“Think of your body as a car with a small gas tank,” says Jessica Crandall, R.D.N. and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If you try to put in too much fuel at once, it’s not going to do anything for you.”
That means you need to optimize your meals, not super size them.
When you eat, how much you eat, and even what kind of food combinations you put together, can have an effect on nutrient absorption, says food scientist Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D.
When you properly absorb nutrients, your body can use vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and other food components more effectively. That means your body will hum along more efficiently—and you’ll feel better, too. (Here are 13 easy ways to get more protein in your diet.)
Here, 5 hacks that can boost your nutrient intake without making your belly bulge.
The “more meals” strategy is often touted for weight loss, because it can keep your blood sugar steady and decrease hunger spikes.
But it can also be beneficial for nutrient timing, says Crandall. That’s because eating every 4 to 6 hours allows your digestive system—as well as your liver and pancreas, which handle toxins and regulate insulin, respectively—to operate more efficiently.
Since they’re not being overloaded with work—say, a huge meal they need to break down— they’re able to better absorb the nutrients that are passing through.
When you’re putting together your meals, aim to pack in at least 30 grams of protein per meal.
That amount of protein is the benchmark for muscle building, but it’s also the dose in which you start getting the satiating effect of protein, he says.
By increasing protein along with meal frequency, you may also decrease body fat, according to a 2013 study published in Obesity.
Too much body fat can increase levels of inflammation in your body, Crandall says. And that can prevent you from effectively absorbing nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Healthy fat—think olive oil or avocadoes—helps to “unlock” the antioxidants and vitamins in vegetables.
That’s because some vitamins like carotenoids, a type of vitamin A found in vegetables like carrots and spinach, are fat soluble, says Crandall. That means fat allows them to dissolve, which frees them up to be absorbed in your body.
In fact, researchers from Iowa State University discovered that people absorbed more of carotenoid antioxidants after eating a spinach, romaine, tomato, and carrot salad topped with full-fat dressing than they did with reduced-fat or fat-free dressings.
Best of all, it doesn’t even take much fat to boost your absorption rate, Crandall adds.
Throw an ounce of almonds or just 1/5 of an avocado on a salad and you’re there. Even a drizzle of olive oil can do the nutrient lock-picking with vegetables.
Wolf down your food and you might be swallowing away a bunch of its nutritional benefits.
That’s because when you chew thoroughly, you allow enzymes in your saliva—like amylase and lingual lipase—to start breaking down your food. This kicks off the digestion of sugars, starches, fats, and proteins, says Dubost.
As a result, the nutrients are able to be better absorbed throughout your entire gastrointestinal region, she says. That’s better than having the food wait to broken down by your stomach acid alone, which may not do as thorough a job.
Dubbost suggests chewing anywhere from 20 to 50 times with each mouthful to gain the greatest nutritional boost.
In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who chewed almond 40 times before swallowing excreted less fat in their feces than those who chewed only 10 times—meaning the long chewers were absorbing more of the healthy fats in their bodies.
Plus, adequate chewing can have a benefit for your belly, too. In that study, people who chewed the almonds 40 times experienced less hunger than those who chewed 25 times or fewer.
Probiotics—“good” bacteria that live in your gut—can improve digestion, which means better nutrient absorption, according to the World Gastroenterology Organization (WGO) Handbook on Gut Microbes. (It also means less bloating and gas, too).
Probiotic foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir and even some types of pickles. You can also get it from a supplement, too: The WGO suggests choosing a brand with at least three different strains of bacteria, since greater variety can mean better digestion.
You can enhance the effectiveness of a probiotic by making sure you’re eating enough food with prebiotics, which basically feed the probiotics to keep them working well, Dubost says.
They’re found in foods like asparagus, artichokes, bananas and leeks. So if you’re popping a probiotic, consider timing it with that post-workout banana.
Cook your vegetables wrong and much of their nutrients may go up in smoke. Turns out, steaming your vegetables might be the best way to keep their nutrients intact.
In one Chinese study done on broccoli, researchers found that steaming the vegetable better retained its chlorophyll, soluble protein, and vitamin C than stir-frying or boiling it did.
And you don’t need to worry that cooking your vegetables is taking away some of its raw power.
In some cases, cooking may be even better than eating your vegetables raw: Cooked spinach and carrots, for example, have been shown to deliver higher levels of antioxidants when cooked versus eaten raw, says Elaine Magee, R.D., author of Food Synergy.
Cooking often breaks down a vegetable’s outer layers, making it easier to digest, and better able for nutrients like minerals to be absorbed, she says.