Life is too short to be held down by a busted gut. This is why you need an easier way of keeping or setting your digestive tract right. Apparently, the solution has been staring you in the face all along – at the fresh produce section of your local supermarkets. Vegetables, and fruits, have an innate capacity of helping the gut recover from all sorts of ills and they do it for no extra charge. Sounds good, yes? A little far-fetched too. But there is evidence and studies that prove that a vegetarian diet is profitable to your gut health. To understand how it works, you need to first understand the digestive system and what goes on in there.
Understanding the Human Gut Microbiota
You live in a symbiotic relationship your whole life. There live anywhere from 10 to 100 trillion microbes in the body – on the skin, gut, mouth, nose, and genitals. As long as your body is healthy, you provide a safe habitat for the microbes and they are born, live out their lives and die in your body. The makeup of the gut microbiota varies from one person to the next and it consists of fungi, yeasts, viruses, and bacteria. The bacteria are the ones that play a central role in several bodily functions. The bacteria in your gut can be of two kinds – beneficial bacteria and harmful gut bacteria.
Normally, the bacteria in a healthy gut harvest nutrition from digested food, protect the host – that is you, from pathogens and infections, regulate the immune system, influence the host’s behavior – via the gut-brain axis, and keep the biochemical barriers in the gut and intestine intact. If the composition of the gut microbiome changes for whatever reason, these functions, and more, are all compromised. The beneficial bacteria and the bad ones are in a constant battle trying hard to maintain a stable microbial system that keeps you healthy.
Research has shown that the composition of the gut habitat can influence the development of medical conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and, in some cases, obesity or type 2 diabetes. The condition of a leaky gut is also an unwelcome prospect to look forward to. A leaky gut syndrome is a condition where the gut lining is affected. On a good day, the gut lining or the gastrointestinal wall has tiny openings that allow for nutrients and water to leave the inside of the gut to be transported throughout the body via the bloodstream. Because of enterotoxins – released by pathogenic bacteria, the openings in the walls are widened allowing bacteria, toxins, and undigested food to all leave the digestive system and travel throughout the body, which causes widespread inflammation and the breakdown of several body systems and functions.
So far, it has been established that the human body cannot survive without the bacteria that live within us, and therefore, keeping the balance in the gut is vital. The Balance in gut flora can also be maintained with the help of prebiotic and probiotic supplements, read about the 10 Best Supplements for Leaky Gut. You can do that easily, provided that you are ready to make a few changes to your habits and diet.
What Affects Gut Health?
A variety of factors affect the gut ranging from what you eat to the habits you have. We can narrow down the factors into the following:
Stress causes increased sensitivity, reduced blood flow, and an alteration in the composition of gut bacteria. And these are just the effects on the digestive tract. High levels of stress cause the body to keep the sympathetic nervous system active, keeping the body on high alert at all times. This causes a multitude of issues, the most common of which are heart disease and cardiac arrest.
Sleep is how your body recovers and that is why your body has its own time-keeping system – circadian rhythm. The gut sets its watch by your body’s circadian rhythm and when you are sleep deprived, the gut is affected as well. A study conducted showed that when sleep deprived for 2 days, the subjects showed an increase in the bacteria responsible for weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Toxic and highly addictive, alcohol is bad for your body period. When consumed in large amounts, it can cause a serious lapse in judgment as well. Studies have found that the gut flora of alcoholics has a higher chance of dysbiosis – an imbalance in the good bacteria and bad bacteria in the gut. Alcohol can also cause a slight but significant decrease in the diversity of the bacterial strains in the gut.
Tobacco or Drug Use:
Neither is good for you and you know that you should have quit the habit yesterday. Here’s another reason why. Smokers are twice as likely to develop gut disorders like Crohn’s or IBD. Tobacco and drugs also decrease the diversity of bacteria in the gut and this affects your immune system and gut health.
Apart from having overall health benefits such as weight loss and lowered stress levels, physical movement or exercise has shown to have a positive effect on the gut microbiome as well. A higher level of activity has been linked to higher butyrate levels – short-chain fatty acids that affect overall health and the butyrate-producing bacteria. Exercise also increases the diversity of bacterial strains in the gut.
Use of Antibiotics:
Used for reversing the effects of bacterial infections, antibiotics are viable and effective medicines that either kill the pathogen or stop it from multiplying. However, antibiotics cannot differentiate between good and bad bacteria and can decrease gut flora numbers significantly. Even a single dose of antibiotics would take the gut weeks to rectify. Some strains of beneficial microbes are wiped out completely.
