Health Features

Surviving the Feast

Trust your gut. That’s simple and often worthy advice. But what is your gut telling you when it speaks in belches and flatulence? Can Google translate those? The digestive tract can be a highly reliable machine, but it’s prone to backfire if not properly maintained. Some other helpful advice: Know what can cause discomfort, understand things change as you get older and don’t let the temptations of the holidays completely throw you off course!

handling the holiday

Overindulgence is not usually viewed positively, especially when it comes to food. But who among us has not surveyed a bountiful holiday feast and given in to temptation?

“It seems like food is everywhere,” says Jennifer McDaniel, a dietitian and owner of McDaniel Nutrition Therapy in Clayton. “We’re invited to countless social events, people bring their leftovers to the office and kids bring home goodies from school. Food is in our face all the time, and proximity has power.”

have a game plan

To avoid erasing months of good behavior with a few days of holiday binging, McDaniel suggests strategy. “Willpower only goes so far,” she says. “Be very choosy, and try to change the environment to minimize exposure.”

She says to approach each social event with an individual plan. If you know the party will have great food, go with the understanding that you will enjoy it, she advises. If the party is likely to offer generic options, eat before you go.

In either case, McDaniel suggests eating a small snack beforehand. “A handful of almonds or an apple will make sure you don’t have food on your mind as soon as you get there,” she says. “Then, you can peruse all of your options before you start filling your plate. You will eat less if you have a game plan.”

After enjoying sensible selections and portions, escape! “Turn your back to the table,” she says. ‘If you are not looking at the food, you will eat less and focus more on the reason you are there, which is the people.”

And McDaniel warns that alcohol only will increase the risk of overeating. In addition to extra calories, she says, “Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, which might lead us to eat more. I tell my clients to space it out; have a glass of club soda in between a glass of wine or two.”

the menu

The holiday table overflows with high-calorie traps, but seasonal feasts also feature excellent choices. “Choose vegetable sides and lean protein, which will make you feel full,” McDaniel says. “Cocktail shrimp also are a good lean option light in calories, and fresh fruit can satisfy your sweet tooth.” Go ahead and eat dessert if you want, but truly enjoy it, McDaniel says. “Don’t socialize while you eat it,” she advises. “Sit down and enjoy each bite, and try not to partake at every party

a natural reaction

Passing gas has been a source of embarrassment and humor throughout recorded history and likely long before. Flatulence, as defined by the National Health Service of the United Kingdom, “is passing gas from the digestive system out of the back passage.” Despite contrary protests, everybody does it. England’s National Health Service (NHS) hosts a detailed website on the subject and explains the average is about five to 15 times a day. The causes range from swallowed air and fizzy beverages to the gaseous byproducts of food digestion, often occurring when food is digested incompletely.

A normal person creates one to three pints of gas daily. Our holiday traditions only add to that. “We eat richer foods this time of year,” says Dr. Charlene Prather, a gastroenterologist and professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “Two of the biggest stimulants for gut problems are higher calories and higher fat.” Prather recommends you consult your physician if symptoms seem unusual or painful, but otherwise, avoiding certain foods will help.

flatulence causes and treatments

Medical literature identifies the simplest cause as swallowed air, but it’s also caused by:

  • Carbonated beverages, particularly beer
  • Chewing gum
  • Inhaling while smoking
  • Sucking on hard candy
  • Loose dentures
  • Not chewing food thoroughly

The following health problems can increase the incidence of flatulence:

  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Giardiasis
  • Malabsorption syndromes
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Diverticulosis or diverticulitis

To avoid flatulence, consume foods that are easy to digest:

  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Lettuce
  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Citrus fruits
  • Yogurt
  • Pineapple
  • Flaxseed
  • Vegetable juices (kale, spinach, cucumbers)

Treatments for excessive gas:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Increase fiber consumption
  • Exercise to stimulate the digestive system and bowels
  • Use probiotics to promote fuller digestion
  • Take an alpha-galactosidase enzyme, available at pharmacies, to help the digestion of carbohydrates

foods rich in gas-producing tendencies

Some foods contain carbohydrates, complex sugars (raffinose or fructose) or fibers that cannot be fully digested in the intestine. When these reach the colon, they are broken down by bacteria that produce gas.

  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Artichokes
  • Raisins
  • Lentils
  • Wheat
  • Oat bran
  • Onions
  • Prunes
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Apricots
  • Corn
  • Peas
  • Brussels sprouts

Digestion of some foods, including cabbage and onions, produces sulphurous gases that add unpleasant aroma to the resulting breeze.

age & the gut

“Honestly, the gut ages very well,” says Prather. “The digestive system does slow down a bit with age, but most of what we see with digestive difficulties in elders relates to medications they are taking or other medical conditions.”

Seth Gerlach, a board-certified chiropractic internist at Core Health in Richmond Heights says that as we get older, we lose the ability to produce stomach acid, one of the first steps in breaking down and absorbing food. “Our ability to digest food starts slowing, whether that’s due to our stomach acid or enzyme production,” he says.

Gerlach says many people over 60 have issues that have added up over the years, too. “People don’t realize you can experience gut problems without having gut symptoms. With an inflamed or leaky gut, bacterial imbalances or parasite infections, the symptoms would be fatigue, migraines or other problems.”

When general blahs plague seniors, he says fixing any digestive issues is an easy place to start. “We need the nutrients in our food to rebuild tissues, cells, hormones and brain chemicals,” he explains. “If we are not digesting our food, nutrition is not helping us.”

Stress is an overlooked contributor to tummy aches and belly gurgles, Gerlach says. “When we are stressed, our body frantically tries to repair us. It will automatically take amino acids from our gut lining to put out stress fires elsewhere. Stress also can decrease our immune response in the gut.” He says to start by looking at what causes you anxiety. “Most people don’t realize how stressed they are, and it can build up over days, months and even years,” he notes. “Take time throughout the day to pause and reflect. Also, sleeping well gives us restorative power for the entire body, which has a huge effect on our hormones, gut and immune system.”

Poor food choices can stress the gut, too, Gerlach says. “Stay away from sugar, which is very damaging,” he notes. “Inflammatory foods, fried foods and even some grains can irritate the gut lining and use up more of our enzymes. Probiotics are easy to implement to modulate inflammation in the gut and ensure there is a good balance of bacteria.”

helpful tips to avoid uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues as you age

  • EAT fruits, vegetables and lean meat.
  • CHEW WELL before swallowing since your stomach empties slower.
  • DE-STRESS. Anxiety can cause digestive malfunction.
  • SLEEP WELL to restore your body, which affects gut health.
  • TAKE AS LITTLE MEDICATION as possible. Many medications, particularly those prescribed for pain, can interfere with gut function and slow the digestion and emptying of food.
  • AVOID inflammatory foods, fried foods and sugar, which can irritate the gut lining.