Sunday, February 18, 2007

How To Avoid Constipation on a Vegetarian Diet

Question For Savvy Vegetarian: I just started a veggie diet and am trying to do vegan as well. It has been about 2 months and we decided for health resons to change over. My question is after all I read about veganism etc...people are saying that constipation should never be an issue. Of course I am writing because it is an issue. I eat oatmeal for breakfast with flax seeds, salads for lunch, with maybe some toast with peanut butter, and for dinner I usually make a whole grain pasta, or bean dish, etc...I have been trying to eliminate processed foods. - L.C.

Advice From Savvy Vegetarian:

Dear L.C.,

There are several reasons why people often become constipated when they first go veg, in spite of eating healthier than they ever have:

1. They eat a lot of heavy, bulky food that's hard to digest, like lots of whole grains and beans, tofu, nut butters, etc, and not enough juicy foods, like fruit and vegetables.

2. They don't have enough fat or liquid in their diet to help all that fiber and bulk to go through their digestive systems easily. Bulky, high fiber foods will soak up the water they need from your body, drying things out and causing back-ups. Fats like olive oil, flax oil, or any other oils are necessary to replace the fat you used to have in your diet. They lubricate your digestive system, soften fiber, and have nutrients you don't get anywhere else.

3. They haven't cleansed their digestive system of the accumulated waste from their former meat based diet. Meat digests poorly, as do highly refined, processed foods, fast food, junk foods - and leave behind a lot of sludge (called ama in Ayurveda). Add a lot of bulky, high fiber foods on top of that, without enough fat or liquid, and constipation is the result.

How To Avoid Constipation and Have Good Digestion On A Vegetarian Diet:

A lot of this advice comes from my my own experiences going veg, as well as my study of Ayurveda over the last twenty years. The Ayurvedic tradition is 5000 years old - that's a lot of time to get it right. I've also attached the SV Nutrition Report for you.

1. Being properly hydrated is the main thing for good digestion (our bodies are mostly water). Drink 2 - 4 quarts of room temperature or warm water daily, including at least a quart of warm water first thing in the morning (gets things moving). If you're using RO water, or distilled water, add minerals. Concentrace may be available in your local natural food store, or find it online - here's one source: Trace Minerals) Have other liquids also throughout the day, avoiding cold liquids, soft drinks, caffeine - all of which interfere with digestion. Until you are well hydrated, you may pee a lot, but that will balance out. The extra liquid flushes waste and toxins that have built up in your body.

2. Don't be afraid of fat. You need healthy fat. If you start gaining weight, cut back a bit, but don't go low fat unless you're on a strict weight reduction diet. Add unrefined, cold pressed oil, organic if possible, to everything you cook, including oatmeal. Your digestive system, your joints, your skin, all the organs of your body will thank you.

3. Grind flax seeds in a spice grinder before adding them to your oatmeal. The hard covering is otherwise impenetrable. And/or add flax oil. Raisins, chopped figs or dates are nice in oatmeal and have a laxative effect. Nuts and seeds are good too. Start with cold water, even soak overnight if possible, and cook with plenty of water until creamy. See Basic Oatmeal on Savvy Veg.

4. Ditch the peanut butter (hard to digest). Try hummus, avocado (high in omega 3 oils), almond butter, cashew butter, tahini, veggie spread - reduce the amount of nut butter you're eating in favor of whole nuts. Ayurveda says that nuts and seeds should be soaked, and almonds should be blanched. That's good if you can do it, but at least eat in moderation and chew well. A handful is a good serving size.

5. Besides salads, eat cooked veg, soups, stews - softens the fiber, making for easier digestion. See SV Recipes for ideas.
Veggies should predominate, followed by grains, then beans or lentils, then fruit. There should be a lot of liquid in various forms: in soups and stews, oil, sauces, salads, green veg, herb tea, fruit, etc.

6. Have herbs and spices with your foods. Cumin, coriander, ginger, asefetida, fennel, turmeric, bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom, cayenne are all loaded with micro nutrients, help digestion, and prevent gas. Avoid too much salt.

7. Soak beans and cook until soft if you're cooking them yourself. Rinse well if using canned beans. I've attached the SV Bean Report for you.

8. Proportions: Eat less of the dense, high protein foods. You don't need nearly as much protein as you might think. See the Savvy Veg Article:
Protein and Vegetarian Diet. Veggies should predominate, followed by grains, then beans or lentils, then fruit. There should be a lot of liquid in various forms: in soups and stews, oil, sauces, salads, green veg, herb tea, fruit, etc.

9. 100% whole grains, especially wheat and rice, are heavy going until your digestion is fully functional, and used to your new diet. So it's okey to eat some refined grains with your whole grains. Regular pasta, for instance. Or half unbleached white flour in your muffins. Try other grains besides wheat and rice, like quinoa, millet, barley, and buckwheat, for example.

10. Gentle exercise like walking, swimming, bicycling, yoga are all good for digestion - if you work up a sweat, don't forget to drink more water.

11. Try to satisfy your sweet cravings with fresh sweet fruit, or juice, or dates. Try occasionally to make your own treats. Then you can control the ingredients, especially the sugar and fat, which for most recipes, can be cut in half or more without affecting the taste. Of course it's okay to have chocolate occasionally.

12. Eat your main meal at lunch, when your digestion is at it's peak. Eat lighter for supper, and try not to eat after early evening - your digestive system needs twelve hours of fasting to clean house. A relaxed unhurried attitude and atmosphere for eating is also good for digestion. Food is to enjoy!

Hope this helps!

All the best, Judy Kingsbury
Savvy Vegetarian