What to Limit and What to Eat When You're Hungry
When being super busy leads to a skipped meal or two, it's tempting to eat every morsel of food in your kitchen once you finally get a minute. But it's better for your gut if you're more particular about what you eat following an unintentional fast—even if what you're about to chow down on is healthy.
This is because your GI tract can become more sensitive to certain types of foods if you've been running on empty for a while. The primary culprits for digestive drama? "Fatty, fibrous and larger meals tend to proliferate GI symptoms in people with a sensitive digestive system," says Edwina Clark, M.S. RD, California-based registered dietitian.
To prevent pesky post-meal symptoms—like bloating and cramps—following your first meal back, kick things off with a snack-sized offering to get your digestion back on the rails, wait about 20 minutes, then eat a well-balanced meal that includes protein, fat, starch and vegetables, says Rachel Larkey, M.S. RD, a New York City-based registered dietitian and owner of RL Nutrition.
Below are seven foods your body might not enjoy digesting when you haven't eaten in a while, as well as stomach-friendly swaps you can snack on in the meantime.
1. Red Meat
"Proteins take our bodies the longest time to digest, so a serving of red meat will leave our systems working overtime to break down the food," says Amy Shapiro, M.S. RD, a New York-based registered dietitian, and founder and director of Real Nutrition. "After a long period of not eating, this can lead to negative symptoms and stomach distress, as well as feelings of excessive fullness."
Eat this instead: To keep digestive drama to a minimum, it's best to work your way back up to heavier foods. Get things rolling with a bone broth, or something similar, suggests Shapiro, as it helps to coat the stomach. Bonus: The protein comes from collagen, which is easily digestible.
2. Energy Bars
These can be super heavy on an empty stomach, causing gas and discomfort as your body attempts to digest what feels like a literal brick. (Kidding. Sort of.) Not only that, but some energy bars are so filling that you may not feel hungry again until your next mealtime has passed—and this can lead to more meal-skipping and further throw off your normal meal patterns and digestion, says Larkey.
Eat this instead: Go with a banana or 2-3 dates. "They have a fair amount of natural sugar to raise your blood glucose (since when you've skipped meals, your blood sugar is very low), but also have fiber to help with digestion," says Larkey. It's a quick and convenient snack to get your insides warmed up for when you eat your next meal.
"If you're already hangry, avocados aren't going to offer much sugar to raise your blood glucose back up to normal, and the fat content (while healthy) digests very slowly and may trigger reflux in some people," says Larkey, especially if you're prone to worsening reflux on an empty stomach.
Eat this instead: Munch on some trail mix that contains nuts and something sweet. "Nuts have healthy fats, like avocados, but the addition of a quick-digesting carb, like a dried fruit or chocolate, will help raise your blood sugar if you're feeling hangry," says Larkey.
4. Protein Shakes
Protein shakes typically contain whey protein, which can bother many people's stomachs, says Larkey. Pesky symptoms might include gas, bloating, cramps and diarrhea—not an ideal reaction when you're trying to catch up in the nutrient department following a missed meal.
Eat this instead: Make your own smoothie with a veggie, a fruit, some plain greek yogurt, a liquid and any add-ons you like, such as oats or chia seeds. "Yogurt has probiotics to support gut health, and has very little whey, so people find it much easier to stomach," says Larkey. Try our Pineapple Green Smoothie for a natural energy boost!
When you're trying to refuel after a long hiatus away from food, eating a large portion of fruit (say, more than one serving) won't get you very far. By eating fruit on its own, the simple sugars it contains will cause your blood glucose to rise rather quickly, followed by feeling famished again in 30-60 minutes, says Suzanne Dixon, M.P.H., M.S., RD, a registered dietitian in Portland, Oregon. And if you're prone to acid reflux when your stomach's empty, snacking on acidy fruits can flare it up even more.
Eat this instead: Ideally, you want to stick to one serving of fruit at a time and combine it with some protein and healthy fats to balance things out, says Dixon. Think: an apple with peanut butter, or grapes and string cheese.
6. Legume-Based Pasta
Pasta products made with legumes are usually an excellent choice, but for someone who hasn't eaten a meal or two and has a sensitive GI tract, legume-based pasta could lead to gas and bloating, says Clark. With legume-based pasta containing (on average) 10-15 grams of fiber per serving, it's a lot for your GI tract to handle in one shot if it hasn't seen food for a while.
Eat this instead: "Opt for a whole-grain pasta made with whole wheat, brown rice or quinoa," says Clark. "You'll still get the benefit of a slow-digesting carb and fiber, but without going overboard."
7. Raw Vegetables
Large portions of carbohydrates, even if healthy—like the complex carbs found in veggies—can cause us to feel excessively full and even lead to blood sugar dips later on, says Shapiro (cue the hanger. In particular, veggies from the cruciferous family, like Brussels sprouts, broccoli or cauliflower, are hard to digest and can cause gas and bloating. The fact that they're rich in fiber can make them especially tricky to digest, putting extra pressure on your empty stomach to perform.
Eat this instead: "Cooked vegetables are easier to digest since the carbohydrate chains have been softened and are easier for our bodies to break down," says Shapiro. Enjoy them steamed, sautéed, or in soup form—and try to focus on easier-to-digest picks on an empty stomach, such as spinach or arugula.
Related: Slow-Cooker Vegetable Soup
The Bottom Line
It's not unusual to get busy and lose track of time. And when the moodiness and headache start setting in, you realize you haven't eaten for a while. Eat something small and light at first to get your GI tract back on track and then go from there.