Our gut microbiomes are fascinatingly diverse and wonderfully unique to each individual. Meaning no one diet is perfect for every single human being. Although, there are quite a few different foods that are more beneficial than others, many of which are eaten on a vegan diet. Making veganism a pretty good dietary choice. But more on that later.
Before we get into it, it is worth noting that diet isn’t the only thing that can affect our gut. Many gut-related issues like IBS can be brought on by stress and anxiety (which is the case for me). Some may materialise after a course of strong antibiotics. And others could be genetic.
Gut issues can be debilitating and will have knock-on effects on your overall well-being, which is why it is so important to care for our microbiome and take control of the things that we can!
The one key thing we can truly take control over when it comes to our gut health is our diet. Whilst no one diet is perfect for every individual, studies have shown that eating more plants could be the answer (see scientific study). Whether that means being fully vegan or just dabbling in plant-based food, plants do wonders for our guts and in this article, I am going to tell you why!
I have been on my own very special gut journey after being diagnosed with IBS a year back. It hasn’t been pretty but I am finally getting to a happy place with my gut. On top of this, I have been vegan since 2015, so at the time of writing this I’ve been eating a purely plant-based diet for 8 years. I’d say this puts me in a very good position to talk about this topic openly and honestly.
Veganism uncovered many of my gut issues but it has also helped me to heal from them. And now I want to share my experience, research and opinions with you so that hopefully you can understand more about veganism and its impact on gut health.
What happens to your digestive system when you go vegan?
Okay, I’m not going to pretend that the instant effects of going vegan are pretty, particularly if your diet used to be devoid of any plants. You may well find yourself sitting on the toilet a lot more (hello fibre), and your gut may go into detox mode. Meaning you may experience temporary bloating, gas and slight discomfort in the stomach and abdomen.
This is because plants are rich sources of dietary fibre, prebiotics, and probiotics, all of which help to support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. And when I’m talking about plants, I mean everything from fruit and vegetables to grains and legumes. They are all full of the good stuff! Check out this awesome list of probiotic-rich vegan food.
On the flip side, a typical Western diet includes many processed foods like bread, pasta, and white rice, on top of fatty foods like animal meats. It is surprisingly low in plant-based foods. This means when you switch your diet to be fully or predominantly plant-based, your gut will start being fed a whole host of healthy stuff.
These plants get to work quickly, meaning your gut will start to react pretty quickly. One study found that people following a vegan diet saw their body weight, fat mass and visceral fat go down in just 16 weeks (find out more here).
Once your gut has gotten used to your new plant-based diet, any temporary side effects should disappear pretty quickly and you’ll have a microbiome packed full of good bacteria that is being fed even more of the good stuff on a regular basis. Many studies have proven that vegans have a more diverse gut microbiome, which is linked to better gut health (see scientific study)!
Although, it is important to note that you may not see such positive effects from going vegan if you were to eat a predominantly processed diet. I’m looking at you, meat substitutes. So, do make sure to eat a varied whole foods diet, for the most part.
What are the rewards?
I get it, you are looking for a digestible list of the awesome gut-related benefits you may experience when going vegan. Here you go:
- Increased diversity of gut bacteria: Plant-based diets tend to be rich in fibre, which serves as a prebiotic, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. A diverse gut microbiome is associated with better health outcomes.
- Improved digestion: Vegan diets, which are typically high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, provide essential nutrients and digestive enzymes that support healthy digestion.
- Reduced inflammation: Plant-based diets often have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce gut inflammation and promote a healthier gut environment.
- Enhanced gut barrier function: The fibre found in plant-based foods can help improve the integrity of the gut lining, reducing the risk of “leaky gut” and promoting a healthy gut barrier.
- Lower risk of gut-related diseases: Studies have shown that a vegan diet may be associated with a reduced risk of certain gut-related conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, and diverticular disease.
- Potential weight management: A well-balanced vegan diet, when combined with other healthy lifestyle habits, may help with weight management. A healthier weight can positively impact the gut microbiome.
- Positive impact on gut hormones: Vegan diets have been shown to positively influence gut hormone levels, which can improve appetite regulation and overall gut function.
- Lower risk of certain cancers: Some research suggests that a vegan diet may be associated with a decreased risk of certain cancers, including colorectal cancer, which can be influenced by gut health.
