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Vegetarian Diets and Digestion

By Sarah Davis

Vegetarian diets are becoming more and more popular, as the health benefits are sought more and more. There are several different types of vegetarians, such as vegans, who do not eat meat, eggs or dairy, and lacto-vegetarians, who avoid meat, fish, poultry and eggs, but eat dairy. The common thread in all types of vegetarian diets is the avoidance of meat such as chicken, beef and pork.

Vegetarian Diet Foods

According to MedlinePlus.com, vegetarian diets consist primarily of fruits, vegetables and whole grains such as whole wheat bread and brown rice. Lentils, beans, nuts and seeds make up the protein-rich portion of the vegetarian diet. Additionally, meat substitutes such as tofu, textured vegetable protein and soy burgers are also allowed.

Digestion of Meats

Digestion is the process of breaking down foods and getting nutrients from them. Meats are naturally free of carbohydrates, containing only protein and fat. According to Pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears, it takes the human body the very longest time to digest fats, which are found in oils, butter, steak and bacon. It can take up to four hours or more to digest a high-fat food, according to Sears. Next to fat, protein takes the longest time to digest. Foods that take a long time to digest cause a full feeling, yet can also lead to constipation.

Digestion of Carbohydrates

According to Sears, carbohydrates such as bread, rice and pasta are digested quickly by the human body. He says carbohydrates can be fully broken down and digested within a few hours after being consumed. Because the majority of the vegetarian diet comes from carbohydrates, vegetarian meals are often digested quickly.

Fiber in Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarian diets are often rich in dietary fiber. The Harvard School of Public Health describes fiber as an indigestible type of carbohydrate that adds bulk weight to the stool, causing regular bowel movements. Fiber also provides many health benefits such as lowering diabetes and diverticulitis risks. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and lentils are all high in fiber. Fruits and vegetables contain fiber too, while meat and dairy contain none. Fiber in the vegetarian diet helps to regulate digestion so that things don’t move too fast or too through the body.

Digestion Problems

There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves with water in the gut, while insoluble fiber adds weight to the stool and is simply excreted. Eating a diet high in fiber can help improve digestion and prevent constipation, but it can also lead to digestion problems if a person is not used to eating fiber. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends drinking plenty of water throughout the day to help soluble fiber dissolve and to prevent stomach cramping.

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