Naturopathic guide to healthy veganism

Naturopathic Guide to Healthy Veganism

By Bee Osborne, Naturopath  

As a clinical naturopath and a long-term plant-based eater, I am an advocate that veganism can be a healthy choice. The evidence suggesting eating a vegan diet has positive health outcomes is not hard to come across, even in the contentious field of nutritional science. Studies show that whole food plant based vegan diets are preventative against 8 out of the top 10 leading causes of death (the others being non-diet related death i.e. accidents). The American Dietetic Associations has affirmed, “Appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

“Appropriately planned” being an important insight. As a plant-based naturopath, I have supported many vegan patients. Eating right is so difficult with our current food culture. There are also a variety of vegan diets (processed, refined, macronutrient controlled, high carb, low fat etc.) not all of which are healthy. We can’t assume that because something is ‘vegan’ (soft drinks and chips) that it is a healthy regular option. It’s hard to be nutritionally balanced all the time. Unless you follow recommended guidelines on vegan nutrition and supplement sufficiently, where diet is lacking, becoming vegan won’t necessarily be healthy for you. It is also important to state, a radical shift in diet is significant. If and how you decided to change your diet is up to you, as only you can decide what type of diet is right for you.

Here are some of the most common pitfalls I have seen and some suggestions for how to overcome them:

  • Weight gain or weight loss

During a complete diet change weight loss or gain is common. Particularly when making such a radical change. Depending on your diet beforehand, veganism can eliminate a lot of “go to” foods that make up a large part of your diet. This can often lead to not knowing what to eat, causing weight loss or not knowing what to eat and then eating all the calorie dense vegan yums, causing weight gain. If you eat too many calories, even if they are nutritious, plant-based, low-fat calories, you will gain weight. As an added affect you’re introducing new foods, which is great, but our bodies need time to adjust. Depending on what your diet was beforehand, where you’re at, and how good your gut microbiome is at digesting these foods, it is often indicated to transition into this diet slowly (weeks or months) instead of overnight, this will reduce fluctuations in weight.

  • Fatigue

Often patients tell me “I tried to go vegan, but I was just so tired.” This is a fair concern, maintaining adequate energy level has its complexities but for most patients this is easily surmountable. Iron is most often the major culprit. Studies show that in westernised countries, vegans tend to get the same amount of iron as omnivores. However, iron in meat (heme iron) is more readily absorbed comparatively to plant-based non-heme iron. A good trick is eating high vitamin C foods with iron foods as vitamin C enhances absorption. Avoiding black tea with meals is also a vegan trick as the tannins found in tea binds to iron, decreasing absorption. There are a lot of bio-hacks, but importantly iron levels need to be checked in individuals who are vegan, particularly in menstruating women. And a strategy to ensure sufficient iron should be implemented whether dietary or supplementary.

  • Acne

Now, when some people remove animal foods from the diet, their acne can resolve and their skin is glowing. This is normally due to removal of dairy protein known to contribute to insulin/IGF-1 signaling, increasing cell proliferation, increasing cell debris and thickening of the skin making pores more likely to clog. Removing dairy protein often has a positive effect on skin, so initially when vegan patients presented with acne there was confusion. However, upon investigation there are some routine mistakes new vegans make in their nutrition that has impacts on skin barrier function and health. Firstly, some vegan diets have very high glycaemic loads, this is all the white bread, pasta and other carbs some new vegans eat to feel full, when we take a large part of the diet away (all animal products), it makes sense that many will just eat the foods that are left in higher amounts. This can be easily addressed, switch white for brown (bread, pasta, rice) get adventurous with your plate! Try new foods, try foods you don’t think you like, try vegetables and fruits, and reduce that glycaemic index!

