If you’ve ever felt constantly tired, unmotivated, or just overall blah for no good reason, that may be your microbiome asking you to eat super foods for gut health!
Even as a health-conscious vegan who partially relies on my food choices to feel good (which does the job to an extent), sometimes I just don’t feel good.
There are days when I feel are sluggish, depressed, and bloated. And I’ll sit here going over everything I’ve eaten over the past few days, wondering where I went wrong.
Honestly, there are a number of ways it could have gone wrong. Especially when it comes to how far I’ll indulge myself in chocolate snacks.
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Sugar in Unexpected Places
My diet is, for the most part, comprised of things it should be: a decent variety of vegetables, fruit, seeds, grains, legumes…
Oh wait, what??
Well, it seems that grains and legumes in my diet could be the problem. Apparently, grains are a significant source of sugar. Legumes can contribute to an abundance of carbohydrates – which, of course, become sugar if that carb energy isn’t expended.
I’ve known for a while, out of necessity, that unused carbs turn into sugar. I’ve always had to be conscientious of my carb intake since they’ve always been my downfall. I’m both in love with and wary of sugar. It’s my primary arch enemy, and grain-based starches come in a close second. But bakeries are still among my favorite places, and I still love to bake myself! The difference between feeling destined for my ideal physique and feeling like a slab of raw pastry dough mired by defeat could usually be determined by my dietary choices for the day.
All this time I thought I was doing pretty well by being 98% gluten-free and incorporating the brown rice, red lentil pasta and chickpeas – along with raw greens, other vegetables, and fruits – into my diet.
At the same time, I’ve been wondering why I feel slightly bloated all the time! And sometimes unduly stressed and sometimes kind of depressed.
Well, apparently, I’ve been doing this vegan thing incorrectly.
How? You might be asking.
I haven’t been in tune with my guts.
Listen to Your Guts
I’ve been grossly negligent when it comes to considering my gut microbiome.
Ignoring 1,000 different species of bacteria that comprise the 100 trillion of them in the digestive tract is bound to have its consequences.
The trillions of these whip-smart little bugs that reside in our intestines can have, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, an enormous influence on our “digestion, mood, and health.” So much so that they’ve been named as an independent system unto themselves – the enteric nervous system (ENS), aka “the second brain.”
Is the stress causing the bloat, is the bloat causing depression, is the depression causing stress and bloat? My head runs in circles around these questions sometimes.
In this new scenario in consideration of gut microbiome health, I really can’t know for sure which thing to blame on what.
The only thing I know is that my gut health should probably be improved, especially after reading this account of a young vegan athlete who constantly struggled with bloat.
The author of this illuminating piece, Yanar Alkayat, went to see a gut specialist, and this is what they told her:
‘A vegan diet can be problematic if you rely heavily on grains, sugar-based foods, an excess of fruit especially dried fruits. This is true for anyone, vegan or not. These will preferentially feed pathogenic and harmful bacteria and yeast in the gut, which then thrive causing issues such as bloating, bowel irregularities, potentially SIBO (small intestinal bacteria overgrowth) or SIFO (small intestinal fungal overgrowth) as well as loss of beneficial bacteria that become overwhelmed by the ‘bad’ bacteria,’ clarifies Stephanie.
So the finger was pointing at bacteria-feeding grains abundant in my diet which I’d always considered healthy. Oh the irony. Then there’s fibre.
‘Vegan diets can be high in fibre too which is generally a healthy situation but if an individual already has a poorly functioning digestive system and/or they do not eat slowly, chew well and manage their digestive health well, too much fibre can cause irritation, inflammation and more bloating,’ adds Stephanie.
‘Grains are one of your greater sources of sugar,’ confirms Peter.
Deemed healthy and nutritious in normal circumstances, and the foundation of my vegan diet, they were now the root cause of my gut troubles.
I love when she says, ‘Oh the irony’! That info felt like a punch to my grain-loving mouth, too, when I read it. And upon reading it, I knew that some changes have to be made in my diet.
How to Know If Your Gut Is Asking for Super Foods
Do you feel like you make healthy choices but remain perplexed about why that waistband is still snug? Are you fully aware that, indeed, you are what you eat – but wonder why you aren’t feeling as alive as the vegetables that you consume daily?
