Moving toward eating a whole food, plant-based diet
In the previous blogposts I’ve explained that a whole food, mainly plant-based diet is optimal for health. This sort of diet contains low amounts of refined oils and fats, low amounts of refined carbs, lots of fruits and vegetables. It can also contain small amounts of meat and fish. It then looks easy to just get started with this diet. However, people who are not used to eating like this will get bloating due to the large amounts of fiber. Also the sheer volume of food will likely cause abdominal discomfort.
Not everyone will experience problems, but the vast majority of the people who were able to start right away with this type of diet, were severely overweight and they started out on a very low calorie version of this diet. By starting out eating a large but manageable volume of food, they didn’t experience much problems. When they increased their calorie intake later that happened gradually, allowing their bodies to get used to eating vast volumes of food.
For people who are not extremely overweight, a different approach is needed. To get to a good method on how to get used to a healthy whole food diet, we first need to understand why eating lots of fiber can cause problems.
Low fiber diet undermines gut fitness
Our gut is the home of about 100 trillion microbes. They survive off the nutrients in our foods that we don’t absorb in our intestines, like fiber. These microbes produce compounds that are useful for us, such a butyric acid. These compounds are used by our body, for example butyric acid is an energy source for the cells in our intestines.
On a whole food, mainly plant-based diet, we’ll get at least 80 grams of fiber a day. This 80 gram of fiber should thus be capable of maintaining a healthy population of gut microbes. Most people, however, get less than 20 grams of fiber a day. That the human body can get less than a quarter of the optimal amount of an important nutrient and still keep on functioning, is due to its robust design. But there is a price to be paid for exploiting robustness to move so far away from the optimum.
Lack of dietary fiber has been linked to systemic inflammation, raised cholesterol levels, and many other adverse health indicators. And once your intestines have adapted to a low fiber diet, they cannot tolerate a high fiber diet straightaway. Your intestines not only contains less microbes, the diversity of microbes is also less. Eating more fiber can only regrow the microbes that are already present in your intestines. So, if you do this too fast, you’ll end up with the wrong balance of microbes.
No magic cure
It will take quite some time to acquire the right kind of microbes from, for example uncooked foods such as fruits. Your entire gut will have to reconfigure itself to function in a different way. There are no magic cures, pills, diets that can let this change happen overnight. The problem is thus completely analogous to having lost physical fitness and not being able to stick to a healthy exercise routine as a result.
If you have lost muscle mass, there is no magic cure to regain that overnight. You’ll need to gradually increase exercise intensity to regain muscle mass. Regaining gut fitness will also require a training of your intestines in the right way to get adapted to natural foods again.
Methods to increase gut fitness
Just like increasing physical fitness will always take time, increasing gut fitness will have to be done gradually. Anything that works great when you’re starting is only going to be your first step. It would be a big mistake to stick to that first step indefinitely. But doing the effort to embark on that first step that you can comfortably stick to, is important. You can then later fall back on that first-step diet when you experience problems with the next step.
First step: More vegetables, fruits, whole grains and less refined oils
Your first-step diet should be one that you can easily tolerate. You need to make sure that this diet is adequate. This requires keeping track of what you eat. Use a good kitchen weighing scale, measure and write down the amounts of ingredients you use. You can enter this data in online tools such as the Meal Plan Calculator to check whether you are getting an adequate amount of all the essential nutrients.
For example, while you can get minerals such as calcium from green leafy vegetables, your first-step diet likely won’t contain enough of these vegetables to allow you to stop eating dairy products.
You also need to keep a diary for physical problems associated with the diet, such as bloating. This is very important when moving from the first step to the next and beyond. Just like in case of physical exercise there is a “no pain, no gain” aspect to increasing gut fitness. Unlike conventional dietary advice that keeps you at step 1, you’ll have to breach your present limits to move to the next step. It’s therefore important to get a good idea of where your limits are.
If you don’t feel comfortable taking this first step yourself, you can follow the High Carb Fat Loss Program (paid link). This program will not go all the way to the end goal, but it’s a great way to get you started on the right track. You can also get personalized diet advice from me, you then need to fill in this contact form.
