When we hear the term ‘vegetarian diet’, it may happen that our minds flash to a weight loss vegan diet with dull seeds and grassy salads. However, a vegetarian diet is not just for weight loss and it is way more than a sad plate of leafy greens. It can be an exciting bowl of acai or a crisp salad with non-dairy milk cheeses and mouth-watering smoothies. And the numerous positive effects of a vegetarian and vegan diet include benefits of gut health, gut bacteria, immune health, digestive health, mental development, etc. And when there is any benefit that positively affects the gut, the benefits are bound to apply to various other aspects of human health as well.
What is the gut and what are gut microbiomes?
The root of all diseases is a bad gut. And after multiple types of research and studies done on this subject, scientists came to this conclusion. That, a bad gut initiates almost all other kinds of ailments, be it physical or mental or related to the immune system or digestive system. It is the health of the gut microbiota that binds together all the functions of a healthy and sound body and mind.
Let’s start with the basics: What is the ‘gut’?
The gut is the passage that begins from the mouth and ends with the anus. It contains all the various organs and parts of the digestive tract and gastrointestinal tract. And to understand all about gut health, we have to focus on what is inside the gut and more specifically, inside the intestines. The gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome is a collective term that refers to the trillions of gut bacteria and microorganisms residing in our digestive tracts. And one of the most important facts about the gut microbiome is that a diversified and healthy microbiome is the most essential characteristic that defines our gut health. Gut microbiomes can also be called gut flora or gut microbiota.
On average, our bacterial cells are ten times the count of human cells. And unlike what we know about bacteria in general, most of these gut bacteria are highly beneficial for the digestive system and gut health. And along with benefiting the gut, these healthful bacteria also positively influence the neurodevelopment abilities of the body, mental health, and cognitive abilities through the gut-brain axis. The interrelation between human gut microbiota and immune cells also solidifies the fact that gut health is vital for immunity. We can maintain our gut health with a balanced microbiome. This ensures a healthy immune system with strong disease-fighting properties that keep away the harmful bacteria, toxins and disease-causing germs.
Here is why we need a healthy and diversified range of gut bacteria:
- The gut flora strengthens stomach walls and intestinal linings to reduce risks of increased intestinal permeability and Leaky Gut Syndrome.
- An unhealthy gut or an imbalanced gut microbiome can lead to a condition called dysbiosis. Which can cause gastrointestinal disorders like reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), peptic ulcers, and digestive health disorders.
- In fact, untreated gut health can also end up linked to immune system health disorders, neuro disorders, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, autism, eczema, arthritis, atherosclerosis, etc.
Hence, a healthy gut microbiome improves digestion and reduces the risk of all the above-mentioned diseases and chronic illnesses. Also read: All that you need to know about Superfoods and GI health!
What is a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet is a type of plant-based diet where vegetarians do not eat any meat-based products, seafood, poultry, and sometimes even dairy. However, this plant-based diet can allow periodic consumption of portions of foods that are not particularly plant-based. Like, eggs, dairy, bone broths, etc.
Benefits of the Vegetarian diet
- Vegan diets have anti-inflammatory effects on the cells.
- The antioxidant properties of these vegetarian diet’s lower joint pains, arthritis pain, and risks of other such chronic pain and diseases.
- It benefits the gut bacteria by promoting better gut health through prebiotics and probiotics.
- Good for heart health, as they lack the dangerous elements of proteins and cholesterol-causing agents, derived from animal foods.
- Reduces Cancer risks by promoting immune health and neutralizing free radicals. This is done by their antioxidant properties.
- Prevents type 2 diabetes.
- Lowers blood pressure.
- Decreases asthma symptoms.
- Promotes bone health by providing Vitamin K, Vitamin D, potassium, and magnesium. These minerals and vitamins can be derived through foods like soybeans and various types of fruits and vegetables.
Side effects of a vegetarian diet
The loophole associated with maintaining a vegetarian diet is the nutritional deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals like vitamin B-12 and Omega-3 fatty acids.
There is a risk of suffering from calcium and meat-protein deficiencies, which promote strong bones and muscle health. These vitamins and minerals also play a vital role in promoting growth development and neurodevelopment in children as well.
What is a vegan diet?
