Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Can you heal your gut on a vegetarian diet?
I just wrote a very lengthy email to someone inquiring about whether one can heal gut issues with a vegetarian diet (she had her pre-adolescent daughter in mind). The Gut And Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet in particular is based almost entirely on bone broth, meats, animal fats, eggs, cod liver oil, and probiotic dairy and fermented vegetables. It is not a vegetarian-friendly diet -- but it truly works. I think it is worth considering, even for vegetarians.
Here is my reply:
"Based on my experience addressing my son's digestive issues, speaking with friends and clients and others dealing with similar issues, and on my understanding of digestive health and nutritional needs I would have to say that I do believe the Gut And Psychology Syndrome approach is the best approach, and I strongly encourage it. I think it would be very helpful to read the book; it will explain very completely why this dietary approach is crucial for recovery.
The issue here is twofold, in terms of addressing your daughter's issues. First, there are four components to the diet that are incredibly important.
1) healthy fats (coconut oil, butter, and animal fats if you choose to go that route; I do believe that high-vitamin fermented cod liver oil is absolutely essential, and obviously that is not a vegetarian food).
2) probiotic-rich foods (fermented vegetables - particularly the juices from these; 24-hour raw milk yogurt; homemade kefir from raw milk; whey from dripping your homemade yogurt, added to foods; and other lacto-fermented foods and healing tonics, such as beet kvass) -- these foods are absolutely essential, and they would be vegetarian-friendly
3) egg yolks (from pastured hens) -- extremely easy to digest and very healing and soothing to the gut lining, while being an excellent source of nourishment and the important fat-soluble vitamins A & D needed for gut health
4) bone broth (also from pastured chicken, meat, or wild-caught fish) -- this is not a vegetarian food, though it is made from bones and scraps that are headed for the landfill, so I consider it to be potentially appealing to people who have a sense for environmentally-friendly compromises to the vegetarian diet. This broth is CRUCIAL. I cannot underestimate its importance. It may just be the MOST IMPORTANT part of the diet. The healing powers of bone broth cannot be underestimated! It requires almost no digestive effort on the part of the human body, contains nourishing fats and protein in ample amounts, is an excellent source of easily-absorbed minerals in electrolyte form, and provides gelatin which is incredibly important for digestion and the gut lining. If you can see your way clear to including this in your daughter's diet I think it would go far to providing the help she needs. (I provide bone broth for sale, as do some other people who make it in the correct way - I can provide information on this if you are interested.)
So as you can see, the four healing components are somewhat compatible with a vegetarian diet.
The second aspect, however, is more difficult to get around. That is the problem of protein. Many people can obtain protein (and essentials nutrients, like iron) from plant foods; however, people who do this for many years often end up with digestive disorders. This is due to the fact that the human digestive system is not evolved to eat exclusively plant protein. Of course your daughter would be eating dairy forms of protein, but this is actually a problem with a GAPS person -- many people do not digest dairy properly and so need to eliminate it for some time. After reintroducing it, it would not be smart to be getting the bulk of one's protein needs from dairy and eggs. This simply would not be possible for a growing girl. In terms of eating things like nuts, beans, and whole grains (all potential sources of protein) this may very well be what is causing the GAPS issues to begin with. These foods are very hard to digest, and many people with gut dysbiosis actually cannot digest them! (My son is one example of this, and I am working diligently on getting his gut on track -- he shows excellent progress as long as I steer clear of the plant foods. It has been very illuminating to study, in essence, the digestive system of a toddler; I have learned the hard way that proper digestion of plant foods really truly does depend on a healthy, strong digestive system. It's a difficult lesson for our family -- my husband was vegetarian for 16 years, and I was vegetarian during pregnancy, relying heavily on soy for my protein. There have been so very many positive benefits of incorporating animal protein again into our diets that the results cannot be argued with. I no longer have hypothyroidism, our son is growing and developing well, my blood sugar issues are gone, hormonal problems have cleared...the list goes on and on.)
I know this is a hard issue, but what it comes down to is this: either we eat in the way that our bodies are demanding, or we will suffer health issues. For some people, even a vegan diet will work, at least for a certain length of time. For others, plant foods are almost intolerable. It is my guess that your daughter is somewhere in the middle, as are most people. It is also possible that she is reacting to a particular food in her diet (such as gluten, casein, soy) that is causing the digestive distress. If you would like to schedule a consultation to try trouble-shooting in this way then please let me know. I could make recommendations for assisting her digestion in general before you go to the trouble of GAPS. It must be stated here that the consumption of soy products for protein is extremely destructive to the digestive system, and also very harmful for the growth and development of children and teens; so soy is not an option for obtaining protein.
The last thing I would like to mention -- and again, I am just being very open and honest with you, and I do hope you will just take what is helpful to you from this email and leave the rest -- the last thing is that I now have a MUCH better understanding of farming than I ever did previously. And perhaps the most important thing I have learned is that we absolutely require animals (livestock) for healthy, organic farming that is good for the earth and the environment. Without livestock we must use petro-chemical fertilizers, neurotoxic pesticides, herbicides, and more such deplorable substances that are harmful to every party involved. Fertilizer (manure) from healthy animals ensures that our soil remains fertile and able to continue to bear crops and provide healthy flourishing grass. Having a mix of plants and animals on each farm (biodiversity) helps pests and weeds to be controlled naturally, without the use of chemicals, and ensures the safety of our food system (as opposed to relying on monoculture farms, such as soy, which require heavy applications of chemicals and are vulnerable to being wiped out completely if any blight or pest does come along). The use of grasslands and pasture for grazing animals keeps our precious topsoil in place (erosion of topsoil is a dire issue for the U.S.), while protecting our environment, since grass is highly effective in absorbing carbon dioxide.
If we accept that these methods of farming, which employ animals, are important and actually necessary, then it stands to reason that we must make proper use of the animals that we rely on for milk and eggs. It would not make sense to allow animals to become old and decrepit, nor would it be humane. Furthermore, since our digestive systems and our bodies are so very reliant on the nourishment to be found in animal foods, it is only practical, economical, and good use of our resources to consume animal foods. We can obtain so much more intensely healing, easily-digested nourishment from one small meal of liver, for example, that we could obtain from a week's worth of grains, beans, or produce -- I see this truth as inescapable and something we must consider if we are concerned both about conservation of resources and the desperate need to attain true health for people and our environment."