Poor digestion is one of the most miserable things to deal with. I know because I’ve dealt with digestion issues almost my entire life since having colic as a baby. When adopting a more plant-based diet almost 10 years ago, I had to practice trial and error many times to find foods that nourished me and didn’t affect the inflammation I’ve suffered with for years. Eliminating red meat had helped initially, but I soon found that certain healthy foods in a plant-based diet were causing multiple digestion issues I later learned were linked to IBS, leaky gut syndrome, and overall general indigestion too.
I was first disheartened and worried I wouldn’t be able to eat a plant-based diet because so many of the foods I was eating didn’t work for me. Then I discovered the FODMAPS diet, which isn’t necessarily vegan but I soon customized it that way for me. Not a diet like most types of weight loss diets, a FODMAPS diet eliminates certain types of carbohydrates that can cause fermentation in the digestive system, leading to gas, bloating and a host of other issues. Though I don’t follow the diet to a tee, I did learn how to understand the way food works on digestion and from there was able to find what foods were best to eat.
It’s also important to remember a plant-based diet is particularly cleansing, which can take some time getting used to. So for whatever reason you’re struggling with digestion to eat more plant-based, here are some tips you can use that I have found to not resolve digestion issues, but actually improve it at the same time.
1. Watch Out for Processed Foods
There are lots of vegan products out there that cater to gluten-free, organic, natural, sugar-free and dairy-free lifestyles. Unfortunately, many of these are also packed with emulsifiers, additives and preservatives that are causing people digestion issues without them realizing it. Some of the worst culprits are xanthan gum, guar gum, inulin, carrageenan, and erythritol. These can cause gas, bloating, pain, and general indigestion no one wants to deal with. Always stick with whole foods over processed foods to eliminate the biggest culprits first, and read labels carefully on all products you buy to watch out for these additives.
2. Go for Nut Butters Over Whole Nuts
Nuts are an incredibly healthy food, but they can cause some difficulty in people with sensitive systems. However, because nuts are some of the best sources of fats, minerals, and vitamins on a plant-based diet, eliminating them isn’t always the best option. Go for raw nut (and seed) butters instead, which are already broken down and will require less energy from your digestive system as a result. You’ll also absorb the vitamins and minerals in them easier since your body has to go through less work during digestion. Also, avoid products with oils since oils can sit heavy on the stomach. Sprouted nut butters are also great since their natural enzymes are higher, which will aid digestion further.
3. Swap Grains Out and Root Vegetables In
Grains are full of vitamins and minerals that are great for you, but if you have inflammation in the digestive system, it’s best to give them a rest and see if things improve. I noticed a dramatic difference when I started eating root vegetables in place of grains. This isn’t just a great way to eat more vegetables, but also give your body nutrient-dense complex carbs that you need for a healthy metabolism, along with plenty (if not more) vitamins and minerals. Good options are sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, winter squash and pumpkin. You can pan-roast root vegetables, puree them as a side like you would normal mashed potatoes, bake them whole and slice open to use as a side, and even use canned pumpkin in smoothies. Another benefit of using root vegetables in place of grains is that you’re eating a higher quality form of starch that’s also rich in water. It’s also the easiest way to avoid gluten if you’re gluten-sensitive or don’t even tolerate gluten-free grains like quinoa, millet, amaranth and teff. You can also try soaking grains before eliminating them to see if that helps your body tolerate them easier.
4. Eat Greens Versus Cruciferous Veggies
Cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower are incredible for you, but those along with cabbage can be pretty rough on a sensitive stomach. You can consume just as many vitamins, minerals and fiber from leafy greens that you can from cruciferous veggies that often lead to gas and bloating. Leafy greens are great sources of calcium, protein, iron, magnesium, and fiber. The easiest to digest and most nutritious options include spinach, romaine, arugula, baby Swiss chard, and baby kale. Collards and larger Swiss chard and kale are also great, but be sure you cook them well before eating since they’re more rough on the system in whole leaf form versus baby lettuce leaf form.
