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The Food Lover’s Guide to Healthy Digestion

It’s normal for food lovers to give in to cravings when they’re spoilt for choice. However, excessive indulgence can lead to life-threatening health problems.

Nasi lemak, briyani, roti canai and a hot and cold beverage displayed on a wooden table

As a multicultural nation, Malaysians share a love for food. And as food lovers, we sometimes overindulge in our cravings for staples like nasi lemak, briyani, laksa, roti canai or telur, and Ramly burgers.     

These dishes are just a few national favourites that pack a flavourful punch. However, they’re also heavy on fat and calorie content. Coupled with physical inactivity (25.1% amongst the Malaysian population), it comes as no surprise that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are a primary cause of mortality in the country.  

On the contrary, healthy eating has been associated with a stronger immune system, lower risk of NCDs, and an increase in lifespan.

Here are a few tips on improving your digestive health if you’re a food lover.

Woman with hat closing her eyes while using a blotting paper to wipe sweat off her forehead
Malaysia’s hot and humid weather can impair Spleen function.

Steps Food Lovers Can Take to Keep the Digestive System Healthy 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Spleen organ system can influence a person’s body constitution.

Eu Yan Sang Physician Sam Ng Teck Xian explains, “The main function of the Spleen is to absorb nutrients from food eaten. This is converted into blood, qi (vital life force), and body fluids, which will be transported throughout the body. If the Spleen and Stomach are weak, malnutrition will occur.” 

The former also serves as the foundation of a strong immune system. “If the immune system is the military, the Spleen is the training base. Hence, the strength of a regiment will depend on the base’s training,” Physician Sam quips. 

A few factors that may weaken the organ system are: 

  • Overeating
  • Irregular mealtimes 
  • A humid environment 
  • Deficiency due to genetics 
  • Stress or negative emotions 
  • Excessive consumption of harsh or hard-to-digest foods 

Avoid overeating

Uncontrolled eating will see your stomach expand beyond its normal size to accommodate the food consumed. The stomach pushes against other organs and cause you to feel tired, sluggish, or drowsy.

Hydrochloric acid – produced by the stomach to break down food – will back up into the oesophagus, provoking heartburn. Your metabolism will increase temporarily as it burns off the excess calories. Consequently, you may feel hot, sweaty, or dizzy.

TCM believes that overeating can impair Spleen function. It overburdens the organ system, triggering an excessive production of body fluids. These fluids can cause Dampness onset and turn into phlegm, resulting in symptoms of Phlegm-Dampness.

A few of the symptoms that you may experience due to Phlegm-Dampness are:

  • Bloating
  • Snoring
  • Strong body odour
  • Excess sweat or mucus
  • Feeling as if your bowels aren’t fully emptied

Avoid foods that provoke digestive disorders 

Limit your consumption of spicy dishes or dishes prepared with garlic or onions, as they can trigger heartburn. Be mindful that tomatoes, citrus fruits, salad dressings and carbonated beverages may also aggravate the problem.

Flatulence and diarrhoea are indicative of lactose intolerance. Refrain from consuming dairy products if you notice yourself having these symptoms after drinking milk or eating cheese, yoghurt or milk-based chocolate. 

Add more fibre to your diet 

Getting enough of the nutrient aids digestion and prevents constipation. Your intake of fibre can come from sources like brown rice, beans, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. Aim for a minimum of 30 grams (g) daily.

Plant-based foods may also contain disease-fighting chemicals. 

Take a traditional approach to food consumption 

Adding certain dishes or herbal ingredients to your diet can help improve the health of your digestive system. Si Shen Tang (四神汤) and Liu Wei Tang (六味汤) strengthen the Spleen and improve appetite. Likewise, a pill derived from multiple herbal ingredients can help fortify the Spleen while replenishing qi and relieving bloating and diarrhoea.

Millet rice (xiao mi, 小米) and Chinese yam (shan yao, 山药) can improve digestion. The former has the added ability to nourish Qi and Blood Deficiencies. Essence of chicken can be consumed daily to encourage better digestion in people recovering from illness. It can also increase the appetite of the elderly.

A multi-grain meal that comprises various ingredients may nourish the stomach and strengthen your Spleen and body. These ingredients include:

  • Millet rice
  • Chinese yam
  • Ginseng (ren shen, 人参)
  • Poria (fu ling, 茯苓)
  • Jujubes (da zao, 大枣)
  • Fox nuts (qian shi, 芡实)
  • Lotus seeds (lian zi, 莲子)

Switch to healthier cooking methods 

The process of frying decreases the levels of vitamins and antioxidants of food and in turn, the nutrients absorbed by the body. It’ll also involve the production of acrylamide – a type of chemical substance produced during high-temperature cooking – and trans fatty acids.

Boil, braise, grill, poach or steam foods instead. It’s necessary to understand that changes to nutritional value will still happen when food is cooked. It can be attributed to a high temperature, which typically affects unstable vitamins like vitamin C, B1 (thiamine), and B9 (folic acid). To minimise nutrient loss, choose a suitable cooking method for each food type, reuse cooking liquids from poultry, meat, and vegetables, and reduce cooking time. 

Feel free to be a guilt-free food lover if you can maintain your digestive system’s health. Physician Sam cautions, “It’s advisable to speak to a licensed TCM practitioner before consuming herbal dishes or ingredients. A weak Spleen and stomach won’t be able to absorb the medicinal effects of these remedies. Hence, a TCM practitioner may suggest other options to strengthen them.”

References

  1. Frontiers in Public Health. 2020. Physical Activity Promotion in Malaysia: Challenges and Opportunities. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benefits of Healthy Eating. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  3. National Health Service. Good foods to help your digestion. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  4. Cleveland Clinic. 2020. How to Improve Your Digestive Track Naturally. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  5. Souper Diaries. CHINESE FOUR HERBS SOUP (四神汤). [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  6. Signature Market. 6 Herbs Soup (六味汤). [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  7. Yang’s Nourishing Kitchen. 2017. MILLET PORRIDGE: A CHINESE POSTPARTUM & DIGESTIVE HEALER. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  8. Quiescence Chinese Medicine Melbourne. 2017. Chinese Herb History – Shan Yao. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  9. Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutricion. 2013. Changes in food caused by deep fat frying – A review. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]
  10. ASC Distance Education. COOKING AND ITS EFFECT ON NUTRITION. [online] [Accessed 5 September 2022]

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