Can Veganism Ease Digestive Symptoms?
The number of vegans in the United States has risen over the past ten years with 1.4 % of the population eating a vegan diet in 2006, 2.5% in 2011, and 6% in 2015. A vegan diet avoids animal products, including dairy and eggs and focuses on whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. People choose to become vegan for many reasons, including, to protect animal rights, to support the environment, for weight loss, to cut their grocery bill, and to improve their health. Veganism is thought to decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, migraines, allergies, and cardiovascular disease and to increase our lifespan. For the past eight years, I have been mostly vegetarian with the occasional fish and the less occasional poultry and I am finding that more and more of my meals are vegan. This has been a slow and careful transition for me because I have fructose malabsorption and there are some, but not all, foods high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols) that I need to limit or avoid to prevent triggering symptoms. This diet is also recommended for those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). So why am I telling you this? Well, it turns out that whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables tend to be high in FODMAPs. But, even though there are foods I need to avoid or eat in small portions, I am finding that I can eat more of other foods high in FODMAPs and I am overall feeling better. I am less bloated, less gassy, my bowel movements are better, and I have not had joint pain or brain fog in awhile. So I wondered, could eating a vegan diet not necessarily cure but at least ease digestive symptoms for those of us with fructose malabsorption, IBS, acid reflux, or [fill in the blank]?
Eating a healthy vegan diet can support and improve our digestive health for a number of reasons. The first and most probable one is that if one focuses on eating healthy, natural, and unprocessed foods, filled with vitamins and minerals, our bodies and digestive system will be happy with us and treat us better. Eating animal products can be hard on our digestive system and the hormones and antibiotics fed to the animals, which we end up ingesting, can wreak havoc on our guts and our ability to digest normally. This is why it is recommended that if one eats animal products, it is best to eat small portions, don’t eat them often, and buy it from farms or companies that do not use hormones and antibiotics. Another reason is that eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are low in calories and can fill us up. All of this makes one more likely to maintain a healthy weight, which is good for our digestive system and decreases our risk of acid reflux, colon cancer, and diverticulitis (when pouches that formed in the colon wall become inflamed). Reducing foods high in fat or acidity such as dairy, meat, and eggs, can also reduce acid reflux. Additionally, the increased fiber we obtain from a healthy vegan diet helps to maintain regular bowel movements and the increased potassium helps eliminate toxins from our kidneys and decreases bloating.
Before choosing to become a vegan or increase the number of vegan meals in your day, there are some things to be aware of. One should ease into the vegan diet because too much fiber too fast can affect the bacterial flora that has a role in digesting food and that can lead to bloating, gas, and constipation. Adjusting one’s gut slowly to the increased fiber allows the bacterial flora to stay healthy and one can avoid or reduce the chances of digestive problems. In general, it is best not to eat too much fiber at each meal and make sure you are eating both soluble fibers (soft parts of fruits and vegetables, oat, and beans), which slows down digestion and increases the absorption of vitamins and minerals and insoluble fiber (skins of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts), which speeds up digestion and helps eliminates waste. Together, they work to maintain normal bowel movements. Additionally, it is recommended to work with a doctor and/or dietician to determine a well balanced diet and to be periodically tested for the level of protein, calcium, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, and other nutrients. This is especially important if one has celiac disease because the damaged intestinal villi increases the chance of deficiencies in some nutrients. There are many plant-based foods that can provide the essential vitamins and minerals, but vitamins like B12 or minerals like iron are more difficult to obtain from a vegan diet so one may need to take a multivitamin.
Other recommendations before starting a vegan diet:
- Consider a vegetarian diet before going full-throttle into veganism.
- Avoid soy-based meat and chicken alternatives. They tend to contain added preservatives, chemicals, and sugars and many of them have vital wheat gluten, which may be harmful if on the FODMAP or gluten-free diet.
- Watch portion sizes of foods high in FODMAPs (especially if during the elimination phase), fiber, and legumes.
- Stay hydrated to help digest the increased fiber.
- Soak and cook beans before eating them. Puree them down in a hummus, soup, or burger so they can be digested more easily.
- Soak grains, nuts, and seeds too.
- Cook vegetables that are hard to digest. Steaming, roasting, and baking will keep the nutrients in.
- Add leafy greens. They reduce inflammation and heal the digestive system.
- Eat root vegetables. They are high in fiber, water, potassium, and magnesium, which promote regular bowel movements and reduces bloating.
- Try new foods. This includes chia seeds, tofu, lentils, millet, daikon, kombucha, and so much more.
- Drink herbal teas after you eat including:
- Peppermint – stimulates digestion, is anti-inflammatory, and relieves indigestion, and nausea.
- Chamomile – stimulates digestion and is anti-inflammatory.
- Ginger – stimulates digestion, is anti-inflammatory, and reduces intestinal spasms, gas, diarrhea, and nausea.
- VeganHealth.org – A great source for all things vegan
- USDA Nutrient Database – Provides a breakdown of nutrients
- Vegan Cookbooks
- The Kind Diet – A vegan cookbook and resource for those new to veganism by Alicia Silverstone
- Vegucated – A documentary that follows three meat- and chese-loving New Yorkers who agree to adopt a vegan diet for six weeks
- How to get enough protein as a vegetarian on the low FODMAP diet
- A list of gluten-free grains & how to cook them
1. FODMAPs for vegans
2. Managing IBS while adhering to a vegan diet
3. 57 health benefits of going vegan
4. How to deal with digestive difficulties on a plant based diet
5. Vegan Diet: Health benefits of being vegan
6. Vegan is going mainstream, trend data suggests
7. Food swaps that can provide acid reflux relief
8. Constipation and bloating with a plant diet
9. Vitamins, minerals, and nutrients…decoded for vegans and vegetarians
11. Vegetarian and vegan diets explained
12. How to Avoid Common Nutrient Deficiencies if You’re a Vegan
13. The Ultimate Vegan Guide
14. Craig, W.J. (2009) Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 89(5): 1627-1633
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