Moving from step 1 to step 2
After several weeks of eating a healthier diet with more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains it’s time to move on. Based on what you have documented in your diary, you’ll have a good idea what your average intake of nutrients is. You should be getting the adequate amount of all the essential vitamins and minerals. But you’ll likely not get more fiber than 40 grams a day. Suppose that your average fiber intake in now at 30 grams a day. The end goal is to boost this to 80 grams or more, but that goal is still way out of reach for now.
To safely increase your fiber intake, you can exploit the fact that your fiber intake of 30 grams a day is only an average. On some days it will have been higher. You should then look into your diary and see if you got physical problems when the intake was higher, particularly when that happened few days in a row. If you find that you only occasionally got problems when the fiber intake was, say 50 grams, you can safely increase your fiber intake to 40 grams a day.
Suppose you find that you quite frequently get problems at a fiber intake of 40 grams a day. It’s then worthwhile to analyze if this is correlated with eating certain types of vegetables that are more prone to cause problems such as bloating. For example, cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli can cause bloating. This is then caused by short-chained sugar molecules contained in these vegetables that are broken down by our gut microbes.
Once you have good idea what kind of foods cause problems, you can attack this problem by eating these foods more frequently in smaller quantities. The net intake of the problem foods can then increase while you stay below the amounts that give you problems. The larger intake of the problem foods will cause the composition of your gut microbiome to change toward becoming able to process the problem foods better. After a few weeks you can then attempt to move to step 2 by eating more vegetables, whole grains and starches and less fat.
Onward to step 3 and beyond
If you’ve made it to step 2 then after a few weeks, you should repeat the same process that brought you from step 1 to step 2, to move to your next goal of an even higher fiber intake. The volume of food will now start to become quite large. It can then help to spread the meals better over the day. Also exercise such as brisk walking, jogging or running can help with the digestive processes.
As the fiber intake from your larger intake of whole grains, starches and vegetables increases, your protein intake from these sources will also become significant. This gives you some room to reduce the intake of dairy products, meat and fish. But it’s important to aim for a net higher protein intake of around 2.5 g/kg bodyweight. Recent research has shown that a protein intake this high is better than the traditional advice of 0.8 g/kg bodyweight.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a high fiber diet will have a lower bioavailability of nutrients such as protein but also minerals. So the intake of nutrients must be higher. The protein and other nutrients that we don’t absorb don’t go to waste, they are needed by the gut microbes.
Best foods to eat
A big mistake made by many people is to focus on very specific foods. Our bodies have evolved to thrive on whatever nature provides, we can do well on a wide range of diets that do not contain any of the so-called superfoods. However, specific foods can be used temporarily in a therapeutic sense. For example, one may use certain types of fermented foods to help build a healthy microbiome faster. This book (paid link) contains lots of recipes for fermented foods, including advice on specific fermented foods to treat specific complaints.
Many people will struggle already at step 1 due to their taste buds having gotten used to large amounts of salts and sugars. This can be dealt with by preparing your meals with herbs and spices. There are many good cookbooks for preparing healthy and tasty plant-based meals. One of the best books that will fit in well with the ideas presented here is the Forks over Knives Cookbook (paid link).
We can thus eat a whole food, mainly plant-based diet without worrying too much about the details. As we can all check using online tools such as the Meal Plan Calculator, pretty much any random collection of whole, plant-based foods that gets you to your required calorie intake will contain more than enough of the essential nutrients. This means that you have lots of freedom to choose those foods that you like to eat. There are many resources available to help you make the choices that work the best for you.
Eating a healthy diet is to your gut similar to what taking regular strenuous exercise is for your muscles, heart and lungs. There is no way you can start to eat a truly healthy whole food mainly plant based diet, for the same reason why a couch potato cannot start with running ten miles a day. No diet plans that currently exist takes this fact into account. There is no concept of gut fitness in the existing diet plans, as a consequence no existing diet will bring you beyond step 1.
The methods presented in this blogpost are thus unique, they allow you to achieve optimal gut fitness and health over the course of several months to a few years.