Sean McCawley

Sean McCawley 

The food we choose in our daily diet is a critical component to maintaining a healthy weight, staving off diseases, and optimizing the growth of lean muscle and bone strength.

A diet made up of more plant-like foods will offer significant benefits to the functions of the body. Plant-based foods improve the immune system to fend off infections and common illnesses that cause detrimental effects to our well-being.

Choosing lean sources of protein that come from their most raw, denatured state will give the body an easier chance to facilitate these foods as protein for the lean muscles and connective tissue in the body to ensure a strong foundation against injuries.

Working in unison with choosing healthier food options, abstaining from processed, packaged, fat and alcohol-filled foods will support the body to not only perform efficiently, but also avoid life-threatening diseases like arteriosclerosis, arthritis and diabetes.

Practicing a balanced diet is a well-known tradition. However, we forget about a critical facet that make a balanced diet work on all cylinders, the process of digesting your food.

Food we eat is metabolized when it enters our gastrointestinal tract. As the food travels through and stomach, small intestine and large intestine, the food is broken down into simple forms of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and other essential nutrients.

These substrates are transported through the body to give us energy and support our organs and connective tissue. Each food has unique chemical properties that makes that body store fat, rebuild muscle, or support the immune system.

Food also has a unique physical structure that varies between what type of food it is. Meats, veggies, fruits and nuts all have different textures and weights that make them break down differently when traveling through the digestive system. When these foods are consumed in 5-7 small portion sizes throughout the day, food can be easily digested and metabolized.

However, what happens when we eat too much food in one sitting?

If we look at the digestive tract of our small intestine and large intestine, it spans about 25 feet in length. Most research shows complete digestion of a piece of food takes about two to three days to travel through the 25-foot distance.

Now let’s compare the portion size that we eat with the amount of time it takes for a specific food product to travel through the intricate pipe system in our body to allow food to enter the intestine, metabolize the food, and then pass through the other end.

For example, compare sand passing through a funnel. With slow, efficient distribution of sand in the funnel, sand should easily pass through the other side.

However, what happens if we were to put too much sand into the funnel? The funnel would drain a little slower. Additionally, sand would collect at the top of the funnel.

Take this one step further and put thicker grains of sand, or even small pebbles, into the funnel. Now there is a possibility of clogging the funneling system and leaving product at the top of the funnel. Things won’t move very fast.

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The same thing happens to our gastrointestinal tract if we consume too much food in one sitting.

In addition, just like the example of the larger grains of sand that are harder to pass through the other end of the funnel, the structure of the food we consume can slow down our digestion as well.

However, it’s a worse for humans when food sits too long at the beginning of the GI tract and doesn’t metabolize. The excess food has nowhere to go because of other food in the way, which means that food skips the metabolizing process of supplying the body with much needed nutrients and gets stored as fat. As food gets caught in this limbo phase of not being digested, nutrients and substrates cannot be processed as efficiently in the small intestine.

We can help alleviate symptoms of slow digestion by becoming aware that food takes a full three days to metabolize and pass through the GI tract. A steady rate of eating will ensure the digestive tract to allow food to pass through efficiently like a well operated conveyor belt. Conveyor belts must operate not too fast, and not too slow. Boxes that go on the conveyor belt can’t block boxes behind them that need to find their destination.

Just like boxes on conveyor belts, our portion size can’t be too big. We coach our personal training clients in Napa to gauge a proper portion size by measuring 1 handful of a protein source and 1 handful of a carbohydrate source in each meal. Eating more than this amount can cause a backup in the system.

Balanced diets can be applied to ensuring efficient digestion. Make sure not to tip the scales when consuming quantities of food. You can reference how big a proper portion size can be by imagining how much food you can fit in the palm of your hand. In addition, be mindful of what foods you have consumed in the last three days. Even though you may be eating a healthy meal, you might still have some other foods waiting in line to be metabolized.

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Sean McCawley, the founder and owner of Napa Tenacious Fitness in Napa, CA, welcomes questions and comments. Reach him at 707-287-2727, napatenacious@gmail.com or visit the website napatenaciousfitness.com.