Your alimentary canal is about forty feet long if you are an average-sized man, a little less if you are a woman. The surface area of your stomach and intestines is about a half an acre!
Your stomach is higher up than you probably think, and off center to the left. It is about ten inches long. Not much digestion actually happens in the stomach but the stomach does contribute both chemically and physically by squeezing its contents with muscular contractions and bathing food in hydrochloric acid. This acid kills off many microbes that we cannot fend off otherwise.
Even so, every year three thousand people die of food poisoning in the US and around 130,000 are hospitalized. E. coli is a common culprit. Most strains of E. coli are not harmful but are actually part of the healthful bacterial flora in the human gut. Beneficial E. coli helps produce vitamin K and vitamin B12.
However, some types of E. coli can cause illness in humans, including diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and vomiting. E. coli O157:H7 is one of the strains. It produces a toxin known as Shiga.
According to USDA, about a quarter of all chicken pieces sold in stores are contaminated with salmonella.
Following safe food preparation is essential.
The food you eat spends about four to six hours in the stomach and another six to eight hours in the small intestine. The small intestine absorbs all that is nutritious from what you have eaten before it heads onto the large intestines. The small intestine is lined with tiny hairlike projections called villi. This lining of your gut is semipermeable. This means the junction between the villi let certain particles through, like nutrients, but prevents others from being absorbed from your digestive tract.
Still, sometimes molecules you don’t want in your body sneak across your gut wall. This is “leaky gut”, a condition when the villi are less tight together as they should be. A little leakiness is normal. Minor leaks help “educate” your immune system not to overreact to foods and your normal gut bacteria. But when there’s an uptick in leakiness, it could harm your health. When the wall of your small intestine is compromised, you may absorb incompletely digested food, toxins, and bacteria.
Food moves along by a process of contractions known as peristalsis. The surface is lined with a layer of protective cells called the epithelium which keep digestive juices away from tissue surrounding your gut.
Food can spend up to three days in the large intestines, also called the colon, which is essentially a large fermentation tank where billions and billions of bacteria pick over whatever the rest of the intestines couldn’t manage – fiber mostly.
Eat more fiber! It keeps your gut microbes happy and at the same time reduces the risk of heart issues, diabetes, and bowel cancer.
Nearly all cancer that occurs in the gut is found in the large intestine and almost never in the small intestine. Professor Hans Clevers of the University of Utrecht thinks it is related to diet. “Mice get cancer in the small intestine but not in the colon. But, if you give them a Western-style diet, that reverses. It is the same for Japanese people when they move to the West and adopt a Western lifestyle. They get less stomach cancer, but more colon cancer.”
The connection between your gut and mental health appears to be so strong that some have proposed probiotics may one day take the place of antidepressant drugs. According to an article published in the June 2013 issue of Biological Psychiatry, the authors suggest that even severe and chronic mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, might be eliminated through the use of certain probiotics.
Two strains shown to have a calming influence, in part by dampening stress hormones, are Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifdobacterium longum. Others may have similar effects, although more research is needed to identify them.
Using MRI scans, Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, is also comparing the physical brain structure of thousands of volunteers, looking for connections between brain structure and the types of bacteria found in their guts. So far, he has found differences in how certain brain regions are connected, depending on the dominant species of bacteria. As reported by NPR: “That suggests that the specific mix of microbes in our guts might help determine what kinds of brains we have – how our brain circuits develop and how they’re wired.”
The human gut has 200 million neurons. Your gut also houses nearly 100 trillion microorganisms, which influence everything from biological to emotional functioning.
Your brain is home to your central nervous system while your gut houses the enteric (related to or occurring in the intestines) nervous system. These two nervous systems, the central nervous system in your brain and the enteric nervous system in your gut, are in constant communication, connected via the vagus nerve. Your vagal nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and the longest nerve in your body, extending through your neck into your abdomen. It has the widest distribution of both sensory and motor fibers.
Your brain and gut also use the same neurotransmitters for communication, one of which is serotonin which is a neuro-chemical associated with mood control. However, the message sent by serotonin changes based on the context of its environment.
In your brain, serotonin signals and produces a state of well-being. In your gut – where 95 percent of your serotonin is produced – it sets the pace for digestive transit and acts as an immune system regulator.
