Are you interested in restoring gut health with diet?
For years I struggled to find solutions to my digestive problems of stomach pain, bloating, and terrible heartburn, despite eating a healthy diet. I’ve finally taken steps to get well by switching to a whole food, plant based (WFPB) diet.
This is my experience. This article is not meant as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult your health care professional.
Heal Your Gut: When Digestion Goes Wrong
About two years ago, one evening after dinner I developed a horrific case of heartburn. I popped some Tums and figured this was a one time event, but after a sleepless night and more pain the next day, I headed to the grocery store for Maalox, Zantac, and Prevacid.
When none of those short-term heartburn medications provided relief, I switched to Priolsec.
When even that didn’t help, I made an appointment with my doctor. She doubled my medication dosage and put in a referral to a gastroenterologist.
As time continued my symptoms worsened to where I was often spending whole days on the couch in agony with intense heartburn, stomach pain and bloating. Lying still with a heating pad was the only thing that brought a tiny bit of relief. My stomach would swell with gas until I looked pregnant.
My family was worried about me and quite frankly, I was worried about me, too. I would have a few good days and then I’d have a string of days where I was miserable, and we couldn’t tie the bad days to any particular triggers.
What I Tried to Heal My Gut
I tried a strict elimination diet, a low FODMAP diet, meeting with a Registered Dietitian for months, endless medical tests (like belly ultrasounds, upper GI scopes, biopsies, and gall bladder tests), doing a round of Whole30, and took tons of medications.
I spent a ridiculous amount of money on natural supplements. I doubted these would be helpful, but I was willing to try anything just in case it provided some relief.
I sought second opinions and even considered surgery.
No Clear Diagnosis
While I never had a clear diagnosis besides Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), obviously something more was wrong.
We suspected Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) although a round of antibiotics for it provided no relief.
The dietician believed I had dysbiosis (aka Leaky Gut) although that diagnosis is controversial and impossible to prove.
All I knew is that I was miserable and going from bad to worse.
Starting a Whole Food, Plant Based Diet – My Story
In February of 2021, I started a Whole Food, Plant Based diet that does not include any oils and is very low in fat, sugar and salt. This diet does not include any animal products.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was highly skeptical that this would do any good. After all, I was already eating healthy because of my 100 pound weight loss. Many of the foods (like beans and lots of veggies) were the exact opposite of what is recommended for digestive complaints so that concerned me, too.
But I was desperate and at the point that I would have tried anything.
Plus, I had read that a Whole Food, Plant Based (WFPB) diet helps with hunger, and I was curious to try for that reason too. I’ve had pretty constant physical hunger for much of my weight loss and especially maintaining.
Healing Your Digestion Naturally with Food
Within a few weeks of starting a plant-based diet, I began to notice significant changes.
- Hunger decrease.
- Stomach pains started to ease.
- Days spent on the couch with the heating pad were gone.
- I still had bad days, but there started to be more good days than bad ones.
Within a month, I saw even more progress.
- Bloating greatly decreased.
- Stomach pains went away.
- I had mostly good days with less heartburn. I decreased my heartburn medication, switching away from prescription meds and to over-the-counter medications.
- My mood lifted. I hadn’t felt down or depressed, but I noticed a marked improvement in my mood and attitude.
- My sleep improved.
- I started losing weight. Even though I was at my goal weight and not particularly trying to lose weight, I had always had to work really hard to maintain. Now I was dropping pounds without really trying and moving into the middle of my goal weight range.
After a few months, I really noticed a positive imact.
- My good days continued and I couldn’t remember the last time I spent a day on the couch.
- While I still had heartburn, it was decreasing.
- People commented that my skin looked great and I had a glow about me.
- My energy increased.
- My workouts improved. (I tested for my 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and passed.)
Today, I am still on the journey.
- I feel fantastic.
- I’ve sailed through menopause this year with no hot flashes and few symptoms. (And losing weight, which proves it’s possible!)
- While I still have heartburn, it decreases every week. I fully hold out hope that in 6-8 months, it will be completely gone and I’ll be off all medications.
- Twice the doctor has decreased the dosage of my medication for low thyroid function, which I’ve been on for 20+ years.
- I’ve continued to lose weight, and I’ve now lost a total of 125 pounds and weigh the least I ever have as an adult. I had to buy new clothes in the smallest size I’ve worn.
The Food on a Gut-Healing Diet Tastes Fantastic
What’s really cool is that I love the food I’m eating for this lifestyle. My taste buds have adjusted and everything I’m eating just tastes so darn fantastic.
I look forward to every meal. I don’t miss animal products, but I do miss some junk foods. Thankfully there are recipes for healthy alternatives, although I admit at times it’s been challenging not to stray off plan.
Reminding myself of how sick I was before and how good I feel now is what gives me the motivation I need to stay the course.
