Go With Your Gut: A Plant-Based Approach to Better Digestive Health
A plant-forward diet contributes to better gut health. Photo: Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images
The impact of gut health on your overall well-being and the wide-ranging benefits of a plant-based diet — two of the hottest topics in health — are backed up by the experts, and evidence.
When you look at the science, research shows a healthy gut promotes strong immunity, heart and brain health as well as better sleep. It may also help to prevent some cancers and autoimmune disorders.
And plant-based protein — which tend to have higher quantities of fibre and lower amounts of unhealthy fats than animal-based sources — is associated with a reduced risk of death from cancer and heart disease.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, a plant-forward diet also contributes to better gut health. “The simplest — and most powerful — thing we can do to improve our gut health is to eat more whole-plant foods,” says Desiree Nielsen, registered dietitian and author of Good for Your Gut: A Plant-Based Digestive Health Guide and Nourishing Recipes for Living Well.
The reason for this, Nielsen says, is that plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are high in fibre and fermentable carbohydrates that help regulate digestion and feed the gut microbiome.
“Digestive health is more than a trend,” she maintains. “Our guts really aren’t doing as well as they should be … A healthy gut is important not just for better digestion, but also for better health as a whole.”
We connected with Nielson via email for her expert advice on how to heal our ailing guts. Her recent book Good for Your Gut is also chock-full of delicious gut-friendly recipes, and we serve up a few of them below.
It is the overall pattern of how we eat that impacts our digestive function more than any one food or meal. However, there are some foods that folks would definitely benefit from eating more of. I call these the Daily 3: green leafy vegetables like broccoli; legumes such as lentils; and omega-3 rich seeds such as flax and hemp. These foods will provide a much-needed boost of fibre as well as phytochemicals that fight oxidative damage and help support overall health.
In terms of what to avoid, the research is still evolving here but it appears that dietary patterns high in fat (particularly saturated fat), sugar and low in fibre are most detrimental to overall digestive health. No surprise this is the kind of pattern that evolves from eating a lot of take-out and hyper-processed foods. These foods can absolutely fit into a healthy diet, once in a while — I love a veggie burger as much as the next woman! — but ideally they’re an occasional addition, not a way of life.
Perhaps related to the first question, what are the biggest mistakes we’re making?
We focus on what to eliminate as opposed to what to eat more of — this habit is even more dangerous when we listen to diet fads! In our practice, we encounter so many folks who are gluten-free or lectin-free because they read those things were harmful (they’re not!) but they’re not actually eating a lot of the nutrient-dense plant foods that drive gut health. Once we incorporate plants into their lifestyle, they feel a lot better.
While food intolerance can absolutely play a role in digestive issues, such as gluten for those with celiac disease or lactose intolerance, food elimination can set you up for deficiencies, which hinder the healing process and put your gut and immune tissues at a disadvantage. So it’s important to only eliminate foods that you’re certain are causing you issues, and work with a dietitian to help ensure proper nutrition.
In addition to our diet, what lifestyle changes would help to heal our guts? What is the role of stress?
Stress and our frazzled nervous systems play a foundational role in our digestive function. Our gut has a complex nervous system — which is why we call it our ’second brain’. Stress can alter the movement of the gut, leading to diarrhea or constipation. It can also alter how well digestion works as a whole. When we are in our stressed-out ‘fight or flight’ response, blood is literally shuttled away from the digestive tract and digestion suffers. If you’ve ever scarfed down a meal when you were late or behind on a deadline, and it sat like a brick in your stomach, that’s why.
Daily stress management is a non-negotiable for good digestive health. Whether that’s plugging in a free guided meditation on a bus ride, going for an after-dinner walk or doing yoga, 15-30 minutes of de-stressing daily is ideal.
Are you a fan of taking supplements (e.g. probiotics, prebiotics) to support gut microbiome balance?
Supplements can be helpful, especially once a solid nutritional foundation is in place. There is some research to support the use of both pre- and probiotics to support gut health, but they aren’t always my first choice. Prebiotics, namely inulin from foods like chicory and Jerusalem artichoke, have been shown to drive the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. However, you need to consume them in adequate amounts — perhaps 5-15 grams daily — to get results. And at that level, many sensitive guts will find an increase in troublesome symptoms. So most often, I advocate for a diversity of plant foods instead; we have data from the American Gut Project to show that eating more than 30 different plant foods a week can help improve the health of the gut microbiome.
