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“My body can’t digest vegetables and some fruits… any suggestions?”

September 5th, 2012
stomach pain

Here is a good question from Kristy on our Facebook page…
“I want to try Paleo BUT my body can’t digest vegetables and some fruits… any suggestions?”

Hey Kristy… what you are describing is a very common issue for people when transitioning to a REAL food “paleo” type diet.  Most people throughout their lives have been consuming a Standard American Diet (SAD) loaded with lots of sugar, chemicals, toxic fats, gluten and improperly prepared nuts and seeds.  Not only are these foods low in nutrition and high in toxicity but the are also extremely low in fiber.  Food manufacturers will take out fiber because it will help extend shelf life.  So a lot of people don’t do well when they start eating foods that are rich in fiber like fruits and vegetables simply because their stomachs are not well adapted to real food.

As a consequence of eating a SAD diet for so long our stomachs have become compromised in many ways.

For one, we begin to lose the integrity of our intestinal lining which is a significant factor in our health and immune system.  If our gut barrier is not functioning properly then certain foreign invaders can enter into our blood stream and cause the body to think it’s under attack.  This is where auto immune issues can start to creep in.  It can also lead to general systemic inflammation which can be a host to all types of diseases.  Every month we are seeing more and more research showing that many of the “diseases of civilization” that we are experiencing such as diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, etc…can all be traced back to the gut.  So it’s a pretty big deal to make sure that your gut barrier is functioning properly.  It’s important to keep in mind that 30% of people with leaky gut problems and 40% of people with celiac disease won’t display digestive symptoms.  Pretty much anything from skin problems (rashes,acne), food sensitivities, migraines, anxiety and depression, joint pain, fatigue, headaches, etc…can all be traced back to the gut.  It’s kind of a big of deal!

Also, most people simply aren’t producing enough stomach acid to break down their food because for so long they have been consuming easily digested refined carbohydrates that don’t need a great deal of stomach acid.

Foods that are rich in fiber such as fruits and vegetables need the right amount of stomach acid and enzymes in order to break down food for proper absorption.  If someone isn’t producing enough stomach acid or developing the proper enzymes to break food down then it simply won’t agree with them.  They may experience anything from bloating, diarrhea, constipations, gas, stomach pains etc…it can be quite miserable.  But the problem is not the food, it’s how your body is relating to the food and how well the food is being absorbed.  If we can address those issues then we can get you back on track to better ways of eating which ultimately leads to better health.

There is a bit of trouble-shooting that goes on with everyone when making this transition and everyone is going to be different.  Here are some helpful tips that can help make this transition more comfortable for you and allow your body to better agree with vegetables and fruit.

Chew your food until its soup.  We are putting this first because it’s probably the most simple and effective way to producing enzymes but it’s also the most overlooked.  So many people are in a hurry and on the go with eating that they have created bad habits of swallowing their food before it’s been broken down.

Think of how food passes through your digestive system.  It first enters in the mouth to be chewed and broken down, then it’s swallow, then it goes to the stomach where stomach acid will help further breakdown the food, then it moves on to the intestines where it is either absorbed through the intestinal barrier and passed into the blood stream or it continues down the intestines to be discarded as waste.  It’s like a factory line where each stage has to be fully completed before next stage can begin.  If you are not chewing your food enough while it’s in your mouth and not breaking it down then it’s going to be a stress for the entire digestive system because it’s doing more than it’s designed for…kind of like a shock to the system.  It’s this stress that can be contributing to the symptoms you may be feeling.

So before we talk about anything else we suggest practicing chewing your food until its soup and see what effect this has on your digestion.   A good way to start is by chewing your food 30 times before you swallow.  Also chew slowly as this will give your mouth the time it needs to produce enough enzymes.  After a while it will become second nature to you.  Another tip is put down your fork after you have taken a bite and not pick it back up until you have completely swallowed the previous bite.  This is a simple yet effective way to eat more mindfully and aid digestion.  It’s not always about what you eat but rather how well you absorb it.

