Nutritionally balanced vegetarian and vegan diets are very healthy. However, it is important to know why it may not agree with you and what you can do about it.
Phytate (Phytic Acid)
Phytic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in all plant foods like grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Phytic acid can act as an “anti-nutrient” because it binds to minerals in the digestive tract, making them less available to our bodies and influence digestive enzymes.
Consuming 5-10 mg of phytic acid can reduce iron absorption by 50%. This is an important reason why vegetarians should consume more iron than omnivores. Phytic acid can also bind to zinc and manganese, excreting them as waste rather than absorbing them.
These same anti-nutrient properties can also prevent chronic disease and have been shown to be associated with reduced risk of certain cancers and heart disease.
Heating, processing, soaking, fermenting, sprouting, and consuming vitamin C rich foods with meals seems to offset the effects of phytic acid.
Soy-based processed foods tend to be a staple source of protein for most Americans who chose to eat vegan or vegetarian. This includes tofu, soymilk, and soy-based processed foods sold as meat alternatives. Unprocessed and fermented soy products might be ok for some people, but soy adds the risk of hormone interference due to phytoestrogens found in all forms of soy.
A higher fiber intake can actually trigger of some of the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome: increased bloating, increased gas, increased abdominal distention or abdominal pain, and loose stools in some cases. This study showed that reducing fiber intake actually helped improve constipation in individuals with IBS-like symptoms. We have been led to believe that dietary recommendations are a “one-size-fits-all” and high fiber diets should be a general prescription. Finding your ideal fiber intake is key and knowing that more is not always better.
Deficiencies are particularly common among vegans or vegetarians, such as iron, vitamins B12, B2, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids. If you are choosing to maintain a plant-based diet you should be taking high quality supplements to replace those that cannot be found in plant-based foods.
It’s not uncommon to see people choosing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle as a mean to lose weight. Orthorexia is a type of eating disorder that is defined by an over-fixation on healthy eating patterns. Labeling foods as ‘off limits’ can create disordered eating and a negative relationship with food, while also creating nutritional deficiencies if you are not properly nourished. A healthy gut requires adequate protein, nutrients, and a healthy mindset in order to thrive.
Want to go Vegan?
Make sure you have a healthy gut. As a dietitian, I specialize in gastrointestinal disorders and help my clients heal their guts in order to be able to eat the foods that they enjoy. I educate you on the nutrition implications and how to supplement and meal plan accordingly. Lastly, do it for the right reasons. Eating more plants supports the health of your body as well as our planet, but that doesn’t mean you need to give it up altogether in order to make an impact.
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Gilani GS, Xiao CW, Cockell KA. Impact of antinutritional factors in food proteins on the digestibility of protein and the bioavailability of amino acids and on protein quality. British Journal of Nutrition 2012;108:S315-S332.
Vucenik I & Shamsuddin AM. Protection against cancer by dietary IP6 and inositol. Nutrition and Cancer 2006;55:109-125.
Atkinson C, Frankenfeld CL, Lampe JW. Gut bacterial metabolism of the soy isoflavone daidzein: exploring the relevance to human health. Experimental biology and medicine. 2005 Mar;230(3):155-70.
Sathyapalan T, Manuchehri AM, Thatcher NJ, Rigby AS, Chapman T, Kilpatrick ES, Atkin SL. The effect of soy phytoestrogen supplementation on thyroid status and cardiovascular risk markers in patients with subclinical hypothyroidism: a randomized, double-blind, crossover study. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2011 May 1;96(5):1442-9.
Please Note: Information presented on this site is intended as a personal and professional representation of my views on food and nutrition. This site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed and personalized medical advice or care. Please consult your physician or health care provider before beginning a weight loss program or other dietary regimen.
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