Paula Blanchet, RHN
If you’ve switched to a vegan diet only to find that plants are feeling more like wild animals in your belly, don’t give up! Sometimes dietary change is like going to the gym—you just need to build up your digestive strength.
You’ve decided to go vegan. You’ve been hearing stories about how great everyone feels after switching to a plant-based diet. But for some reason, you’re not basking in that same glow. Maybe you’re feeling bloated or irregular, have acid reflux, or are even battling some irritable bowel symptoms. Perhaps you started off feeling great, but over time you began experiencing digestive troubles. Or maybe it was difficult right out of the gate. It’s not what you signed up for, and you’re wondering if this is for you, right? Don’t throw in the towel just yet, because this is not uncommon when switching to a vegan diet—and it can be overcome. Here are some solutions that will help keep your digestion game strong.
How easily a vegetable is digested often relates to the type and quantity of fiber it contains. Insoluble fiber, while important, can be harder to break down when digestion isn’t functioning optimally.
Foods like broccoli or cauliflower are slower to digest when raw, so try steaming or baking them instead. You can also combine those foods with foods containing soluble fiber, like quinoa or potato, to get the bulk you need without stressing your digestive system.
Beans are a staple of the plant-based diet, but they’re also high in fiber and sometimes difficult to digest. Soaking dried beans with a type of seaweed called kombu before cooking, or serving canned beans slightly mashed or pureed (think refried beans or hummus) can help reduce indigestion and bloating.
Some foods, such as beans and grains, contain compounds called phytic acid and lectin that may be irritating to the intestinal lining and can inhibit nutrient absorption. Proper preparation, such as soaking and rinsing those foods before cooking, can greatly reduce these compounds, making the foods easier to digest and the nutrients more bioavailable.
During digestion, the body produces enzymes to break down food. There are three main types of enzymes: proteases to digest proteins, lipases to digest fats, and amylases to digest carbs.
Prolonged digestive difficulty may indicate these enzymes have become depleted in your body, making symptoms like gut irritability, diarrhea, and bloating difficult to overcome. Enzyme supplementation may greatly improve these symptoms.
If you don’t know which food is specifically giving you trouble, then start with a product that includes all three pancreatic enzymes: amylase, pepsin (an important protease) , and lipase. Trypsin may be included to help further break down amino acids (the building blocks of protein), and added cellulase helps break down high-fiber foods.
Some digestive enzyme supplements are sourced from animals, so be sure to read the label carefully. There are many vegan options available that are sourced from fruits like pineapple or papaya or from molds, yeasts, or fungi. Some can interact with certain medications, so be sure to check with your doctor first.
Switching to a vegan diet can sometimes be hard for those looking for satisfactory alternatives to meat, which may lead to consuming only a few protein options they like. But lack of variety is a major problem. Here’s why.
You’re more likely to experience intestinal irritation if you eat too much of a food that is not easily digested.
You’re less likely to get the full spectrum of nutrients your body needs. Nutrient depletion can lead to general inflammation that may include intestinal inflammation, so staying properly nourished is important. Individual plants don’t generally have all the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals you need in adequate quantities, so eating a wide variety of foods helps ensure your diet is balanced and nourishing.
Some foods can improve digestion because of specific compounds they contain.
- Erica Volk, ND, & Kristina Campbell, MSc
According to dietitian and gut health specialist Sophie Medlin, “Our bowels work more efficiently when we’re active.” This means that “any gentle exercise, like walking or swimming, can help to keep the digestion active.”
Gentle exercise has been shown to ease constipation, improve intestinal bacteria, and help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It may even protect against colon cancer.
How about those biweekly high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes? Unfortunately, they may be having the opposite effect on your digestion. “Vigorous exercise like running or HIIT, as well as weightlifting, will divert blood from your bowels into your muscles,” says Medlin.
The gut is relatively inactive overnight, so doing a few stretches or yoga poses when you wake up can help stimulate a bowel movement.
Walk some or all of your commute to stimulate blood flow to the GI tract.
This simple yoga pose can help relieve digestive discomfort. Just sit back on your heels and fold over your thighs to compress the digestive organs. Focus on deep breaths to massage the digestive system.
- Laura Sugden
All this advice should be helpful if you’re experiencing mild to moderate digestive upset. If you don’t notice fairly immediate relief of your symptoms or if your symptoms get worse, it may be time to seek professional help.
Digestive disorders should not be taken lightly. Left unchecked, they can lead to chronic inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, or even cancer. A nutritionist can recognize if these concerns are developing, help you pin down which foods may be the culprits, and teach you to eat in a balanced way.