For probiotics, there is some controversy around recommending them. For example, the American Gastroenterological Association recommends not taking them in irritable bowel syndrome. However, I have seen clinically tested probiotics be beneficial to some of my clients. Good probiotics are pricey, so I would prioritize the food budget first. However, if you’re curious about probiotics, there is a great tool for ensuring you use an evidence-based product: Probiotic Chart (www.probiotichart.ca) Most of the probiotics on the market have no research to prove they’re effective. Stick to one that does.
What about intermittent fasting as a strategy?
Intermittent fasting has not really been tested for digestive function. However, in practice, sometimes I will work with meal spacing if someone has constipation or really sluggish digestion. The theory behind this is that our upper gut has regular waves that clear it out called the migrating motor complex. The strongest of these waves occurs after digestion and absorption has occurred — if you are snacking all day long, you may have fewer of these waves. So sometimes, eating larger balanced meals and leaving four hours between them can be of benefit.
Now, this is not to say that snacking, or eating more often, is bad for the gut. I’m starting to see this myth circulating online. The important piece of this is that you need to eat in the way that feels best for your specific body, right now. For example, someone else with [acid] reflux may enjoy smaller, more frequent meals because they avoid overfilling the stomach, which increases reflux.
Studies have shown an association between gut health and healthy aging, inflammation and joint pain, and even longevity. What are your thoughts on this? Do you have any advice for older adults?
Aging may bring with it an increase in chronic inflammation, which some call ‘inflamm-aging’. We also know that gut microbiome diversity decreases as we age. I don’t believe these two things are a coincidence. We know that a healthy, diverse gut microbiome produces short-chain fatty acids like butyrate that are known to support appropriate inflammatory response. And what do we need to help protect the microbiome? A diversity of plant foods … which can seem challenging as appetites wane, or if we cook less because our kids have left home.
My advice? Every bite counts more if our appetites are small, but it’s actually easier than you think to keep diversity ramped up. For example, adding ground flax and frozen blueberries and cinnamon to your morning oatmeal increases nutritional diversity (that’s four different plants right there) even if our portion sizes shrinks a bit.
If you can, focus on adding more nutrient-dense foods such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, herbs and spices to your meals. Turmeric is a beautiful addition to daily recipes, as it is rich in curcumin, thought to help benefit gut-related inflammation. And don’t forget to hydrate! Dehydration can cause sluggish digestion and constipation.
Your book combines information on the foundational principles of good digestive health, but also nourishing recipes to protect, heal or soothe our guts. Can we tap into your culinary expertise for tips on plant-forward flavour boosters or any other secret weapons in the kitchen?
I am a firm believer that nutritious meals can also be delicious … there is never any need to compromise on taste! When it comes to building flavourful meals from whole foods, it’s about layering flavours and never skimping on flavour boosters. For example, most of my recipes start with garlic, onions or shallots. Aromatic vegetables create a flavourful base for whatever you’re cooking. I almost never put one clove of garlic in the pan — always three or four!
We also need to lean into herbs and spices. For those of us of European decent, our cooking styles may not use a lot of herbs and spices and they’re absolutely critical to creating satisfying flavours (plus, they’re a great source of antioxidant phytochemicals such as flavonoids that also boost the microbiome). I typically use at least 2-3 teaspoons of spices in my cooking and 1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh herbs. Start low, taste and adjust as you go,
I use a lot of cumin and paprika, which are flavours I know from my childhood. I have also been known to boost the umami with garlic and onion powders … even when I’ve also added fresh! A friend also introduced me to sazon, a spice blend common in Puerto Rico and Dominican cooking that makes everything so flavourful! It is an easy way to add a lot of flavour without adding multiple ingredients to stews and soups. And I cannot get enough cardamom, it’s definitely a signature of my sweet recipes.
Cashew creams are a wonderful way to replace dairy cream and they’re so simple to make. I usually add a bit of nutritional yeast, which is an umami-rich flaked inactive yeast that is also really rich in B vitamins.
Do you have any other advice you’d like to share with our readers?
Roughly 25 per cent of Canadians are estimated to have symptoms of constipation. We also have higher rates of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases than anywhere else in the world.
So many of us suffer with digestive health issues when there are really simple nutrition solutions to help improve how you feel. When you incorporate more whole-plant foods, alongside movement and stress management, you can feel better.
