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Getting the Most from Our Food

By Greg Samples


Originally published in Everything Knoxville in June, 2014

We’re all familiar with the cliche that we are what we eat, but there’s a bit more to our makeup than that. It’s not enough just to consume the right nutrients and avoid injurious choices in order to be healthy. Our nourishment must be properly absorbed in a usable form to be beneficial.

Properly digested, food is absorbed through the villi of the small intestine and duodenum. However, improperly digested food can be absorbed into the body long before reaching the villi, and this can lead to a less than optimal quality of blood. The human digestive system has several divisions that perform different functions in the process, and how we consume our fare can be as important to our well-being as what we eat.

Digestion begins in the mouth where saliva, a slightly alkaline substance, begins the break down of carbohydrates. The lack of sufficient chewing when carbohydrates are consumed will result in insufficiently broken down complex carbohydrates entering the stomach, which can inhibit the effectiveness of gastric juices. In the case of simple carbohydrates such as sugar , alcohol, or fruit juice, the salty saliva will enable the sugar to be absorbed right through the mucous membranes in the mouth and therefore enter the bloodstream prematurely.

Alternating from the alkaline saliva, acidic pepsin and hydrochloric acid in the stomach begin the digestion of protein. Refined grains and breads can also be absorbed in the stomach, again short-circuiting the route to the intestinal villi. Continuing the alternating pattern, alkaline juices in the duodenum carry on the process with the breakdown of fats, and finally acidic measures in the small intestine complete the process. If proper digestion has taken place all along the way, nutrients enter the bloodstream in the most beneficial way.

The single most important factor is proper chewing. Thoroughly masticating all your food not only starts the process of breaking down carbohydrates, but also conditions the food to be in the proper balance for digestion in the stomach. An abundant amount of vegetables with the meal also provides a buffering mechanism for the breakdown of protein and fat. In the intestines, beneficial bacteria complete the breakdown for a smooth absorption through the villi.

There are things we can do to enhance this bacteria, and there are also things we do that impair it. Animal food tends to putrefy before passing through the intestines completely, and can be a detriment to the intestinal flora, therefore keeping animal foods to a minimum can be helpful. On the other hand, various types of fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut, natto, tempeh, and pickles can help maintain a healthy intestinal flora.

The importance of a healthy diet is common knowledge today. But how we eat our food can also determine who we are. You really are not what you eat, you are what you absorb.

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