Did you realise that there is a day and indeed an organisation that celebrates world digestive health? Every 29th May, the World Gastroenterology Organisation (WGO) celebrates World Digestive Health Day (WDHD) kicking off a yearlong, worldwide, public health campaign. Each year they have a theme and for 2021 they have partnered with the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders (IFSO), for the theme of; Obesity; An ongoing pandemic. More on that later
Global Guardians of Digestive Health
The World Gastroenterology Organisation (WGO) rather affectionately describe themselves as the Global Guardians of Digestive Health, I absolutely love this description and given the importance of digestive health issues and the impact they can have on society, I am glad we have a scientific community leading the way on this.
Digestive health covers many factors, of course we all get digestive discomfort from time to time, such as stomach ache, indigestion, nausea, constipation and /or diarrhoea. Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital in London states that;
“Around 4 in 10 people have at least one digestive symptom at any one time and most digestive problems are to do with lifestyle, the foods we've eaten, or stress. Which means that taking steps to change your lifestyle can help, and often prevent, many of these problems.”
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Of course, there are many issues that changes to your lifestyle couldn’t fix such as Ulcerative Colitis and Chron’s disease, for these there is no cure but treatments include specific diets, lifestyle changes, medication and sometimes even surgery. There is no exact cause for IBD but genetics and your immune system are both contributing factors.
Common Digestive Issues - IBS
There are many digestive health issues but by far the most common and perhaps the most discussed is IBS. IBS is a fairly complicated condition as many people will have symptoms without a formal diagnosis, many people self-diagnose IBS based on the experiences they have but these symptoms may not be IBS, they may be signs of a food intolerance or symptomatic of stress and anxiety. Most people will experience some degree of digestive discomfort from time to time but, for ISB sufferers these symptoms will be much more consistent with many having daily discomfort and others regular flare ups.
Promoting the health and diversity of your gut bacteria can be not only beneficial to IBS but to your overall physical and mental health too. Try to include probiotics such as live yogurts, and cultures drinks (kefir, kombucha) to top up your live bacteria and to feed your existing bacteria try to include prebiotics such as chicory, bananas, leeks, garlic, onion, asparagus, lentils and beans (please be aware that some prebiotic foods are also FODMAP’s) which some people find difficult to digest.
Eating a diet that is naturally rich in colours is a good way to support your gut health too, as is avoiding overly processed and nutritionally devoid foods.
Managing IBS Symptoms
Keeping a food journal is helpful to manage and identify trigger foods
Reducing caffeine, this may worsen diarrhoea
Reducing alcohol and fizzy drinks
FODMAP (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols). This is a specific diet which is quite complicated to follow and generally seems to go against the usual ‘healthy eating’ advice as it reduces fibre and avoids certain fruits and vegetables. That’s because these FODMAP’s are a group of carbohydrates that some people find hard to digest.
Keeping hydrated to prevent constipation
Avoid too much fat, by fat I mean cakes, biscuits, creamy sauces, butter etc not the good fats we get from Fish, nuts, olives, avocados etc. Some people find fats hard to digest
Avoid artificial sweeteners, some of these such as Sorbitol can act as a laxative, people with IBS are likely to be more sensitive to additives in general so please check the label!
Elimination diet – you may not need to follow the FODMAP diet but you may need to go through a process of elimination of certain foods, this can be confusing and time-consuming. To ensure you don’t eliminate too many nutrients you should always work with a professional when doing this
Obesity; An ongoing pandemic
Now, back to the theme of the WDHD 2021. Obesity is a sensitive subject, even as a Nutritional Therapist I have been guilty of feeling embarrassed or guilty for raising the word obesity. I feel this is because obesity is often misrepresented and misunderstood. If we treated obesity as a metabolic condition linked to a combination of emotional and biological factors then we may feel more comfortable discussing it. Often however, it is portrayed as something to be ashamed of or in a way that makes individuals feel guilty. This can often make people unwilling to seek help or to attempt fad-diets. It's little wonder we are getting fatter as our food landscape has changed so much, we have become more sedentary and we are living in a particularly stressful time! In times of stress people often comfort eats which makes the whole situation ten times worse!
To understand obesity and to take a stand against it we have to appreciate the significant toll it places on our health and the health of future generations, here’s some statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) around that: -
Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.
In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese.
39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese.
Most of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.
Obesity is preventable
The goal for WDHD 2021 is to raise awareness of obesity and the impact on the development of comorbidities and subsequently the effect on life expectancy, which is as devastating as any infectious pandemic”
There’s enough information in the statistics to give us cause for concern but to fully move forwards we need to remove the blame, remove the stigma and give obesity the ‘disease credibility’ of a serious condition and not simply a dress/trouser size or BMI reading. We have seen the impact of an infectious virus causing a global pandemic yet perhaps have not seen or fully noticed the pandemic that has been creeping up on us gradually but consistently over the last 40 years. Due to changes in our lifestyle and our food landscape this is only set to get worse, our children are expected to become overweight adults and we know, it isn’t just weight it’s our health that’s at stake.
For more information on the work that is taking place for World Digestive Health Day (WDHD) 2021 take a look here
Food & Health Writer
Presenter on Early Years TV Food