When trying to increase your fibre intake, it’s important to take it slow and steady. You need to train your digestive tract for a high-fibre life the same way you train your legs to do a 10K run. Incorporate high-fibre foods one at a time, and give your body time to adjust. And be sure to drink plenty of water! Fibre needs water to do its job.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed
Makes 16 cookies
Who doesn’t want to eat cookies for breakfast? These cookies are truly a healthy start that will keep you energized. With almost no added sugars, and packed with nuts, seeds, and tummy-soothing ginger, they are the perfect grab-and-go breakfast with a piece of fruit. I have been making some variation of breakfast cookies for years and this variation is my favourite. Plenty of ﬁbre, lots of minerals, and just a bit of chocolate.
DAIRY-FREE • GLUTEN-FREE • LOW-FODMAP • VEGAN
1 cup (250 ml) gluten-free old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup (250 ml) unsweetened shredded coconut
¾ cup (175 ml) almond ﬂour
½ cup (125 ml) hemp hearts
¼ cup (60 ml) raw pumpkin seeds
3 tablespoons (45 ml) ground ﬂaxseed
1 teaspoon (5 ml) cinnamon
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
½ teaspoon (2 ml) salt
¼ cup (60 ml) crystallized ginger, ﬁnely diced
¼ cup (60 ml) dairy-free dark chocolate chips
1⅓ cups (325 ml) mashed bananas (about 3 medium)
¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive or avocado oil
2 tablespoons (30 ml) pure maple syrup
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the rolled oats, coconut, almond ﬂour, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, ﬂaxseed, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the crystallized ginger and chocolate chips.
3. In a small bowl, mix together the banana, olive oil, and maple syrup until well blended. Add the banana mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to combine.
4. Working with wet hands so the batter does not stick too much, scoop ¼ cup (60 mL) of the batter and pat into 2-inch (5 cm) circles. Place evenly spaced on the prepared baking sheet. If the batter starts to stick to your hands, simply rinse them off and keep working with wet hands. The cookies will not spread, so you can easily ﬁt them on one baking sheet. Bake until the cookies are golden on the bottom and starting to brown on top, 17 to 19 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to fully cool. Store in an airtight container on the counter for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month.
Kohlrabi Chopped Salad
I always thought that a chopped salad was a salad with crunchy chopped-up veggies. Turns out that a chopped salad is very much a thing and it involves lettuce. Introducing my kohlrabi chop with plenty of crunchy, low-FODMAP veggies and, yes, chopped lettuce. This has a fun, throwback Italian-style dressing that I can-not get enough of.
DAIRY-FREE • GLUTEN-FREE • GRAIN-FREE • LOW-FODMAP • NUT-FREE • VEGAN
20 green beans, chopped into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces
1 heart of romaine, trimmed and chopped
2 cups (500 ml) peeled and cubed kohlrabi
1 cup (250 ml) cubed English cucumber
1 cup (250 ml) canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ cup (125 ml) Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
4 green onions (dark green parts only), sliced into ½-inch (1 cm) pieces
2 tablespoons (30 ml) raw sunﬂower
¼ cup (60 ml) red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon (15 ml) nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon (5 ml) organic cane sugar
1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
½ teaspoon (2 ml) dried oregano
Freshly cracked black pepper
1. Blanch the green beans: Bring a small pot of water to a boil over high heat. When the water is boiling, add the green beans and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold running water.
2. Make the dressing: In a small mason jar, add the red wine vinegar, olive oil, nutritional yeast, cane sugar, salt, oregano, and pepper. Place the lid on tightly and shake.
3. Assemble the salad: In a large bowl, toss together the romaine, kohlrabi, green beans, cucumber, chickpeas, olives, green onions, and sunﬂower seeds. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss again.
Creamy Tomato and White Bean Soup With Crispy Kale
The secret to creating creamy vegan soups and dips is white beans. They are a staple in my home for their creamy texture and neutral, almost buttery ﬂavour. Beans can be hard to tolerate for an irritated tummy, but blending them into a delicious tomato soup makes it easier to enjoy their soothing soluble ﬁbre and gut-boosting minerals. Garlic and onion build ﬂavour and offer prebiotic ﬁbres to help feed beneﬁcial bacteria in the gut. While this soup is delicious and comforting on its own, do not skip the crispy kale topping. Its addictive crunch adds another layer of texture to this easy weeknight meal. In fact, I have been known to make a double batch of crispy kale because I have a tendency to eat most of it before it is time to serve the soup.
