Health: Good digestion promotes better riding

How your riding can benefit from a happy gut

Ever grunted up a long or brutal climb only to be greeted by the bacon-white bread sandwich you inhaled before setting out? We look at why digestion-friendly food is the key to better riding.

Digestion begins in the mouth. If you don’t chew food properly or you gulp down a mid-ride egg sandwich, you will have problems later on. Also no matter how carefully you chew, there are some foods that are simply not helpful to your gut.

How to promote good digestion

There are plenty of good, high-fibre foods which will help to promote good digestion and a healthy gut (see above), but it is not only what you eat, but how you eat that matters. Though it is tempting to re-fuel in a rush, or ‘gulp and go’ to get a quick energy boost, it’s not the best way for your gut.

You might want speed or endurance on your bike, but slowing down and taking time out to eat well will give your gut the boost it needs.

Foods to feed your gut

  • Porridge, pumpkin, barley or lentil soup, baked beans, chick peas (the main ingredient in houmous) and butter beans. These all contain soluble fibre, which forms a smooth bulk which is useful if you have a sensitive gut.
  • Flax seeds. If you have gut problems, stop eating the rough stuff and ditch mass-produced bread made from wheat. Flax (also known as linseed) has a high content of soothing, soluble fibre. Soak the seeds in water overnight and add them to your porridge, fruit juice or natural yogurt (with banana, raisins, dried fruits and so on) for an energy-boosting, gut-soothing, pre-ride breakfast.
  • Onions, garlic and leeks. These all contain FOS (fructooligo-saccharides) – a particular type of fibre which feeds the lactobacillus and bifi do-bacteria, two strains which are particularly beneficial for gut health.
  • Almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts, cashews, unsalted peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raisins, ready-to-eat dried apricots, dried cranberries. This is your portable, high fibre, energy pack. Take a supply with you when you travel. Hotel meals and convenience foods are likely to be lacking in fibre.

Foods that wont help

  • Pure wheat cereals, wheat bran and wholemeal bread. These contain insoluble fibre. This is the rough stuff, which is why it is often known as roughage. It is an effective bulking agent, but many people are intolerant to processed wheat products, which can also irritate, aggravate and inflame the lining of the gut.
  • A so-called carbohydrate diet based on white bread, frosted breakfast cereals, instant porridge, biscuits, cakes, chocolate and processed ready meals. If you eat these as a regular part of your diet, you are missing out on a lot of good nutrients and fibre. 

So why is good digestion so important?

Digestion is the process of breaking down the food we eat into smaller components that can be absorbed into the bloodstream and it’s a process that’s easy to take for granted. With 26ft of intestines from your mouth to your anus, there is a lot that can go wrong, but much that you can do to promote good digestion.

How to idenfity if you have a healthy gut (or not)

The first check is to think about how often you empty your bowels each day. Food takes about 36 hours to travel the length of your gut, depending on what you’ve eaten. The sign of a healthy gut is that you empty your bowels at least once a day. 

If your routine is a long cycle ride on the weekend followed by a weekly bowel movement, your gut is in need of better maintenance. Getting up in the morning sends a wake up message to your colon to stimulate movement of its contents to your back passage to be expelled. Before this can happen, though, you need to have something in your colon.

The carbohydrate, protein and fat that you eat are digested in the upper part of your gut. Food stays in your stomach for up to four hours where it is churned and mixed with acid and digestive juices. If you had porridge with milk for breakfast, the acid helps to dissolve the carbohydrate and kill any bacteria. 

Enzymes break down starches and proteins and within about an hour the stomach contents, now in the form of a soupy slush, are squirted into your small intestine. Here the proteins and carbohydrates are absorbed, leaving the rest of the undigested porridge to travel into your large intestine and colon.

Why is undigested food so vital?

Far from being a waste, undigested food is vital to the health of your gut. It is basically a massive picnic to feed the huge population of bacteria which flourish in your colon and produce a number of useful nutrients in return.

It is these micro-organisms that are usually to blame for the production of gas or wind from your intestine.

As they break down the undigested carbohydrate they release hydrogen, carbon dioxide and sometimes methane. The quantity of gas depends on the amount and type of fibre in your diet – but the production of gas is a normal part of the digestive process.

However, it is undigested protein that the bacteria transform into foul smelling gases such as hydrogen sulphide, and is a sign that your digestion is not working well.

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