When we make the effort to eat a balanced diet, it’s easy to assume we’ll get all the nutrition we need from our meals. But, once food is eaten, there’s potential for nutrient loss to occur during the different stages of digestion.
Much of our nutrition depends on how well foods are broken down and absorbed into our bodies. A majority of this absorption happens in the small and large intestines. It’s here where things get complex and trouble can brew, resulting in nutrient loss.
We depend on the microbes in our intestines to produce digestive enzymes that help break down food. These enzymes target a variety of carbohydrates (simple and complex), some fibers (soluble and digestion-resistant oligosaccharides), and various fats and proteins.
Many of us lack the right digestive enzymes to get the most nutrition out of our food. Deficiencies can occur due to age and other factors. Stress and prescription drugs, for instance, can affect the release of digestive enzymes. Additionally, a general lack of microbial diversity can impact our ability to digest certain types of foods, which can lead to stomach upset.
Loss of Microbial Diversity
A Western-style diet comprised largely of processed foods high in saturated fats and refined sugars could be to blame for poor microbial diversity. Most recently, a study found that immigrants moving from a non-Western nation to the United States experienced a loss of gut microbiome diversity. Among other things, these study participants lost bacteria that produce enzymes known for helping digest plant-based foods high in fiber (1). This includes a variety of high-fiber fruits and vegetables.
Without these bacterial enzymes for digestive support, these individuals are at increased risk for digestive concerns like uncomfortable gas and bloating after consuming higher-fiber foods. A depleted gut microbiome may also prevent the absorption of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals due to anti-nutritive components like phytates and hemicelluloses in plant foods.
The disappearance of these microbes might also predispose the immigrants who were part of this study to the same types of chronic health problems linked to Western-style diets (1). Topping the list is the risk of weight gain that can lead to excess visceral fat and central obesity.
The Role of Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes may help counter the effects of a Western-style diet, but they should not be considered the sole method of attaining long-term digestive and overall health. Including a variety of fiber-rich, healthy foods in our diets is a key step toward promoting diverse gut microbiota.
Taking digestive enzymes daily with meals can assist in restoring digestive strength and protecting against potential nutrient loss. Some digestive enzymes such as hemicellulase, beta-glucanase, and phytase can help break down hard-to-handle antinutrient compounds that are present in some plant foods. Healthy digestion paired with added support from digestive enzymes can increase availability of nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin C, magnesium, and calcium.
Additional digestive enzymes, such as lipases, work to break down fats and are helpful for supporting absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, including lutein and lycopene (2). Proteases that break down proteins in foods can boost absorption of vitamins like B12 and minerals like iron. Many protein digestion issues have to do with the loss of digestive enzymes and microbial diversity that often occurs with age (3,4).
These examples show how digestive enzymes can improve nutrient availability from foods, but enzymes may also increase the likelihood of eating a diet with a variety of healthful foods. It shouldn’t be surprising that individuals are more likely to avoid fiber-rich foods if these foods cause them to experience uncomfortable gas and bloating. If anything, digestive enzymes can help to make eating the healthy foods you love more enjoyable.
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- Vangay P, Johnson AJ, Ward TL, Al-Ghalith GA, Shields-Cutler RR, Hillmann BM, Lucas SK, Beura LK, Thompson EA, Till LM, et al. US Immigration Westernizes the Human Gut Microbiome. Cell [Internet]. Elsevier Inc.; 2018;175:962–972.e10. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2018.10.029
- Kopec RE, Gleize B, Borel P, Desmarchelier C, Caris-Veyrat C. Are lutein, lycopene, and β-carotene lost through the digestive process? Food Funct. 2017;
- O’Toole PW, Jeffery IB. Gut microbiota and aging. Science. 2015.
- Saltzman JR, Russell RM. The Aging Gut: Nutritional issues. Gastroenterology Clinics of North America. 1998.