Consuming fermented foods and probiotics.  When making dietary changes to eating real food many people can experience diarrhea, constipation, cramping and bloating because the stomach is no longer feeding on the bad sugars and carbs that it’s been used to eating for so long.  This presents a significant shift in the gut bacteria that has been present in the intestinal lining.  Much of the food that we have been eating in a SAD is stripped of all the important bacteria once it goes through processing and refining.  This can cause a lot of problems to our health because our gut needs this bacteria in order to create a heathy digestive system.  We are actually more bacteria and germs than we are human as our bodies are home to over 100 trillion good bacteria.

To help bring back the good bacteria and probiotics we suggest regularly consuming fermented foods and if needed taking probiotics.  A good place to get fermented foods is Caldwell’s as you can order online and they offer a nice variety products.  It’s good to consume these foods regularly with meals to build up a supporting digestive system.  You can also make your own.  Supplementing with a good probiotic such as Saccharomyces boulardi would also be another option.

Supplementing with Betaine-HCL (hydrochloric acid).  Since most people simply aren’t producing enough stomach acid it’s often necessary to supplement with hydrochloric acid.  This pertains more to digesting protein and fat but it’s worth mentioning for general digestion.  We want to stress that HCL should only be taken with meals that contain protein and fat…but then again every meal should contain protein and fat as that should be the bulk of a healthy diet.  Keep thinking “protein, fat, and veggies!”

We are not going to go into detail here about how to best supplement with HCL and digestive enzymes as it’s a fairly lengthy topic.  If you want to learn more about stomach acid then we highly suggest the book Why Stomach Acid is Good for You by Jonathan Wright, MD.  He does an excellent job of breaking down the digestive process and the changes that take place at each step.

Eat fat with your vegetables…preferably butter. First off…everything is better with butter so by using it the veggies will taste better and you will eat more.   Butter will also help with digestion as it helps convert the beta-carotene from the vegetables into true vitamin A which will make them more easily absorbed.  If you are reactive to cow butter in anyway then another fat such as goat butter, palm oil, lard, ghee, or tallow would also work well.  Always get in the habit of having fat with your vegetables.

Asparagus with butter

Look out for foods you may be reacting to and find what foods work best for you.  Not everyone is going to thrive on the same diet with the same fruits and vegetables.  One person may thrive on spinach while another person may have a poor response to it.  The same can also be said for proteins and fats.  It’s important to investigate how food is making you feel by looking at your energy levels, mood, performance and any symptoms you may be having.  Sometimes it’s very helpful to keep a food log of what you have been eating and then also keep track of how you have been feeling during that time.  If you do notice a symptom or pattern showing up then you’ll want to look at what food you ate in the previous 3-4 days as that is the time it takes for food to pass through the system.  This is a very effective way to find out what foods you may be reacting to or not agreeing with.

Another way to see if you are not digesting food properly is to look at your stools and see if you find something that isn’t breaking down.  I know this can sound gross to a lot of people but you can learn a lot about your health and digestion from the quality of your stool.  If you find something in there that isn’t broken down then then that’s a clear sign that something isn’t right between you and that food.  You may want to try taking that food away for a week or so and see what happens to your symptoms.  If your symptoms go away and then by reintroducing that food the symptoms come back then that is a good indicator that your are reacting to that food and should take it out for a much longer period…anywhere from 3-6 months before reintroducing it again.  But always stay aware of how certain foods are making you feel.  There could be foods that are part of a real food diet that will just simply never work for you no matter what some book or diet program says.  It’s up to you to investigate this on your own.

Be aware of common foods that are problems for the digestive system.  Many people with digestion issues are highly reactive to the following foods:  nuts, fruit, peppers, eggs, and dairy.  If you are having digestive problems then we highly recommend taking these foods out for at least 4 days and then re-introducing to see what effect that has.  Over consumption of these foods could severely impair your ability to properly breakdown and absorb the vitamins and nutrients from other foods.  People with auto-immune issues should definitely take these foods out for at least 2 months as gut health is vital for auto-immune conditions.  Remember this is a template and a WAY of eating, it’s not a one size fits all but with the right tweaking, trial and error everyone can find their own optimal diet.

Make your own homemade bone broth!  This is one of our favorites…please follow this link to read an article we previously wrote that explains the health benefits of bone broth as well as how to make it.  Homemade broth can really help support healing the gut and restore proper digestive function.

