Enzyme rich foods are powerful for digestive health; some research even shows that enzymes help prevent and treat certain diseases.
And it’s good to know that most raw foods contain some natural digestive enzymes.
However, some types of enzymes work better for digesting certain kinds of foods than others.
For example, some foods have enzymes that break down carbohydrates.
A great example is a banana.
When it ripens into a sweet fruit is not magic at all; it contains amylase and pectinase which break down the starchy carbohydrate to make it soft and sweet.
Bananas are among a long list of foods with live enzymes.
In this post, learn how enzymes work to improve your digestive system, where to find specific enzymes for digesting all kinds of foods, and how best to eat them.
Table of Contents
Enzymes for digestion: how they work
The enzymes in many raw foods not only serve to ripen the foods you eat, but they also help you feel better when you eat them.
This is because natural digestive enzymes in raw foods help you digest foods too.
Digestion begins in the mouth due to enzymes present in saliva and in foods. It doesn’t fully end until it reaches the large intestine because the probiotics there help you complete the final digestion steps.
Our bodies need to break food down into digestible pieces because we can’t simply digest foods that are in their whole forms.
Without enough enzymes to break down your food, you may feel symptoms of heartburn, bloating, dyspepsia, diarrhea, constipation, and more. In other words, it helps to have foods with digestive enzymes in your diet every day, preferably at every meal.
Your digestive tract makes enzymes too, but it is best to get a boost from the foods you eat as well.
Types of enzymes in foods
There are four main types of enzymes present in raw foods. Your digestive tract also makes them, but healthy foods can be a good way to enhance the number of enzymes you get in your diet.
Here is a digestive enzymes list to help you become familiar with them.
Keep in mind, foods with enzymes typically are broken down when heated, so you need to eat these foods raw when possible.
- Carbohydrate-digesting enzymes: when you eat starchy foods, fiber foods, or sugary foods, they are broken down by enzymes found in foods and in your digestive tract. These include enzymes like amylase, cellulase, pectinase, hemicellulase, maltase, alpha-galactosidase (aka Beano), and lactase.
- Protein-digesting enzymes: Proteins in food are complex structures and need a lot of help to break them down into amino acids and smaller proteins. Enzymes that help do the job are bromelain, papain, chymotrypsin, zingibain, ficin, serrapeptase, and trypsin.
- Fat-digesting enzymes: the primary enzyme in foods that helps break down fat for digestion is called lipase.
- Free radical-digesting enzymes: some enzymes in foods even help to neutralize toxins and reduce oxidative stress from the foods we eat. These enzymes include catalase and superoxide dismutase.
Some of the most common digestive symptoms come from improper digestion of carbohydrates like lactose and fibers. The following enzymes can help ease these symptoms.
One of the most important enzymes for digestion is lactase. This enzyme breaks down lactose, or milk sugar, into easily-to-digest compounds.
Foods that contain lactase are:
Foods that contain amylase to help break down starches such as grains and legumes include:
- Raw honey
- Raw sauerkraut
- Fermented asparagus
- Fermented carrots
- Apple cider vinegar with the mother
Fiber-digesting enzyme foods
Fibrous foods can be tough to tolerate because some fibers can irritate the gut, especially if you aren’t used to them.
- Some foods that have enzymes that help break down fibers include dates, raw carrots, apples, and pineapple.
- Probiotic-rich foods also contain enzymes that assist in breaking down fibers, such as raw sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar, and fermented vegetables.
There is no doubt that it can be hard to digest proteins. This is why you need enzymes for protein digestion.
Proteins are the most complex structures to break down, so eating enzyme-rich foods that help break down proteins can be really helpful for the digestive process.
Another name for protein-digesting enzymes is called proteolytic enzymes. These enzymes are also used as supplements for various health conditions, such as arthritis, circulatory disorders, and for helping prevent cardiovascular issues [R].
- Raw honey
- Aged cheese
You can even find proteolytic enzymes in meat tenderizers.
