Once again, if you’re literally that busy, racing from meeting to meeting, or to pick the kids up after work, or _____, your body doesn’t know that it’s just another day in the life.  It is allocating resources away from the stomach so you can drive 90 miles an hour down the road and be hyper aware.  If would not be able to think about sex while you’re hauling ass around town, it’s probably not a good time to eat.

What’s your takeaway from all this?  If I had to sum it all up, it would be to make it a priority to slow down and be present in your relationship with food. Eating is a huge part of our lives.  Slowing down and being mindful of your decisions, preparation and consumption habits will make you leaner, stronger and healthier.  

Finally, I’ll conclude with the fact that you’ll need to take an inventory on all of the above to assess where your current habits stack up.  Then, you’ll need to make small changes to get you closer to optimal.  In other words, if you are currently eating on the run, shoveling food in your face, and having every meal out of a blender while racing from meeting to meeting, it’s unrealistic to think that you can just do everything I just suggested by next week.  Instead, start small and make at least one of your daily meals a home cooked full-on, sit down experience.  Or if that’s too much, get some takeout, sit down and chew.

Work on your relationship with good, nutritious food.