The digestive system houses millions of microorganisms that play essential roles in healthy organ function. The gut microbiome within the intestines is heavily influenced by diet.
Many people adopt a vegan diet for environmental or ethical reasons. However, there are several nutritional and health benefits to eliminating animal products from your diet. Studies have linked vegan diets to several health outcomes related to digestive health and the gut microbiome.
1. A Vegan Diet Increases Fiber Intake
Fiber is a carbohydrate that feeds healthy gut bacteria. After these bacteria consume the fiber, they release protective fatty acids. These acids can reduce the risk of gut-related cancers and lower inflammation.
While the recommended fiber intake for gut health is at least 30 grams per day, fewer than 10 percent of adults consume this much fiber.
Vegans consume higher amounts of fiber-rich foods like beans and whole grains than non-vegans. Thus, they are more likely to reach the daily recommended fiber intake. Increasing your fiber intake can have an immediate positive effect on gut health. A 2021 study found that an increased fiber intake can boost beneficial gut bacteria levels in just two weeks. However, individuals must maintain proper fiber intake for longer periods to experience the full benefits.
2. A Vegan Diet Can Reduce the Risk of Bowel Diseases
Imbalanced gut bacteria can result in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, weight loss, and bloody stools.
People with IBD also have an elevated risk of developing colon cancer. Studies have shown that risk factors for IBD, such as inflammatory gut bacteria, are lowered when good bacterial levels are high. Vegan diets low in sugar and processed foods can improve gut biome diversity and reduce overall inflammation.
A plant-based diet can also relieve the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome. Intestinal permeability refers to the intestines’ ability to block digested material from passing through the intestinal walls. A leaky gut develops when the intestine loses its internal stability. This creates a pathway for compounds and bacteria into the bloodstream.
Vegan diet staples, such as raw and fermented vegetables, seeds, and nuts, can increase good bacteria levels and lower the dangers of leaky gut.
3. Veganism Lowers Trimethylamine N-Oxide Levels
The gut biome and liver create trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, after absorbing compounds found in animal products. You can assess your TMAO levels through a blood test. High levels of TMAO are correlated with colon cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Several studies have shown that a vegan diet fosters a gut biome that produces a lower amount of TMA, the precursor to TMAO. Some nuts and vegetables can also reduce TMAO levels. People with imbalanced gut biomes may benefit from reducing or eliminating animal products from their diet to reduce TMAO.
4. A Vegan Diet Is Rich in Probiotics
Probiotics are types of microorganisms that support gut health. When these organisms enter the body from food, they can maintain the balance between good and bad gut bacteria. A balanced gut biome is more effective at digestion, protects the intestines and colon from infection, and properly absorbs nutrients.
While many probiotics come from animal products, some of the most probiotic-rich food sources are plant-based. Vegans are much more likely than nonvegans to consume soy products, which facilitate healthy gut biomes.
Tempeh, a fermented soy product, is a common meat substitute in vegan dishes. Tempeh is also a source of several other important nutrients, including iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.
Other plant-based sources of probiotics include sauerkraut, kombucha, and soybean-derived miso paste.
5. A Plant-Based Diet Improves Gut Biome
High-fiber vegan diets contribute to a more diversified gut biome. Fibrous vegetables and grains are a great source of prebiotics, which do not break down in the digestive tract. Prebiotics boost good bacteria levels by supporting colon function.
A 2022 study noted a distinction between vegan and non-vegan gut biomes. The metabolic activity in vegan microbiomes resulted in lower levels of harmful byproducts and an increase in supportive short-chain fatty acids.
Plant-based diets also contain high levels of phytochemicals. These compounds protect the cells in the digestive tract from carcinogenic toxins.
6. Vegan Diets Are High in Antioxidants
Antioxidants also protect the body’s cells by stabilizing free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that can disrupt cell function. They are found in the environment, including polluted air and water. Free radicals are also abundant in high-fat meats.
When free radical levels are too high, the body can enter a state of oxidative stress. In the digestive system, oxidative stress can cause gastrointestinal problems and even cancers.
Antioxidants can reduce the reactivity of free radicals by providing the molecule with an extra electron. This prevents free radicals from accumulating in the body and attacking healthy cells.
Eating a diverse, plant-based diet is the most effective way to boost antioxidant intake. Studies have shown that the body does not absorb antioxidants from supplements. Instead, the best sources are colorful fruits and vegetables, such as berries, red cabbage, and leafy greens.