If there’s one thing the western diet lacks, it’s fibre. Daily recommendations are set at 25 to 30 grams, but less than 3 percent of people consume that much. In fact, most are getting an average of only 15 grams per day. By contrast, among more than 71,000 subjects participating in the Adventist Health Study-2, those consuming a vegan diet (5,694 subjects) consumed an average of 46 grams of fibre daily.
Fibre is essential for digestive wellness and performs other health-promoting functions, including binding and removing excess cholesterol from the body. Unfortunately, switching from a low-fibre diet to a plant-based diet naturally high in fibre can cause some uncomfortable — and sometimes embarrassing — problems. Why do these problems arise and what can be done to minimize those problems while enjoying the most nutritious diet possible? It takes a few days for your gut bacteria to shift to the species that feed on plant-based foods.
Getting to Know Your Fibre
Plant-based foods provide two kinds of fibre:
Soluble fibre, found in foods like beans and fruit, dissolves in liquid and feeds beneficial gut bacteria. It also pulls water into the stool, making it softer and easier to pass.
Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve in water but serves to add bulk to stool and help you stay regular. This includes resistant starch, a variety of fibre associated with the feeling of satisfaction and fullness experienced after a nutritious plant-based meal. Although both types of fibre promote digestive health, the paradox of plant-based diets is that increased fibre intake can make your digestion seem to get worse at first instead of better.
Beans, Brassicas, and Bloating
Switching from a western diet to a whole food, plant-based vegan diet may mean more than doubling your fibre intake almost overnight. Some of the highest fibre foods in plant-based vegan diets may also be the worst offenders when it comes to digestive complaints during the transition.
Beans contain resistant starch and cellulose fibres along with sugars like raffinose, galacto-oligosaccharides, and fructans. Brassicas, commonly called cruciferous vegetables, are also sources of raffinose. Fruit delivers a dose of natural fructose and sorbitol. All plant foods contain cellulose.
When you start to consume these fibres and sugars for the first time or greatly increase your intake, your body may be unprepared to deal with the sudden change. It takes a few days for your gut bacteria to shift to the species that feed on plant-based foods, and when they do, they get busy fermenting compounds relatively alien to your body.
The result? Some people experience digestive discomfort, bloating, or embarrassing flatulence, making them reluctant to continue with their plant-based vegan meals.
Dealing With Fibre Side Effects
Since all of the foods with the potential to cause fibre-related problems are big players in a plant-based diet, what can you do to minimize the risk of unpleasant side effects?
First, make sure you drink enough water. Remember that fibre pulls water into the stool, and this can increase your risk of dehydration and constipation if your overall fluid intake isn’t adequate. Don’t drink whilst eating, drink before or after but not during the meal as it dilutes the digestive enzymes that are required for good digestion. Hydration is also key in assisting the hydrochloric acid in our stomach that diminishes with age. Drinking clean filtered water assists with the lack of hydrochloric acid and aids in better digestion.
You can also drink herbal teas containing ginger, fennel, or mint. These soothe the digestive tract in addition to providing more liquid. Kukicha tea is the tea we recommend and is a daily staple in the macrobiotic dietary advice we give our clients.
Chew, Chew, Chew
Eat more cooked foods than raw as you transition to a plant-based vegan life. Add high-fibre foods slowly, working up to bigger portions over time. If you experience bloating or gas after large meals, try eating smaller amounts more frequently until your digestive system gets used to the increase in fibre, and don’t forget to chew.
You must chew grains, beans and vegetables for optimum digestion. Slowing down the rate you polish off your meals is also important. A good habit to get into is to put down your utensils between mouthfuls and don’t pick up until you have completely emptied your mouth.
Be sure you’re including enough healthy fat in your meals. You don’t have to eat large amounts, but adding ground flax to rice or oatmeal porridge, some fermented vegetables or miso soup to bean dishes, or a sprinkle of seeds to your salad can ease problems associated with increased fibre intake.
It’s also important to think about food combining, many add fruits and vegetables in salads. Some use them in juicing, which is not a good idea. It’s also important to leave some time, at least one hour, before you eat dessert.
One other thing you can use to relieve uncomfortable bloating right away is a yoga pose known as “wind relieving pose.” This pose compresses your abdomen and helps eliminate trapped air. As strange as it may sound, it does work!
Too Much Fibre?
In some cases, increased fibre intake causes more serious problems than simple social awkwardness. Signs you’re overdoing it on fibre include:
- Persistent, uncomfortable bloating
If Problems Persist…
Taking steps to minimize digestive troubles during your plant-based vegan transition should ease your discomfort, but if it doesn’t, you should talk with your health counsellor. Persistent bloating, flatulence, nausea, or diarrhea could be an indication of other health issues:
- Food allergy or intolerance
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Imbalanced gut bacteria
- IBS or IBD
- Bacterial overgrowth
Addressing these underlying issues will allow you to enjoy nutritious meals without feeling uncomfortable or ill.
A growing body of research demonstrates a plant-based vegan diet is best for health, so don’t let temporary discomfort from increased fibre make you shy away from making the switch. By planning your transition so that your fibre intake increases slowly, you can enjoy the benefits of plant-based vegan living without digestive distress. Healthy intestinal flora equals longevity.
In good health,