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The simplest way to improve your digestive health

Many people want to improve their digestive health and get relief from a variety of symptoms. However, I often hear from people who say they just don't where to start, and everything seems so overwhelming.

Does the thought of suddenly going on a ketogenic, paleo, or autoimmune diet seem way too radical and scary to you? Well, you're not alone, I hear this all time, especially from people who want to take responsibility for their food choices themselves.

Maybe you eat a lot of ready-made meals and use prepared ingredients as staples to save time and effort. Maybe you don't have the time to scour the internet for interesting recipes or learn what these diets mean.

The truth is everyone has to start their recovery somewhere and probably the best way to do that is far simpler than you think!

Cook from scratch

The quickest and easiest way to turbocharge your health is simply to cook from scratch. When I say cook from scratch, I mean no prepared meals/foods of any description. So, this would include making your own sauces.

Have I scared you yet? Cooking from scratch seven days a week can seem quite an onerous task and that's why this shouldn't be your aim. Consider how many times you currently cook from scratch and add two extra days onto it. This is your starting point. Don't be too hasty to increase the number until you're easily achieving your original objective without thinking about it.  

In reality, you probably don't even need to get up to seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. The odd treat here and there is fine for most people.

Enjoy what you eat. You're aiming for a sustainable change, not a change that lasts for a month or so.

What to cook

Initially, cook what you enjoy eating. If you always put a ready-made Shepherd's/Cottage pie in your shopping trolley each week, make it yourself. It will automatically be so much healthier than the shop-bought version. Serve it with heaps of green vegetables and/or salad.   

The beauty of home cooking is that you should cook too much. No, I'm not suggesting that you should eat everything that you cook, instead save it for lunch the next day or freeze it for your own perfect ready-made meal.

My key point here is that you need to develop a habit of cooking from scratch. Start simple with what you like. Later on, you can switch out ingredients to make it healthier, or fundamentally change it into something different.

You don't need to have fancy gadgets or follow complicated recipes. Your aim is to make cooking part of your daily routine and fall in love with good nutritious food choices.

Transforming the humble Shepherd's/Cottage pie

Everyone will come from a different starting place. If my example about a Shepherd's pie spoke to you, then cooking traditional family meals and ensuring you serve them with plenty of veggies/salad is your starting point.

Here are five ways to make a Shepherd’s/Cottage pie healthier

  1. Ensure you use a low salt gravy/stock cube.
  2. Replace the potato mash with root vegetable mash, either a single vegetable or a combination of a few. Carrot and parsnip are a personal favourite in our house.
  3. Skip the 'mash' and serve it with courgetti. Courgetti is raw courgettes either put through a spiraliser (fancy!) or simply cut using a vegetable peeler. I like to use a combination of carrot and courgette with a little extra virgin olive oil.
  4. Swap out the beef/lamb with turkey mince.
  5. Go meat-free and opt for lentils. It's really good practice to have some 'meat free' days. Lentils are perfect for this recipe. There's more than one type of lentil you can buy. I quite like Puy lentils myself as they have a 'meatier texture. Make sure you read the cooking instructions well, if you don't buy pre-soaked lentils, you'll need to prepare them differently.

Plate of vegetables

Getting the balance right

A traditional Shepherd's or Cottage pie cooked from scratch with a little root vegetable mash and good quality meat or lentils, served with lots of extra vegetables, can provide a hearty nutritious meal. It's all about balance and what's right for you. I

f you've had a heavy day of exercise this might be just what the doctor ordered or if you've had a few days of fairly light meals, especially light on the carbs, again this might be ideal. Or, if it's a cold rainy day and you fancy some comfort food that all the family will enjoy, again this might do the trick.   

Sexy salads

If your journey is further along than this, then you may consider ditching the Shepherd's Pie type of recipe entirely. Instead, you could buy a nice organic piece of meat, slice it, and serve it on sexy salad.

I call sexy salads, anything that involves

  • raw vegetables
  • cooked vegetables
  • classic salad leaves
  • other vegetables like peas, sugar snap peas, mange tout
  • peppers
  • onions, etc

You can add a simple seasoned dressing like olive oil and lemon/lime. Oils like extra virgin olive oil are amazingly good for us because the body uses them to reduce inflammation.  

Use olive oil and lemon as a base and add any combination you like, for example, herb or spices blends you get from the supermarket. Harissa is a firm favourite in my house.

Pre-prepared foods in a nutshell

Packaged foods tend to be low in nutritional content and high in extra ingredients like, salt, added sugar, added fats, and ingredients that you don't recognise.

The generally accepted recommendation is that if an ingredient list contains five or more items that don't sound natural, then you're better off leaving it on the shelf.  

Pre-prepared foods tend to be made with cheaper cuts of meats and nowhere near an adequate portion of fiber or individual veggies. Most people don't add extra vegetables to their meals. The combination of these issues and many others lead them to be associated with chronic disease, particularly obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.  

Don't be fooled by foods masquerading as healthy options – always check the ingredient list for items you've never heard of. It's also worth pointing out, that because of the makeup of ready-made foods they tend to aggravate the gut lining, and this can lead in the long term to a cascade of other concerns.  

Remember the basics

Cooking from scratch should use fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, herbs, spices and oils like extra virgin olive oil. These are all the things our body thrives on.

Your digestive system likes variety. Drop into your shopping trolley a different vegetable each week. If you don't like it, try cooking it a different way. If you still don't like it, don't sweat, it's fine. You can always come back to it in a few months, you may feel differently then. If you still don't like it, it’s no big deal as long as you're eating a variety of veggies and not just a small selection like peas, carrots, and broccoli.  

The classic advice of 'five a day' is a little outdated now and is probably not sufficient. However, if you are not reaching this level yet, then absolutely aim for that number. I like to work my clients up to 10 a day. I recommend three different colours with every meal and then throw an extra one in. Trust me, in time and with practice this isn't as difficult or overwhelming as it might first seem.

Your five top take aways

  1. Start simple with family favourites
  2. Tweak your recipes later to make them healthier
  3. Cook took much and use for lunches and your very own 'ready meals'
  4. Work up to three different coloured veggies/salad options on every plate
  5. Remember – good health is a journey, not an overnight success story!

….and a bonus one! The most important of all. Enjoy what you eat. You're aiming for a sustainable change, not a change that lasts for a month or so.

To take the first step in improving your gut health, download my free guide or sign up to my six-week programme.

Good luck and take one day at a time.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Leicester, Leicestershire, LE2 9TB

Written by Emma Wennington Ma, Bsc (Hons) DipION mBANT mCNHC

Leicester, Leicestershire, LE2 9TB

I’m Emma and I’m a Registered Nutritionist specialising in gut health and fatigue, helping women over 40 with low energy and problematic digestive issues to regain their energy and freedom so that they can live the life they desire. Offering consultations

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