Benefits of Plant-Based Diets for Gut Health: Leigh Merotto, R.D.
What comes to mind when you think of supporting your gut health through nutrition? Well, if you’re like most people, you feel pretty confused about it all! Let’s face it - there is SO much information online from websites, social media and various influencers telling you what you should and shouldn’t do for your gut health.
You care about your health so you are keen to know what you should focus on. Further, if living with a chronic health condition that impacts your digestion, you know that supporting your gut health through the right foods does matter.
Well, let’s set the record straight today and talk about the importance of a plant-based diet to support gut-health. Eating for gut health doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated, but there are a few key foods and nutrients that a plant-based diet can help you incorporate in order to help your gut health thrive and support your healing journey!
What is Gut-Health?
To get on the same page, let’s be clear on what gut health actually is. Our gut, also called our gastrointestinal tract, is the entire pathway from our mouth, through our esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus. Our gut houses our gut-microbiome which includes a variety of microorganisms including bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses (1). These microbes play various important roles in many parts of our health, including our mental health and mood, metabolism, digestion, absorption, and more!
Experts agree that gut health is dependent on a diverse gut-microbiome. A greater variety of microbes in our gut helps support the function of the gut, keep our intestinal wall strong, and lowers inflammation (2,3). In turn, this supports efficient digestion, as well as lowers the risk of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Our gut health is SO important!
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
‘Plant-based’ has been a buzzword for a few years now, and it seems like every company is using it to help promote their products. Plant-based foods are those which come from plant sources such as legumes, soy beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and grains.
Many people are under the impression that a ‘plant-based’ diet is equivalent to a vegan diet, meaning that it excludes all animal derived foods. However, this is not entirely true. Each person’s version of a plant-based diet may look a bit different. Depending on how you wish to follow a plant-based or plant-focused diet, you may still choose to include some animal foods for balanced nutrition and personal preferences (4). While the majority of your diet is focused on plant-sourced foods, animal foods (ie. dairy, meat, fish and eggs) can still be a part of a plant-based diet (albeit a smaller part).
Benefits of Plant-Based Foods for Gut Health
Did you know that whole, plant-based foods have a plethora of benefits for your gut health? Yes, despite what you’ve heard, you don’t need to eat a high protein or carnivore diet to ‘heal you gut’. Bring on the carbs and fiber!
Put simply, a diversity of plant foods in the diet has been shown to help improve gut microbiome diversity, which as we’ve discussed, is key to gut health! A large study found that people who ate at least 30 different plant foods PER week had a more diverse and robust gut microbiome than those who did not (5). Therefore, the more diverse your consumption of plant foods is, the more diverse your gut microbiome can become. This is because different bacteria utilize different carbohydrates to survive and thrive!
Key Nutrients in Plant Foods That Support Gut Health
These are the key nutrients that plant-foods contain (which animal-based foods do not give us) that support our gut health and microbiome:
Fiber is considered an indigestible material found in plant foods, that our gut does not break down fully, however it provides a valuable fuel source for the microbes in our gut. These microbes ferment fiber and produce important compounds known as Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA). SCFAs help metabolize nutrients like carbs and fat, lower gut lining inflammation, and reduce the risk of liver disease, colon cancer, heart disease, obesity, and type II diabetes.
Eating enough fiber can also help our good gut bacteria survive and thrive. Specifically, fiber helps increase the amount of Bifidobacteria in our gut, a probiotic which helps break down food, absorb various nutrients, and fight off harmful organisms!
Some great sources of fiber include:
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils
- Berries: currents, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries
- Sweet potato & potato (with skin on!)
- Whole/intact grains: quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat, amaranth
- Nuts & seeds: chia, Hemp, Almonds, brazil nuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts
- Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, kale, collards, cabbage
Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant that helps to fight off free radicals, lower inflammation and support healthy tissue repair. If you are trying to heal from a surgery, have inflammatory bowel disease or IBS, then including polyphenols helps your gut to repair and heal!
Polyphenols also help to increase bifidobacteria and lactobacillus in our gut. These two good gut bacteria provide anti-pathogenic and anti-inflammatory effects.
