Many of us know that we get energy directly from macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) in our food, but vitamins and minerals are also essential for the production and storage of energy in the body.
Absorption refers to the act or process of absorbing or assimilating something. When we talk about nutrient absorption, we’re referring to the assimilation of substances like vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids into the bloodstream and cells or across tissue and organs.
This process is very complex! It involves many types of enzymes, plus saliva, acid, bile, and more. Most nutrient absorption occurs inside the wall of the small intestine. Normally, nutrients from food and supplements pass through the wall of the small intestine and into the blood vessels by diffusion or transport, where they are carried elsewhere as needed.
Nutrient absorption doesn’t always work the way it should. General malabsorption can occur, which affects your body’s ability to absorb some or all nutrients (carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals). In the short term, malabsorption will cause gastrointestinal distress; over time, your body will start to show signs of deficiency in the unabsorbed nutrients. Symptoms include indigestion, abdominal pain or distention, bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Deficiencies in macronutrients will lead to undernutrition, which can be seen through muscle wasting, reduced immunity, unintentional weight loss, and anemia. Deficiencies of micronutrients may affect your bones, skin, hair, and eye health.
Factors that affect nutrient absorption include:
- The natural aging process
- Food intolerances
- Eating an inflammatory diet
- Chronic stress
- Eating quickly
Other causes of malabsorption include pancreas, gallbladder, and liver diseases as they play a role in the digestive process. Remember – anything that alters or damages the small intestinal lining will affect nutrient absorption! So…what are some tips to absorb nutrients better? Let’s take a deeper look at how combining certain nutrients can improve overall absorption.
Iron and Vitamin C
There are two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron comes from hemoglobin and myoglobin; it is easily absorbed by the body and mainly derives from animal products like meat, fish, and poultry. Non-heme iron is found primarily in plant foods like nuts, fruits, veggies, grains, and tofu. Non-heme iron is not as readily absorbed by the body. In addition to iron found naturally in foods, some foods have iron added to them, commercially known as “fortified foods.” Common foods that have been fortified with iron are bread, pasta, cereals, and certain types of flour.
Some dietary factors have been shown to enhance the absorption of non-heme iron from foods such as ascorbic acid (also known as vitamin C). Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits and juices, bell peppers, kiwis, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.
There are a ton of easy recipes that can help with your iron absorption! Check out a few to get you started:
- Kale & Quinoa Salad with Lemon Dressing
- Spinach, Sweet Potato, and Lentil Dhal
- Beef Pops with Pineapple and Parsley Sauce
Vitamin D and Calcium
Vitamin D is essential for getting calcium into your bloodstream and it helps your gut and kidneys absorb it! Without enough vitamin D, we can’t form enough of the hormone calcitriol (known as the “active vitamin D”). A deficiency in vitamin D could lead to a calcium deficiency; in this situation, the body must take calcium from its stores in the skeleton, which weakens the existing bone and prevents the formation of new bone. To avoid deficiencies, make sure you eat foods containing vitamin D and calcium. Adults should be getting 1,000-1,300 mg of calcium daily through their diet.
To absorb calcium more effectively, try pairing vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, beef liver, egg yolks, and cheese with calcium-rich foods like dark leafy greens, milk, yogurt, almonds, seeds, beans, lentils, and figs. Try these awesome calcium-rich recipes:
Many well-known cancer-preventing antioxidants are fat-soluble. These antioxidants are contained in brightly-colored fruits and vegetables – think carrots, leafy greens, and tomatoes. Not all antioxidants are fat-soluble! Try eating these foods with sources of healthy fats, like avocados, nuts, cheese, and oil-based dressings to increase nutrient absorption.
- Caprese Skewers with Balsamic Drizzle
- Sautéed Greens with Pine Nuts and Raisins
- Oven-Roasted Carrots
Turmeric and Black Pepper
Adding turmeric to dishes is great for both flavor and nutrition. Turmeric is high in the compound curcumin, which can be difficult for the body to absorb. However, one study found that combining curcumin with a small amount of black pepper increased the absorption of turmeric.
Other factors that can improve nutrient absorption include:
- Probiotic bacteria. These help to support the growth of the good bacteria in your gut that aid in digestion.
- Chewing thoroughly and eating slowly. This helps to release enzymes that are an essential part of digestion.
- Managing stress. Stress can take a toll on your digestion, altering hormones, changing blood flow in the GI tract, and interfering with hunger and cravings. It can also wipe out a healthy gut!
- Taking digestive enzymes. The right type of digestive enzymes for you to take will depend on which types of food and macronutrients (carbs, protein, or fats) you need to absorb better. Typically, taking a serving with a meal aids in digestion.
From the Dietitian
How would you know if you have malabsorption? There are many tests out there. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above and they are persisting, talk to your healthcare provider. Treating the underlying cause of malabsorption is key. Infections can be treated with medication. Chronic diseases are a bit trickier and may require lifestyle adjustments to relieve symptoms. If it is a food intolerance, you can adjust your diet!
Overall, staying active and hydrated, reducing stress levels, and eating whole foods are pillars of living a healthier lifestyle. Try focusing on one of these areas to improve throughout your daily routine. But, don’t stress – making changes takes time. You may not see results right away, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Much of life is more than what we can see!
If you’re interested in adjusting your diet, the YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
—Mattie Lefever, LDN, RDN