One of the toughest changes was eliminating extra salt and sodium. It took about a month for my taste buds to adjust, but once they did it was like I woke up to the real taste of food. Now food has never tasted better.
What I Eat in a Day to Heal My Stomach and Stop Bloating, Stomach Pain and Heartburn
Here’s what a typical day of eating looks like. The way I arrange my meals is to eat half my plate green and yellow vegetables and half my plate healthy starches which includes whole grains like oatmeal or brown rice, beans and lentils, or starchy vegetables like winter squash, corn or potatoes. Fruit is added for sweetness or dessert.
Breakfast – Beans and greens with mushrooms and onions, baked potato, sweet potato, brown rice, or oatmeal with fruit.
Lunch – HUGE salad with 6-7 types of veggies and fruits, homemade salad dressing without oil, bowl of vegetable-bean soup, piece of fruit.
Dinner – Various recipes, but something like a homemade bean and grain burger, cooked veggies like broccoli, asparagus, or cauliflower, potato or brown rice.
Dessert – Banana nice cream.
Calorie Density and Daily Healthy Eating Goals
Calorie density is the concept that all foods have a certain amount of calories per pound, and humans eat about the same amount of food in pounds every day. When you choose foods low in calorie density, you will naturally lose weight and improve your health.
But Healthy Food Gives Me Gas
One of the problems you might run into (especially if you have digestive issues like I did) is that healthy, whole foods might give you gas, bloating and stomach pain.
Reading the book Fiber Fueled by Dr. Will Bulsiewicz was a critical turning point in helping me understand how to manage this. Most people can eat vegetables, beans, and other high-fiber foods when they add them gradually.
When you eliminate a food like beans, what happens is that the gut microbiome bacteria die off that digest these foods. When you add them back gradually, you’ll soon discover that you can digest them without issues as you repopulate the healthy bacteria in your gut.
I started with adding beans in 1 tablespoon per day servings for a period of weeks while I built up my digestive system to handle the fiber in these foods.
It may seem counterintuitive, but gradually adding foods that are high in fiber will naturally repair the stomach lining and heal your gut. We don’t tend to think of high-fiber foods as gut healing foods, but this is exactly what they are.
How long does it take to repopulate the gut with good bacteria? Believe it or not, changes to gut microbiome start within 24 hours and positive changes continue to occur within a couple weeks of reintroducing high-fiber and prebiotic foods.
A wide variety of high-fiber foods is necessary for a healthy gut. Dr. Bulsiewicz recommends eating 30 different plants (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) over the course of a week for optimal digestion and health.
Weight Watchers Vegetarian and Vegan Lifestyles
I lost weight with the Weight Watchers program and continue to use it as a WW Lifetime member. When I switched to a ww vegetarian, whole food lifestyle, I switched to WW Purple. Because whole grains and potatoes are zero points on WW, this has worked perfectly.
What About Protein on a Plant Based Diet?
One of the questions I’m asked most often is “Where do you get your protein?”
I understand people’s concerns because for years I too believed that I needed to increase my protein, especially when it comes to weight loss. (The trouble was, I was eating lots of protein, often 100+ grams per day, and I was still hungry all the time.)
What I’ve since learned is that yes, it’s important to get a minimum amount of protein but a whole food, plant based diet provides that.
Most Americans eat 3-5x the needed amount of daily protein and rather than being healthier, we are sicker than we’ve ever been. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates are soaring in our country and other countries that eat high-protein diets.
However, less than 3% of Americans get the recommended amount of 25-30 grams of fiber a day. Perhaps rather than asking, “Where do you get your protein?” we should be asking, “Where do you get your fiber?”
Recipes and Meal Ideas for a Whole Food Plant Based Diet
I’ve gotten tons of questions and requests for more information about my new healthy lifestyle, so I’ve started putting together more resources to be a help. Watch for more in the weeks to come.
Books for Healing Digestion
Here are some books I read on my journey to a healthier gut. All recommend a similar way of eating and living for optimal nutrition and wellness.
Fiber-Fueled – This is the book I recommend the most if you have any type of digestive issues. His description of foods to eat to heal your stomach and how to develop a healthy gut microbiome are excellent and easy to understand. This book about good gut health was pivotal in my journey.
Eat to Live – This book is the most strict in eating methodology but I learned a lot about how to build a healthy, plant-based diet.
Starch Solution – After reading many books, this is the one I resonate with the most and the pattern of eating is most similar to what I follow now.
Volumetrics – by Dr. Barbara Rolls. This book isn’t strictly whole food, plant based but the concepts about calorie density have been extremely helpful to me.
Food is medicine, there’s just no question. If you struggle with digestive issues, don’t lose hope. There’s so much healing that can happen.
Do you or someone you love struggle with digestive wellness? Please share about it in the comments below and let’s work together to all find better health.