With the rise in popularity of vegan diets, plant foods are hitting the headlines right now. And rightly so. Even if you consume meat, fish or eggs, plants should still make up the majority of your diet.
But if you prefer to be largely or fully plant-based, you must actively seek out plant-based gut-healing foods and ensure you pack them into your diet daily.
There is a caveat.
Not all plant-based food is equal. There is a world of difference between fresh, un-processed, as-nature-intended plant foods and processed vegan foods. Just because it is labelled vegan or plant-based, it does not mean it is healthy! Aim to choose natural plant foods such as veg, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and wholegrains that come with as little packaging or processing as possible.
Here are my suggestions for plant foods that contribute to nurturing your gut microbiome (your collection of microbes and their DNA that live in your body) and healing your gut.
- Cooked foods – gentle on the gut
Raw foods can be pretty tough on your digestive system. You may love salads at any time of year, but your gut may not be too chuffed, particularly if it is already compromised.
Eating cooked foods can be particularly healing for your gut, especially if you have had infections or suffer from persistent gut issues. I often put my IBS and IBD clients onto 3 months of cooked foods just to take the pressure of the digestive system and to calm the inflamed intestinal walls.
Once healing is done, raw foods can be slowly re-introduced; long term you will benefit from them in your diet as they are packed with vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.
A really useful tip – use a slow or pressure cooker to produce long-cooked legumes and vegetables. The longer the cooking, the easier they are to digest and the higher likelihood that you will benefit from all the goodness in the food.
You can make a cold salad from cooked foods. Try cooked, then cooled, roasted veg with red lentils as they are one of the easier legumes to digest. The flavour of roasted vegetables often intensifies when eaten cold.
A useful tip – cooked then cooled potatoes are rich in resistant starch which means they do exactly as it sounds – they resist digestion until they reach your large intestine to feed your beneficial bacteria.
- Essential fats – nourishing and soothing
Fats nourish and soothe and are key restorative foods for your intestinal tract. Healing fats from plants include: avocados, olive oil, flaxseed & hemp seeds. Fats from coconut are discussed later on.
Nuts are a fantastic source of essential fats but can be tough on a compromised digestive system. They may be better tolerated as nut butter in small amounts. Soaking or roasting nuts first also makes them easier to digest.
A useful tip – almonds are a good choice as they really deserve their ‘supernut’ status. Walnuts have been shown in research to increase a species of bacteria in the gut called roseburia that helps protect the gut lining.
- Bananas – easily tolerated
Many fruits can make digestive issues worse due to fermentation in the intestines causing bloating and flatulence. However, bananas are one of the most tolerated fruits and may have a regulatory effect on bowel movements, so can be equally useful for constipation or diarrhea.
However, there are differences in unripe and ripe bananas.
Unripe bananas (green): These contain more micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) and comprise resistant starch which is a natural prebiotic. This is a food that feeds your beneficial bacteria and is excellent for supporting your colon health. Therefore, if you tolerate them green, go for it. However, if you notice bloating and gas, then try them ripe.
Ripe bananas (yellow): Because the starch turns to sugar as they ripen, ripe bananas digest very quickly after eating, meaning you get the benefit from the nutrients quickly and there is less time for your not-so-friendly gut bacteria to feast causing fermentation. And fermentation is what causes unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, flatulence & trapped wind. Antioxidant levels also rise with ripening which means you get the protective antioxidant effect to prevent or reduce the damage caused by oxidation of your cells by free radicals.
Note: Diabetics would be wise to avoid ripe bananas as they may raise insulin too quickly.
- Coconut – a versatile food
This is a wonderful alternative if you cannot tolerate or choose not to eat dairy products. One of the easiest ways to get it into your diet is coconut oil. This easily digested fat supplies energy increases your metabolism and is great for your brain. It is also anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, and anti-viral – making it an ideal food for your gut. Due to its medium-chain triglyceride fat content coconut oil is extremely stable at high heat, making it the go-to choice for healthier roasting, baking & shallow frying.
You can also consume coconut as milk, yoghurt, butter, flour, desiccated, flaked, or as fresh chunks.
A useful tip – If you fancy home fermenting, try coconut milk kefir made from kefir grains and coconut milk. This is an ideal way to get fermented foods into your diet to nurture your beneficial bacteria.
- Probiotic-rich fermented foods – bursting with good bacteria
Probiotic foods can do wonders for your gut microbiome by adding in beneficial bacteria that helps to keep your microbial balance in good shape.
However, for sensitive tummies, probiotic and fermented foods can make symptoms worse, particularly for those with histamine intolerance or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Because they are incredibly valuable for your gut, they are definitely worth a try. My advice is to start slow, very slow.
Start with well-tolerated non-dairy yoghurt (coconut, almond or cashew-based) or cheese (a cultured cashew nut cheese, not a supermarket vegan cheese).
Move on to miso which is fermented soya paste and is a good base for soups or to flavour legume-based dishes. You can use miso-paste sachets as an instant soup.
If you want to drink your probiotics, as well as the coconut kefir mentioned in point 4, try kombucha. It is fermented tea and comes in many flavours. I find it useful as an alcohol alternative (always feels more decadent drinking from a wine or champagne glass I find!).
If you choose fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, or pickles – go even slower, and ideally these should be home-made. Shop-bought versions often have low or negligible bacterial counts due to the pasteurisation.
- Janes’ top tip: As I alluded to in the first paragraph, regardless of whether you eat animal products or not, plants should still account for a good 80% of your diet. What is key is diversity; this is essential to nurture your gut microbiome. This in turn is vital for keeping your immune system in tip-top condition, your hormones (and therefore your mood) balanced and your gut resilient. Aim for at least 30 different types weekly of what I call the Fabulous 4 – veg, fruit, herbs & spices. You can download my Free Variety Counter right here to help you put that into practise.
Last but not least…
You can be eating the best and most nutritious diet in the world, but if you can’t digest and absorb properly, then those lovely nutrients may be going to waste. Discover the way to easier digestion with these three tips:
- Think about your food before you eat it: smell it, salivate – engage your brain’s cephalic response and rev up your digestive enzymes to digest the forthcoming food.
- Eat seated, be mindful: ban the mobile, tablet – concentrate on enjoying your food slowly.
- And then chew: 20-30 times to take the pressure off your digestive system – this will extract the nutrients more readily.
These tips work consistently well for my clients on their digestive healing journey. I hope you found them useful.
If you would like to delve deeper, and learn about the WHAT, WHEN & HOW to eat, you can watch my FREE masterclass 3 Steps to Control Your Gut (Without Giving Up Your Favourite Food)
Jane Barrett is a registered nutritionist and expert in digestive health helping women & children with digestive issues take control of their health through food. She offers support through meal plans, online courses & personalised 1:1 programmes on Zoom.