THE STORY OF DIGESTION

Eating is Fun / Eating is Yuck! – A variety food column

BY TARA NARAYAN

MY New Year resolution is to be grateful, grateful, grateful to be alive and kicking! With the old year closing in and a new year opening anew I’ve been thinking of the story of digestion and how we pay the price in various ways when we don’t observe the basic common sense rules of drinking and eating.
How many of us are so cussed that we prefer to suffer and be gluttons for punishment vis-à-vis our body beautiful rather than take the trouble to change our habits for a happier stomach. Hey, if we hear some things over and over again there must be a grain of truth in them. So what are they?
Recently I was witness to the digestive woes of a friend suffering from severe stomach pain. On a Sunday afternoon he found himself in a hospital over the new year. It was a primary diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome continuing to take a toll of his digestive system which is in a right royal terminal mess – after a host of quick fix superficial treatments he keeps returning to square one over and over again.
IBS as we know it is practically incurable for it begins in the mind, childhood patterns of drinking and eating, and how we’re forced to grow up in a hurry. In IBS terminal stages one may present with a digestive system manipulated by a slew of medications and end up virtually living in a “valley of dolls” — with all those pretty looking tablets and capsules we keep popping in out mouth morning, noon and night.
DON’T know about you but seductive, colored medications put me off terribly, especially the evil scarlet-colored Ecosprin. I hate colored, medicines packed in equally colored, eye-blinding shiny strips. I take to plain, non-starry medicines more willingly! But to stay with the story of digestion for whatever it is worth I’d like to offer my personal two bit experience here on how so many of us drink and eat utterly mindlessly. There is surely something called mindful drinking and eating vis-à-vis our lifestyle habits on the subject of food and drink.
The story of digestion is the story of the good or bad health we enjoy into our senior years. It is about how vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods are digested once put in the mouth. Food is carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, enzymes…in the mouth preliminary digestion commences with carbohydrates as we chew with the help of saliva and it goes down the gullet into our stomach. Now the stomach is the only place in the body which needs an acidic environment — hydrochloric acid is produced here to aid the breaking down of proteins and fats, and so we see a churning mass called chyme which gradually moves into the small intestines for aborption of life-giving nutrients. Undigested solid leftovers move into the colon for evacuation routinely with the play of toned muscle peristalsis…really an automatic process the quality of which keeps us ticking from day to day, week to week, month to month or years altogether.
IF only we better understood and appreciated the story of digestion we wouldn’t drink and eat in half the nonsensical ways we do! The sorry story of bad digestion and over time its attendant complications result in doctors prescribing a slew of antacids and other drugs which progressively make the digestive system dysfunctional…the long and short of all this is I found myself explaining to the friend for the umpteenth time last week that eating, digestion and evacuation is commensurate to what, how, when and why we eat. You will say it is elementary, Watson, but so many of us don’t know and don’t want to know and don’t care!
So we continue to punish ourselves, unable to appreciate that the body has its disciplines which we may not flout constantly without paying the price…past experience alone should tell us something about what not to do. In my nutshell of how not to get into trouble there are a few rules when it comes to drinking and eating and they’ve served me well.
For example, I find I do better when I drink and eat when I’m thirsty and hungry and if I drink and eat closest to nature – drinking water mainly and preferring uncooked over cooked food. Eat your salads first. I also drink and eat more or less at room temperature. Only the human animal thinks it is fun to drink and eat hot, hot, hot, and cold, cold, cold! Few of us are conscious of how extremes of temperature take a toll of mouth and throat tissues – over years of drinking and eating hot, hot, hot, and cold, cold, cold.
There is also another common sense thing. I don’t drink water or liquids before eating, in between eating or after eating. But anybody listens to me! Now even the best nutritionists say this. Alas, we drink and eat in the most bizarre ways courtesy ignorance or just cussedness. Some of you must have heard these things before and per chance taken them seriously or not at all.
Again in my experience I find drinking warm water first thing in the morning useful. It stirs bowels into performing better – if they tend to be sluggish. That’s why we’re hooked on our cup of early morning tea – enjoy your tea for it’s the trigger to move first thing in the morning. Herbal water teas also fine. A bit of slow motion yogasana also helps very well. Also, remember bowels will move naturally depending on what time we ate, what we ate and how long it took to digest. If you have a regular eating pattern, you will have a regular bowel moving pattern.
ANOTHER thing I say is eat fresh and uncooked first be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Fruit comes before omlet-bread-butter-cheese, idli, dosa, upma, poha or anything else…quiet simply because what is fresh digests first and faster. Cooked foods take longer to digest depending on how complicated the cooking process be it meats, vegetables, cereals or pulses. Remember veggies have fibre, meats doesn’t. Fiber is the key to smoother digestion…for example, drink freshly squeezed juice first, soup and meal afterwards.
Okay, we’re artificially brought up human animals but it still helps if we put chopped greens (for invaluable fiber) in our chutneys, salads, garnishings. More so in uncooked foods we get vital enzymes, vitamins and minerals. We must drink and eat to stay on the right side of alkaline rather than acidic and this you must remember: The stomach is the only place in the body which needs to be acidic courtesy hydrochloric acid. So it helps if you don’t dilute the process of digestion which takes place here by drinking gallons of water before, in between or after consuming a meal, any meal of the day. Some folk I know don’t drink water at all – they drink only Coca-Cola and all the other third-rate bottled drinks of the marketplace doped with sugar, acidic preservatives, artificial colors, etc. The only time they sip some water is when they take their medications and that’s it! Hey, the body is 70 percent water and water is our most important element. The raison d’etre is drink water but not when you’re hungry and want to eat! Drink water but drink it rationally.