Keep stress levels low.  Too many people are overworked, not sleeping, not enjoying life, and just generally not happy.  Our bodies and minds always seem to be on the go with no time for rest and relaxation.  Stress has been strongly associated with inflammation and a leaky guy, both of which can make digestion a serious problem.  If the body is in a chronically stressed state then blood will move away from the digestive system and towards the limbs in preparation for “fight or flight.”  This is the sympathetic nervous system.  We can aid digestion by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (chilling out) which will bring blood back to the stomach.

nature walks

Take time to just “be”….Taking walks in nature, spending time in silence, gentle yoga and mediation can also be very helpful in managing stress levels.  Everyone is different so you have to find something that works for you.

I hope that helps.  A big take away here is don’t let your previous experiences with fruits and vegetables prevent you from exploring a real food paleo type diet.  This way of eating will sometimes expose hidden digestive issues which if not addressed can lead to very serious diseases.  Take your time with this transition, be patient and keep looking for ways to tweak it in your favor.  Once you make this work for you it becomes a very easy lifestyle and you’ll feel amazing!

by Chad Walding, DPT
Photo ofChad Walding
Chad Walding
Job Title
Doctor of Physical Therapy
The Paleo Secret

10 Responses

  1. precious says:

    hi!, thanks a lot! ive been having problems digesting vegetables, now I know what to do thanks again!.

  2. So glad I found your post! I started struggling with digestion after having my daughter 4 1/2 yrs ago. It’s been a frustrating process of trying to eat healthy only to have major stomach issues and give up, then gain weight and get frustrated and try to eat healthy again etc. I didn’t have these issues before having my daughter. Your post is encouraging though because I feel like there is hope to be able to eat healthy again without all the problems. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Monty Kahn says:

    Hi, I am an American immigrant from India. I grew up eating home grown vegetables. I also ate a lot of meat, especially chicken. I can digest most vegetables, but I can’t digest the leafy ones. I tried pro-biotics, but they didn’t help.I use to eat yougurt for digestive issues when I was in India, but yougurt in USA doesn’t taste the same, nor I feel like eating it. Would you recommend any remedy or specific brand of pro-biotic that have worked for many people.

    Thank you,

  4. Terrie says:

    For the last 20 years I have been unable to digest any raw produce, with the exception of pineapple. I used to eat salads, fruits and smoothies with no issue, then I gradually became intolerant to the point of throwing up from the smallest piece. What are your suggestions?

  5. Martha says:

    What is the difference between Probiotics and Prebiotics ?

  6. Jennifer J Clark says:

    Ok, I was hoping to find some answers here. I really didn’t. Even my doctor seems to have no answers. I also can’t seem to find any online

    First of all, I have no bloating, diarrhea, constipations, gas, stomach pains etc. None at all, regular soft movements. My only problem is that if I eat a salad, my bowel movement is literally that same salad. I can see the bite marks. Like, I refuse to eat Kale simply because of how weird it feels coming out. I incorporate fruits and vegetables daily. Eat fairly healthy. I also eat activia daily, and take 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar with the mother. Been doing both for well over 2 months. No change.

    My doctor too suggested I chew the roughage to soup. So I eat an apple, chew it to death. The next day, my bowel movement is literally applesauce. Or looks like a jar of Gerber peas for babies.

    My only concern here is, my body is not digesting these. Hence I am getting no vitamins or minerals from them. I honestly doubt I’m getting many calories from them. Chewing them to death does no good if my body is not digesting them. All chewing them does is help hide the fact that my body is not digesting them, because the mush is easily hidden in any regular bowel movement I have from eating meat or starches that day along with the veggies.

    Odd, my body has no problem digesting potatoes, tomatoes, rice, and a few other plants

    I ask for your help. I am under a doctors care. I’m just hoping you might be able to give me something else to suggest to him. I’ve been this way at least like, 20 adult years. Maybe my childhood too, I don’t remember.

    But one more thing. My father had the same problem. So that at least hints at a genetic connection. Especially considering that I can not find a single other person on Google with this infliction. Tons that get bloating and gas. But none with no symptoms except unprocessed roughage.

    Roughage is the worst, but even some well cooked foods get treated… Like corn. Especially carrots and Brussels sprouts and greens of any sort. Even canned spinach looks just like canned spinach.

    Once again any help is appreciated.

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