Going Vegan May Help Your Gut Hormones Do Their Best JobNutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
If you’re used to eating meat, dairy and other animal foods, you may find that following a vegan diet, which is plant-based and avoids all animal foods, can be very challenging. Despite the increasing presence of vegan restaurants with meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger and vegan bloggers giving us plenty of #veganinspiration, giving up meat and cheese can be challenging.
Adding to the difficulty of adapting to a new taste and habit is the fact that in your day-to-day life, it may be difficult to ensure that the food you eat is truly vegan. For example, the vegetarian soup you may be served at a party may have a chicken stock base and often times vegetables are cooked in butter at restaurants. So being vegan truly takes hard work and dedication, which may explain why reportedly only three percent of Americans claim to be vegan. (A vegan diet also appears to be more common among millennials).
But if you are disciplined enough to be vegan, you may reap many health benefits. Vegans eat a lot of nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Eating vegan eliminates many processed, pro-inflammatory foods in the American diet, like donuts and baked goods, which may contain butter, milk and eggs.
Furthermore, going vegan requires that you avoid foods containing animal-derived ingredients or additives, like gelatin, which is found in many candy products, Jell-O, marshmallows and other not-so-good-for-you foods. You will likely also reduce your intake of cholesterol, saturated fat and unnatural sources of sodium, all of which may contribute to health issues like obesity, heart disease and hypertension.
And now, a recent study suggests that following a vegan diet is great for optimal functioning of gut hormones including those that make you feel full.
We have extensively discussed gut bacteria and the gut microbiome, but gut hormones are a bit different.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “GI hormones are chemical messengers that are implicated in many aspects of physiological functions of the gastrointestinal tract, including the regulation of secretion, absorption and digestion, and gut motility. GI hormones are a large family of peptides and are secreted by endocrine cells that are widely distributed throughout the GI mucosa and pancreas. Gastrin, secretin, and cholecystokinin (CCK) were the first discovered gut hormones, and as of today, there are more than 50 gut hormone genes and a multitude of bioactive peptides, which makes the gut as the largest endocrine [producing and releasing hormones] organ of the body.”
Let’s take a closer look at some of the gut hormones:
Leptin is a hormone. It is reportedly made by the fat cells and is responsible for decreasing your appetite. It is sometimes referred to as one of the ‘hunger hormones.’
“Levels of leptin -- the appetite suppressor -- are lower when you're thin and higher when you're fat. But many obese people have built up a resistance to the appetite-suppressing effects of leptin, says obesity expert Mary Dallman, PhD, from University of California at San Francisco.”
Another ‘hunger hormone.” This hormone increases appetite.
“The ghrelin hormone, discovered in 1999, is released primarily from cells in the stomach and travels to the brain. There, it interacts with both the hypothalamus (the brain’s physiological eating center) and the brain’s pleasure centers to arouse hunger,” reports the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC).
“Throughout the course of a day, ghrelin levels naturally change dramatically, rising steeply before a meal and then plummeting after eating. Ghrelin stimulates the brain, which leads to an increase in appetite, and it slows metabolism and decreases the body’s ability to burn fat. Ghrelin also favors the amassing of fatty tissue in the abdominal area. In experiments, people who got injections of ghrelin before a buffet meal ate 30 percent more than a group of eaters not given extra ghrelin.”
This hormone causes the stomach to produce gastric acid. Gastric acid helps your body digest and absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. If levels of this hormone are too high or too low, you may have digestive issues.
- Cholecystokinin (CCK)
Responsible for stimulating the digestion of fat and protein.
“In humans, physiologic properties of CCK include the ability to stimulate gallbladder contraction, increase pancreatic enzyme secretion, delay gastric emptying, potentiate insulin secretion, and regulate food intake. In addition, CCK regulates bowel motility and has growth promoting effects on the pancreas in certain animals,” (UpToDate).
These specific hormones mentioned above are only a few of the many hormones we have in our guts. But I think you get the idea how important these hormones are to our digestive health and how they may even impact weight gain.
The new study mentioned earlier found that “a vegan diet helps to promote beneficial gut hormones that are responsible for regulating blood sugar, satiety, and weight,” according to a report discussing the study.
Researchers of the study came to this conclusion by comparing the consumption of vegan meals to meals that contained meat and cheese. Whether vegan or containing animals foods, each meal had the same number of calories and ratio of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats). Participants included 60 men:
- 20 of these men were obese
- 20 of the men had type 2 diabetes
- 20 of the men were healthy with no issues
The results suggested that consuming the vegan meal increased beneficial gut hormones when compared to those men who consumed the non-vegan meal.
“These beneficial gut hormones can help keep weight down, enhance insulin secretion, regulate blood sugar, and keep us feeling full longer," said one of the lead doctors involved in the study.
“The fact that simple meal choices can increase the secretion of these healthy hormones has important implications for those with type 2 diabetes or weight problems."
It is also important to note that the study participants reported feeling more full and satisfied after eating the vegan meals. This makes sense because vegan meals are full of fiber which can help you feel fuller for a longer period of time.
Downsides to Going Vegan?
“There is evidence to show vegan diets may not contain adequate vitamin B12, an essential nutrient,” according to one source.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal foods such as fish, meat, poultry and eggs. This vitamin is needed for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis. Most vegans depend on B12 supplements. As a vegan, it is also important to be mindful of calcium and vitamin D deficiencies.
If you have any existing health issues, it is imperative that you speak with your doctor about following a vegan diet.
And just to be clear, being vegan does not automatically make you healthy. If you are a vegan who eats a lot of french fries and vegan cookies, you may not be feeding your gut hormones in a way to allow them to do the best job possible. So balanced vegan meals are necessary.
If you are interested in getting a better understanding of what’s going on with the hormones in your gut, talk to a competent healthcare specialist about getting a blood test which will allow you to evaluate the levels of your specific gastrointestinal hormones.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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