When it comes to food for digestive issues, I see a lot of recommendations for what not to eat. While certain foods might be easier on the digestive tract than others, there are also preparation methods that can make foods easier to digest.
Foods like animal meats, beans, whole grains, and vegetables can be bothersome for some people who are struggling with compromised digestive function. Before eliminating them completely, try using some specific preparation methods to increase digestibility.
5 Food Preparation Methods That Can Improve Digestion
1. Soaking (with Baking Soda or Kombu)
Soaking whole grains, beans, and lentils can make them easier to digest. These foods have compounds often considered "anti-nutrients" (a protective mechanism on the surface of the plant) including lectins and phytic acid. When consumed in their active form, lectins and phytic acid can impact digestion, nutrient absorption, and deplete the body of important minerals.
Soaking whole grains, beans and lentils can also decrease their oligosaccharide content, a fermentable fiber which can contribute to gas production during the digestive process. (Ever hear that song, "beans beans the magical fruit...")
Adding kombu or baking soda to your beans, legumes or grains while soaking them can aid in the breakdown process of these gas-producing carbohydrates so they contain less by the time you eat them.
It's recommended to soak your beans, grains and legumes for at least 8 hours, or as long as 24 before cooking. All those lectins are pulled into the soaking water so make sure you drain the soaking water, rinse well, and use fresh water for cooking. Ideally, if you soak longer than 8 hours, try to change the soaking water once or twice.
Sprouting beans, grains and legumes can also help to break down anti-nutrients like phytic acid and lectins, which can impact digestion and nutrient absorption. Sprouting these foods renders them "live," so they contain enzymes that can make them a lesser burden on digestion.
Sprouting these foods also greatly increases their nutrient density — this method has been shown to increase vitamin and mineral contents, as well as protein content. Vitamins, minerals, and protein can all be bound by lectins and phytates so sprouting them makes the nutrients more accessible.
Check out this article for a step-by-step guide to sprouting.
For beans and lentils, you can sprout them for a day or two, so only a tiny tail forms, and then cook them. This is the processing method that will make them easiest to digest, so it's what I recommend if you're really struggling to digest legumes.
3. Pressure Cooking
Pressure cookers use pressurized steam as a means of cooking foods within a shorter period of time compared to boiling. Because pressure cookers use a gasket to seal the vessel, pressure builds up inside and the process cooks foods at much higher temperatures.
Similar to soaking and sprouting, pressure cooking is a great way to help reduce the fermentable sugars in beans, legumes, and grains, as well as reduce anti-nutrients, that can make these foods easier to digest and process.
My favourite brand of pressure cooker is the Instant Pot and this is a great tool to have on-hand if you're going to cook your own beans from dried. It's also great for making bone broth (in less time than stovetop methods) and soups/stews.
4. Marinating Meat in Acid
Proteins (especially animal-based proteins), require more stomach acid to help the digestive process. Stomach acid also activates the inactive pepsinogen into the active pepsin, an enzyme that starts the breakdown process of proteins in the stomach.
Marinating meats in an acid (like lemon juice or vinegar) can start to denature the long proteins found in muscle meat. Preparing meat in this way almost starts the "digestive" process before it even reaches your plate, never mind your mouth.
This is a great trick for anyone struggling with low stomach acid or who has a hard time digesting animal proteins. Simply adding a tablespoon of vinegar to a marinate or letting the meat sit in some fresh herbs and lemon juice will support digestion and make your food taste better.
If you have ever enjoyed ceviche, this is the same idea. The acid in the marinate actually breaks down the proteins in the meat, making it easier to digest. This will not kill all food-based pathogens, though.
5. Cooked vs. Raw Foods
One simple way to make foods easier on the digestive tract is to cook them. When it comes to plant foods, cooking them helps to begin the break-down process of their indigestible carbohydrates. It also helps to denature the anti-nutrients all plants will naturally contain. If you find that eating a large salad full of raw leafy greens and veggies or drinking a smoothie is hard on your digestion, you might do better with more cooked food.
Raw plant foods are wonderful to incorporate into your daily nutrition, as they contain live enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. While cooking does reduce some of these, other nutrients actually become more bioavailable though roasting, blanching, sautéing, broiling, simmering, or pressure cooking. Braising and slow cooking meats can help to break down the long proteins, which like mentioned above, can aid in the digestive process of these protein-packed foods.
Most cooking methods make foods easier on the digestive tract so I recommend having less than 1/3 of your plate raw until your digestion is stronger.
For more information on how to improve and optimize digestion, grab my free Beginners Guide to Gut Healing (it's jam-packed with tips on how to heal and improve your gut!).