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Maximising absorption of nutrients from food

By Nadia McMorran

Food provides us many things – sustenance, pleasure, energy and most importantly, it provides us with vital nutrients necessary to stay healthy.

It’s essential that we get the most we can out of our food - poor nutrient absorption can lead to an array of health issues including osteoporosis, joint pain, weight loss, anaemia, diarrhoea, dry eyes, acne and poor energy.

When we consume any food, the digestion process begins in our mouth with chewing and the release of an enzyme found in our saliva called amylase. The chewed food then moves down the digestive tract to the stomach, where the stomachs’ hydrochloric acid, bile and other enzymes (protease which breaks down protein, lipase which breaks down fats and amylase which breaks down the carbohydrates) work together to release the nutrients contained in the food. The digested food then moves to the small intestine, where most of the nutrients are absorbed and processed, then stored if necessary by the liver.

The time it takes for food to be digested varies greatly:

  • Water and juices – 20-30 minutes
  • Fruits, vegetables, smoothies and soups – 30-45 minutes
  • Legumes, grains and starches – two to three hours
  • Meat, fish and poultry – Over 3 hours

Here are a few suggestions to maximise digestion and help you get the most out of your nutrient intake.

  • Don’t drink anything for 30 mins prior to and at least an hour following a meal, as liquids dilute stomach acid and make for much less efficient digestion.
  • Alcohol decreases absorption of nutrients, especially B vitamins and zinc.
  • Caffeine is a stimulant to digestion, so rushes foods through the process and means they are not broken down well enough to extract the maximum amount of nutrients from your food.
  • A tablespoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar in a glass of warm water before breakfast each morning stimulates digestion.
  • Food should be well chewed before swallowing.
  • Eating fermented foods and taking probiotics increase the good bacteria in your gut, which help with the breakdown of foods and absorption of nutrients.
  • Foods such as black pepper, lime, lemon, ginger and mint all enhance digestion and nutrient absorption.
  • Grains, legumes and nuts all have a coating of phytic acid, which inhibits absorption of nutrients. They should be properly prepared before eating, which means soaking overnight in water with a dash of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. They need to be rinsed to remove the phytic acid before being either cooked or dried for eating.
  • Consumption of fizzy drinks hinders nutrient absorption due to the high levels of phosphoric acid.
  • Natural digestion slows in the evening, so aim to have dinner before 7pm each night, and don’t snack afterwards.
  • Enjoy a mixture of cooked and raw vegetables – vitamin C for example is destroyed by heat, whereas carotenoids are absorbed far more easily if they have been cooked.
  • Eat organic food as much as possible, as pesticides on conventional foods decrease the nutritional value.
  • Taking antacids reduces nutrient absorption drastically, as it decreases the effectiveness of stomach acid.

Maximising absorption of nutrients from supplements

For most of the population, it is important to supplement your nutritional intake with vitamins and minerals to ensure you are getting all that you need for optimum health.

Some vitamins and minerals are fat soluble, (meaning they bind to fat in the stomach and are stored for later use), others are water soluble. In other words, some are better taken on an empty stomach, while others need to be consumed with food in order to maximise their benefits.

Vitamins A, D, E and K are all fat soluble vitamins, and CoQ10 is an enzyme that requires fat for absorption, so these are best taken following a meal.

All B vitamins and vitamin C are water soluble, so are fine to be taken on an empty stomach. While most minerals are water soluble, they are best consumed with food as some in particular, such as zinc, can cause nausea if taken on an empty stomach.

Probiotics are best taken either first thing in the morning (30 minutes before eating) or last thing at night. This ensures that they move quickly through the digestive system, repopulating the gut and not having their survival hindered by food digesting slowly or high levels of stomach acid.

Some vitamins and minerals should always be paired together to maximise absorption, such as vitamin C with iron, and vitamin D and vitamin K2 with calcium.