Polyphenols can be found in:
- Fruits: raspberries, oranges, blueberries, cranberries
- Vegetables: dark leafy greens, sweet potato, broccoli, carrots
- Nuts & seeds: chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, flaxseed
- Cacao: cacao nibs, dark chocolate & cocoa powder
- Spices and seasonings: cocoa powder, saffron, oregano, rosemary, peppermint, basil, ginger
Prebiotics are food for the beneficial microbes that live in our gut and, therefore, increase the number of desirable healthy bacteria. They can help decrease constipation by fermenting foods faster and keep the cells in our gut healthy.
Prebiotic rich foods include:
- Whole grains: oats, brown rice, millet
- Beans & lentils
- Soy proteins: tofu, tempeh, edamame
Considerations With IBS & Digestive Disorders
For those of you living with a digestive disorder like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or Irritable Bowel Syndrome IBS, you might be thinking that many of these plant based foods cause you symptoms and feel hesitant to include them. However, as we’ve discussed, having minimal plant diversity in your diet can actually harm your gut microbiome in the long term.
Here are some tips to include more plants for those with digestive issues:
- Start off slow: Try adding in 1-2 new plant-based foods each week and slowly work up to a plant-based diet. This can help you to tolerate the increase in fiber-rich foods.
- Hydrate: Make sure to hydrate well when including more plant-based foods, as we need enough water to help fiber move through our digestive system!
- Focus on low FODMAP foods: You may wish to focus on low FODMAP plant-based foods to help minimize symptoms while improve your intake of fibre, polyphenols and prebiotics. However, a low FODMAP diet should be done with the guidance of a Dietitian.
- Work with a specialized Dietitian: If you have anxiety around adding new foods and find yourself with a very limited diet, we encourage you to work with a specialized Registered Dietitian who can help you to slowly improve your diversity of plant-based foods while helping you to minimize your symptoms.
How to Make Plant-Based Eating Easy
Meal Plan Weekly
Planning is key to success! Write out a weekly plan of meals and try your best to include a diversity of different plant foods (keep in mind that 30 plants target!). This can help you monitor how much you are eating and keep you on track with including more plants! While it takes a little more time upfront, it can help to save you time during your week when you have a plan ready to go.
Build Up Over Time
As I’ve mentioned, work to slowly increase your intake of plant-based foods to help your digestive system adjust. It may also be a big lifestyle transition for you - eating more plant-based proteins can sometimes be a big learning curve! Set a goal of 1-2 plant-based protein meals each week, and then increase as you feel comfortable. Keep it simple and focus on the long-game!
Use High Quality, Plant-Based Meal Replacements
I know that many of you have times when appetite is low, or you simply don’t have enough time to get in proper fuel during your busy day! This is where Sperri comes in.
While most meal replacement shakes are high in sugar or artificial sweeteners, Sperri has about half the amount of sugar as the leading competitor. It’s also low-FODMAP friendly, high in plant-based protein free from soy, gluten and dairy, and made with high quality, non GMO ingredients. You can include Sperri when you’re simply not well, such as during an IBS or gut flare-up, when appetite and desire to eat solid meals is low, or after a GI surgery when you’re on a liquid or soft foods diet. They are also a great plant-based option to fill in the gaps in your busy lifestyle such as after an intense workout or short on time such as travel or a busy morning!
Now you’re likely convinced that plant-based foods are SO important for your gut health and digestive wellness! While you might be hesitant to include more due to digestive issues, there are ways to do so strategically. In addition, if you need help planning meals and including more food diversity while managing a digestive disorder, be sure to reach out to a specialized Gut Health Dietitian for support. And don’t forget to use Sperri as a plant-based meal or snack replacement when time or appetite is low!
Article Written By Leigh Merotto RD MHSc - Gut Health & Fitness Dietitian
Any questions about plant-based eating and gut health? Leave us a comment below!
- Thursby, E., & Juge, N. (2017). Introduction to the human gut microbiota. Biochemical Journal, 474(11), 1823–1836. https://doi.org/10.1042/BCJ20160510
- Shreiner, A. B., Kao, J. Y., & Young, V. B. (2015). The gut microbiome in health and in disease. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, 31(1), 69–75. https://doi.org/10.1097/MOG.0000000000000139
- Linares, D. M., Ross, P., & Stanton, C. (2015). Beneficial Microbes: The pharmacy in the gut. Bioengineered, 7(1), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/21655979.2015.1126015
- Katherine D. McManus, M. (2021, November 16). What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it?. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-why-should-you-try-it-2018092614760
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