Updated: Mar 6, 2021
I see this question being asked time and time again… “Will going vegan help me with my stomach problems of XYZ?” As someone who has suffered from various stomach diseases including, acid reflux, GERD, gastritis, SIBO, and ulcers, I did go fully vegan at one point years ago at the height of my stomach issues, and while it didn’t heal me, there were some benefits from doing so which I explain below! Whether you suffer from acid reflux, silent reflux, indigestion, bloating, IBS, GERD, gastritis, or any other ongoing stomach problem, read on to learn my two-cents on the vegan diet and how I believe it can be utilized to heal the gut without going all in based on my knowledge & personal experience.
What Is the Vegan Diet?
Vegan is a diet where you do not eat any foods derived from animals. The diet includes:
Plant-based protein sources such as beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh, & protein powder (usually pea)
Vegetables & fruit
Non-dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, & spreads typically made from almonds, oats, or cashews
Nuts, & seeds
Grains, bread, & baked goods
On this diet, you would not eat any of the following:
Fish & seafood
Cow, sheep, or goat’s milk & their derivatives (yogurt, cheese, butter, spreads)
Bee products such as honey, bee pollen, & royal jelly
How Can the Vegan Diet Help Your Stomach Problems?
Less stress on the gut. Meat / poultry are one of the most difficult types of foods to digest. I always felt I had indigestion when eating any kind of meat or poultry so eliminating them from my diet helped eliminate symptoms & promote better digestion. It gives your gut a chance to reset & restore.
Eliminating dairy can help reduce inflammation. Dairy is inflammatory & not tolerated well by most. Most people are actually intolerant of cow’s milk and it is one of the top food allergens known to cause stomach issues like inflammation, pain, bloating, & gas. The vegan diet makes it easier to avoid dairy as vegan products do not contain dairy.
Eliminating eggs can reduce indigestion, bloating, & pain. Additionally, eggs are another top allergen which can cause irritation to the gut. By eliminating this food from your diet you can reduce these symptoms & allowing healing to take place.
Increased fiber intake can help alleviate constipation. Constipation is often caused by not getting enough insoluble fiber in the diet. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and therefore creates “bulk” in the digestive tract to help move built up fecal matter out of the body. Most vegans will naturally eat more vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and grains which are all high in fiber which may help you go to the bathroom more regularly.
Increased vitamins & minerals in the diet. Vegetables are a great source of certain nutrients that are essential to good health. By eating vegan, you are naturally eating more vegetables and supporting your body’s optimal function & healing process.
I’m sure you’re thinking, well this sounds great! Why would I not go vegan then? Here’s why I wouldn’t recommend going FULLY vegan if you suffer from stomach problems…
Negative Effects of the Vegan Diet
Zinc deficiency. Excellent sources of zinc include meat, seafood (like oysters), & eggs which are all forms of animal protein. While you can get zinc from non-animal sources like whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds, these sources are not nearly as high in zinc which can cause vegans to have lower zinc levels. It has also been found that eating a more plant-based diet can inhibit zinc absorption. Zinc is a cofactor for HCl production, also known as stomach acid. Stomach acid is necessary for properly breaking down and digesting food in the gut. When our bodies lack zinc, we are unable to naturally produce enough stomach acid thus leading to common issues like acid reflux, indigestion, and bloating caused by poor digestion.
Vitamin B deficiency. Vitamin B12 especially is only found in animal foods making vegans more likely to become deficient in this important nutrient. Again, foods high in B vitamins include salmon, liver & organ meats, eggs, dairy, beef, seafood, & poultry. Dark leafy greens are an excellent source also but you can see how many animal products vs plant-based foods contain this key nutrient. B vitamins are another important cofactor nutrient for HCl production, so lacking them in your diet can inhibit good digestion and prevent your body from naturally healing from stomach issues. Vitamin B is also crucial for energy and mental health. Commonly, people who suffer from stomach problems also suffer from fatigue and anxiety or depression. To avoid this, it’s important to make sure to get plenty of Vitamin B through your diet.
Lack of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3 Fatty Acids are important in reducing inflammation. This type of fat is found at the highest content in fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines, & caviar. While it’s also found in sources like flax, hemp, chia seeds, & walnuts, it must be converted before our body can utilize it, unlike Omega-3s from fish. Our bodies actually require a balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids for proper anti-inflammatory response. If our diets are too high in Omega-6s and lack Omega-3s, we end up promoting inflammation which is not ideal for gut healing.
Too much fiber can stress the digestive tract. While fiber is beneficial to digestion, when your gut isn’t used to fiber intake, too much at one time can stress the gut leading to bloating, gas, & pain. It’s important to slowly increase your intake as to not strain the digestive system.
