I get asked this question a LOT! Can I, only consuming plant-based nutrition, achieve good gut health?
The microbiome is an adaptable, rapidly changing, living microbial populace which reacts to what you eat and how you live. Thus you can presume that with the absence of meat or any animal protein in the diet the microbiome would reflect this in it’s make up of different microbiota, but that doesn’t necessarily mean for good or bad.
If you’ve been following my work over the years, you’ll know that I speak largely on the fact that different microbiome signatures are not only inevitable but completely necessary in the human experience. Largely, we inherit our microbiomes from Mum at birth in a startlingly convenient phenomenon which assists us to thrive within the same ecological conditions that Mum presumably thrives in. However, that doesn’t mean that our microbiome doesn’t shift over time, particularly in the modern era.
Antibiotics, travel, EMFs and stress may all have an impact on our populations of gut bugs and in some of these incidences, a significant shift in microbiota ratios may actually be permanent. Person A takes an antibiotic to clear a Giardia infection, the treatment works, but they’ve also wiped out all levels of H.pylori which itself has a certain impact on the delicate microbial balance of the gut (and, evidently, the immune system to!). The microbiome then adapts rapidly to ‘fill the void’ if you will, subsequently allowing different populations of microbes to expand in number.
Long story short – we all have different microbiomes, and that’s okay. What we truly need to find out is a way of determining the right set of bugs for the particular person and their immune system.
But, back to the big question of today – vegans…
One European study actually concluded that those consuming closer to a plant-based diet actually had healthier microbiomes than those who didn’t (although one could interpret this study as more of an indication of the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet rather than a vegan diet).
Dr. Margie Smith is currently conducting research on various subjects to further answer this question. I spoke with her in The Gut Healing Summit, & her initial findings suggested that those who eat a paleo style of eating often had higher levels of pro-inflammatory microbes within their digestive system. She could identify the “green smoothie drinkers” just by looking at the DNA sequencing of their gut bacteria.
Dr Smith noted that consistently it seemed that those who ate a balanced, whole foods style of eating, similar to the Mediterranean Diet, actually seemed to express the healthiest microbiome signatures.
We find that with higher levels of fibre consumption there is a higher corresponding production of anti-inflammatory short-chain-fatty-acids within the gut, but the reality is a high fibre consumption can be achieved without strictly adhering to a vegan diet. The reality is, all of this science on the microbiome is still only in it’s infant stages. And interpreting the data in order to suggest ‘the perfect diet’ is still not possible.
Truly it seems that the best way to ascertain whether a diet or particular approach is working for you is to self monitor. How’s my digestion? What’s my immune system doing? Do I have autoimmune issues or neurological issues and have I noticed these change when I shift my approach?
Nobody can answer these questions better than you.
Vegans often adhere to such an eating program from a moral standpoint, and then convince themselves that it is also a health standpoint as well. The two can indeed be combined but need to be objectively separated when it comes to answering the aforementioned questions.
Nobody can be honest with themselves whilst thinking about a doe-eyed lamb heading to the slaughterhouse.
If you are willing to sacrifice you’re health position for a moral position, that is totally fine! We live in a free age and you get to choose what you put in your mouth – how great! But if you are experiencing negative symptoms whilst eating as a vegan, then you may need to adapt to continue thriving.
FOR VS AGAINST
THE VEGAN APPROACH TO GUT HEALTH
- Anecdotally, we see that nourishing foods like bone broth & bovine colostrum have a very positive impact on the gut and subsequent functioning of the gut lining – these are excluded from a vegan diet.
- Animal protein, besides containing essential nutrients not found in plants (certain amino acids and certain fats in particular), also balances blood sugar in a way that plants seldom do. Balancing blood sugar is important in relation to gut health because it helps to manage your cravings and to make wise decisions when it comes to food choice (for instance, fatty protein breakfast Vs carb-laden breakfast).
- With the exclusion of animal based protein and fat, often the first macronutrient to be substituted is carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are important and healthy in many instances, however an overload of them may cause certain health issues, particularly when those carbohydrates are coming from hard-to-digest grains or even nuts/seeds.
- A health issue becomes confused with a moral issue.
- FOR (presuming a whole foods approach is employed)
- With a high degree of plant fibres , anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acids like butyrate are often in great supply within a vegans digestive tract. Also, transit time through the digestive tract is often fast resulting in less build up of toxic debris within the lower parts of the GI system.
- A high level of antioxidants contained in plant colour pigments reduces levels of inflammation within the digestive tract.
My personal conclusion
I know plenty of vegans with gut issues. I also know plenty of meat-eaters with gut issues. With the very smart application of a whole foods, higher fat and protein (but still plant based) approach, a permissible level of gut health can certainly be achieved for a vegan.
However, it is in my opinion, much easier and more sustainable to achieve good gut health with an omnivorous approach, simply due to the fact that bone broth and bovine colostrum can be included, and that blood sugar balance is more easily attained.
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