Another common cause is the shifting zinc sources. Studies found vegans are considered to be at risk for zinc deficiency. Interestingly, although vegans have lower zinc intake than omnivores, research shows that vegans do not differ from the non-vegetarians in functional immunocompetence as assessed by natural killer cell cytotoxic activity indicating there may be compensatory mechanisms to help vegans adapt to lower zinc intake, our bodies are smart, however it takes time to adjust. Phytates, a common component of legumes, seeds and grains binds zinc and thereby decreases its bioavailability. There are ways around this, like soaking legumes and sprouting seeds. Eating more zinc rich foods, soybeans, whole grains, sunflower seeds, a handful of raw nuts daily will help maintain healthy skin. The other common dietary cause is essential fatty acids. Plant-based n-3 fatty acid a-linolenic acid (ALA) can be converted into EPA and DHA, however with a fairly low efficiency. Compared with nonvegetarians, vegetarians, particularly vegans, tend to have lower blood concentrations of omega-3. With omega-3 being vital for several important body systems, the best solution is supplementation from a microalgae containing DHA, as well as fortified foods. Treating acne does depend on several factors, only some being dietary driven, if your new vegan diet contains the same amount of nutrients essential for skin health, then considering hormonal drivers for acne is appropriate.

  • Stomach upset, pain, gas

Patients presenting with gut issues or stomach pain after a vegan dietary transition can be due to a few factors. One being vegan diets are high in fibre. This is a good thing, with most Australians consuming less than the recommended minimum daily fibre intake. It’s not that vegan diets contain too much fibre it’s just that our microbiome may not be equipped. This can be solved by slowly implementing higher fibre foods. Research shows that the gut bacteria of a vegan looks very different to a meat-eater, you’re microbiome will begin to change. However, for some patients, such as those with irritable bowel syndrome or severe gastrointestinal symptoms working with a health practitioner is indicated and for others such as patients with an ileostomy or lap-band, high fibre diets are contraindicated.

  • Nutrient deficiencies

Dietary intake studies have shown that vegans, on average, are not getting the recommended daily intake of three nutrients: calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. However using the same criteria omnivores are deficient in seven nutrients: calcium, iodine, fibre, folate, magnesium, vitamin C & E. It is eating a diet that is micronutrient sufficient that is healthy, not the label ‘vegan’ or ‘carnivore’.

If you need further support in creating and implementing a strategy to ensure wellness living a vegan lifestyle consider getting appropriate practitioner support. You can visit your doctor or naturopath and have your blood work checked before you commence and have a follow-up check 6-12 months into your journey, this will increase your confidence and lessen any concerns from loved ones. Often the pathology work shows improvements, which is great, and in other cases it may indicate areas that can be optimised, that’s okay too. Don’t forget that there is a learning stage with anything new, particularly in the beginning, it’s important to be kind to yourself as well as the animals.

Bee Osborne is a Naturopath at The Health Lodge with a passion for  working collaboratively with patients and their health teams to facilitate cohesive planning, resulting in high quality, personalised medicine, to achieve optimal health outcomes. As a long time vegan, Bee is certified in Plant Based Nutrition and enjoys supporting her patients by using food as medicine, implementing gradual and sustainable changes with the aim of achieving long-term health and wellbeing.

Book an appointment with Bee online or call us on 02 6685 6445 for more information.

*This blog features the views of the writer and is for educational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your doctor or other qualified health practitioners before acting on information on this article, particularly if you have a medical condition, taking medication or if you are pregnant.   


Which Probiotic Should I take?

Which Probiotic Should I take?

By Bec Farah, Naturopath

Refrigerated or shelf-stable? Broad spectrum or single strain? Yoghurt or Kefir? Sauerkraut or Kimchi? When it comes to the topic of probiotics, it’s easy to get confused and feel overwhelmed. 

What is a probiotic? 

A probiotic can be either a fermented food such as yoghurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, or a specific supplement that contains friendly bacteria that are beneficial to our digestive tract.

The microbiome

The word ‘microbiome’ has been floating around the health world and media the last few years. The microbiome refers to the combined micro-organisms – bacteria, yeast, parasites – and their genes that live in and on us. That’s right, you even have bacteria on your skin. All for good reason, of course, to protect our skin from unfriendly bacteria entering our body. 

Similarly to your unique fingerprint, you have your own unique microbiome. In fact, the human microbiome is made up of approximately 38 trillion organisms. Not billions, trillions, all over and throughout our body, with the majority residing in the colon, all playing different roles to keep our health in check. It is the balance of these micro-organisms that plays an important role in keeping us healthy.

How important is the strain?

As different probiotics have different actions in the body, it is important to use a strain that is specific for your individual needs. The right strain will help replenish and grow your own unique strains of bacteria that only you have. A good quality probiotic will always include the strain, just like a good clinical trial (a human study) will always state which strain has been tested.

