Up to this point we have learned how food enters the body and then is broken down mechanically and chemically in the mouth, esophagus, and stomach.Now some of the food nutrients are ready to be absorbed into the body or moved further along the digestive tract. Picking back up where we left off, we continue the digestive process at the small intestine.
Mechanical digestion: the same rhythmic, wave-like muscle movements known as peristalsis that moved food down the esophagus also move food through the small intestine.
Chemical digestion: pancreatic enzymes, bile (produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder), and other digestive enzymes break down the food even more. Bile specifically helps in dissolving fats.
At this point most of the food has been broken down into forms which allow it to be absorbed through the small intestine and into the bloodstream to be transported to the cells of the body. The nutrients will be used for energy, building body tissues, or stored for later use!
The Pancreas (special mention)
Insulin is the hormone that is secreted by the pancreas to regulate blood sugar (glucose) levels. Eating a well-balanced diet that is low in processed sugars will also help regulate blood sugar levels. If our body either stops making insulin or our cells stop recognizing insulin, the body may become diabetic, meaning our cells are not receiving the nutrient glucose (which is sugar) and therefore blood sugar levels rise and an individual has hyperglycemic episodes. So while the pancreas does not chemically or physically break down nutrients, it does work closely with our digestive system to provide balanced blood sugar levels – which in turn means our cells have energy to do work!
Water and electrolytes are absorbed from the large intestine into the bloodstream. Most of the nutrients from our food have been absorbed at this point, but what is left from our digested food is combined with other bodily waste (such as dead cells!) and then moved along to the end of the digestive system.
Remember in our “Nutrients” blog post when we talked about Carbohydrates – specifically the complex carbohydrate called fiber? Well this is the part in our digestive system where fiber becomes very important! Fiber helps us to stay full longer after eating and also helps our food “move along” in the digestive tract. What this really means is that it gives our bowel movements consistency and prevents stool from being too hard or too soft. Sorry if that got gross really fast! But that is the nature of talking about our digestive system… What goes in must come out!
Side note: We have microorganisms that live in our large intestine – which is good! They help with the digestion process by protecting against harmful bacteria and creating various vitamins. Recently a lot of research has been conducted in order to understand the microbe environment in our gut and how it relates to many diseases we often do not relate to diet, such as depression.
Rectum and anus
Not to be forgotten are the rectum and anus. The rectum is at the end of our long intestine and it the place that holds our food waste for a short period until it is ready to be excreted. The anus is the body opening of which our food waste exits the body.
So there you go, folks! That is the digestive system from start to finish!
For those reading this blog post still, I want you to realize that this information has been given to you with the hope that you would realize one thing:
Nutrition is life or death.
Nutrition is life or death because what we put into our bodies is literally what we become. The carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and water we ingest will either help to make our bodies stronger and healthier or will work against our bodies by putting stress on the heart, lungs, digestive organs, blood vessels, and all other body tissues.
Nutrition is important because our food is broken down into nutrients at the most microscopic level and those nutrients help to form and fuel the body. This is the most difficult aspect of teaching nutrition because to our human eyes we cannot see this! However, it is very real and believe me, many people have actually witnessed it happening (these people being scientists with very strong microscopes and other devices). Which is why I feel so confident in sharing this information with you all!
So now what???
Now you know the basics of:
1) What nutrients are
2) Why you need those nutrients and
3) How they are broken down and moved throughout our digestive system.
To use this information in your everyday life can be quite simple. A few small changes our Nutrition Education team encourages our class participants to take are:
- Choose grains that are whole grain – this means looking at the first ingredient in the ingredient list and making sure it is whole grain
- Choose protein foods and dairy options that are lower in fat content
- Look at the sugar content of dairy options and beverages and choose those with lower sugar content
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables! (Personal tip: Experiment with fruits and vegetables that are not usually on your plate! Especially when those foods are in season – they will taste the best during this time!)
(Much of this was already stated in our “Nutrients” blog post!)
Next Blog Post…
As Winter turns into Spring we are coming out of hibernation and getting the gardens going! We will be introducing our newest AmeriCorps member and rolling out some really exciting plans for the Spring and Summer gardening programs and projects by the Clark County Food Bank!
Blog Post Author: Lauren Cameron, AmeriCorps Nutrition Educator 15-16