Whoever said “You are what you eat.” wasn’t playing around. Your diet controls the health of your body and your gut to a very large extent. Not consuming a large variety of foods is a major cause of concern. Eating the same things every day can curb your body’s ability to recover from infections and can limit the diversity of bacterial strains in your gut. Processed foods are another big no-no. Processed foods reduce the percentage of nutrients present and preservatives, salt or sugar must be added to keep them fresher for longer. Harmful bacteria feed off of processed foods because of their high sugar content and that may lead to dysbiosis. The same stands true for processed meats as well. Limiting the intake of processed meat can also help with mental health.
Fermented foods, food rich in dietary fiber, protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates should be what you put into the body – a more plant-based diet and this is where the vegetarian diet comes in. You can also learn about more diet plans for a healthy gut.
Vegetarian Meal Please
Vegetarianism is the practice of removing animal proteins from the diet. It may also involve abstinence from consuming all by-products of animal slaughter. This is sometimes a diet adopted for religious or moral reasons but now you have a medical reason too.
Technically, a vegetarian doesn’t eat poultry, fish, meat, or eggs. There are some variations to this style of diet though.
- Lacto-Ovo vegetarianism includes the consumption of dairy products and eggs.
- Lacto vegetarian that avoids eggs but includes dairy.
- Ovo vegetarian that avoids dairy products but consumes eggs.
- Pescatarians eat plant-based foods and fish and pollo-vegetarians eat poultry but no fish, meat, or dairy.
- There is also a flexitarian, a vegetarian usually but consumes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy occasionally.
Vegetarianism gives you a lot of flexibility as seen above. Veganism is slightly stricter. A strictly vegan diet doesn’t just restrict your animal food intake but also the intake of animal byproducts like cheese, honey, or gelatin. Veganism is a rather radical version of vegetarianism and is on the rise now, particularly in the west. Veganism is also centered around the belief that animals are not a commodity and that animals must be treated with respect and compassion. For the vegans, animals and humans have the same right to live and prosper and neither has the right to dominate the other. Veganism is more of a principle than a diet plan.
Plant-based diets have been considered to be healthier and have been followed globally, especially in the east, for a long time. There are several benefits of following a vegetarian diet like a lowered risk of heart disease, a reduction in cancer risk, a lowered occurrence of type 2 diabetes, and reduced blood pressure.
Why Is Vegetarian Better?
Were you aware that a healthy diet is one that maintains and/or improves your current state of well-being? A balanced diet is one that contains different foods in certain proportions so that your daily requirement of calories, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and fats are met. Ideally, your meal should consist of starchy carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, protein, dairy, and healthy fats. Each of these food groups provides your body with the nutrition it needs to function proficiently. Vegetarian diets fulfill these requirements almost perfectly. But how can a vegetarian diet improve gut health? Here’s how.
A research study led by Dr. Hana Kahleova of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that a 16-week vegetarian/vegan diet could do wonders for the gut microbiome. When subjects were asked to follow a strictly vegan diet there were quick and positive changes in body weight, fat mass, visceral fat levels, and gut microbiota.
Even though the study focused on vegan diets, researchers say that plant-based diets are the way to go for optimal gut health and overall well-being. Gut bacteria numbers were significantly increased and the diversity of bacterial strains also improved. Vegetarian diets are not so strict with dairy and egg intake and that might be the way to go for good gut health. The reason for better gastrointestinal health is because of what you consume when you are restricted to plant foods.
- A plant-based diet would automatically limit your intake of junk foods that are based on meat. No more burgers or meat-laden pizzas, or subs with greasy meatballs. Your diet choices would now be restricted to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which are easier on the tummy and your entire system.
- Dietary fiber intake would increase with a vegetarian or vegan diet. Dietary fibers are found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They cannot be digested by your stomach and are sent to the colon, where it is broken down by the gut bacteria that live there. These fibers then become prebiotic nutrition for the gut bacteria helping them to flourish and maintain better gut health.
- Polyphenols are found in almost all plant-based foods. They are reducing agents that work towards reducing oxidative stress damage done to the body. Apart from that, polyphenols act as prebiotics by feeding the gut bacteria and are often used as a gut inflammation-reducing agent.
- Fermented foods would become an option for you and you would have a natural and healthy source of probiotics added to your diet. Probiotics kill off harmful pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella and fermented foods have several other health benefits too like antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, and anti-fungal properties.
- With a vegetarian diet, you would have lowered the risk of distressed gut symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea. Vegetables, fruits, and grains are easier and quicker to digest which keeps digestive disorders at bay.