Another important step in breaking down proteins is stomach acid. Without enough stomach acid, you may suffer from indigestion and poor absorption of vitamins and minerals from protein-rich foods.
Fatty foods need some help from enzymes to break down properly too. The enzyme our body uses to break down fats is called lipase.
Lipase-rich foods that aid the digestion of fats include:
- Aged cheese
Free radical-digesting foods
Some enzymes in foods also help the body break down toxins known as free radicals. These enzymes from food act as antioxidants in the digestive tract too.
Catalase and superoxide dismutase in foods are two of these enzymes.
By reducing oxidative stress in the body, they have many roles in health, from helping protect the heart and brain to keeping muscles and joints healthy [R].
They also improve gut health and promote a balanced immune system by helping promote a balanced microbiome [R].
Some people also claim that they are able to reduce the graying of hair and reduce aging effects.
Like other enzymes, catalase is broken down by heat, but not as much as other types of enzymes.
Free radical-digesting enzymes come from a long list of raw foods. They include:
Beef liver, mushrooms, avocado, leeks, onions, radishes, kale, carrots, spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cucumbers, parsnips, celery, red cabbage, pineapple, cherries, apricots, bananas, watermelon, kiwi, peaches, sunflower seeds, yeast, cheese, raw soaked almonds, and sweet potatoes.
Foods that reduce digestive enzymes
Eating certain foods can reduce the ability of your body to digest well. If you struggle with gas, bloating, or indigestion, you should try reducing the amount of these foods.
This is because they can contain trypsin inhibitors. Trypsin is an enzyme that helps to digest proteins. So when trypsin inhibitors are present in foods, they may cause you distress [R].
Cooking partially reduces these trypsin inhibitors but does not completely inactivate them.
Foods with trypsin inhibitors that you may need to limit include red beans, kidney beans, soy, lentils, squash, cucumber, peanuts, french beans, and green peas.
Enzyme-rich foods benefits
The health benefits of enzyme foods are vast, so you should try to get enzymes from each category daily if possible.
After all, the pancreas doesn’t make enough enzymes for all your food. Additionally, if your small intestine is inflamed, you won’t be able to make enough digestion enzymes there either.
Digestive enzyme foods help with more than lactose intolerance and gas. They help people who struggle with poor absorption of foods known as malabsorption [R].
People who struggle with irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel diseases also feel better when taking digestive enzyme supplements [R].
Some digestive enzymes enter circulation and may help reduce the risk of thrombosis and embolism [R]. Research even shows that enzymes such as bromelain from pineapple may reduce the risk of allergic airway disease [R].
Enzymes digest inflammatory compounds too. By doing so, enzymes even reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee in some research [R].
A note about fermented foods
The amount of enzymes in foods varies a lot, but fermented foods often have the most.
This is because lactic acid bacteria made during the fermentation process can create a wide variety of probiotic bacteria.
These bacteria in turn produce a wide array of digestive enzymes [R].
Fermented foods help digest just about anything you eat, in other words. Most of these foods were listed above as well, but here is a recap:
- Raw apple cider vinegar with the mother
- Raw sauerkraut
- Raw kimchi
- Aged cheeses
- Fermented carrots
- Fermented asparagus
- Other fermented vegetables
- Fermented fruits
Enzyme-rich foods summary
Eating both raw fruits and vegetables helps to provide your digestive tract with a good amount of needed enzymes for digestion. Additionally, raw fermented foods provide a broad spectrum of enzymes to help you feel your best.
These enzyme-rich foods can reduce symptoms of gas, bloating, and indigestion. Additionally, they can help reduce irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Importantly, they may even reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
As with anything, check with your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes in your diet or lifestyle routine.
Disclaimer: The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. While The Healthy RD’s posts are backed by research, you are unique. So you must seek care from your own dietitian or healthcare provider. This post is not meant to diagnose or treat any conditions. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.