Vegan diets are much stricter than vegetarian diets. As it excludes every form of animal-derived food or substances that may contain animal products. Anything that isn’t plant-based is off-limits to those following vegan diet plans.
Benefits of the vegan diet
- A vegan diet is richer in certain nutrients like – whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.
- Vegan diet can help you lose excess weight.
- Helps the gut flora to maintain healthier and well-balanced gut bacteria.
- Lowers blood sugar level.
- Improves kidney function.
- Lowers risk of diabetes and insulin sensitivity complications.
- Strengthens the immune system to fight against the risks of certain types of Cancers.
- Lowers risk of heart diseases.
Side effects of a vegan diet
Going vegan can be problematic while maintaining sufficient protein intake. It may be low in fat and has a lingering risk of causing deficiency in vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and zinc.
The difference between a vegetarian diet and a vegan diet
|VEGETARIAN DIET||VEGAN DIET|
|It is a type of plant-based diet, where the vegetarians do not eat meat or poultry and sometimes even seafood. However, they may consume eggs, milk, dairy products, broths, certain seafood, caviar, etc.||It is a plant-based diet that strictly sticks with only vegetarian foods, excluding any food that comes from animals. The vegan diet, besides negating the above food items, excludes all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty as much as possible, i.e., gelatin, honey, carmine, pepsin, shellac, albumin, whey, casein, and some forms of vitamin D3.|
|Vegetarian diets have reportedly been around as early as 700 B.C.||A vegan diet has emerged a bit more recently and is considered to be the strictest form of vegetarianism.|
How do different food groups influence gut bacteria?
As a whole, we are now aware of the many benefits that vegetarian diets provide us with. However, let’s break it down to find the benefits that the various food groups of vegetarian diets have on gut microbes.
Dietary carbohydrates like digestible and nondigestible carbohydrates are responsible for providing nutrients to the gut bacteria in the large intestines. That is because of their indigestible nature which helps them survive the bile and stomach acids in the stomach. However, both digestible carbohydrates and indigestible carbohydrates have shown to positively influence and increase Bifidobacterium.
Carbohydrates can be derived from unprocessed starchy vegetables like – winter squash, sweet potatoes, whole corn, etc. It can also be derived from oatmeal, yogurts, pulses, whole fruits, beans, lentils, quinoa, whole grains, and dairy foods.
Proteins are vital for muscle growth, brain development, cell repairing, bone growth, tissue restoration, production of postbiotics like short-chain fatty acids in the gut, and better skin health. It also has a lot of other important health functions. It is a common misconception that plant-based foods do not provide enough proteins to sustain a healthy life. Plant-derived proteins have a lower mortality rate and lower risks than animal-derived processed foods. And these plant proteins are also vital in increasing beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
Proteins can be achieved through various plant-based food sources like – seitan, fermented foods like kefir and tofu, tempeh, beans, hemp seeds, green peas, spirulina, quinoa, soy milk, nuts, chia seeds, and protein-rich vegetables and fruits like mulberries, guava, blackberries, bananas, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, artichokes, spinach, etc.
Fats and fatty acids
A high-fat diet may cause an imbalance in the gut microbiota. Too much unhealthy animal fat derived from non-veg sources may cause damage to the gut barrier, resulting in cardiometabolic diseases. However, plant-based unsaturated fats are the healthiest forms of fats found in food sources like – nuts, seeds, avocado, dark chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, coconut, flaxseeds, etc.
Fats are a healthy source of energy that gives your body energy doses and boosts stamina by burning stored fats in the body. It also helps in lowering cholesterol, promotes healthy weight loss by eliminating belly fat, and improves gut health and heart health. They also help in increasing the composition of lactic acid bacteria in the gut while simultaneously reducing harmful pathogenic bacteria in the gut environment.
There is a much lower concentration of polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and omega 3 fatty acids in vegan and vegetarian foods. However, these sorts of fatty acids and fats are extremely necessary to create a healthy balanced nutritional diet. They support cell function and cellular energy production. They also promote cardiovascular health, satiate appetite, and control mental health problems.
Healthy fats can be included in plant-based diets through foods like –
Omega 3 fatty acids – Flaxseeds, canola oil, soybean oil, hemp seeds, algal oil, and walnut oil, etc.
