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Understanding Plant-Based Diets: A Closer Look at Their Impact on Gut Health

Recently, I had an insightful conversation with my marketing team that prompted me to explore the topic of plant-based diets. A friend of mine, a conventionally trained practitioner keen on delving into functional medicine, enrolled in a course with a plant-based diet advocate. To my surprise, she revealed that many of this practitioner's calls come from people suffering from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). This got me thinking about the broader implications of plant-based diets on gut health, especially for those with IBS or IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease).

What is a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-based diet primarily includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans, while minimizing animal-based products like meat, eggs, and fish. Advocates such as Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Dr. Joel Kahn promote this diet for its numerous health benefits. However, it’s important to remember that strict adherence to any diet can bring challenges, particularly for individuals with gut issues.

The Gut Health Challenge

For people with underlying gut imbalances, a plant-based diet can be problematic. Plant matter can be tough to digest, especially for those dealing with chronic stress—a significant contributor to gut dysfunction. Plants are carbohydrates, breaking down into sugars that can feed gut bacteria and yeast, potentially worsening IBS or IBD symptoms.

Dietary Approaches for IBS and IBD

Several therapeutic diets aim to manage gut health by modifying or reducing carbohydrate intake:

  • Low FODMAP Diet: Reduces fermentable sugars found in many fruits, vegetables, and beans, offering relief for IBS sufferers.

  • Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD): Focuses on simpler sugars that are easier for the gut to absorb without feeding harmful bacteria.

  • SIBO Specific Diet: Targets Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), a common issue in IBS and IBD.

  • Autoimmune Paleo Diet: Restricts certain foods that may trigger autoimmune responses, providing a tailored approach to managing gut health.

Complexity of Digesting Plant Matter

Digesting plant-based foods effectively requires a robust upper GI function, including sufficient enzyme production from the pancreas. Many individuals with IBS or IBD have low enzyme levels and stomach acid, leading to undigested plant matter in the small intestine. This can fuel bacterial overgrowth and exacerbate symptoms.

Fiber Debate

Fiber is often praised for gut health, but it can be harsh on an inflamed gut lining in those with IBS or IBD. Interestingly, elemental diets, which are low in fiber, have shown effectiveness in putting these conditions into remission, highlighting potential issues with high-fiber plant-based diets.

Plant Toxins and Sensitivities

Plants contain substances that can be problematic for sensitive individuals:

  • Lectins: Found in beans, legumes, and nightshades (e.g., tomatoes, bell peppers).

  • Phytates: Present in nuts, seeds, and grains, often reduced by traditional soaking methods.

  • Oxalates: Common in leafy greens, beets, and nuts.

  • Salicylates: Found in fruits, vegetables, spices, tea, and wine.

Carnivore Diet Perspective

On the flip side, the carnivore diet emphasizes animal products and minimizes plant intake. Advocates argue that reducing plant toxins can help restore gut and immune system balance. Notably, Dr. Paul Saladino, a leading practitioner, has evolved his diet to include more fruit and dairy, despite their potential to trigger gut issues.

Balancing Dietary Approaches

As a practitioner, I advocate for a balanced approach. Extreme diets offer insights, but a middle ground often provides the best outcomes, especially for those with gut issues. It’s about finding what works for you, listening to your body, and being open to adjustments.


Understanding different dietary approaches is key to managing gut health. Consider both scientific evidence and personal experience when evaluating dietary advice. The goal is to find a balanced approach that supports your gut health and overall well-being.

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