It’s not much good trying to gain muscle by eating a ton of protein and calories if you’re not absorbing enough of the nutrients. That goes double if you’re trying to lose weight: your portions are smaller, so it’s even more important that you properly absorb as much of your nutrition as you can.
These days, there are a variety of tools at your disposal if absorption is a priority for you. Take a look at these.
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That’s right, we’re starting off with a weird one. But this is way more science-backed than you might think, and it’s a favorite of pro bodybuilder Ben Pakulski. Remember how counting to ten is a good way to avoid losing your temper? Long story short, meditating (you can call it “counting your breaths for a few minutes” if that sounds too woo-woo) helps to calm your nervous system.
This stimulates your vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body, which goes from your brain down to your belly. A stimulated vagus nerve (called increasing your “vagal tone”) puts your body in less of a “fight or flight” state (called “sympathetic”) and more of a “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) state, and we can actually measure this: research has shown that increased vagal tone may result in better nutrient absorption and insulin secretion, among tons of other benefits.(1)(2)(3) You’re telling the body that there’s no one to fight and you can dedicate energy to digesting.
[Learn more: How meditation can improve sports performance.]
2. Vitamin C
This one’s easier and it’s especially important if you’re eating a lot of plants. For starters, iron that comes from plants or eggs (called “non-heme” iron) it doesn’t absorb as well as the kind you get from meat. Eating it with a source Vitamin C helps to remedy the issue and increase the absorption.(4)(5) This is extra important if you drink a lot of tea or coffee, as that may reduce iron’s absorption.
It’s also useful if you’re eating legumes or whole grains as they contain phytic acid, an “anti nutrient” that may inhibit your absorption of minerals like zinc and magnesium.(6)(7)(8) Pairing phytic acid with Vitamin C, though, vastly improves your absorption of these nutrients.(9)(10) Eat fruits or veggies with your meals.
3. Black Pepper Extract
If you own a lot of vitamins or pre workouts, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Bioperine® in the ingredients list. Piperine is the molecule people are after here, and evidence suggests it can inhibit enzymes that might hamper the digestion of certain nutrients.
This is why most curcumin (turmeric) and green tea (EGCG) supplements, along with a lot of prescription meds, include piperine as a few studies have found it to improve absorption of their anti-inflammatory compounds.(11)(12) Most notably, some research has found piperine to increase curcumin’s absorption by as much as 2,000 percent.(13)
There’s less research on piperine boosting, say, vitamin absorption, and while it seems to help prevent excessive levels of some drugs in the body it also reduces the effectiveness of others, so chat to a doctor before taking it.
4. Probiotic Supplements
Eating fermented food or consuming probiotic supplements may improve the health of your gut microbiome, the name given to the trillions of bacteria lining your digestive tract. These critters help you to digest and break down food, and it’s easy to damage your microbiome with insufficient sleep, not eating enough fiber, or just being stressed out.
Research has found that taking certain probiotics increases the absorption and utilization of protein and other nutrients.(14)(15)(16) Consuming plenty of fiber, especially prebiotic fiber (found in garlic, onions, bananas, and asparagus, among other places) can also help to maintain your gut microbiome.
[Learn more: 5 things most people miss about digestive health.]
5. Eat Slowly
If you clean your plate before anyone else, it’s possible you’re not absorbing as much as you can. Chewing thoroughly helps to break own food and activate enzymes in your mouth — a 2009 study found that when comparing folks who chewed almonds 10 times and 40 times, those who chewed more absorbed more fat and energy from the meal.(17)
6. Eat Enough Fat
A lot of vitamins, like A, D, K, and E, are fat soluble, so they need fatty acids to absorb effectively. Sometimes you’ll find these vitamins in fatty foods (Vitamin E in almonds, Vitamin K in butter, Vitamin D in egg yolks) but a lot of the time, especially if you’re taking supplements, you may find it to be prudent to consume some fat with the vitamins to help them get to your bloodstream.
7. Cook (Some of) Your Food
Much to the chagrin of raw food enthusiasts, a lot of foods seem to digest better when they’re cooked because it helps to break down the plant cell walls. Cooking really increases the bioavailability of beta carotene (which converts to Vitamin A and is found in tomatoes and carrots), it decreases oxalates (which make iron harder to absorb), and it makes protein in eggs and meat easier to absorb.(18)(19)(20)
Now, this is still pretty controversial because some methods of cooking reduce vitamins. Boiling cuts the Vitamin C content of broccoli by 50 percent, largely because it’s water soluble so it leeches out into the water, but even microwaving might take about 25 percent of the Vitamin C.(21)(22) You could keep a spreadsheet of every food and its best cooking method, but we think it’s easier to just eat a lot of plants so that you’re unlikely to run low on nutrients, cooked or not.