Interestingly, gut serotonin not only acts on the digestive tract but is also released into your bloodstream, and acts on your brain, particularly your hypothalamus, which is involved in the regulation of emotions.
While we’ve known that the gut and brain communicate via the vagus nerve, researchers have only recently discovered that gut serotonin regulates emotions in a much more complex way than previously thought. Not only can your emotions influence your gut, but the reverse is also true.
Optimizing your gut flora is of critical importance for good health and mental well-being. Reseeding your gut with beneficial bacteria is essential for maintaining proper balance. Beneficial bacteria help keep pathogenic microbes and fungi in check and prevent them from taking over.
Regularly eating traditionally fermented and cultured foods is the easiest, most effective and least expensive way to make a significant impact on your gut microbiome. Healthy choices include natto (fermented soy) and various pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots.
If you don’t eat fermented foods on a regular basis. It’s also important to avoid things known to disrupt or kill your microbiome, and this includes:
- Antibiotics, unless absolutely necessary (and when you do, make sure to reseed your gut with fermented foods and/or a probiotics supplement)
- Conventionally-raised meats and other animal products, as CAFO animals are routinely fed low-dose antibiotics, plus genetically engineered and/or glyphosate-treated grains, as glyphosate has also been implicated in the destruction of gut flora
- Processed foods (as the excessive sugars feed pathogenic bacteria)
- Chlorinated and/or fluoridated water
- Antibacterial soap and products containing triclosan
Plantains are the less sweet, starchier equivalent to the banana. Sweet bananas, sometimes called “dessert bananas” are much more popular in the United States and Europe, but plantains are an extremely important staple for people in tropical countries.The nutritional content of plantains varies depending on their level of ripeness and how they’re prepared. Plantains can either be a high-fiber and nutritious choice, or a salty, fried snack food.
Unlike dessert bananas, plantains are almost always cooked before eating. In fact, they taste more like an uncooked potato than a banana.
Cooked plantains are nutritionally very similar to a potato, calorie-wise, but contain more of certain vitamins and minerals. They’re a rich source of fiber, vitamins A, C, and B6, and the minerals magnesium and potassium. Plantains can be used when ripe (yellow) or unripe (green).
- Calories: 215
- Fat: 0.22g
- Sodium: 8mg
- Carbohydrates: 58g
- Fiber: 3g
- Sugars: 22g
- Protein: 2g
- Potassium 663mg
- Vitamin C 23mg
- Vitamin A 63ug
- Vitamin B6 0.29mg
- Magnesium 57m
Plantains provide lots of carbohydrates. A medium green plantain (boiled) has 70 total grams of carbs, with 5 grams of fiber and 31 grams of natural sugar. As plantains ripen, fiber content goes down and sugar content increases. Carbohydrates aren’t necessarily a bad thing for weight management like most people believe. The fiber and starch found in plantains are complex carbs. Fiber and complex carbs are less processed and more slowly digested than the simple carbs found in processed foods. They keep you fuller and more satisfied for longer after a meal.
The high level of resistant starch gives plantains a low glycemic index of about 38.5 (ripe raw plantains) to 44.9 (boiled unripe plantain). Resistant starch doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. By slowing down digestion, promoting satiety, and enhancing “good” gut bacteria, the resistant starch in plantains promotes glycemic control.
Plantains are a good source of potassium, which is an important mineral that reduces hypertension. One medium-sized boiled plantain has 1,040 milligrams of potassium. Most adults need between 2600–3400 milligrams per day. The potassium you can find in plantains is essential for maintaining the cell and body fluids that control your heart rate and blood pressure.
Plantains provide iron and vitamin C, two micronutrients that work together to optimize absorption. Although iron from plant sources is not usually as easily absorbed, vitamin C increases its bioavailability.
Plantain allergies often overlap with banana allergies, as the two fruits are in the same botanical family. Symptoms may appear shortly after eating plantains and include itching of the mouth and throat, hives, swelling, or wheezing.
