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Looking after your gut on a plant-based diet

How to protect this important microbiome as a vegetarian or vegan

Looking after your gut on a plant-based diet

We read a lot these days about gut health, and there are more and more products on the market that make claims to improve the health of this microbiome, from being packed with fibre, to containing millions of live cultures. But why exactly is gut health so important, and how is it affected by our diet?

"Gut health is gaining a lot of attention these days as researchers have discovered that the health of your gut (the functioning of your entire gastrointestinal tract) is linked to many areas of our overall health beyond the more obvious such as IBS, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and bloating," explains Rebecca Stevens, AfN registered associate nutritionist. "Links have also been established with mental health, skin health, immune system functioning, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. More research is needed to fill in knowledge gaps, but it's widely accepted that supporting our gut to be as healthy as we can is key for our overall wellbeing."

It certainly gives more meaning to the saying 'Go with your gut'!

So, as a vegetarian or vegan, is there any particular benefit for our gut? Well, as with many aspects of our health, the type of foods we eat will have a major part to play.

"As a general rule, you would expect vegetarians and vegans to have a larger percentage of their dietary intake coming from plant-based foods and probably a greater diversity of plant-based items in their diet. Both of these are likely to support more diversity in your microbiome, which in turn has been linked to overall health. However, if you are a vegan or a vegetarian that largely eats processed food you won’t have this advantage."

As our guts are filled with bacteria, it's important that we 'feed' the good ones to keep everything in balance. Some high-fibre foods are considered prebiotics, meaning they do just that. These include artichoke, Brussel sprouts, beans, pulses and legumes, which are all great for your gut. So what other types of foods should we fill up on?

"It's difficult to identify the best foods for gut health as we all respond differently," Rebecca says. "One of the key pieces of advice is to aim for about 30 different types of plant-based foods each week. Each item will contain slightly different fibres and compounds that support different bacteria in your gut. As diversity in your microbiome is linked to overall health, this has been suggested by experts working in the gut health field.

"You could also consider including probiotic foods within your diet – probiotics refer to any food, drink or supplement that contains beneficial bacteria to complement our existing microbiome."

And what about these fermented foods that we're constantly reading about?

"While the process of fermentation has been around for thousands of years, these types of food are gaining in popularity. Options include sauerkraut, kimichi (a Korean dish with pickled cabbage and sauerkraut) and fermented beans such as miso and tempeh. The fermentation breaks down some of the fibre that enables some of the good bacteria to thrive. It's also thought that they make food easier to digest and nutrients easier to absorb. Fermented foods are very easy to make at home, with lots of recipes available online or via books.

"There are also dairy products like kefir, a traditional homemade fermented drink that contains milk with live bacteria and has the most scientific evidence to support its use. There are plenty of options on the market. If you are buying yoghurts, look for options that contain ‘live bacteria’.

"There are also gut-friendly drinks: kombucha is a type of fermented tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast, and its popularity has exploded in recent years so you should have no problems finding it in stores. There is limited research that confirms its benefit on gut health but due to its content, leading researchers suggest it should have an overall improvement. If you enjoy the taste, then go for it.

"One word of caution is that if you have IBS, many of the fermented foods can trigger gut symptoms. Speak to your healthcare practitioner if you are concerned. Another consideration is that taking probiotics doesn’t cancel out a poor diet, as research has found it is the diversity rather than the specific quantity of good or bad bacteria that provide the most benefit to overall gut health."