Lack of essential amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids which we cannot produce in the body & must get from food sources. These amino acids are crucial to our health & function of organs in the body. Without them, we end up with health issues! The best source of these amino acids are animal protein, so when we eliminate animal protein from the diet completely, we risk not getting these in our diet.
What I Would Recommend Instead of Going FULLY Vegan to Help Heal Your Gut!
Okay, now that you understand the positives and negatives of the vegan diet, here’s what I would recommend instead of going FULLY vegan and how it can help you heal your gut.
Eat one plant-based (vegan) meal per day. As I mentioned earlier, animal protein is one of the more difficult foods to digest. By eating a plant-based meal without animal protein, you are giving your stomach a chance to reset. Animal protein can take anywhere from hours to days to digest, so if you already struggle with poor digestion, you may have leftover animal protein sitting in your stomach undigested which can cause further digestive distress, including leaky gut. Leaky gut is a common health issue where undigested protein sits in the gut then travels into the small intestine where it wreaks further havoc. Overtime, the intestinal barrier becomes weakened, allowing bad bacteria & pathogens to breach through into the bloodstream. This causes an immune response which eventually leads to food sensitivities or even autoimmune conditions if not addressed, which is why it’s important to give your gut a break! Plus, more plants = more insoluble fiber which can help with constipation & allow for regular bowel movements to alleviate part of the problem. I recommend making lunch your plant-based meal. You can enjoy a big salad with plenty of vegetables & seeds if tolerated or a grain bowl (my personal favorite) with grain of your choice, vegetables, some avocado, & really anything you like! Have your poultry, meat, or fish with breakfast and dinner to make sure you are getting enough protein and essential amino acids which are in animal protein that are necessary for our health.
Eliminate gluten & dairy. As two of the top food allergens, gluten & dairy are highly inflammatory and prevent healing in the gut when we continue to consume them. Vegan products do not contain dairy, and while they CAN contain gluten, many don’t (but read ingredient labels to ensure). Cutting out gluten & dairy is one of the top recommendations I make to people struggling with stomach problems because it is truly necessary in order to allow the gut & body to heal. Including more vegan products like non-dairy butter made from cashews, almond-based cream cheese instead of regular cow’s milk cream cheese, vegan cheese over regular cheese, and more, can help you reduce irritation & feel better faster.
Include more fresh & cooked vegetables in your diet. Vegetables contain tons of important nutrients needed for optimal function of our bodies & overall health, BUT most of us don’t eat nearly enough on a daily basis. We end up with nutrient deficiencies which lead to health issues. By eating at least one plant-based meal a day, you are more likely to consume more vegetables especially because with your plant-based meal, you’ll need to fill up on veggies to satisfy your hunger. Good news is, you can never eat too many vegetables! They’re lower in calories per serving & have such great benefits for your health.
My favorite ways to include more vegetables in my diet:
Add them to smoothies: spinach can’t even be tasted when added to a smoothie with some frozen fruit, non-dairy milk, flax seeds or nut butter, & protein powder.
Juice them: I try to drink fresh veggie juice when possible. My favorites to juice are kale, celery, fennel, ginger, & cucumber!
Sneak them into sauces: I make a great spinach pesto and add it to my pasta dishes or spaghetti squash! Check out my ‘Chicken Spinach Pesto Spaghetti Squash Boats’ recipe here!
Puree them into a soup: a nice, warm veggie soup can be so healing. You can use bone broth as the base which is super healing for the gut & veggies of your choice for a tasty meal.
I hope that you found this post helpful if you’re someone who has been considering going vegan for gut issues. While there are so many different “diets” out there, there truly is no one-size-fits-all diet for everyone. Dietary needs really depend on the person and their bio-individuality which is affected by any one person’s genetics & current circumstances: health issues, environment, lifestyle, stress, sleep, movement, & more! So my best piece of advice would be to find what works best for YOU. Take each “diet” with a grain of salt, understand the benefits & downsides to any “diet” you try, learn to listen to your body & eat intuitively, and just do what feels good at the time because your needs will change constantly based on your circumstances.
As always, please consult with your doctor or a professional before making any changes to your diet, lifestyle, or health care regimen. And if you would like further guidance or help healing your stomach issues, schedule a FREE discovery call to see how Nutritional Therapy can help you.
Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner & Certified Personal Trainer
*If you have any concerns, please always consult with your doctor before beginning any new regimens.
Jenn Horowitz, FNTP, CPT is a Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Certified Personal Trainer who works to address the root cause of illness. Jenn is the founder of JTH Wellness, a holistic health nutrition counseling practice specialized in helping people with stomach problems take control of their health through nutrition and lifestyle changes. Jenn works to support and educate others so that they can enjoy life again, pain and worry free. Learn more about Jenn’s nutrition counseling services and schedule a free 15-minute discovery session by visiting her website, http://www.JTHwellness.com.