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With Veganuary upon us, those of you with IBS may be wondering whether your condition can happily coexist alongside a vegan diet.
Well, today I’m going to answer all your burning questions about plant-based diets and IBS, so pour yourself a cuppa and let’s dive in!
Can you be vegan when you have IBS?
The short answer to this is, yes you can!
Whether you’re already eating a vegan diet and have just discovered that you have IBS, or have been an IBS sufferer for quite some time and want to transition to a vegan diet, there is nothing standing in your way.
One complaint I hear from my clients who eat a vegan, vegetarian or other form of plant-based diet is that their doctor has told them they need to abandon their beliefs and principles if they want to see any change in their symptoms. This makes me sad to hear because it is just not true.
How do I know it’s BS? Because I work with plant-based IBS sufferers every week and I’ve seen with my own eyes how they’ve got relief from their symptoms. Their chosen eating pattern is not an obstacle in any way.
How to go vegan with IBS
My number one tip: take it slowly!
No matter how motivated you are, making dietary changes is no small feat. As an IBS sufferer, you probably know all too well that food is complicated, so if you’re looking to transition to a vegan diet, I highly recommend doing it in stages. There are two ways you can approach this; meal-by-meal, or food-by-food.
This involves making one meal a day vegan for a few weeks, before moving on to the next one. For example, you could start off by making all of your breakfasts vegan, then lunch, then dinner.
This means cutting out one animal product at a time – starting with the foods you eat least often. For example, you might want to cut out red meat, then poultry, then fish, then eggs, then dairy last.
Both ways work equally well for IBS sufferers, as the increase in plant foods will be incremental. This is important because more plant foods means more fibre. And more fibre potentially means more digestive discomfort. Don’t worry, this is usually temporary, and I have some tips to help you get through it here.
Can a vegan diet help IBS?
Plant-based diets come with many proven health benefits, including improved digestive health, but right now, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that a vegan diet can be used to ‘treat’ IBS.
Don’t let this put you off, though!
While we don’t know exactly what causes IBS – it’s likely to be multifactorial – one of the factors thought to be involved is the gut microbiota. The trillions of microbes that live in your large intestine appear to be different in those with IBS compared to healthy people. However, we don’t know whether this is a cause or consequence of the condition. Like the chicken and egg debate – which came first?
In modern Western diets, many of us eat high amounts of ultra-processed foods, takeaways, and fast foods, which are generally low in fibre and other essential micronutrients. On the other hand, a diet of mostly whole plant foods (i.e a healthy vegan diet) is abundant in these nutrients.
Why is this relevant?
Because the good bacteria in your gut needs a diverse range of these nutrients – particularly fibre – in order to thrive and keep your large intestine in tip-top condition (one of the many jobs of good bacteria is to protect and maintain your gut’s mucosal barrier).
The key to microbial diversity in the gut is plant diversity on the plate.
Vegan diets also omit dairy products which are known to be a potential IBS trigger. Dairy can cause constipation in some people, and for those of us who are lactose intolerant, dairy products can cause diarrhoea, excess gas and bloating. So, ditching dairy might be a smart move if you have IBS, even if you don’t go fully vegan.
In a nutshell, eating more plant foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds) is the key to long-term gut health and adopting a healthy vegan diet certainly won’t do your gut any harm.
Can a vegan diet make IBS worse?
This is a common complaint and there are several possible reasons for this. These are the main causes:
The overnight transition
If you’ve decided to go vegan and done it ‘cold turkey’, you’ve probably increased your fibre intake too quickly and your body isn’t ready to deal with that yet.
The key to transitioning to a vegan diet when you have IBS is patience. Know that things might get worse temporarily, and it can take some trial and error to establish a personalised healthy plant-based diet that your tummy is happy with.
Don’t give up too soon, just slow things down.
One frustrating belief I often hear from IBS sufferers is that they ‘can’t‘ eat fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. And sadly, many of them have so much anxiety around food that they won’t even try. I totally get it, but here’s the deal:
What this tells me is that they probably have unidentified FODMAP sensitivities. FODMAPs are carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that we humans can’t fully digest, and in IBS sufferers this can lead to pain, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and excess gas. FODMAPs happen to be present in some fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, which is why some people with IBS avoid them completely.
But not ALL plant foods are high in FODMAPs – there are plenty of low FODMAP vegan foods. You just have to go through the process of identifying which FODMAPs you are truly sensitive to, and which you can eat without exacerbating your IBS symptoms.
If you want to learn more about how the low FODMAP diet works, I’ve written about it here.
Too many ultra-processed vegan foods
These days, you can get vegan alternatives for practically any animal product, from chick’n nuggets to juicy burgers. This is a great sign that the market is shifting in line with the increased demand for plant-based foods.
However, these products often have long lists of ingredients, some of which are not particularly tummy-friendly. An ideal diet (vegan or non-vegan) is one that is comprised mainly of whole, unprocessed foods, so keep meat and dairy replacements for special occasions and don’t make them part of your every day diet if you have IBS.
What does a vegan diet look like for IBS sufferers?
The answer to this depends – there are many variables including:
- Do you have any allergies (i.e. nuts, soy)?
- Can you tolerate FODMAPs?
- Do you have Coeliac disease, GERD or any other digestive issues as well as IBS?
- What are your likes and dislikes?
- How much time do you have to cook and do you enjoy cooking?
For the majority of my clients, their IBS vegan diet isn’t much different from any other vegan diet, with the exception of maybe a few high FODMAP foods they can’t tolerate, or can only tolerate in small amounts. In this case, we’ll make a few adjustments to ensure they are getting optimal nutrition, and they will re-challenge these foods after six months, as tolerances do change.
Remember: a minimally restrictive diet is the North Star for good gut health.
Food isn’t the only IBS trigger though, and my clients often find that once they’ve addressed their health holistically, their gut is far more accommodating of plant foods than they once believed!
If you’re looking for an example vegan low FODMAP meal plan to give you some recipes and inspiration for the elimination phase of the diet, I’ve got one for you here!