By Reyna Eisenstark
One Saturday morning not long ago, I was eating a toasted sesame bagel with butter and a big mug of coffee, when suddenly it occurred to me that maybe I was doing everything all wrong. This was the sort of ordinary breakfast that everyone used to eat, but now the idea of bagels (gluten!) and coffee (caffeine!) leaves me with a panicky feeling.
Fact: One out of five Americans has some sort of gastrointestinal or digestive problem. Even if you don’t fall into this category, you probably worry a lot about what you eat and how it affects your health. It’s hard for me to pick up a slice of bread (whole-grain or not) without the nagging thought that the human body is incapable of processing gluten. And there are plenty more thoughts swirling in my head: Should I be going on a juice fast? Can chocolate be both wonderful and terrible? Is kale pretty much the only food I should ever eat?
So you can imagine how thrilling it was for me to talk to Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, LDN, leading educator and practitioner in the field of integrative nutrition. Of course, the first thing I wanted to talk about was that high percentage of gastrointestinal (GI) problems—one out of five seems like an awful lot.
According to Kathie, we can trace all of our GI issues back to birth. The minute a baby is born, bacteria from the mother and the surrounding environment begin to form inside the baby’s gut. It’s this microflora that aids digestion and builds our immune system throughout our lives. But Kathie explains that, with the rise of Caesarean sections and the decrease in breastfeeding, humans no longer get the same amount of exposure to their mother’s beneficial bacteria. As Americans get older, things like chronic stress, sleep deprivation, increased use of antibiotics, and the excess amounts of processed food in the average Western diet all take their toll on our bodies, leading to a perfect storm of digestive troubles.
For most people, medicating digestive problems is not the answer, Kathie says. It makes the most sense, she says, to look at the root causes of these troubles and then come up with strategies that can repair and rebalance our digestive health.
Do you want to know (as I did) the one thing you could be doing that might solve all your digestive problems and concerns? The most basic principle of digestive health? Kathie says the answer lies in just two words: mindful eating. Or, put another way, listening to your gut. “I think of that as a starting point,” she explains. “I always start with mindfulness. Whether you’re looking at what you eat, or when, or where, it has to begin with how.”
Kathie believes that mindful practices are critical to healing any health condition. In order to treat a digestive problem, she looks for clues, including family history, and then explores various dietary options for creating healthy change. Her holistic approach comes from personal experience: She addressed an autoimmune condition by changing her diet, and eventually found her way back to health.
As a way to explain what people should eat for optimum digestive health, Kathie created what she calls “a Kripalu plate.” Not surprisingly, most of the food on this plate comes from plants: vegetables, starchy vegetables, nuts and seeds, oils. There’s also a place for protein and whole grains. During her programs on digestive health, she uses the plate to teach.
“People are so tied up in fear and stress around food,” Kathie says. “If we can be more mindful, it creates a different internal environment, and can help us gain more from the digestion and absorption of our food.”
Reyna Eisenstark is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. She writes about paying attention, in all areas of life, in her blog, Collected Stories.