- Gut health is more achievable as the numbers of gut bacteria compared to non-vegetarian diets are much higher and more diverse.
The Mediterranean diet is considered to be the healthiest diet in the world and with ample reason too. Research suggests that following this diet can provide cardiovascular protection and improve mortality as well. Since the diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and fish, it has been linked to a greater abundance of friendly gut bacteria which synthesize vital nutrients, produce fuel for the cells, and reduce inflammation and colon cancer risks. The Mediterranean diet beneficially impacts all aspects of gut health and overall health.
To check the influence of different diet plans on the body, let’s do a quick comparison.
Diet Comparison Chart
|Sphere of Influence||Vegan Diet||Vegetarian Diet||Non-Vegetarian Diet|
|Gut Bacteria Health||The available studies and research conducted to conclude that these diets can promote a healthy habitat for the gut microbes which will support better gut and overall well-being.||The risk of gut health issues is greatly increased as meat can create an environment that promotes the growth of pathogenic bacteria.|
|Prebiotic Source||Because the focus is on plant-based foods that are rich in starches and fiber, hence the bacteria have enough prebiotic content to support themselves and improve beneficial bacteria numbers.||The highlight of the meal is animal products, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are consumed as sides. The intake of prebiotic content is lesser with this diet, encouraging the pathogenic bacteria again.|
|Probiotic Source||Alternate sources of protein are ingested like tofu, fermented foods, and legumes. These foods promote diversity in the bacterial strains and improve recovery from infection.||Animal products are not so much a probiotic killer as artificial sweeteners and sugars, but there is no significant effect on existing probiotics in the gut.|
|Digestive System||A higher intake of fiber adds bulk to stool making bowel movements regular and soft. Also, digestion time is cut down as plant-based foods don’t take as long to be broken down.||Meat eaters consume a higher amount of protein which is tougher to break down. Non-vegetarian diets also raise the chances of acidity, constipation and other digestive distresses.|
|Cholesterol||Vegan diets can increase cholesterol levels as vegan cheeses or faux meats are saturated with coconut or palm oil.||Vegetarian diets are associated with a significantly lower level of cholesterol by almost 29.2mg.||Animal products naturally have a higher level of cholesterol. Cooking meat with butter, oils, or animal fat can only increase cholesterol levels higher.|
|Heart Health||Because of high cholesterol levels in faux meats and vegan cheeses, the risk of heart disease is slightly higher with a vegan diet.||This diet is associated with lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels, and a lesser incidence of type 2 diabetes. All of these reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease.||Animal protein intake increases the levels of saturated fats which cause high blood pressure, cholesterol, and an increased risk of heart distress.|
|Immunity||Improved immunity is not a benefit of these diets. Those who follow this diet tend to have slightly lower numbers of white blood cells that fight off infection.||Meat is an excellent source of protein and zinc which are essential nutrients for immune function. Riboflavin from meat also supports the immune system.|
|Brain & Mental Health||As long as there is a steady supply of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and other essential nutrients, the brain is in better condition and there is also better brain barrier integrity. Cognitive health is also supported.||There is evidence that suggests that eating meat, especially during the developmental years can prove fruitful for brain growth and health.|
|Skin||Vegan and vegetarian diets can help with stubborn pimples, and acne and improve complexion. Plant-based diets have a higher intake of antioxidants and this shows in the health of the skin.||There is no evidence that meat consumption can affect the skin – for better or worse.|
|Bone Structure||A vegetarian diet is related to factors that do not support bone health and may sometimes even lead to bone loss due to a limited intake of calcium and phosphorus.||Consuming fish like salmon can improve the levels of calcium intake in the bones reinforcing bone strength.|
|Muscle Mass||Muscle mass can be built but it is tougher to do so on vegetarian diets as the intake of amino acids that generate muscle mass is lower.||Animal foods are rich sources of protein and vitamin B which strengthens the muscles and helps them grow quicker. Consuming meat can also improve stamina and hemoglobin.|
The findings above are based on extensive research but are not set in stone. Exceptions are always there and the diet a person follows is greatly influenced by habits developed over a lifetime, read more about some of the Digestive Superfoods, that can nourish and fortify the gut. A plant-based diet is the better option but for the sake of bones and muscles, abandoning meat altogether is not a very good idea.
What Influences Gut Health?
To follow a diet blindly is just as foolish as eating junk. The gut microbiome varies from person to person so what works for someone else may not work for you. You have to ensure that your gut health does not suffer because you are restricted by a choice you made. Plant foods are the better choice and ideally, you must add more of them to your diet. They are good for human health and well-being. As long as you do not suffer from nutritional deficiencies, you know you are on the right path. You may want to know as to what impact plant foods have on your gut. That can be done here.
- Carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates promote a healthier digestive system. The soluble fibers found in complex carbohydrates feed the beneficial bacteria and increase the probiotic numbers. The carbohydrates also support the bacteria to produce vital nutrients such as short-chain fatty acids, which are essential for digestive health. E.g., quinoa, sweet potatoes, fruits, oats, brown rice, chickpeas, corn, etc.
- Fats: If you want healthy gut bacteria, you should be consuming a lot of healthy fats. Such fats help alleviate gut symptoms such as gut inflammation and increasing weight loss. Omega 3 fatty acids work best for the human gut microbiota. E.g., avocados, cheese, dark chocolate, fatty fish, nuts, chia seeds, extra virgin olive oil, etc.
- Proteins: Proteins have several benefits for the body starting with building mass to boosting fat-burning mechanisms. The gut microbiome has been shown to be greatly improved with the intake of protein. The gut microbiota is a more stable and habitable home for the probiotics and reduces the occurrence of enteric disease. E.g., fish and seafood, white-meat poultry, lean beef, milk, yogurt, eggs, pulses, legumes, soybeans, etc.
- Amino acids: Dietary amino acids are the major fuel source for the small intestine mucosa- the inner lining of certain organs and cavities. Acids like aspartate, glutamate, and glutamine are what is used most in the intestine. There is also evidence that arginine activates the mTOR pathway- a signaling system that controls protein synthesis and cell differentiation, in the small intestine. E.g., quinoa, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, mushrooms, turkey, etc.
- Polyphenols: Polyphenols are found in almost every plant food and they contribute to the maintenance of gut health and promote stable microbial systems. Polyphenols actively curb the growth of pathogens and have effects similar to prebiotics. E.g., green tea, apples, red wine, coffee, berries, dark chocolate, vegetables, etc.
- Fiber: Dietary fiber adds bulk to stool and softens it making it easier for your bowel to excrete it out. This decreases your chance of being constipated and if loose stools are the problem, fiber can help solidify it because fiber absorbs the excess water. Fiber contributes to bowel health. E.g., lentils, broccoli, chia seeds, peas, popcorn, artichokes, pumpkin seeds, etc.
- Lactose: Lactose contributes to healthy gut bacteria. It stimulates the growth and nourishment of bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli. Lactose can also inhibit the growth of unfriendly bacteria. You get this from milk and all milk products.
All of these essential nutrients along with vitamins and minerals work together to keep the gut microbiome and you in healthy working order. And you can get all this nutrition from vegetarian or vegan diets.
You may argue that vegan diets and vegetarian cuisines are just a passing new-age phase and something all the kids are into. But the kids may be onto something here. Several studies were conducted on the health benefits that can be reaped from a plant food diet and so far, the results are in favor of vegetarians.
In 2015, a study was conducted on the effects of a vegetarian diet on blood lipids and this study involved 832 participants. The idea was to test the levels of cholesterol, good and bad, and the results showed that a vegetarian diet lowered harmful cholesterol. Low cholesterol means a healthier cardiovascular system.
In 2015 again, a test involving 30 children suffering from obesity were put on a vegan or AHA diet and the result showed a significant reduction in calorie intake and the kids on vegan diets lost up to 6.7lbs.
In 2006, it was found that low-fat vegan diets can reduce weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol level in type 2 diabetes patients.
In 1997, probiotic-rich, raw vegan diets were found to be capable of changing the composition of the gut microbiota and decreasing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis when compared to an omnivorous diet.
There are plenty of other studies that you can find at http://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegan-diet-studies#TOC_TITLE_HDR_2. Research into the efficacy of plant-based cuisines dates as far back as the eighties.
So far, it has been thoroughly established that a vegetarian diet is the healthier diet for you and your gut health. That being said, you mustn’t quit animal foods right now, this minute. Changing your diet suddenly is not a good idea. If you are a regular meat-eater, switching to a high-fiber diet tomorrow would cause all sorts of distress in your gut. The rapid dietary change would result in gas, bloating, and maybe some constipation too. The key is to slowly phase out meat while replacing it with equally nutritious vegetarian foods.
When switching diets for the sake of gut health, it’s okay if you wish to have a cheeseburger or a hotdog at the baseball game. It isn’t a crime to not be strictly vegetarian or vegan. Besides, meat is a source of protein and amino acids so if you indulge once in a while, your body will thank you for it.