Digestion System: The 9 Biggest Myths Of Digestion, Debunked

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By Madeline Vann, MPH; Medically reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD

There’s a reason why we call those intuitive leaps of knowledge that seem to come out of nowhere “gut feelings.” In fact, there’s a strong link between our guts and our emotions. And when it comes to what we think we know about our digestive system and its workings, some beliefs are tough to shake, says gastroenterologist Peter L. Moses, MD, professor in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington. While learning digestive facts may mean letting go of some cherished habits, think of it this way: You could be replacing digestive myths with tips that will help you feel better. But you better brace yourself: “This is a very passionate area,” warns Dr. Moses. “People are very gut-centric.” Here we go!

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Digestion Myth No. 1: Cooked Food Is Easier to Digest
Here’s a myth sure to drive raw foods advocates crazy. “Digestion is the process of breaking down macro-molecules into micro-molecules and being able to gain access to nutritional value, caloric content, vitamins, and minerals,” says Moses. Digestion fact: Your digestive tract is a master at this, whether you supply it with food that’s raw or cooked. Cooking sometimes grants easier access to nutrients, but overcooking can destroy some, too. Your best digestion tip is to learn about the food you want to cook, and follow the recommended cooking methods and times to preserve nutrients.

Digestion Myth No. 2: The More Fibre, The Better
Experts recommend getting 25 grams of fibre a day, but do you need to go above and beyond when many can’t even reach that goal? No! That’s plenty, says Moses. What’s more, if you have a digestive condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you should pay attention to the type of fibre you’re eating. Research on 275 patients with IBS published in the British Medical Journal showed that having soluble fibre, like psyllium, instead of insoluble fibre, like bran, translated to fewer IBS symptoms.

Digestion Myth No. 3: Drink Plenty of Water With Meals
As long as you stay well hydrated throughout the day, there’s no need to drag your water bottle to dinner for digestion help. In fact, says Moses, if you have reflux, you might find that cutting back on the beverages at mealtime improves your symptoms. For others, particularly if you’re dieting, drinking a glassful before eating might cut down on calorie consumption. So, pick the strategy that works for you, and ignore this digestive myth.

Digestion Myth No. 4: Stress Causes Ulcers
Think that if you could only manage your stress, that ulcerous burn would stop setting you tummy on fire? Well, you can relax — at least about the source of the ulcer. Digestion fact: The cause is more likely to be Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that’s had a millennia-long relationship with the human species. You’re certainly not alone if you have an infestation of this bug, since about half the people on the planet do. It is a leading cause of ulcers as well as certain cancers. But, good news: H. pylori can be treated with antibiotics.

Digestion Myth No. 5: Colon Cleanses Detox Your Gut
Ah, the power of advertising! Whether your best friend or the infomercial that sucked you in last night swears you’ll feel lighter and healthier for it, don’t believe it. The digestion fact is your body does a fine job on its own. “Nobody has 14 pounds of meat adhered to the wall of their colon,” says Moses, referring to one popular radio ad for a colon-cleanse product. “It’s simply not true.” Here’s a digestion tip in case you’re still tempted: Check with your doctor before trying any cleanse to avoid unwanted consequences, such as dehydration.

Digestion Myth No. 6: Meat Stays in Your Stomach Longer Than Vegetables
Intuition suggests that this must be a digestion fact. After all, meat just feels heavier and fattier than veggies, right? But while it’s true that fat can slow the digestive process (this is why high-fat meals can trigger a bout of acid reflux), meat and vegetables take about the same amount of time to get through your digestive tract. However, if you have certain digestive problems or food allergies, you may find that specific foods trigger symptoms; avoiding them is an easy to follow digestion tip.

Digestion Myth No. 7: Always Go to Bed on an Empty Stomach
Following this digestion tip to control weight is fine, but weight management has more to do with how many calories you eat during the day than when you eat them. Snacking when you wake up hungry counts, too! But for people with acid reflux looking for digestion help, it actually is a good idea to stop eating two to three hours before bedtime, just to cut down on symptoms. And in case you were wondering, here’s another digestion fact: Eating before bed does not cause nightmares, says Moses.

Digestion Myth No. 8: Pile on the Probiotics
Do you lap up yogurts labeled “live and active cultures” because you heard it was a good digestive tip? Research into probiotics — “good” bacteria that muscle out bad bacteria — is actually in its early days. Think of probiotics as a big category term, like “medication.” It seems that certain strains of bacteria may help with certain conditions, but it’s not true that just any probiotics will do. The probiotics included in grocery store yogurt are good for the tummy, but get the right digestion facts: Look for labels that list the individual strains known to help, such as L. acidophilus.

Digestion Myth No. 9: Nuts Cause Diverticulitis Diverticulitis is a condition in which pockets in the intestine become inflamed and irritated. Traditionally, people have been told to avoid nuts, corn, seeds, and popcorn if they have this condition. But researchers who looked at health records of more than 47,000 men found no connection between these foods and diverticulitis. As a matter of digestive fact, fibre- and nutrient-rich nuts and seeds are healthy elements in most diets — and popcorn is actually a whole grain. The culprit in diverticulitis? A low fibre diet is a more likely the cause, says Moses.

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