- Better metabolic health: Vegan diets have been linked to improved blood sugar control and cholesterol levels, which can positively affect the gut microbiome.
What are the risks?
Contrary to popular belief, a vegan diet is for everyone. But quite commonly, people may uncover intolerances they never knew they had prior to going vegan. Mostly because there are foods they are now eating that they never even tried before.
When I went vegan I uncovered a whole host of intolerances. Now, that wasn’t because of the vegan diet as such, it was more to do with the variety of food I was now introducing into my diet.
I’d never eaten quinoa before going vegan, nor did I know how to pronounce it. I’d barely even touched most legumes. So, with the introduction of many of these foods into my diet I discovered some foods that my gut didn’t like so much, like chickpeas and lentils.
For others, it may be that they are slightly intolerant to soy which they only discover after eating more tofu and tempeh.
This is worth keeping in mind when first going vegan. Although, you should persevere with certain foods if they only give you slight gut issues, because it may just be teething issues that you are experiencing!
What about if you have IBS as I do? Jump to this section.
The science behind it
I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t fully take my word for it. After all, I am a dedicated vegan with a slight plant-based bias. So, thankfully there are numerous scientists and scientific studies that you can peruse instead:
- A plant-based diet has been shown to promote the development of a diverse and stable microbiome. On top of this, vegans have significantly higher levels of good bacteria than meat eaters. The high-fibre foods being digested by vegans consistently increase lactic acid bacteria and reduce less desirable species. Read the full scientific study here.
- Vegan gut profiles are shown to be unique in several ways, in particular, they are high in protective species of bacteria. This reduces levels of inflammation. Read the full scientific study here.
It is even the main emphasis of The Gut Health Doctor. She is a big believer in eating more plants, 30 different kinds a week to be exact. Something that I find incredibly easy to achieve with a vegan diet.
The role of probiotics in gut health
You may have noticed I’ve thrown around the word probiotic a few times in this vegan gut health guide. But what are they are why are they so important?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. They are often called “good” or “friendly” bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.
Probiotics work by restoring the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. Our bodies have both good and bad bacteria, and when the bad bacteria outnumber the good, it can lead to digestive issues and other health problems.
Probiotics help to increase the number of good bacteria in your gut, which can improve digestion, boost your immune system, and promote overall health and well-being.
They can be found in certain foods like fermented vegetables and yoghurts, or taken as a supplement. So if you’re looking to improve your gut health, consider adding eating more probiotic-rich vegan food or taking a vegan-friendly gut supplement.
Vegan food high in probiotics
Here are some plant-based foods that are rich in probiotics, which help add friendly bacteria into your gut, therefore are beneficial for gut health:
- Fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut and packed full of friendly bacteria
- Fermented drinks like kombucha, living soda (try out Hip Pop) and kefir (try out non-dairy versions)
- Fermented foods like tempeh, miso and vegan yoghurts
- Bread products that have been made using sourdough
Please note: When it comes to promoting the survival of probiotics that you’ve fed your gut, you should consider eating plenty of prebiotics which act as food for probiotics. These mushroom supplements are a great source of prebiotics!
Probiotics are really effective at promoting a healthy gut microbiome so I would recommend incorporating these into your diet! For a full list of probiotic-rich vegan foods that you should be consuming, click on the button below.
Vegan-friendly gut supplements
If you’d like to introduce even more good bacteria into your gut through supplementation, then you should check out these high-quality probiotic supplements. All of them have been tried and tested by myself.
- The most effective gut supplement that I use every day is Symprove. It contains 70 billion live bacteria from 4 strains. Read my full Symprove review to find out more, alternatively, you can buy it here and get 25% off.
- A supplement that has helped reduce my bloating quickly and has become a lifesaver for when I’m eating out at restaurants is Wild Dose. Read my full Wild Dose review to find out more, alternatively, you can buy it here.
- For those who like the idea of Symprove, but would rather have a capsule format, check out the clever Synbiotic capsule from Ritual that contains both liquid postbiotics and powdered probiotics and prebiotics. Read my full Ritual review to find out more, alternatively, you can buy it here.
For a more thorough list of supplements that you can try, click on the button below.
Tips for maintaining gut health on a vegan diet
The temptation when you go vegan is to eat absolutely every product that is vegan in the supermarket. Especially when there are so many new plant-based food products coming to market every month. On top of this, you’ll want to eat at all the vegan restaurants. There are so many incredible ones and you’ll just want to keep on going back.