To determine whether gut bacteria imbalance is trying to signal to you that something is going awry in your body, here is a short list from healthline.com of telltale signs:
- Stomach disturbances – e.g. gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn
- Increased sugar cravings
- Gaining or losing weight unintentionally
- Insomnia or constant fatigue
- Skin irritations – e.g. eczema
- Autoimmune disorders
- Food intolerances
- Possibly food allergies
Make A Blueprint
Realistically speaking, I know I’m not going to be able to sustain a long-term absence of carbs in my diet. I could choose to go cold turkey and never have another carb again a day in my life, and plenty of people do that successfully.
For me, forgoing carbs forever would not be feasible simply because I really like cake. I don’t want to spend my life without some cake every now and then. For me, this is clear. And that’s why I’m making a decision to cut carbs and not eliminate them.
But I do want to increase my intake of fermented foods to offset cuts of my beloved carbs. This is my way of trying to make this change feel like it’s not deprivation, because I know that feeling of deprivation can potentially harm my efforts.
Again, some people do very well cutting out certain foods without much of a problem because they’re committed to the idea of how eliminating that food will serve them. That’s fantastic and highly admirable!
Ultimately, however, we have to figure out what works for each of our uniquely individual selves.
This may take some time for you to blueprint, as it has a lot to do with knowing yourself and keeping commitments to yourself – so it’s not work to take lightly. Take your time to know yourself, what you want, what will make you healthiest in mind, body, and spirit, and create a plan for yourself based on what you discover.
Knowing the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics
In short, one is the food to support function for the other!
Prebiotics are high-fiber carbs that your stomach can’t digest. This fiber is then passed on to the digestive tract, where it feeds the good bacteria in your gut.
Probiotics are the live bacteria in certain foods or supplements that help maintain the beneficial bacteria in your body.
Some of the best foods for feeding gut health are natural prebiotics that come unadulterated, straight from nature (full list at healthline.com):
- Chicory Root
- Dandelion Greens
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Jicama Root
And when it comes to feeding your gut bacteria in the most beneficial way, fermented foods are the way to go!
According to UMass Center for Applied Nutrition, fermentation is a food preservation process in which “sugars are broken down by bacteria and yeasts.” This process yields live bacteria and is therefore “a great source of probiotics.”
Some excellent vegan sources of probiotics via fermented foods include (see the full list at UMass Center for Applied Nutrition):
- Tempeh (gluten free)
- Kombucha (no sugar)
- Fermented Vegetables
- Pickles (salt brine only – vinegar in brine yields no probiotics)
I practically grew up on miso, and it’s still my favorite thing. I didn’t grow up on kimchi, but that’s my even more favorite thing. So I practically could live on these two probiotic recommendations alone, which is great news for me!
Which might be your favorite?
Fermented Vegetables – Incredibly Easy to DIY
If you can’t identify a favorite right away from that list, here’s a tip – fermented vegetables are tangy, salty, and fantastic as a snack. They’re also a fun way to elevate a dish by adding extra personality!
The other day I pickled peppers (honestly, I really did) with water, vinegar, salt, and a few spices. Since I used vinegar, my peppers wouldn’t qualify as a fermented food, but next time I’ll just leave out the vinegar!
One of the many great things about fermented vegetables is that they’re very tough to mess up when making them. Outside of ensuring that you add enough salt and don’t overfill your fermentation container of choice with water (causing spillage, which is hardly a catastrophe), measurements of spices and seasonings can be approximate.
Because of this, fermented vegetables are really easy to make. They just need water, salt, a few days in a mason jar to bubble and gas at room temperature, and then you’ve got wonderfully healthy, gut-pleasing and delicious probiotic eats!
Want to know how you can do this?
Like, right now? Today, even?
Run over to Running to the Kitchen! This is the simplest, most straightforward and helpful tutorial I’ve found on fermenting vegetables. Their tutorial will have you fermenting faster than you can say “probiotic”!
If you’re looking to increase your intake of probiotics like I am, well, now we have no excuse.
Here we have a fantastic way of making them at home!
The L. Acidophilus Effect
If all else fails and it’s not possible to get much prebiotic or fermented food into your diet, consider the supplement Lactobacillus Acidophilus (aka L. Acidophilus).
In the past, I’ve taken this supplement whenever I was prescribed antibiotics. L. Acidophilus saved me from developing ailments that would have resulted from those antibiotics killing off much of my beneficial gut bacteria.
As it turns out, L. Acidophilus may have a whole host of health benefits that tend to get overlooked!
Yanar Alkayat’s article reminded me of how important L. Acidophilus is to our gut health. I’m inspired to incorporate it into my daily routine again.
Between the supplement and DIY fermented vegetables, I’m hopeful that my guts, and therefore the rest of me, will start feeling better soon!