By Jason Patmore on 16 May 2017
Are you absorbing all the nutrients you're eating? Find out how to maximise the benefits of your food.
Shopping basket: sorted. Cooking: on point. Now you just need to make sure you’re absorbing what your food’s got to offer. Read on, and take it all in.
Now that everyone’s on the same page with eating their protein and vitamins, the big word among those in the nutritional know is bioavailability. In pharmacology it’s a term that relates to things like “systemic circulation” and “first-pass metabolism”… but in nutrition it’s just about how much of the good stuff you eat actually gets used by your body.
A lot of my clients want to take crazy supplements, but they’re not even digesting what they eat. Stop worrying about the bro-science stuff, and get your food and body in order so you can assimilate your main meals. Here’s how to get it done.
What’s the simplest thing I can do? Improve your intestinal fortitude
Over time, if you’re too stressed, or eating or drinking the wrong things, your intestinal lining degrades. The surface shouldn’t be flat – it should look like shag carpet. If it’s like regular carpet, you have a problem. Since you’re unlikely to self-fund a gastrointestinal endoscopy, the simplest thing to do is cut down on booze and stress. Limit drinking alcohol to two or three days a week – it gives your gut a chance to recover – and do a “life audit” to identify key areas that are stressing you out.
Is it better to eat food raw? Sometimes
Some foods lose nutrient content as they’re cooked. Heat breaks down vitamins C and B, and because they’re water-soluble you’ll lose more through boiling – so if you’re cooking broccoli, kale or sprouts, it’s best to steam or sauté them rather than boiling.
Other foods, though, deliver more nutrients when they’re cooked: lycopene in tomatoes, for instance, which has a protective effect against prostate cancer, becomes more bioavailable when cooked. Similarly, carrots and sweet potatoes release more betacarotene in cooking, while heat makes proteins in meat easier to digest.
General rule: if it’s green, keep the cooking to a minimum. And reheat – occasionally. Boil your potatoes and let them cool down, then reheat them and eat them. A good portion of the starch in them will convert to resistant starch, which your gut bacteria thrives on.
Is local better? Yes, if you’re eating it straight away
As soon as your food’s picked, plucked, whatever, it’s separated from its nutrient source and loses nutrient value. That’s why hitting your local farm can make sure you’re getting the most nutrient-dense product possible. Otherwise, freezing locks in nutrients, so if you’re stocking up, go frozen.
How should I store my food? Carefully
Heat, light and oxygen degrade nutrients, so keep berries and vegetables – except for the root kind, like spuds and parsnips – in the fridge. Fruits, including tomatoes and avocados, should be kept at room temperature and out of the light, with a caveat. Ultimately, you won’t get anything from the stuff you bin, so if it helps you snack healthy, keep fruits on display. And don’t consign all your greens to a windowless crisper drawer – studies say you’ll forget to eat it.
Does it matter what I eat with what? Yes
Pairing certain foods – which some scientists suggest is an evolved behaviour with beneficial effects to different cultures – means you’ll absorb more nutrients than you would if you ate them alone. Eat foods containing the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K with olive oil, avocado, coconut oil or butter to ensure you’re getting the biggest nutrient bang for your buck. And non-meat sources of iron like spinach contain what’s known as the “non-heme” variety, which is better absorbed alongside vitamin C, so serve them with a squirt of lemon juice.