Starting a vegan diet which is heavily plant-based can significantly improve digestive health over time, but people can run into difficulties with on the diet with stomach pain and other digestive issues after becoming vegan. Sometimes introducing new foods into your diet can upset the balance and your body needs a bit of time to adapt.
When I first transitioned to a plant-based over 15 years ago, my digestive system wasn’t great. I had experienced acid reflux, frequent indigestion, and other digestive problems. My expectations were that when I started this new diet, everything would clear up.
Well, in short, yes the symptoms did clear up eventually, but it took well over six months before I really started to notice the beneficial effect of the diet.
During the early stages of the diet, it felt like my acid reflux worsened, I felt bloated sometimes, and it seemed like I wasn’t digesting the new food I was putting into my mouth at all. So I want to be clear, I wasn’t vegan at the time, but I was largely vegetarian with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and olive oil making up the majority of my diet.
When you make sudden changes, and you start introducing a whole new range of foods into your diet, things won’t always go smoothly. Some foods might agree with you, and some foods won’t. Sometimes you can adapt to these new foods, and others you just have to exclude them from your diet.
One of my recommendations for people who are looking to start a vegan diet or any healthy plant-based diet is to go slowly at first and start introducing new foods into your diet one or two at a time. This can help avoid issues you might run into later down the road.
How to prevent stomach pain on a vegan diet
Below are a few things to consider if you’re new to a vegan diet or are currently having issues like bloating, flatulence, acid reflux, IBS, and stomach pain.
1. Add new foods to your diet slowly
It’s really exciting to start a new diet and wanting to put literally everything into your salad from the fresh food section of the supermarket. I get it, you want to get all the beneficial nutrients in these foods and you want your salad to look pretty.
The problem with adding a load of new foods into your diet all at once is that you don’t know what agrees with your stomach and what doesn’t.
There are certain foods that I simply cannot handle even to this day. That doesn’t mean they are unhealthy foods, they just don’t agree with my digestive system.
When you start a vegan diet, add in foods which are easy-to-digest like and have a lower amount of fructose in them such as citrus fruits, bananas, and different types of berries such as blueberries and strawberries. Perhaps for breakfast, you could start off with oatmeal and put some bananas and blueberries on there.
For dinner just include two or three different types of vegetables rather than ten.
You get the picture, you don’t have to throw everything onto the plate. Keep things simple at first and then, later on, you can include more variety in your meals
2. Avoiding vegan junk food
If you want to be successful and be healthy on the diet, you have to limit the amount of junk food you eat. I’ve come across plenty of vegans who existed on nothing but junk foods for vegans.
They can sometimes be as bad as non-vegan foods, contain little fiber and contain fillers and other ingredients which are bad for the digestive system.
Stick to the fresh food section as much as possible if you can. And of course it’s fine to eat some packaged food, there are probably a few which are actually pretty healthy and contain all-natural ingredients.
3. Don’t eat too little and don’t eat too much
People sometimes naturally drift to either extreme and suffer stomach problems because of it. If you eat too little, then this can cause hunger pains and other stomach problems. And if you eat too much, this can leave you bloated and feel bad.
There is an old saying in Okinawa which translated into “eat until 80% full”. Meaning, push aside your plate before you go and stuff yourself with food.
One of the mistakes I made early in my CR days on a largely plant-based diet was that I used to consume literally pounds of vegetables in one meal. It would make me uncomfortably full at times. And sure, your stomach does expand and eventually you adjust to bigger sized portions, but is that best thing?
In order for your digestive system to heal and your body to go into repair and maintenance mode, you should ease up on the volume of food. You don’t want to be in a state where you’re always digesting food all day.
Be sensible about meal sizes. Include some higher calorie foods in your meal such as sweet potatoes which will be filling and add caloric density to the meal, and then add in a few vegetables. Rather than trying to make up all those calories purely on calorically-deficient foods.
4. Eat a balanced diet of cooked and raw food
There are some foods such as cruciferous vegetables, corn, and carrots which can be more difficult to digest when you eat them in their raw state. When you cook these vegetables, they become easier to digest and less hard on the stomach.
Some people recommend people go on an all 100% raw food diet in order to have the best health possible. I’ve never bought into this idea.
Cooking is useful for being able to better absorb certain vitamins and carotenoids and phytonutrients in the diet, not only making them easier to digest.
I think that a raw food diet is good, and perhaps most of your vegetables should be eaten in raw form, but I’ve found 70% to be a good target.
And one other thing is that your body will start getting used to the diet and digesting these foods. Your gut bacteria will change and become more healthy (you can speed this up by taking vegan probiotic supplements) and this will help break down the fiber in your diet.