8. Get Enough Sleep
Poor sleep means poor, well, everything. It messes with a range of hormones related to stress, blood sugar, and nutrient absorption, all of which are involved in how well you absorb nutrients.(23)(24)(25)(26)
A systematic review of twenty-six studies published in Public Health Nutrition found a pretty good link between low amounts of circulating nutrients and low amounts of sleep.(26) Given just about all areas of your health are impacted by this as well, get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
[Learn more: 8 questions you should ask about your sleep schedule.]
9. Take Digestive Enzymes
This is a pretty new area of supplementation, but there’s evidence that taking enzymes can improve some areas of digestion. Examples include proteases (for breaking down protein), lipases (fat), and amylases (carbs), and many find them (and probiotics) especially useful when they’re traveling in foreign countries and your gut becomes more vulnerable to indigestion.
To get an edge on the competition, a lot of protein powders add enzymes to their formulations, and some evidence backs it up: a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition saw that men who took Aminogen (a blend of proteases) with whey concentrate experienced an increased absorption rate.(27)
A lot of foods also contain useful enzymes, like the protease bromelain in pineapple, amylases in bananas, and lipases in avocados. We seem to make fewer enzymes as we age so enzyme supplements may be more useful once you’ve hit middle age, but it’s worth noting these supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA so you’ll want to make sure they’re at least third party tested.
There are also plenty of things you should avoid to improve absorption — alcohol can kill your digestive enzymes and stress can make you run low on nutrients like Vitamin C.
The most important advice, as per usual, is to eat a wide variety of foods and a lot of plants and fiber, manage your stress, get enough sleep, and if you’re still concerned, chat to your doctor about supplements and other solutions.
Featured image via Golubovy and Olha Afanasieva on Shutterstock
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2. Tavakkolizadeh A, et al. Role of vagal fibers in weight control and nutrient absorption. J Surg Res. 2012 May 1;174(1):85-7.
3. Dériaz O, et al. The parasympathetic nervous system and the thermic effect of glucose/insulin infusions in humans. Metabolism. 1989 Nov;38(11):1082-8.
4. Cook JD, et al. Effect of ascorbic acid intake on nonheme-iron absorption from a complete diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Jan;73(1):93-8.
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10. Siegenberg D, et al. Ascorbic acid prevents the dose-dependent inhibitory effects of polyphenols and phytates on nonheme-iron absorption. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991 Feb;53(2):537-41.
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13. Shoba G, et al. Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers. Planta Med. 1998 May;64(4):353-6.
14. Jäger R, et al. Probiotic Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086 Improves Protein Absorption and Utilization. Probiotics Antimicrob Proteins. 2018 Dec;10(4):611-615.
15. Krajmalnik-Brown R, et al. Effects of gut microbes on nutrient absorption and energy regulation. Nutr Clin Pract. 2012 Apr;27(2):201-14.
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17. Cassady BA, et al. Mastication of almonds: effects of lipid bioaccessibility, appetite, and hormone response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Mar;89(3):794-800.
18. Livny O, et al. Beta-carotene bioavailability from differently processed carrot meals in human ileostomy volunteers. Eur J Nutr. 2003 Dec;42(6):338-45.
19. Chai W, et al. Effect of different cooking methods on vegetable oxalate content. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Apr 20;53(8):3027-30.
20. Evenepoel P, et al. Digestibility of cooked and raw egg protein in humans as assessed by stable isotope techniques. J Nutr. 1998 Oct;128(10):1716-22.
21. Yuan GF, et al. Effects of different cooking methods on health-promoting compounds of broccoli. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2009 Aug;10(8):580-8.
22. Zeng, C. Effects of different cooking methods on the vitamin C content of selected vegetables. Nutr & Food Sci. 2013 Sep;43( 10)1108/NFS-11-2012-0123.
23. González-Ortiz M, et al. Effect of sleep deprivation on insulin sensitivity and cortisol concentration in healthy subjects. Diabetes Nutr Metab. 2000 Apr;13(2):80-3.
24. Donga E, et al. A single night of partial sleep deprivation induces insulin resistance in multiple metabolic pathways in healthy subjects. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Jun;95(6):2963-8.
25. Samel A, et al. Sleep deficit and stress hormones in helicopter pilots on 7-day duty for emergency medical services. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2004 Nov;75(11):935-40.
26. Taheri S, et al. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004 Dec;1(3):e62.
27. Oben J, et al. An open label study to determine the effects of an oral proteolytic enzyme system on whey protein concentrate metabolism in healthy males. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008 Jul 24;5:10.