5. Implement Seeds in for Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes are two great options for protein, but if you have a sensitive stomach, you probably already know to avoid them like the plague. Even after cooking them thoroughly, soaking, and sprouting as other options, my system still punishes me for days after eating them. I have found the best way to get in high-quality, nutrient-dense protein, fiber and minerals that I can’t get from beans and legumes is to get them from seeds or protein powders made from seeds. For instance, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseed, sunflower seed, and pumpkin seeds are all fantastic sources of healthy fats, fiber, protein, magnesium, calcium and/or iron. You truly can thrive using just 3-4 tbsp. of these per day in place of beans or legumes. Yes, they’re high in fat but they’re also more filling and easier on your system. Alternatively, you could use 1-2 scoops of these seeds in the form of a plant-based protein powder in smoothies, or puree them with a touch of liquid and some frozen fruit for a healthy, thick protein pudding. You can use seeds on coconut yogurt, in smoothies, on salads, overcooked leafy greens, or even top soups of all kinds with them.
6. Use Grain-Free Flours
I keep coconut flour stocked in my fridge year-round because it’s a great source of protein, fiber, has no starch and has no sugar – perfect qualities you need for easy to digest flour. Coconut flour (and almond flour) is great to bake with, blend with water and almond milk to make a grain-free oatmeal, or use in smoothies to thicken in place of oats. Coconut flour’s fats are also great for the gut and are not as heavy on the body as regular fats. Though coconut is said to be avoided if you follow a FODMAPs diet, I’ve found it actually helps my system as many people with digestive problems also do thanks to its starch-free and sugar-free profile.
7. Be Smart About Fruit
Fruit is not a bad food, nor is it harmful to your digestive system. The key, however, is to be smart about what fruits you choose and when you eat them because they’re the quickest to digest in your system and contain sugars that can ferment under the right conditions. For instance, combining fruit with your meals or eating them after a cooked meal is almost guaranteed to cause some digestive upset. It’s also important to eat fruit when it’s especially ripe, which is when all of it’s easiest to digest and the nutrients are higher. Some fruits can actually help your digestion and promote healing, while others you may need to put aside for a while until your body tolerates them easier. For example, papayas and pineapple contain high amounts of digestive enzymes that can soothe the stomach and reduce inflammation. Apples and pears on the other hand, are very high in fructose and certain fibers that can cause some fermentation and bloating, even when eaten alone. Easy to digest fruits include: berries, very ripe bananas, frozen or fresh berries, frozen cherries (not dried), peaches, cantaloupe, watermelon, lemons, limes and oranges. You should also avoid dried fruits which lack water and are higher in sugars than fresh fruit. This can also cause some fermentation and bloating, along with make them harder for your body to digest. Blending whole fruit in a smoothie might also be a better way to help your body break it down more easily.
Different tips work for everyone, so try out different things and embrace the idea of trying new foods in replacement to those that give you trouble. For instance, when making desserts using healthy fats like coconut and almond butter in place of grains and dried fruits. Try different ingredients in dishes that you normally wouldn’t tolerate. I do this daily by using salsa dips in place of hummus, making soups with meaty veggies like mushrooms and artichokes in place of beans and legumes, using seed-based protein powders in place of those with brown rice or beans and legumes, buying non-dairy milk brands that do not include carrageenan, xanthan gum, or guar gum, and topping my salads with root veggies and seeds in place of beans and grains. It’s also important to take a probiotic that is plant-based and does not include inulin, yeast, or fillers that might irritate your system. Probiotics, digestive enzymes, and some fermented foods are also great ways to build and maintain a healthy gut to take care of your body for the long haul.
For more tips that might help out your digestive system, see: Exploring the Benefits of a Paleo Vegan Lifestyle: Is It Possible?, Digestive System a Mess? Check Your Diet for These Culprits, and see our Digestion FAQ in our Plant-Based Nutrition Guide.
Don’t give up on a plant-based diet if you have digestion issues. There is a way to make it work and it’s actually much easier than you think!
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