Foods which might cause the most problems with stomach pain include the following:
- Raw Broccoli
- Raw Cauliflower
- Raw Brussel sprouts
- Green peppers
- Spices – chilies, including Jalapeños, habaneros, and poblanos contain capsaicin which is hard on the stomach
- Raw garlic
- Red onions
Foods which are more easy on the stomach include the following:
- Blueberries, Strawberries, Raspberries etc.
- Citrus fruits
- Green beans
- Sweet potato
- Romaine lettuce
Also, check out my article about milk substitutes for vegans.
One good way to get in some raw veggies is to make some green smoothies. These blended drinks which contain both fruit and vegetables can be easier to digest while still retaining the fiber.
5. Don’t pour on the oil, drizzle it
I do recommend people add oils to their diets like extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, and vegan omega 3 supplements, but don’t overdo it.
When I first tried flaxseed oil, it can be some nausea and stomach pain. After some time I got used to it and then had no issues eating flaxseeds. So as I mentioned earlier, sometimes you can get used to foods as long as you’re not intolerant to them or have an allergy.
Oils are high in calories, nutrient-deficient, but do have some anti-inflammatory properties and help absorb certain nutrients from our diet.
Avocados are very healthy food and are high in fat. Have one avocado, but don’t go crazy and have five a day.
Oils can be quite heavy, so ease up on them and don’t have over 20-30% of your calorie intake coming from fat.
6. Drink tea to help improve digestion
There are many herbal teas which are able to aid in digestion and these can be consumed with meals. Ginger tea is great for improving digestion and reducing symptoms of nausea, bloating and gas.
If you think you’ve eaten too much, make a cup of ginger tea and in no time you’ll be feeling better.
Other teas which also help with stomach pain and other digestive issues include spearmint tea, peppermint tea, licorice tea, and chamomile tea.
They really do help, so give them a try if you haven’t already.
7. Go easy with the beans
Beans are great for you and really filling. I love beans, and I eat them often! But if you’re not used to regularly eating beans or legumes then these can sometimes cause some stomach issues.
If you can include beans in your diet without a problem, then I highly recommend you do. They do contain some anti-nutrients, but overall studies have shown that they are linked with increased longevity and health.
Beans are healthy, just don’t go too crazy. People with a history of IBS and frequent antibiotic use are more likely to have issues.
If you’re eating a lot of legumes, then I’d suggest cutting back to see if this helps your stomach pain. It would be one of the usual suspects on a vegan diet that I’d try to eliminate first.
8. Choose the right protein powder if you use them
Protein powders are great for people who are more physically active and require a bit of extra protein to boost performance and muscle gains on a vegan diet.
One of the problems (not just with vegan protein drinks) is that these shakes can sometimes be difficult to digest and cause stomach pain and flare up IBS symptoms in people who have a sensitive stomach.
I recommend looking for protein powders which contain enzymes that help make the protein more digestible and easier on the stomach. Some of them also include probiotics to help improve stomach health as well.
You can check out some good vegan protein powders that do not contain any stevia and have enzymes to help you digest the protein.
9. Digestive enzymes are helpful
There are many plant-foods which already contain enzymes, pineapple and papaya are a couple of the most well-known foods. So I definitely recommend that you include these two in your diet if you haven’t already!
But taking a supplement containing digestive enzymes could be helpful for vegans who have just started the diet from an unhealthy processed food diet.
When you come from a bad diet, your stomach may not be producing enough stomach acid or bile to help digest the protein and fats in the diet. These things become better over time even if you do nothing, but digestive enzymes may help facilitate recovery.
Here’s a list of foods which contain natural digestive enzymes:
10. Consider other possibilities
If you’re having serious stomach issues then you should never ignore them. Always see your doctor and get a proper diagnosis. If you’ve been on a vegan diet for a long time and noticed a sudden change, then there could be several reasons for this.
At one time before I became vegan I had a few stomach issues, which included gastritis which was intermittent but really affected my appetite. Although I never knew exactly the cause because I never got tested, I suspected it may have been h.pylori.
Going on that hunch I took some manuka honey and within days (after having problems for a long time) the problem went away and never returned.
So always be open-minded about the cause. Sometimes stomach pain and IBS issues can really be caused by stress.
It’s perfectly normal for your digestive system to have to adapt to your diet if you’ve just begun your vegan journey. Sometimes it takes a few months before things settle down, but in certain cases, you may have to remove foods which don’t agree with you.
Finding the best vegan diet for you and one which doesn’t cause any stomach problems can be challenging if you go all in from the start. So I recommend that you ease into the diet and start with easy-to-digest foods which don’t normally cause stomach problems.
However, if you have stomach pain while on a vegan diet and it doesn’t go away, you should consult with your doctor to get a proper diagnosis.