Omega 6 fatty acids – Safflower oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, tofu, almonds, avocado oil, soybeans, corn, etc.
Polyphenols occur naturally in plants in the form of micronutrients and metabolites. These phytochemicals play a vital role in the human body by acting as anti-pathogenic antioxidants that neutralize and stop free radicals from damaging the human cells. Free radicals are harmful and unstable molecules that are formed due to the body’s exposure to toxic polluted environments. It damages the DNA, and energy-producing cells and harms beneficial bacteria. It can further lead to health problems like heart disorders and cancer risks.
Other health benefits of this compound include – it lowers blood sugar levels, promotes better digestion and optimal gut health, increases production of short-chain fatty acids and insulin sensitivity, lowers Cancer risks, reducing inflammation, boosts brain functions, and improves cardiovascular health.
Vegetables containing polyphenols – Broccoli, carrots, spinach, red lettuce, onions, asparagus, artichokes, shallots, garlic, etc.
Fruits – Blueberries, strawberries, grapes, cranberries, cherries, blackberries, peaches, plums, pomegranate, grapefruits, oranges, olive oil and olives, etc.
Grains, nuts and seeds – Wheat, rye, oats, almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, pecans, chestnuts, hazelnuts, flaxseeds, etc.
Other food sources containing high amounts of polyphenols include various types of herbs, spices, legumes, etc.
Fiber, a form of carbohydrate, is one of the most beneficial probiotic food sources that acts as a nutrient for the gut microbiota. This is due to the presence of indigestible fibers that reach the gut bacteria in the large intestines. And they act as nutrient sources for the gut bacteria that produce postbiotics (the compound formed when probiotic bacteria consume prebiotics and fiber in the gut) and cellular energy. Plant fibers are one of the most essential nutrients that are needed by the body for better digestive health. It does so by reducing constipation and promoting smooth bowel movements. It also promotes healthier weight loss and keeps the blood sugar levels of the body under control.
They can be found in almost all sorts of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fruits like – beans, broccoli, blueberries, avocados, strawberries, pears, bananas, apples, dates, prunes, figs, potatoes, carrots, beets, sunflower seeds, almonds, chickpeas, fermented foods, etc.
How are these aspects of the human body affected by plant-based foods?
It takes quite some time for the body to adjust to a plant-based diet. Here is how it may benefit these particular organs and the overall health concerns of your body.
Research conducted on Western kids and Bangladeshi kids showed that the gut microbial composition of the Bangladeshi kids, who had a vegetarian diet, was much more diverse and healthier than that of the Western kids, who had a meat-based diet. In conclusion, researchers gathered the fact that the gut is nurtured the best by a healthy diet that consists of balanced vegetarian and vegan foods.
- Vegetarian and vegan diets keep the gut safe from inflammation due to the anti-inflammatory properties present in plant diets.
- It promotes healthier gut bacteria by boosting more diversified beneficial bacteria. Therefore, plant foods help the gut nurture a better microbial composition and improve digestion.
- Promotes healthy weight loss, prevents risks of obesity and detoxifies the digestive tract.
- Switching to a plant-based vegan or vegetarian diet promotes low blood sugar levels. Thus, those who follow this diet have a much lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes.
- Healthy blood requires iron. Vegetarians and vegans can get their iron and nutrients through various vegetables, fruits, nuts, dried fruits, beans, legumes, lentils, etc.
- Vegetarian diet with the perfect balance of dark leafy green vegetables, whole grain cereals, beans, dried fruits and legumes, seeds and nuts can increase red blood cells in your blood.
- It may be hard to gain solid muscles with a vegan diet only. This is why it is better recommended to follow a vegetarian diet with a bigger focus on plant-based foods while also consuming a regulated diet of eggs, fish and dairy products.
However, it is not strictly necessary that you have to go for non-plant-based foods to gain muscles. Supplements that are clean and friendly to use for vegans can do the work. Also, there are several plant-based alternatives to meat protein that won’t harm the heart, as a meat-based diet would do.
- Soybeans, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains also contain a moderated amount of healthy proteins. Which also positively benefits muscle health.
