Eating for digestive health has become a priority. Of course, when a nutrition topic becomes hot, a couple of things usually happen. First, the industry cashes in and markets products promoting a benefit; second, people become very confused.
Compounding the problem is the fact that when it comes to what we think we know about our digestive system and its workings, some beliefs are tough to shake.
Dr. Brian McGee, a gastroenterologist at Saline Memorial Hospital in Benton, sheds some medical light on the enduring digestive health myths.
Myth 1: Supplements are safe.
Supplements, like those you find at GNC, Walmart and Walgreen’s, are not regulated by the FDA. This means (gasp) that what they claim on the label may or may not be true.
“They are going to say whatever it takes to get someone to purchase their product,” says Dr. McGee. “Sometimes, as a doctor, I see the ill effects. Body builders, for example, have caused damage to their livers by taking some of these supplements. Sometimes these supplements are benign, but sometimes they are dangerous.”
Myth 2: Pass the probiotics.
Research into probiotics — “good” gut bacteria — is still in its early days. “As gastroenterologists, we don’t have specific guidelines that direct us in prescribing probiotics,” he explains. “There are so many types. If a patient is having digestive health issues like constipation or diarrhea, I suggest they take a probiotic.”
To start, Dr. McGee asks the patient if he or she has a personal preference. Do they want it in a powder form that they can mix into a liquid or sprinkle on their food, or do they want to take it as a capsule, which may mean as many as three to four a day with a meal? “If it’s something that tastes bad, they are not going to take it,” he says. “It’s also tough to remember on a daily basis. I recommend that they get into the habit of taking one three to four days per week. I want them to choose the route they are comfortable with.”
When it comes to digestive health issues, Dr. McGee tries to address them first from a diet standpoint. Some foods contain naturally occurring probiotics, including yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha tea, dark chocolate, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, sour pickles and miso soup.
“If it helps the body promote growth and healing, I support it,” he says.
Myth 3: There are no exceptions for those who are lactose intolerant.
People who are lactose intolerant experience abdominal bloating and cramping and diarrhea because their body is unable to break down the lactose, the sugar in milk products. “We always thought milk was a great source for calcium and vitamin D,” says Dr. McGee. “But not everyone can break it down. As a result, we have seen a rise in soy and almond milk.”
Dr. McGee is a fan of the former. “I always make a point to try things for myself before I recommend them to patients so I really know what I am recommending,” he explains. “Vanilla soy milk is like drinking ice cream. Lactaid tastes just like milk.” Another option he offers is lactase enzyme supplements, which are taken prior to eating dairy products.
Myth 4: Gluten-free eating is good for everyone.
Dr. McGee says the basis of this myth is marketing and fad. “You only have a select population that requires gluten free,” he explains. “That is those with Celiac disease — their bodies cannot break down gluten. Their body is in a panic to get it out of the system, like those who are lactose intolerant. So they often experience the same symptoms — abdominal bloating and cramping and diarrhea.”
He says less than three percent of the population has Celiac disease, which is mirrored in his own experience. “Over a six-year period of my practice, I’ve seen a handful of cases that I have diagnosed,” he says. “Many people come in who have eliminated gluten from their diets on their own. That often includes foods like pizza, burgers and bread, so naturally they are going to feel better.”
Myth 5: You must detox to cleanse your gut.
Whether it’s a colon cleanse or a week-long juice diet, the latest and greatest way to remove toxins from the body — or “detox” — seems to be everywhere you turn.
“There are too many diet fads for me to keep up with,” says Dr. McGee. “None has been medically proven to be beneficial. Does drinking juices make you feel better? Absolutely. You’re consuming vegetables and fruits that your body may be lacking.”
When it comes to digestive health, Dr. McGee says, “It has to be about balance. Try to cook, and add fruits and vegetables. I’m eating something green at least four days a week, even though I don’t want to. It’s about behaviors and developing good habits.”