By Madeline R Vann, MPH
Switching to a vegetarian diet may be a good way to enhance your digestive health, and you don't have to take an all-or-nothing approach to the switch. There are several types of vegetarian diets, and semi-vegetarian diets to choose from, including:
- Vegetarian. This diet cuts out meat and fish but dairy and egg products are ok.
- Vegan. No meat, fish, or animal products or byproducts, such as dairy, eggs and honey
- Semi-vegetarian. Typically, no red meat but some fish or poultry.
Digestive health can improve with a vegetarian diet, but the key is a “well-planned vegetarian diet,” emphasizes registered dietitian Sheah L. Rarback, MS, RD, director of nutrition at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida. It's possible to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet that will not aid your digestion or your health.
“If it’s a good vegetarian diet that’s high in a lot of fruits and veggies, it will also be generally nutrient-rich,” Rarback says. It's important to strive for balance and variety in the foods you consume while avoiding foods high in fat or salt.
How Vegetarian Diets Help Digestion
When you eat more fiber-rich foods -- fruits and vegetables -- you’re getting more nutrients. Other possible benefits to a vegetarian diet include
- Feeling full. When you eat foods that are high in fiber, Rarback says, you feel fuller. This can benefit people who are trying to control their weight. Maintaining a healthy weight helps with many aspects of digestive health and can prevent unpleasant problems with digestion, such as acid reflux.
- Regular bowel movements. The fiber in a vegetarian diet will keep foods and waste moving smoothly through your system, avoiding both constipation and diarrhea. By increasing their fiber intake, Americans could save more than $12 billion -- the amount spent on constipation-related therapies each year, according to research in the April 2014 issue of BMC Public Health. The researchers noted that consuming more fiber could also prevent a lot of time lost at work.
- Disease prevention. Vegetarians are about 31 percent less likely than people who also eat meat to experience diverticular disease, a potentially serious condition that occurs when pouches form in the colon, according to research published in the British journal BMJ in 2011. There's also some evidence that a vegetarian diet can help ward off certain cancers, such as colon cancer, and chronic diseases such as heart disease. When researchers examined the health data and dietary habits of more than 73,000 Seventh-Day Adventists, they found that vegetarians were less likely than meat eaters to die for any reason during the five-year study period. The results of their study were published in the July 2013 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.
Adjusting to a Vegetarian Diet
The typical American diet of meat and starches doesn't deliver the amount of fiber that adults need (25 grams (gm) a day for women, 38 gm per day for men). While you can easily get this from a vegetarian diet, if you’re not already eating a good amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, you should make the switch gradually.
“If you go from a fiber intake of 5 to 10 gm to 30, you might feel a little bloated,” Rarback warns. You may temporarily experience some gas or even some unpleasant changes in your bowel movements, but you will become more comfortable as your body adjusts.
Here are some tips for getting adjusted:
- Stay hydrated. Water helps fiber move smoothly through the digestive system. The more fiber you eat, the more water you need.
- Avoid gassy foods. Although each person reacts to them differently, certain foods -- especially broccoli and beans -- are the usual suspects in bloating and gas. For those who are sensitive but not totally intolerant to lactose, increasing dairy product consumption for the protein might also lead to discomfort. In all cases, eliminate the worst offenders for a while and then slowly add them back into your diet one at a time.
- Include healthy fat in your diet. You may still want a low-fat diet, but very small amounts of healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, are necessary to lubricate your digestive system and support regularity.
- Explore new recipes. Adjusting to a new diet takes time. Enjoy the journey by trying new foods and making recipes with fruits and vegetables you already like.
A vegetarian diet -- or simply increasing the amount of vegetables and fruits in your diet -- is a gift to your digestive health and to your health in general.
The Digestive Perks of Being a Vegetarian originally appeared on Everyday Health.