But, as with any diet, restriction is key. And when I say restriction, I mean restriction of unhealthy foods. In particular, processed vegan foods. Instead, you should focus on the beautiful and nutritious products that have been created by nature (yes, I know I sound a bit like a hippy right now). Read my vegan nutrition guide to discover more helpful and healthy content.
Here are some useful tips for maintaining great gut health on a vegan diet, or any diet for that matter.
- Eat plenty of fibre-rich foods: Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes are all great sources of fibre that can help promote healthy digestion.
- Incorporate fermented foods into your diet: Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and tempeh contain probiotics that can help promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
- Avoid processed foods: Many processed vegan foods are high in additives and preservatives that can disrupt the balance of bacteria in your gut.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help keep your digestive system functioning properly.
- Consider taking a vegan probiotic supplement: Probiotics can help promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria and improve digestion.
- Keep a food diary: By keeping count of the foods that you are consuming and the way that they make your gut feel, you can quickly find the foods that your body loves to be fed!
So, do vegans have good gut health?
Whilst I can’t speak for all vegans, it is pretty safe to say that those who eat a varied diet full of vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains, with very few processed foods, should have a very healthy gut microflora.
Since a vegan diet is so focused on plants, and plants are full of dietary fibre, prebiotics and probiotics, this does mean that vegans tend to have healthier guts. Obviously, putting aside any gut issues that they may have due to non-dietary reasons like stress and anxiety.
Personally, I eat around 30-40 different types of plants every week and when I don’t suffer from any flare-ups due to mental health reasons my gut is at the healthiest it has ever been. TMI warning: my stools are more solid, I bloat less, I have a frequent pooing schedule, and I have a normal amount of gas (because farting is very normal and healthy). I was very quickly able to find plants that my IBS didn’t like and have eliminated them from my diet, or I eat them in small quantities.
On top of this, there have been quite a few extensive scientific studies to show how switching to a plant-based diet can help people improve their microbiome. And I’m not saying that this means you have to go vegan, but eating more plants is definitely a good place to start! And well, vegans know how to do that and how to do that well – just check out all of my inventive vegan recipes.
Frequently asked questions
Here are some FAQs relating to vegan gut health. I have answered them by drawing upon my own knowledge and experience, as well as scientific research.
Is being vegan better for IBS?
Whilst being vegan may promote a more varied microbiome, it isn’t necessarily a cure for IBS which is actually more often caused by stress factors and lifestyle habits.
Whilst there may be certain foods that trigger IBS symptoms, which could be vegan or not, these foods aren’t likely to have caused the issue in the first place. Instead, people with IBS should focus on reducing stress levels (try out daily meditation or mindfulness) and reducing the consumption of trigger foods.
If these two factors are managed well, then a predominantly plant-based diet will help to promote a healthy gut that will hopefully give your microbiome the support it needs to tackle the IBS inflammation.
Can a vegan diet cause a leaky gut?
There is some evidence to suggest that a vegan diet can contribute to the development of a leaky gut, but then there is also some evidence to suggest that it can help. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research in relation to gut health and veganism at this time.
Although, what is known is that if your body struggles to digest fibre, then a vegan diet may worsen leaky gut symptoms since it is a lot higher in fibre than meat-based diets. This is something to be wary of if you are someone who struggles with fibre.
With that being said, for the majority of people, fibre is a really healthy carbohydrate that can benefit their gut microbiome.
How long does it take for the gut to adjust to a vegan diet?
The adjustment time for the gut to a vegan diet varies from person to person. Generally, it takes about two to four weeks for the gut to adapt to the new diet. However, some people may experience a longer or shorter adjustment period depending on their individual circumstances and health conditions.
It’s important to listen to your body and monitor any changes or discomfort during this time. I recommend keeping a food journal to keep track of what you are eating and any effects it may have on your gut.
Can a vegan diet be unhealthy if it is predominantly processed foods?
It is possible for a vegan diet to be unhealthy if it is predominantly processed foods. While a vegan diet can provide many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers, relying too heavily on processed foods can lead to nutrient deficiencies and other health problems. This is the case for any processed foods, be it vegan or not.
If you are following a vegan diet, you should focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes to ensure you are getting all the necessary nutrients for optimal health.