It's all about fiber
Switching to a plant-based diet will probably significantly increase how much fiber you consume. A 2014 study published in Nutrients compared nutritional intake of different eating patterns and found meat-eaters consume around 27 grams of fiber each day, while vegans typically get 41 grams. Why the big difference? Meat and dairy are very filling, and removing them often results in you eating more fiber-rich foods to feel full.
The increase in fiber can bring a lot of health benefits. The Cleveland Clinic says that a high-fiber diet can help lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and reduce the risk of intestinal cancer. Research also shows that fiber helps create a healthier gut microbiome. "Fiber is fuel for the beneficial microbes in the gut, contributing to enrichment and diversity," says Michelle Darian, MS, MPH, RD, and a nutrition scientist at InsideTracker.
Current USDA guidelines for daily fiber intake suggest about 25 grams per day for women and 34 grams for men. However, more fiber can also cause digestive issues because your body isn't used to getting so much of it. According to a study published in the Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 67% of people think they are eating enough fiber when only about 5% actually are. So the sudden increase in fiber from switching to a vegan diet might take your digestive system by surprise.
Your body does not actually digest fiber. Instead, it passes through your system staying relatively intact. "Many will have more issues with gas when they start a vegan diet," says Nimah Ather, MD, gastroenterologist at UCLA Health Torrance. "This stems from fermentation by bacteria of all the extra fiber sitting around after starting the diet." But don't worry. There are ways to enjoy all the benefits of a high-fiber vegan diet without the discomfort. Here are six steps to have your fiber and eat it too.
How to avoid vegan digestive issues and ease your stomach into plant-based goodness
1. Increase your fiber incrementally
Fiber is fantastic, but "switching to a fully vegan diet and increasing your fiber intake too fast is not recommended," says Dr. Ather. "This can lead to bloating, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and constipation." So instead of revamping your entire diet overnight, slowly increase your fiber intake by 5 grams each week. This helps you avoid excessive gas, bloating discomfort, and other vegan digestive issues, says Dahlia Marin, RDN, LD, plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist and co-founder of Married to Health, an integrative medical nutrition therapy practice.
2. Drink plenty of water
If you're increasing your fiber intake, it's essential to drink enough water. Fiber bulks up your stool, but water turns fiber into a gel that makes it easier to digest. So making sure you're drinking enough is a great way to ease your stomach into a plant-based diet. "Drinking more water helps alleviate constipation by bulking the stool and eliminating it from the body," explains Darian.
Contrary to popular belief, there's no universal amount of water to drink each day, but there is guidance based on your overall diet and activity levels. "In general, one should drink their water before or after their meal, but not during," Peyton Berookim, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist at the Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California, previously told Well+Good, adding that you should aim to drink it throughout the day instead of chugging it all at once.
3. Build your meals around protein sources
Another way to make sure you're easing into your vegan diet is to build meals around plant-based protein sources like lentils, tofu, tempeh, beans, and nuts, Darian recommends. "Building a meal around protein makes it easier to incorporate more whole foods into the meal, rather than falling into the processed, convenience foods trap too often," she explains. "Convenience foods can contain refined sugars and high amounts of added salt that are not supportive of digestion."
4. Eat probiotic-rich foods
There's a strong connection between digestion and your gut microbiome, which are the bacteria that help with everything from mood to skin irritations. So if you're having a bit of trouble with digestion, it might be worth it to add some good gut bacteria into the mix. "Fiber-rich foods are considered prebiotic-rich foods that diversify the bacteria in the gut microbiome," says Darian. "It's also important to incorporate probiotic-rich, live, beneficial bacteria foods that enrich the microbiome." Plant-based sources of probiotics included fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and fermented teas.
5. Stick to healthy fats
"Don't add in any extra trans fats," says Rajiv Sharma, MD, a gastroenterologist with Gastro MD. He explains they decrease the nutritional value of your meal and make you gassier and more bloated. It's worth pointing out that Food and Drug Administration regulations have reduced how often trans fats show up in our food supply, but if you're eating a lot of processed food, you should look out for hydrogenated (or partially-hydrogenated) oil. "You want to stick with very healthy fats," Dr. Sharma says. "I prefer Omega-3 and Omega-6—which can be found in safflower, sunflower, avocado, and almond."
6. Try soaking your beans and cooking your raw foods
If stomach pain, constipation, and bloating is an issue, consider how you're prepping your food before eating it. Beans should always be soaked, rinsed, and cooked before consumption, Darien says. "If consuming other raw vegetables is leading to gastrointestinal upset, try cooking your vegetables," she says. "Cooking vegetables helps to break down certain indigestible components of [them]." It also makes it easier for your body to digest the vegetables and get used to the increased fiber.
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