When first changing to a plant-based diet it’s common to develop some unpleasant symptoms. Bloating and gas are some of the main reasons new vegans will give up the change, thinking the diet upsets their stomach or that it “doesn’t work for me”.
The good news is the bloating and gas are commonly experienced when adopting this new lifestyle. Or maybe that’s bad news, actually. More importantly, the symptoms are usually only temporary!
A plant-based diet generally contains more fibre and high FODMAP foods (onions, beans, etc.) than your body is used to. These foods aren’t completely absorbed by your small intestine, so they end up in your large intestine where they become a banquet for the trillions of bacteria you have living in your gut garden. This becomes a process of fermentation, leading to gurgling and popping sounds – and then bloating and flatulence.
If you do find that the bloating and gas becomes a daily issue for an extended period of time it may be worth checking in with your doctor, to make sure you don’t have IBS or another digestive concern – these issues are sometimes hidden by low fibre diets.
Ok so it’s great to know it’s normal and temporary, but that’s not very helpful if you’re struggling with bloating and cramping and gas. Luckily there are things you can do to ease or eliminate these symptoms while your body is adjusting:
Work your way up
If you haven’t started yet, take your time introducing high fibre and high FODMAP ingredients into your meals. Ease your way into it. Eat a small amount of these ingredients with each meal, and increase the quantity gradually over time. If you start noticing unpleasant symptoms, stop increasing the amount – keeping it steady for a day or two until the symptoms have dissipated.
When you introduce these ingredients gradually you give your body a chance to adapt its gut bacteria to better process your new way of eating. Loading up from day one can overload your body, kind of like eating from certain Mexican restaurants can sometimes do.
Drink enough water
Fibre is great for your body, but it can only do its job if there’s plenty of water available for it to work its magic. Without enough water to accompany the fibre through your body fibre can actually have the opposite effect, and plug you up (thereby increasing bloat).
It’s difficult to say exactly how much water you should be drinking as requirements will vary from person to person based on a number of personal and lifestyle factors, but if you’re normally healthy then about 3L of water per day is a good target to aim for if you’re not sure.
Your grandmother was right – chewing thoroughly will make it easier for your body to do its work digesting your meal. The more work your teeth do breaking your food down, the less work your gut needs to do – so take your time to eat slowly and mindfully. Eating slowly and mindfully will also help reduce the amount of air you swallow along with your food – another factor which can contribute to bloating and gas.
In addition to chewing properly you may also consider blending certain types of foods. Kale – for example – can be hard work to eat, so why not blend some into a green smoothie (or a delicious pesto) instead!
Cook your vegetables
Heating and softening your vegetables somewhat prior to eating will make it easier for your body to break them down efficiently – but don’t boil them to death! A quick steam or sauté will make enough of a difference, so there’s no need to cook your veggies until they’re mush.
Take a probiotic
Though their effects may take a while to be felt, a good probiotic will almost certainly help your body adjust faster to your new way of eating. They provide a great source of the building blocks your body needs to build a healthy gut garden.
Look for a probiotic that requires refrigeration. They are essentially capsules filled with a live bacteria culture, and if refrigerated that means more will survive until they find their way to where they can do their work.
But wait, there’s more!
In addition to the top 5 tips above there are a whole bunch of other, smaller things you can do to improve the bloat.
Soak your beans
It’s a bit of extra effort, but soaking your beans overnight can help break down the complex sugars which can cause bloating, making them easier to digest.
Your nuts too
If you’re cooking with nuts it can be beneficial to soak them in water, ideally overnight. Soaking will reduce the phytate content of the nuts (and beans), making them easier to digest. Phytates have been shown to encourage bloating, and they also reduce the bioavailability of minerals in food.
Add a teaspoon or two of vinegar or lemon juice to the water you’re soaking your nuts in – this will enhance the phytate breakdown without altering the flavour too much. When soaking to reduce phytates you should discard the water you soaked the nuts in, and rinse them off prior to adding them to your meal.
Cook beans with seaweed or bay leaves
Add some seaweed (Kombu) or even a bay leaf to the water when cooking your beans. Both contain enzymes which can help break down indigestible sugars in beans – sugars which can lead to gas when they’re consumed by the bacteria in your gut. Keep an eye on your iodine consumption if using Kombu to prepare your beans.
Avoid fizzy drinks
Fizzy drinks can cause gas in your tummy and lead to bloating. Cut them out until you have adjusted to your new diet.
Eat fermented foods
Fermented foods are a great way to add probiotics to your diet, to help your gut garden get on its feet. Help things along by adding sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, and kombucha (to name but a few) to your regular rotation of ingredients.
Set aside non-cruciferous vegetables, for now
We’ve all experienced the unpleasant effects – sometimes second-hand – of eating too much cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. They are all high in a complex sugar called raffinose, which our body is unable to digest. This inability to digest raffinose leads to it fermenting in our gut, with the inevitably smelly after-effects.
While your body is adjusting to your new diet it may be advisable to stick with more easily digested vegetables for the time being.
Due to a higher (healthier!) fibre load, a little bit of gas will always be part of the territory when you follow a plant-based diet. Transitioning to a plant-based diet can be jarring, but the unpleasant symptoms are usually temporary and once your body has adjusted the bloating and gas will hopefully be nothing more than a smelly memory. Be patient with yourself and your body, and follow the tips above to minimize the unpleasantness.
Gabrielle is an evidence-based vegan coach who believes that health transformation begins when you switch to a plant-based diet. Her mission is to help midlife women eat in alignment with who they are and what they value so that they can lead a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
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Written by Gabrielle (hi!), these e-mails will help you on your plant-based journey with useful tips, tricks, facts and inspiration – and perhaps the occasional inappropriate joke thrown in for good measure.