- Lowers the risks of LDL cholesterol or the harmful Lower Density Lipoprotein cholesterol.
Studies show that switching to plant foods may positively affect your HDL cholesterol levels.
- And these positive benefits of cholesterol health start showing effects within the 4th-week mark of going vegan/vegetarian.
- Vegan diet and vegetarian diets promote lower risks of cardiovascular health disorders.
- It does so by reducing cholesterol levels and triglyceride (a type of fat present in the body) levels. This is because high cholesterol levels may block the heart arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes. Luckily, plant-based diet food sources have no cholesterol in them at all.
After switching to a plant-based diet, how long does it take to show results?
Research suggests that after switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet, it can take up to 14-16 weeks to show positive results in the gut bacteria. In certain cases, it may occur quickly or in some cases, it may get delayed for about another few weeks. However, as much as it seems like a long time, its benefits make up for it.
Comparison chart between: Vegetarian and Vegan diet vs Non-Veg Diet
|VEGETARIAN DIET/VEGAN DIET||NON-VEGETARIAN DIET|
|There is little to no remarkable difference in the effects of a vegan vs vegetarian diet on the human gut microbiota.||There is a huge difference between the effects that a vegan/vegetarian diet has on gut microbiota vs the effects that a meat-based diet has on the gut flora.|
|A balanced diet of vegetarian foods helps the gut develop a far more diverse microbial system.||Meat-based diets may be pale in comparison to plant-based diets when it comes to microbial health.|
|A vegan diet is much cleaner and contains minimal amounts of harmful substances or toxins.||There is a high concentration of TMO, a harmful toxin in non-veg diets. It is as dangerous to the body because of the high cholesterol levels. It can be found in red meat, high fat dairy products, in certain fish, poultry etc.|
|Gut bacteria are highly dependent on the nutrients that high-fiber foods provide. Plants and plant-based foods include the maximum high fiber food sources.||Meat-based diets contain very low amounts of high fiber, if not any at all, in their food products.|
|A vegan diet is clear of inflammatory food products and most vegetarian diet foods are safe to be consumed.||There are certain harmful compounds present in meat, especially in the proteins derived from animal foods. Those can be converted to harmful pathogens after the gut bacteria in the body react to those compounds. This can lead to risks of chronic inflammation, IBD and chronic diseases.|
|Vegan and vegetarian diets are most popularly recommended by doctors and dietitians alike for their invaluable benefits to immune health, digestive health, and health of the gut microbiota.||A meat-based diet is only good as far as protein intake is concerned. However, the bad effects and lack of certain probiotic + prebiotic sources in the diet make them unfit for a gut health diet.|
|A vegan diet may be insufficient to fulfill various overall health problems – like poor eyesight health, weak muscle health, growth development problems, neurodevelopmental disorders, etc.||Meat-based diets can provide certain proteins, minerals (high amount of zinc, iron, fatty acids, iodine, etc) and nutrients|
It is not necessary to completely switch to a strictly vegan diet. It may also be completely unnecessary for you to give up on all sorts of meat-based and dairy foods for the health of gut bacteria. After all, there are several merits and demerits to both diet types.
However, the merits of plant-based foods outweigh the meat-based diets in terms of gut health. Concluding the debate, we can confidently say that a vegetarian and vegan diet can prove to be the healthiest choice for maintaining the balance of your gut bacteria and overall health. Therefore, a more plant-based diet is extremely beneficial for your body, brain, gut microbiota, and digestive health, so if you switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet or lower your daily meat consumption (especially red meats), it will help you avoid gut disorders in the long run.
Tim Koping (Medical M.Sc Physiology, Founder of Original Eating, and a Professor at a Leading Health Institute in the US): I am a medical M.Sc physiology graduate and the founder of Original Eating, an online resource that provides information and advice about healthy eating. I have a strong interest in health and nutrition, and I am passionate about helping people to eat well and live healthily. I have over 15 years of experience working in the health and nutrition industry, and I am dedicated to providing accurate, reliable information that can help people to make healthy choices for themselves. My work with Original Eating has been featured in publications such as Men’s Health and more, and I am frequently consulted by journalists for expert commentary on dietary issues. However, in my spare time, I also enjoy reading, hiking, and playing the guitar.