Can you actually shrink your stomach? (The fresh Prince of Bel-Air version)

So this is a story all about how your food gets churned, turned upside down. And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how your stomach works and why you should care.

(forgive me, it was a bucket list item to wave the Fresh Prince of Bellaire into s blog post √√ )

No but really, this piece of equipment is super important so to start, let’s take a squiz at what the stomach is and what it does!

Digestion is the breakdown of food to get the goodies (energy/nutreints). We actually start preparing for food before it hits out mouth! Just the thought or sight of food gets us gearing up for it. Our mouth marks the start of our digestive system, and our… ummm…. bottom, to be polite, is the end (#bumpun). But let’s look at our stomach, as it is not only the way to my heart, but is an important thing to get, if you want to know about how our food looks after us.

The stomach, our eyes are bigger than it, but not really.

To start, I’d like to ask you to think of a red J shaped  balloon which has been hanging around for a few days, and is a bit wrinkly. This is your stomach. It’s gross already!

 Dead Balloon, by Chris Pegg 

Dead Balloon, by Chris Pegg 


Our stomach is where are large amount of the breakdown of food occurs, in order for us to access the energy and nutrients locked inside. Empty, the stomach is around 250 ml in volume and full volume is about 1.7 L depending on the individual, and I dare say we pull off some magnificent feats at Christmas!

Food is digested chemically and mechanically. i.e it gets mushed by enzymes which chop it up, acids which break it down and churned by smooth muscle which passes it though a small passage or sphincter (and what a cool word that is!).

The muscle helps to propel and churn food to make it easier to access the nutrients. These muscles also undulate to pass food through the stomach to the next stop, which is the small intestine. If you picture what happens when you take the four corners of a sheet and shake it when you are making your bed, (because we all still play parachute with our sheets don’t we…? Guys?), that’s kind of like the little muscular motions that mush and push our food.

We have these folds called rugae (roo-gay). They increase the surface area of the stomach so we can get more done in a smaller space (pretty much Danish design) and as we eat, these folds stretch out so we can accommodate more volume in the stomach. When we start eating the body sends signals to relax the stomach lining in preparation for food like ‘hey guys, get your eating pants on! It’s time for dinner!’

There are lots of different types of cells within the stomach which release a whole bunch of hormones that drive or slow down digestion and also feed-back information (another pun, sorry, it’s a real problem for me) to the brain about how much and what we have eaten and whether we need to continue, or ease up.

Then we need to layer this with the Enteric Nervous system which is driven by our Vagus nerve which is our key messenger between ut and brain. It sends messages from the stomach to the brain and provides feedback on how things are going down there. And the brain is able to override a few of the vagus instruction too. Our brain brain is the chief but mostly lets the Vagus nerve do its think without micromanaging. 

From there, food passes as a liquidy goop called Chyme into the small intestine, where we do more digesting and absorption of nutrients, moving to the large intestine or colon, where water is reabsorbed and the final touches are made before we, well, poop out what is not required. Necessary to talk about, yet highly un-glamourous, not dissimilar to pap smears.

And on that awkward note,  I have satisfied my need to provide background information to set the gloriously poopy scene and now can answer a question that has the diet industry has had us hanging on for years. Can you shrink you stomach?

Well, having looked at the very engineering of our gut, then we can see how this might be the case, but it’s also a dynamic thing. Some positive research has shown that a reduction in volume of food leads to early feelings of fullness. Also, reducing intake can also lead to a slowing of gastric emptying- ie your food takes longer to move out of your stomach into your intestines, so you feel fuller for longer.

But then we need introduce into the mix, the fact that changes are likely not permanent, and the other aspect of dietary intake that we don’t always listen to our stomach when it tells us it is full, now do we? (Guilty).

Behaviour modification also plays a big role in reducing intake, more specifically, reducing intake of the more junky food. Filling up with fibre rich veggies, and nutrient dense foods means we are less likely to have the over-eating problem, and will be supplying ourselves with what we need to function, while maintaining a happy weight.

So while it may be bigger than my eyes literally, there are many times when my eyes challenge my stomach’s size and this is triggered by sheer determination to get through whatever delicious food is in front of me.

The stomach is crux of many metaphors, showcasing its importance to our general health, but to our well-being, as a common indicator that something might be amiss upstairs. This is thanks to that Vagus nerve messenger system linking the brain and the stomach/digestive system. But id you want to go the extra mile to look after yourself, my top tips for keeping your stomach happy include:

  • Chew well
  • Eat slowly and in a relaxed state
  • Feed it with unprocessed food
  • Eat your veggies 
  • Be good to your mother (it helps everything)

Just a few small things to keep this important piece of machinery ticking and you in a prime nutritional state. 

Harriet WalkerComment