The gut holds quite a bit of power, far beyond digesting your daily food intake. It determines the well-being of your immune system, plays a major part in controlling your mood, and can even take a toll on your cardiovascular health. There are many factors that positively and negatively affect your gut, though many say the key to maintaining a healthy gut is by abiding by a plant-based diet. But is that true?
Green Matters caught up with Siena Cid, who holds an M.S. in clinical nutrition and dietetics from New York University — and is currently working to get her R.D. certification — to discuss all things gut health, the deets on how plant-based diet affects gut health, and things you can do to further improve your gut health as a vegan.
What is your "gut"?
A common misconception about the gut is that it predominantly consists of the intestines, while in fact, it's actually a series of organs that aid in digestion, and ultimately take a toll on many parts of the body.
"Our gut is a mucosal surface from our mouth to our anus that tears apart food and gives us resources from that, to meet our body’s needs," Cid explains, "and the gut is the main mechanism in which we obtain energy and break down energy to distribute energy throughout the body."
"But, it’s important to remember and understand that our gut encompasses so many different parts of our body — our heart, our lungs, our liver — everything is entwined, and that’s how I like to look at it," she says.
Why is gut health so important?
Due to the misconception that the gut solely affects digestion, many forget that an unhealthy gut can affect your daily life, far beyond bloating or constipation.
"Gut health is really important because when our guts are working, we’re able to do the job of getting those nutrients. We’re able to get our vitamins and minerals, our carbs, energy, calories, protein, and fat. When it doesn’t work, we’re not able to do that," Cid explains.
"That can lead to vitamin deficiencies, as well as protein and calorie deficiencies, which means you aren’t meeting your needs in order to function as a human being in daily living." she says. "[An unhealthy gut] can really compound to stress on the body. And what I mean by 'stress' is losing muscle mass, losing fat mass, and physical manifestations of vitamin deficiencies, which mean things like a vitamin D deficiency — this can manifest as brittle bones, or depressive symptoms, physically."
"And there’s amazing research that shows when we have a happy gut, it actually impacts our mood positively... and there’s also the hot research, which is gut bacteria, and looking at the diversity of the microbiome," Cid tells us. "You want many different [types of bacteria] in your microbiome. When one starts to overcome the microbiome, or if there’s more of one type, it can cause a host of serious problems."
Does a plant-based diet affect gut health?
We asked Cid about how a plant-based diet affects the gut, and she tells us a vegan diet absolutely comes with a slew of benefits — as long as you're maintaining a well-balanced diet.
"I absolutely believe a plant-based diet does benefit gut health, but what do we mean by plant-based?" she asks.
"What I mean by that is a few things — one: whole foods, meaning incorporating foods that are high in fiber. Fiber is one of our best friends for our gut. Soluble fiber creates a gel and music that helps food move through the body — fruits are high in soluble fiber. Then there are insoluble fibers, which help us poop, regulate our bowel movements, and help us feel full. It also feeds our microbiome," she says.
That said, remember to check out our list of foods that are high in soluble fibers!
But, vegans: it's also important to remember to take your vitamins — Cid also tells us the gut relies on exposure to a wide range of nutrients.
"When we’re eating vegetables, that fiber is fuel for the little gut bacteria," Cid explains. "But on top of that, when we talk about a plant-based diet, it's important to ensure your diet is complete. What I mean by that is if you are vegan, it’s important to supplement things that you might not get like B12 — that's one of the biggest ones."
Cid says that plant-based diets help diversify the microbiome.
"A plant-based diet is generally lower in calories and saturated fats, which is good for heart health and for the gut's microbiome... And, there have been studies that show a predominantly plant-based diet can change the microbiome over time," she explains.
Cid also reminds us that a plant-based diet lowers the risk for many health problems.
"[The plant-based diet] is associated with a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, for diabetes, for osteoporosis. And the anti-inflammatory aspect is really big for the gut brain, for the gut lung for the gut liver. And certain plant-based omega-3s are really wonderful," she says. "A lot of plant-based fats are substantial, and are better than animal fats."
Get the most out of your gut by making these changes to your diet:
Although a plant-based diet will most likely result in a happy gut, there are ways for vegans to ensure they're doing the most for their beloved gut. In addition to eating soluble and insoluble fibers, eating a variety of foods and vitamins, and steering clear from processed and refined foods, Cid recommends incorporating fermented foods into your daily regime.
"We love plant-based yogurts with delicious bacteria, but try and make sure they don't have a ton of sugar," she says.
Cid also recommends adding kimchi, sauerkraut, green tea, and, as previously mentioned, more vitamins.
The gut is an undeniably complex set of organs, and keeping it as healthy as possible is vital for overall well-being. That said, if you don't already abide by a plant-based diet, this is yet another reason to do so.