What do they actually do?

For years, it was believed that probiotics assisted in ‘re-inoculating’ and ‘replacing’ our gut flora, especially after taking a course of antibiotics. We are continually understanding more and more about what probiotics really do in the gut. There has been a surge of research to better understand the complexities of different probiotics and their specific actions in disease treatment and prevention. What the research is explaining now is that there are some ‘super strains’ that are able to reorganise the quantity, diversity and the function of bacteria in the gut. This may explain why a broad-spectrum probiotic everyday hasn’t been successful for everyone.

Depending on the strain, probiotics can perform the following:

·         Reduce inflammation in the gut 

·         Repair and strengthen the gut lining

·         Compete with potentially pathogenic bacteria and fungi for space in the gut

·         Bind to viruses and reduce their virulence

·         Speed up or slow down the time it takes for food to travel along the digestive tract in

constipation and diarrhoea

·         Dampen immune hypersensitivity in conditions such as eczema and hay fever

More doesn’t always equal better

While it may deem common sense to reach for the probiotic with ’35 billion’ or ’60 billion’ units of bacteria, more does not necessarily equate to a healthier gut. Like anything in nature, too much of anything can overwhelm the gut and not be beneficial for gut function – this can lead to bloating and diarrhoea. Similarly, more strains in the one probiotic capsule does not impact the diversity of gut flora population. While it may seem logical to choose the probiotic with multiple strains, it is best to choose an evidence-based strain that is proven to treat a specific condition at the right dose. At the Health Lodge, we aim to use only the highest-quality clinically trialled strains, that are usually single-strained for individualised treatment. 

When can they help?

Surprisingly, probiotics are not only used for treating gut conditions. As continuous research links gut health to most conditions, they also support non-gut related conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular conditions, anxiety, endometriosis, auto-immune conditions and skin conditions such as acne and eczema.

Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM and Bifidobacterium lactis Bi-07 are suitable strains for an everyday probiotic to help maintain healthy gut function and restore gut flora after a course of antibiotics. These strains also reduce the symptoms and incidence of colds and flus – great to take during winter to boost your immune system.

Lactobacillus rhamnosus LGG is the world’s most extensively researched probiotic strain, backed by over 1,000 research papers. It is a restorative strain to the gut and is found to be beneficial for eczema and food allergies and the eradication of Helicobacter pylori, an infection that causes stomach ulcers. 

Saccharomyces cerevisiae (boulardii) SB, a probiotic-acting yeast, is a protective strain suitable for the prevention and treatment of travellers’ diarrhoea – be sure to pack this one on your next holiday.

Lactobacillus plantarum 299v is an anti-inflammatory strain, found to significantly reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.

Bifidobacteria lactis HN019 and Lactobacillus reuterii DSM 17938 are useful in the treatment of Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).

Diet controls your microbiome 

While it’s easy to pop a capsule and think ‘I’ve made my gut happy today’ and do a little happy dance, your diet also plays a crucial role in keeping your current flora in harmony.

The composition of your gut microbiome is very sensitive to your diet – everything we eat encourages the growth of either the friendly or unfriendly bacteria in your gut. Eating fresh, and seasonal wholefoods, especially those high in dietary fibre, such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains, will feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut to help keep your gut in the best of health.

It is best to speak to your naturopath about which foods and beverages to consume as not all foods, even healthy ones, may be appropriate in certain conditions. For example, fermented foods such as kombucha and kimchi can exacerbate Candida or thrush symptoms.

Functional testing 

Performing a comprehensive digestive stool analysis through your naturopath is a great tool to assess not only how you digest your food and the presence of opportunistic and pathogenic organisms, but also which strains of probiotics your digestive tract may be insufficient in – a key indicator for balancing the health of your gut.

Want to know more about which probiotic is best for you? Book in with one of our Naturopaths today to get your gut sorted.

Bec Farah is a Naturopath and Colon Hydrotherapist at The Health Lodge with a special interest in gut health. Book online for a consultation with Bec or contact our Client Support Team on 02 6685 6445 to learn more about how Naturopathy practices and Colon Hydrotherapy can assist you with your digestive health.