What is irritable bowel syndrome?
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common diagnosis of our times. It is huge, it’s said at least 15% of the global population suffers from IBS – with more women suffering from it than men. IBS is a common gastrointestinal disorder recognized by an abnormal condition of gut contractions (motility) and increased gut sensations (visceral hypersensitivity) characterized by abdominal pain, discomfort, gas, bloating, mucous in stools, irregular bowel habits with constipation and/or diarrhea or alternating diarrhea and constipation. Symptoms tend to be chronic, intermittent, and they may wax and wane over the years. The Merck Manual puts it like this: “Irritable bowel syndrome is characterized by abdominal discomfort or pain that is accompanied by at least two of the following: relief by defecation, change in frequency of stool, or change in consistency of stool. The cause is unknown, and the pathology is incompletely understood. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment is symptomatic and consisting of dietary management and drugs, including anticholinergea and agents active at serotonin receptors.” In brief, IBS sufferers are advised to eat a diet rich in fibre and avoid caffeine, milk products and sweeteners, exercise, learn relaxation techniques and take prescribed medication. Their diet should comprise of food like rice, carrots, olive oil, apples, flaxseeds, pollen and they should stay away from cocoa, hot spices, sugar, fizzy drinks, alcohol, caffeine.


Most of us go to extremes and therein lie the clues to botched up digestion. Of course our insecurities drive us to into gluttony and we fall in the trap of being gluttons for punishment too – I’ve been told this very often. Why do we go in for second and third helpings when we are no longer hungry for food? Think about it. And the rest of it to stay by the straight and narrow of eating and drinking: Eat organic, eat local, make at home and eat, stay away from refined ingredients of oils or hydrogenated fats (no matter how vegetarian), flours like maida or white refined flour goodies, more salt than is good for you (a teaspoon a day and no more in all the food you eat).
Eat more alkalinizing and fiber-rich millets and millet roti than genetically modified wheat roti. Lovers of roti remember naan/kulcha are made of pure white high glycemic refined wheat flour – prefer plain or buttered tandoor roti made of honest whole wheat flour to maida anything, including today’s industrial breads. Don’t eat refined flour breads at all no matter how fancy and tempting unless you’re stuffing them with fiber-rich salads or chutneys or whatever…and even then.
OKAY, you will say, what’s three white slices of industrial bread if the popular sandwich maker stuffs a chock-a-blok of things like butter, sliced cucumber/tomato/beetroot/onion/boiled potato/etc…all layered with green chutney in which there is more spinach than mint leaves? Fine, famous streetside Mumbai sandwichwallahs do offer up a filling, more nutritious sandwich, go for it. But remember white sliced industrial bread is no good, it is empty of nutritional values needed by body beautiful.
Another thing. If you must eat white bread or white rice at least combine them with lots of veggies as in veg sandwich, veg pulao, veg stuffed whatever. Fiber is what makes your gut move real smooth, my friends. Do use herbs like green coriander leaves, mint, chopped spring onions or rocket leaves which offer great flavors while binding the roti dough (drop in pinches of ajwain, chaat masala, haldi for more flavor)…also make green raita by adding in chopped steamed greens in live curd or yogurt which is a good probiotic for the tummy.

