Maintaining a Healthy Digestive System

By: Bhavesh Shah, M.D., medical director, Interventional Gastroenterology, Long Beach Memorial; and gastroenterology director, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, Long Beach Memorial

Your digestive system is responsible for breaking down food and drinks into nutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein, fats and vitamins. The body uses these nutrients for energy, growth and cell repair.

Maintaining a well-balanced diet is key to keeping your digestive system healthy and decreasing your risk for gastrointestinal cancers. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, approximately 20 percent of all cancers in the U.S. are related to body fat, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption and/or poor nutrition.

To maintain a healthy digestive system, try some of these tips:

Consume a variety of fruits and vegetables daily.

Fruits and vegetables are full of essential vitamins and minerals. Try to brighten your plate with a variety of colors. The daily recommendation for adults is 2 – 3 cups.

Serving size examples:

  • ½ cup cooked vegetables
  • ½ cup chopped fruit


Choose more lean meats.

Lean meats, like poultry or fish, are a good source of protein. Meats should be limited to 6 oz. per day and prepared by broiling, grilling, roasting, poaching or boiling. Processed foods, such as lunch meats, should be limited.

Examples of healthy protein sources:

  • 3 oz. poultry
  • 2 Tbsp. hummus
  • 1 egg = 1 oz. of protein
  • 1 oz. nuts


Stick to whole grains.

Make half of all grain intake “whole grains.” Great whole grains items include brown rice, quinoa and oatmeal. The process for refined “non-whole” grains, such as white bread, includes removing certain nutrients.

Serving size examples:

  • ½ cup of cooked oats, rice or pasta
  • 1 cup dry cereal
  • 1 corn tortilla


Limit fat intake.

Limit foods with excess sugar, salt and fat. Your daily diet should include no more than three servings of fat.

Serving size examples:

  • 1 tsp. oil, butter or mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp. salad dressing


Ensure a fiber-rich diet.

Dietary fiber promotes healthy weight by contributing to the feeling of fullness. Adequate fiber intake also can prevent constipation and diverticulosis. Before utilizing fiber supplements, try getting daily fiber intake from unrefined, fiber-rich foods. The recommended daily intake is 20 - 35 grams.

Common fiber-rich food sources:

  • Skins/peels of fruits
  • Beans and lentils
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds


Consider probiotics.

Probiotics are organisms with proposed health benefits, which are commonly derived from fermented food sources, like in cultured milk products.

The body already contains bacteria, so adding probiotics may prevent “bad” bacteria from growing. Since the digestive system is involved with immune function, probiotics also may help fight infections.

The benefits of probiotics vary, so it’s important to speak with your doctor to best determine the individual benefits.

Common probiotics food sources:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Yogurt
  • Kimchi


Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol intake.

Smoking and excessive alcohol intake can increase your risk for cancer and other serious diseases. In addition, smoking and alcohol can trigger heartburn and other symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease.



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