If you’re like most people, your impression of your diet is probably rooted in glances at nutritional labels or the food on your plate. But tallying serving sizes and sodium counts can be a headache. And when something looks and smells so good, our senses have a way of masking the truth that lies underneath. Even foods that are seemingly healthy can be deceiving based on the way they are processed, prepared or served.
But there is another lens to look through that can provide a more objective overview of your diet: Your digestive system. In other words, what’s happening inside your body can be a direct result of what’s going into your body.
What you feel in your stomach, your schedule of bowel movements and yes, even what those bowel movements look like, can serve as an accurate indication of your diet and your body’s reaction to it. Below is a guide to what your digestive system is saying about the way you eat.
If you experience stomach pain or discomfort at least three times per month for several months, you may be among the 10-15 percent of people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS symptoms can also include diarrhea, bloating and stools that are inconsistent in texture.
The causes of IBS are not specifically known but treating it generally includes eating a diet full of low-fat and high-fiber meals and avoiding “trigger” foods such as dairy, alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and gas-producing foods.
If you’re experiencing a lack of bowel movements and a difficulty passing stools, your diet may be low in fiber. Fiber helps move stools through the digestive tract and a lack of fiber can slow down the process and allow the large intestine to absorb too much water (which is why you might also feel bloated).
To get more fiber, inject your diet with a boost of split peas, lentils, black or lima beans, artichokes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, whole wheat pasta and oatmeal. It’s recommended that adult men consume 38 grams of fiber every day while women should consume 25.
Loose Bowel Movements
There’s the occasional bout of diarrhea and then there’s consistently experiencing loose bowel movements. The latter may suggest celiac disease, which is the inability to process gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
Celiac disease only affects about one percent of the U.S. population but more than 80 percent of people who have it are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with something else. And one of the only indicators of a presence of celiac disease is with a person’s stools. When a person has celiac disease, any gluten that is consumed will destroy the tiny fingerlike protrusions that line the small intestine. These protrusions are called villi and if they are damaged, it will make it difficult to absorb the nutrients from food. This lack of nutrients then contributes to producing loose stools.
If you consistently produce loose stools, talk to your doctor about being screened for celiac disease. You may also try switching to a gluten-free diet and see if you notice a change in your bowel movements.
If your stools float instead of sink, there may be an excessive amount of gas in your digestive tract. A diet rich in beans, sprouts and cabbage can produce a lot of gas and cause stools to float.
Typically, floating stools are not a cause for concern. But in some cases it could signal an inability to absorb the proper fats from food and stem from inflammation or an infection in your pancreas. The lining of your intestines could be damaged and you could be prevented from producing enough digestive enzymes.
Talk to your doctor about administering a stool sample test to see if you may have an unknown food allergy or if there’s fat in your stools that shouldn’t be there.
If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, bloating and gas, you may be lactose intolerant. There are varying levels of lactose intolerance and many people are unaware that they have any intolerance at all. Being lactose intolerant means having difficulty digesting lactose, which is a sugar found in milk, cheese, ice cream and other dairy products.
Try eliminating dairy products from your diet to see if it makes a difference in your digestive system or talk to your doctor about a lactose intolerance test.
Stomach pain and diarrhea can also be attributed to chewing too much sugarless gum. Sugarless gum contains an ingredient called sorbitol, which cannot be absorbed by your digestive tract and therefore proceeds right to the colon to produce gas and fluids.
Acid Reflux and Heartburn
Acid reflux happens when stomach acid gets backed up into the esophagus. The result is a burning sensation in the lower chest known as heartburn. There are several foods that can cause acid reflux and heartburn so if you are experiencing such pain, consider any recent intake of:
- Fried food
- High-fat dairy products
- High-fat meats
- Spicy food
- Tomatoes or pasta sauce
- Salt and pepper
- Sugary candy
If you consistently experience heartburn and regularly consume one or more of the above foods, there may be a correlation between your diet and your acid reflux. You may also have GERD, or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, which is a chronic form of acid reflux that affects about 20 percent of Americans.
If you notice bright red blood in your stools, it could be a sign of hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids are an inflammation of the blood vessels in your digestive tract that affects nearly three out of every four American adults. A lack of fiber and water in your diet is often to blame for hemorrhoids.
Nutritional labels and portion sizes can give you an idea of what you’re putting into your body. But paying close attention to your digestive system can help you understand how you’re reacting to those foods and allow you to be more in touch with your body and its needs. Listen to your body — it may be trying to tell you something that a label can’t.