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Health & Wellness

Digestive Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

Vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming increasingly popular for many reasons. Some people opt to become vegetarian because they are worried about the impact that meat-rich diets have on the planet. For others, the motivation is animal welfare. Another common reason to go vegetarian is because of the prospective health benefits. While meat is a valuable source of protein, fats, and iron, plant-based diets can be beneficial in a variety of ways as well.

The vegetarian vs. omnivore debate is a controversial one, with studies to support both sides. 1 And although many people are not willing to say that eating meat is bad for overall health, there are nevertheless some digestive benefits associated with being vegetarian, some of which are highlighted below.

Vegetarian Diet Reduces Risk of Obesity


One of the best parts about the vegetarian diet is that vegetables are high in fiber, and fiber can help improve satiety, meaning that you can consume fewer calories and still feel full. 2 This reduces your risk of obesity. Maintaining a healthy weight can help with numerous elements of digestive health, including helping reduce the risk of acid reflux. 3

Prevents Constipation and Diarrhea


Another useful factor about a higher-fiber vegetarian diet is that the fiber can help keep food, and waste moving through the intestines at a steady rate. This means that you are less likely to suffer from constipation. 4 Increasing your fiber intake can also help reduce the risk of diarrhea. 5

An adequate intake of dietary fiber is particularly important for people who are suffering from irritable  width= bowel syndrome (IBS), however, even those who are generally healthy should make sure that they are getting enough fiber. 6

According to recent national consumption surveys, only around five percent of Americans meet government guidelines for fiber intake. 7 It is typically easier to get sufficient dietary fiber on a vegetarian diet, as long as that diet consists of fruit and vegetables, not simply “vegetarian-friendly” fast food.

Reduces Risk of Type 2 Diabetes


Type 2 diabetes is a condition that used to be known as “adult-onset diabetes” and which is heavily influenced by lifestyle factors. Vegetarian diets have been found to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. 8

It is unclear whether it is the avoidance of meat and fish that helps reduce the risk of diabetes or whether it is the way that those who follow vegetarian diets are better educated about nutrition in general and that their diet skews, overall, to foods that are better for blood glucose control. 9

Vegetarian Diet Decreases Risk of Digestive Diseases


Vegetarians enjoy a much lower risk of several diseases, including diverticular disease, which is a condition where pouches form in the colon, interfering with digestion. Diverticular disease is a common condition in the western world, and many people who have it are asymptomatic.

However, if the pouches become infected, then this can result in serious complications. Vegetarians are at a much lower risk of diverticular disease than meat eaters. 10

Indeed, according to one study which examined the health of Seventh Day Adventists over a period of several years, vegetarian dietary patterns are associated with reduced all-cause mortality. 11 As long as vegetarians follow a well-planned diet which is focused on fruits and vegetables rather than processed foods, they can enjoy many health improvements.

A Healthy Vegetarian Diet Must Be Varied Vegetarian Diet


It's important to understand that vegetarian diets are not automatically healthy simply because of the absence of meat. For a diet to be healthy, it needs to include proteins and healthy fats, several servings of fruits and vegetables, and sufficient fiber, as well as important micronutrients such as calcium, iron and Vitamin B12.

Vegetarians need to take care to ensure that they are getting enough calcium—especially if they are attempting to gradually reduce their dairy intake and leaning towards a fully vegan diet—and iron (typically found in meat).

They also need to consider their intake of omega-3 fatty acids. 12 These are usually found in oily fish and are important for heart health. There are vegetarian-friendly sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed oil and walnuts, however, it is unclear whether these offer the same benefits for heart health.

Conclusion


While vegetarian diets are good for the digestive system in the long term, some people experience some short-term gas and rumbling, as well as discomfort, as they adapt to a diet that is much higher in fiber. To help with this, it is a good idea to gradually shift your intake. Start with gentle fiber sources such as brown rice, and then work your way up to whole grains and other fiber sources, increasing your intake gradually.

If you are going to increase your intake of dairy to help ensure that you are getting enough protein and calcium, do so gradually, and consider using probiotic yogurts to help support your digestive system. 13 Some people struggle to digest lactose—which is found in dairy—and probiotics can help with that.

It is normal for there to be some adjustment period when you change your diet. The intestines are full of microbes, some of which are beneficial and some of which are not. When you change your diet, the make-up of your gut flora will also change because different bacteria thrive with different foods. 14

Gut flora can influence mood, cravings, and overall well-being. While you are adjusting to a new diet, it is normal to feel a little drained, tired, or crave the foods you used to eat. Accept that this will happen and stick to your new healthy, plant-based diet for a few weeks. You’ll find that those old cravings will pass and that you will find you really enjoy your new nutrient-rich and varied plant-based diet.

PhotoCredits: NewAfrica/shutterstock.com, LeszekGlasner/shutterstock.com, SydaProductions/shutterstock.com, RossHelen/shutterstock.com, nataliabulatova/shutterstock.com

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