Baby Mandarin oranges at Magsons!
Baby Mandarin oranges at Magsons!
I WAS seeing them after a long, long time and of course I couldn’t take my eyes of them! These extremely orange baby Mandarins snuggled up against each other in a netted see-through bag at the Caculo Mall Magsons…real cute baby oranges, mini oranges. Of course I buy a bag full even at Rs250 a kg and then I was wondering how to juice them and kind of kept looking at them but forgot to eat them until they kind of dried up a bit over the week. Then I ate them, delicately peeling each one by one and popping the pretty soft orange in my mouth…no seeds, and oh such an exciting burst of tangerine flavor! One by one I peeled all the Mandarins and savored their intense orange flavor. My goodness, after a week they retained their flavor and didn’t spoil like many of the big oranges do. Perhaps these were organically grown Mandarin babies. I went looking for more almost every day but the boys at Magsons kept telling me their season is short, they may or not get more stocks…wait and see. I managed to get another bag full of these baby Mandarins but distributed them on New Year’s night to friends. Honestly, the winter season or whatever there is of it comes alive for me when the oranges come into the market – both our divine Nagpur santra and Maltas and several imported varieties, see them all out at Magsons these days. Can you differentiate an orange from a tangerine? Oranges I think have more of the sours in them and more vitamin C, the tangerines and mandarins are more intense in flavor and richly tangibly sweet. Tangerines tend to be smaller and oh yes, I learn there must be something like a dozen varieties of oranges or citrus varieties as some say. There are navel oranges, clementines, tangerines, honey tangerines, mandarins, ever heard of blood red oranges, the Seville oranges of Spain make some of the most tempting bitter sweet marmalade (once upon a time my favorite confection although it’s years since I’ve eaten a good marmalade)…like butter your toast and then spread Seville marmalade generously atop it and enjoy on a cold sunshine filled morning up in the mountains of the Himalaya! The world of oranges is exciting right now so go look for oranges large, medium and little and if you see the baby mandarins do buy them, you’ll be surprised how fantabulous they are to look at and savor. Dry out their peel and make into a bath scrub, I used to do that once upon a time and it left my skin scented with oranges.


If you’re re-evaluating your drinking habits do keep track of the what, when, why and how you’ve been eating and drinking and what happens afterwards. Keep a diary for a month, it helps! Get to know your digestive system and how it ticks, my friends, and if you’re way off track…try, try, try to get back on track and see the difference it will make over time. Sorry, patience is a virtue when you want to heal naturally from the inside out.
Not joking, or joke but learn to eat and eat to live and clue yourself up about how the body deals with food fit for life or fit for death, what aids better and better digestion – for we are only as good as our digestive systems. Eat less and less of the processed things in life which you are addicted to. Addictions are all about how we are brought up to think what is good and what is bad and oftentimes the truth is what you think is bad for you is actually sincerely good for you, while what you think is good for you is actually sincerely bad for you…I always say about anything in life, there is your truth, my truth and the objective truth. Look anew at the truth and go with this truth no matter how much it galls for a while.
Sorry, if this is bhashan week here for the first week of the new year! It is never too late to make a fresh beginning given the sunshine, salt and time, my friends. This is also my new year resolution for 2020! To learn new ways of drinking and eating better, with more substance and less style.

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