Why are green vegetables so beneficial for your digestion?
Whilst we know that green vegetables are good for our health more generally, could they have some special benefits when it comes to our digestive health? Some of the reasons greens might be so good for our gut are as follows:
- They boast bitterness
- They are a good source of dietary fibre
- They have special benefits for your good gut bacteria
- They are especially nutrient-rich.
Throughout this blog I explore each of these themes in more detail and offer some tips for upping your intake of greens!
Greens - why so good for your gut?
1. They boast bitterness
In Western cultures, unfortunately, many of the bitter elements of our diets have been somewhat lost. Ironically, these are the very elements which help to support optimal digestion; the sweet and salty flavours we often favour instead just don't cut it, and may even cause subsequent problems for our digestive and overall health. So, we need to bring some bitterness back!
The bitter taste we can experience as a result of eating fresh, mainly green foods helps to prep our digestive system sufficiently. This taste sensation helps to spur our stomach into action where it secretes gastric secretions with a helpfully low pH. These acidic conditions offer the perfect conditions for breaking down the foods we eat properly, including tougher structures such as protein. It therefore helps to include bitters with every meal, preferably near the start of the meal, and really chew them properly, taking time to appreciate the taste.
If this is proving hard to keep up with, taking a herbal bitters remedy such as Yarrow 5-10minutes before meals can make a good alternative. Remember, supporting the good, strong, acidic stomach secretions can help support the structure and functions of the subsequent stages of your digestive processes.
2. They are a good source of dietary fibre
Official government guidelines concerning fibre intake have, in recent years, been upped to 30g; meaning, we should be keeping this component of our diet top of mind.
Dietary fibre is thought to offer a number of benefits, from helping to keep us feeling fuller for longer, to supporting healthy weight management, and even helping to keep cholesterol within healthy limits. Interestingly, some of these benefits could also be the result of fibre's positive influence on our good gut bacteria, which I'll go into in more detail next. For now, let's run through the two types of dietary fibre that exist:
- Soluble fibre – Soluble fibre readily absorbs water throughout your digestive tract. This helps to create a gelatinous mixture (when consumed with sufficient liquids, of course!) which is thought to help absorb and excrete other components such as toxins, bile salts or cholesterol, all of which we want to keep a steady turnover. Soluble fibre is readily found in foods such as oats, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and some fruit and vegetables.
- Insoluble fibre - As the name suggests, insoluble fibre isn't soluble in water and, instead, makes up the roughage or the indigestible components of different vegetables and whole-grains. As a result of this, insoluble fibre adds physical bulk to your stools and helps to keep things moving along nicely throughout your digestive tract.
Therefore, both types of fibre convey slightly different benefits and, by consuming a nice variety of vegetables and greens in different forms (for example, keeping the skins and stalks on veg to help up the insoluble fibre content), we can ensure we get a good amount of both.
3. They have special benefits for your good gut bacteria
Some exciting research has helped highlight some of the specific benefits greens may have for your gut, in terms of the effects they can have on the good bacteria that exist there. This balance of bacteria is known as our microbiome and is thought to be critical in maintaining a number of areas of our health; from weight management to mood (as well as keeping more local, digestive symptoms under control, of course).
The research suggests that leafy greens contain a specific sulphur-containing sugar molecule, called sulfoquinovose (SQ). This component, much like dietary fibre, remains relatively undigested by the time it reaches the gut and, therefore, is able to act as a source of food for the bacteria that exist there.1 Our good gut bacteria are well equipped and possess a specific enzyme required to break this important molecule down and, as a result, can continue to thrive. This is bad news for any of our bad gut bacteria which struggle to survive as these 'good' strains grow stronger.
4. They are especially nutrient-rich
As a general rule of thumb, the brighter the food, the more nutrient-dense it is, and 'green' definitely ticks all the boxes! Leafy greens such as spinach or watercress, for example, are rich in a number of nutrients including magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and the B vitamins.
Magnesium, for one, is especially important for keeping the muscles throughout your digestive system nicely relaxed, which helps to encourage more regular toilet trips. On the other hand, B vitamins are important for helping to convert your food into energy – one of the key underlying principles of the digestive system!
Next, leafy greens get much of their green colour thanks to a compound called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is thought to exert a number of benefits; from promoting healing to aiding detoxification and dampening inflammation. Again, these are all processes that help our digestive system to work at its best.
When eating your vegetables (and even fruit), opt for warm, cooked options as much as possible. Gentle cooking not only signals good news for your digestive system in terms of the effort required to break the vegetables down, but this also helps to gently break down some of the tougher, more fibrous structures of the vegetables which helps to make many of the essential nutrients they contain more readily available.
Beta-carotene, an antioxidant which converts into vitamin A in the body and is readily found in bright fruit and veg options including spinach, peppers and carrots, is just one nutrient which is thought to become more readily available as vegetables are cooked.2
Top green foods
So, although if you've decided by now that it's time to up your intake of greens, you might be wanting a little help in knowing where to start. Here I outline some of my top green suggestions and include some tasty recipe options to try too:
Watercress has recently been hailed a superfood and may even be more nutrient-dense than some of our firm green favourites, such as spinach or kale. It has a peppery, bitter taste; ideal for spurring your stomach into action, as we've already covered! It's also classed as a cruciferous vegetable which is thought to confer extra digestive benefits, including being especially supportive and protective of our liver3, which is, handily, one of our key digestive organs. So, definitely one to include more of!
Recipe pick: Creamy Watercress Soup
Pickled vegetables, including your classic cucumbers, sauerkraut made from cabbage, or kimchi (which includes a variety of vegetables, but often some nice green options like cucumber or green beans) all offer some nice benefits for your gut.
These foods are fermented, meaning that they contain a good dose of good bacteria, also known as probiotics, which can favourably influence the balance of bacteria in your gut. Go for fresh varieties kept in the fridge rather than shelf stable options which may have added preservatives.
Recipe pick: Fermented tomato ketchup with Molkosan
Herbs are a variety of greens we often forget about, especially if we aren't in the way of cooking and eating fresh foods. However, fresh (or even dried) herbs make a lovely addition to any meal, and can convey a number of healthy benefits.
Mint, fennel, dill and parsley are just some of the green options which are thought to be especially calmative if you've got a tummy in turmoil. Many of these are available in their fresh form to use in your cooking or they can also be found dried in the form of teas.
Recipe pick: Kale & Avocado Salad Bowl with fresh Mint & Parsley
Whilst they aren't a vegetable, this is one green you should definitely consider using more of! Apples are rich in a specific type of fibre called pectin which is thought to be especially beneficial for our gut. It acts as a prebiotic which is thought to have a positive influence on our pre-existing microbiome.4
However, some new research has even suggested that apples may also offer some probiotic potential as they harbour their very own beneficial bacteria that you can then ingest – double the benefit!5
Recipe pick: Apple & Spinach Smoothie
As a result of its impressive inulin content, asparagus is another vegetable which is able to act as a prebiotic. Prebiotics act as a source of food for our good bacteria, helping them to survive and populate in numbers, whilst also keeping less favourable strains of bacteria under control.
If you're guilty of not eating enough asparagus, (it's especially delicious when in season during the spring months) try out my recipe suggestion below!
Recipe pick: Spring Green Vegetable Tarts