DAIRY-FREE • GLUTEN-FREE • GRAIN-FREE • NUT-FREE • HIGH-FODMAP • VEGAN
¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
½ small fennel bulb, diced (about 1 cup/250 ml)
2 ribs celery, diced
Freshly cracked black pepper
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can (28 ounces/796 ml) whole plum tomatoes
1 can (14 ounces/398 ml) no-salt-added white beans (navy, cannellini, or butter)
2 cups (500 ml) low-sodium vegetable broth
6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only (1 tablespoon/15 ml) (or 1 teaspoon/ 5 ml dried thyme leaves)
1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt, plus more for seasoning
½ teaspoon (2 ml) garlic powder
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of ½ lemon
Red chili ﬂakes, for garnish
1 large bunch curly kale, de-stemmed and torn into large pieces
1 tablespoon (15 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon (1 ml) salt
Pinch of red chili ﬂakes
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200lC). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Make the creamy tomato and white bean soup: In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and glossy, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute.
3. Add the tomatoes, either crushing them with your hands before adding them to the pot or using a spatula to crush them in the pot. Stir in the beans, vegetable broth, thyme, salt, and garlic powder. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, make the crispy kale: In a large bowl, toss the kale with the olive oil, salt, and chili ﬂakes. Evenly spread the kale on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet and bake for 3 to 6 minutes more, watching carefully, as kale goes from crispy to burnt quickly.
5. Remove the soup from the heat. Using a handheld immersion blender, purée the soup. (I like to leave a bit of texture so it is not perfectly smooth.) Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper, if needed. Ladle the soup into soup bowls and top with a few chili ﬂakes and crispy kale. Leftover soup (without the crispy kale) can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days. Store the crispy kale loosely covered on the counter for up to 3 days.
Chickpea Umami Burgers
Makes 6 burgers
I turned to the power of umami to make what I think are my most delicious burgers yet. The word umami in Japanese roughly translates to “savoury deliciousness,” which comes from a few amino acids naturally found in foods like sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and soy sauce. Omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts and ﬂaxseed help ﬁght inﬂammation, while soluble ﬁbre from beans and oats help regulate digestion and support beneﬁcial bacteria in the gut. These soft, squishy, ﬂavourful burgers are sure to be a hit with the family.
DAIRY-FREE • GLUTEN-FREE • HIGH-FODMAP • VEGAN
2 cups (500 mL) tightly packed baby spinach
1 medium shallot, roughly chopped
½ cup (125 mL) raw walnuts
⅓ cup (75 mL) sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and patted dry
2 cans (14 ounces/398 mL each) no-salt-added chickpeas (or 3 cups/750 mL cooked chickpeas)
½ cup (125 mL) gluten-free old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tablespoons (30 mL) nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons (30 mL) ground ﬂaxseed
1 teaspoon (5 mL) ground cumin
1 teaspoon (5 mL) garlic powder
¾ teaspoon (3 mL) salt
½ teaspoon (2 mL) onion powder
2 tablespoons (30 mL) water, more if needed
3 tablespoons (45 mL) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon (15 mL) gluten-free tamari
Zest of ½ lemon
For Serving (Optional)
Spring salad mix
1. Place the spinach in a colander over the sink. Slowly pour boiling water over the spinach to wilt it. Let sit to cool.
2. In a food processor, add the shallot, walnuts, and sun-dried tomatoes. Pulse until ﬁnely chopped. Add the chickpeas, rolled oats, nutritional yeast, ﬂaxseed, cumin, garlic powder, salt, onion powder, water, 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of the olive oil, tamari, and lemon zest. Carefully squeeze all of the excess water from the spinach and add to the food processor. Pulse until about half the mixture looks like a paste, but you can still see plenty of distinct ingredients. You should be able to form a nice patty with ease. If the mixture is crumbly, pulse a bit more or add 1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) water, a bit at a time.
3. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil over medium heat. Place the burgers in the pan and cook until a golden brown crust forms on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully ﬂip and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. The burgers will be soft and pleasantly squishy when warm, but they will ﬁrm up as they cool. 4. Serve the burgers with or without buns, layered with greens, a bit of vegan mayonnaise, and some olive tapenade, if using.
Tip: If you want a more traditional, firmer burger texture, add ⅓ cup (75 ml) gluten-free bread crumbs. These burgers can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 24 hours before cooking.
Excerpted from Good for Your Gut by Desiree Nielsen. Copyright © 2022 by Desiree Nielsen. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
A version of this story was published on June 21, 2022