The resistant starch in plantains may make them difficult to digest. Green, raw plantains are especially high in resistant starch. If you’re not used to eating a lot of fiber, plantains can cause discomfort like gas, bloating, and constipation. Increase your intake slowly, allow plantains to fully ripen, and cook before eating to reduce digestive distress.
How to Buy
There are two general varieties of plantains: the horn plantain and the French plantain. Find fresh plantains or plantain products in your co-op or grocery store. Because plantains are popular in different cultural dishes (including Asian, Spanish, Caribbean, and African cuisines) you may be more likely to find them in ethnic grocery stores.
Choosing the right plantain depends on how you plan to use it. If you are going to cook with plantains (to make plantain chips, for example), look for green fruit that’s firm and heavy.
Once a plantain turns yellow with brown or black spots, they become softer and sweeter. Use ripe plantains more like bananas. Green plantains ripen in a few days at room temperature. Avoid buying plantains that are bruised, overripe, or have broken peels.
How to Store
Plantains can be stored fresh, frozen, or dried. If plantains are at peak ripeness but you’re not ready to use them yet, place in the refrigerator for a few extra days. If plantains are unripe, you can leave them on the counter out of direct sunlight to ripen at room temperature.
To freeze plantains, remove the peel and store in an airtight container in the freezer. Dehydrated plantains should be stored at room temperature in low humidity.
How to Cook
Plantains are naturally low in fat, but easily absorb oil when cooked in it. Fried plantains are a high-fat food. Try baking plantain chips with limited oil for a lighter snack
If you have a favorite banana bread or banana muffin recipe, you can use ripe plantains instead. Some recipes call for plantain skins to be washed and left on for cooking. Plantains are popular in Puerto Rican cuisine. Classic Latin dishes include mofongo (mashed and fried plantains) and tostones (twice-fried plantains).
Try making your own healthy version of baked plantain chips. You’ll need:
- 2–3 green plantains
- Olive or avocado oil
- Sea salt or your favorite spice
Peel and thinly slice the plantains. Use a mandolin or the side of a cheese shredder. Place the slices in a bowl and sprinkle with 1–2 tablespoons of oil.
Lay the slices on a non-stick baking sheet (or use parchment paper). Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes or until crispy.
Yam and Plantain Curry with Crispy Shallots
Yewande Komolafe NY Times/ Photo Credit David Malosh and Food Stylist Barrett Wahburne
- ¼ cup neutral oil, such as avocado, algae or grapeseed
- 4 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
- Kosher salt
- 4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 1 (2- to 3-inch) piece fresh ginger, grated (about 2 tablespoons)
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 whole red habanero or Scotch bonnet chile, pierced all over with a knife
- 1 (14-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juices
- 1 ½ pounds white or orange yams, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 green (unripe) plantains (about 1 pound total), peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 (13-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon red palm oil (optional)
- 4 cups julienned hearty greens, such as dandelion greens, collards or lacinato kale, tough stems removed
- ¼ cup fresh basil leaves, torn
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 lime, sliced into wedges for squeezing
- Heat a medium pot, large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium. Pour in the neutral oil, add the sliced shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until shallots are caramelized and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove shallots from the oil and allow to drain on paper towels or a cooling rack. Season with salt and set aside.
- Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil out of the pot. (Reserve extra oil for another use.) Over medium-low heat, add the garlic, ginger and turmeric to the pot and sauté until softened and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for an additional 2 minutes or until it begins to stick to the bottom of the pot.
- Drop in the chile and add the whole peeled tomatoes with their juices, crushing the whole tomatoes with your hands as they go in. Stir to combine ingredients and dissolve the tomato paste, then add 3 cups water and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Once boiling, season with salt, reduce heat to medium, add the yams and simmer until the yams are just beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the plantains and cook until both are tender but hold their shape, and the liquid is slightly reduced and thickened, 15 to 18 minutes.
- Stir in the coconut milk and red palm oil, if using, season with more salt and let simmer for another 10 minutes. Add the greens and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
- To serve, remove and discard the cooked chile. Ladle the curry into bowls, top with the caramelized shallots, a scattering of basil and cilantro, and several squeezes of lime juice.
Bryson, Bill. The Body, A Guide for Occupants, Doubleday/Penguin Random House LLC, 2019, Pages 248-259