Got Digestive Problems? Take It Easy on the Veggies. | Chris Kresser
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Got Digestive Problems? Take It Easy on the Veggies.

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digestive problems veggies
If you have digestive problems, veggies high in insoluble fiber—like spinach—can make them worse. iStock/Edalin

Previously, I wrote an article called “FODMAPS: Could Common Foods Be Harming Your Digestive Health?” I described how certain classes of foods, known as FODMAPs, are poorly digested in certain people and can lead to gas, bloating, pain and changes in stool frequency and consistency. Studies have shown that conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are associated with FODMAP intolerance, and that a low-FODMAP diet offers relief in a substantial percentage of people with IBS. I also have information on what would make up a diverticulitis diet menu if you’ve suffered from an attack.

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Today I’ve got another tip for those of you with digestive issues, including IBS, constipation, diarrhea and acid reflux: eat fewer vegetables.

Yep, that’s right. Fewer vegetables.

Find out how following mainstream advice to eat six to eight servings of vegetables a day could hurt your gut.

Vegetables, Insoluble Fiber, and Soluble Fiber

Vegetables (as well as some fruits) are often high in insoluble fiber. While soluble fiber can be soothing for the gut, consuming large amounts of insoluble fiber when your gut is inflamed is a little bit like rubbing a wire brush against an open wound. Ouch.

Vegetables that are high in insoluble fiber include:

  • Greens (spinach, lettuce, kale, mesclun, collards, arugula, watercress, etc.)
  • Whole peas, snow peas, snap peas, pea pods
  • Green beans
  • Kernel corn
  • Bell peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Celery
  • Onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, garlic
  • Cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
The vegetables that are high in soluble fiber, but lower in insoluble fiber (and thus tend to be safer for those with gut issues) include:
  • Carrots
  • Winter squash
  • Summer squash (especially peeled)
  • Starchy tubers (yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes)
  • Turnips
  • Rutabagas
  • Parsnips
  • Beets
  • Plantains
  • Taro
  • Yuca
Another helpful tip is to reduce the variety of vegetables you eat at any given meal. Instead of stir-fries with six different veggies, have a single steamed or roasted vegetable as a side dish. This works better for most people with gut issues.

But Won’t I Become Deficient in Nutrients If I Don’t Eat Tons of Veggies?

First of all, I’m not suggesting that you don’t eat these foods at all if you have digestive problems. I’m simply suggesting that you limit them. There are also steps you can take to make these foods more digestible and less likely to cause problems. They include:

  1. Never eat insoluble fiber foods on an empty stomach. Always eat them with other foods that contain soluble fiber.
  2. Remove the stems and peels (i.e. from broccoli, cauliflower, and winter greens) from veggies (and fruits) high in insoluble fiber.
  3. Dice, mash, chop, grate or blend high-insoluble fiber foods to make them easier to break down.
  4. Insoluble fiber foods are best eaten well-cooked: Steamed thoroughly, boiled in soup, braised, etc; avoid consuming them in stir-fries and if you do eat them raw, prepare them as described in #3 above.

Second, although fruits and veggies are high in certain nutrients, animal products like meat, organ meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are as high and sometimes higher in those nutrients. For example, the chart below compares the micronutrient profile of beef liver and beef with blueberries and kale, two plant foods often referred to as being particularly nutrient-dense:

chart comparing nutrient content of liver, beef, kale & blueberries

It’s also worth pointing out that most traditional cultures only ate a few vegetables and fruits that were available seasonally. They couldn’t walk into Whole Foods and buy every vegetable on the planet at every time of year.

I have nothing against vegetables. In fact, I like them quite a bit and I do think they’re beneficial.

But the advice to eat six to eight servings a day is not based on solid scientific evidence and may cause unnecessary distress in people with gut problems.

Fermented Vegetables: A Better Alternative?

Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kim chi, sauerruben, and cortido are excellent alternatives for people with gut issues. First, the fermentation process “pre-digests” the vegetables and makes them easier to absorb. Second, fermented veggies contain probiotic microorganisms that help heal the gut.

Although sauerkraut and kim chi contain cabbage, which is high in insoluble fiber (and a FODMAP to boot), I’ve found that many patients with gut problems can tolerate it quite well. FODMAPs are sugars and sugar alcohols, and fermentation breaks down sugars. This is probably why fermented FODMAPs are better tolerated than non-fermented FODMAPs.

If you’re new to fermented vegetables, you have two options:

  1. Make them yourself. Check out this page for a great primer. It’s really quite easy, and cheap.
  2. You can buy them at a health food store. Make sure that it says “raw” on the jar, and they’re in the refrigerated section. The sauerkraut you can buy in the condiments section has been pasteurized and won’t have the same beneficial effect.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to health, and no two people should follow the exact same diet. Someone who’s experiencing more mild digestive issues might see a big difference after reducing the amount of vegetables they eat, while someone else with IBS, SIBO, and/or significant bloating might benefit from following a more restrictive approach, like a short-term, low-FODMAP diet.

But what’s the best way to determine which approach is right and support someone who’s trying to make major dietary changes and improve their health? I believe that a health coach, working together with a Functional Medicine practitioner, can offer the support needed to help clients alleviate their digestive discomfort and heal.

Health coaches are armed with knowledge. They understand how human motivation works, and they’re experts in the science behind behavior change. They are skilled at offering their clients the support they need to make changes—like adopting a low-FODMAP diet or implementing other treatment protocols from their doctor.

At the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, we teach you how to offer the kind of support that helps clients reach their wellness goals. We also offer a solid background in Functional and ancestral health, so you understand the mechanisms behind a number of chronic illnesses and health conditions.

Learn more about what health coaches do from the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

546 Comments

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  1. I’ve been having an IBS flare up for four months now, aggravated greatly by chronic anxiety.
    Ive been advised to keep a food diary and am trying to find the right food to prevent symptoms.
    Obviously I have looked at FODMAP foods.
    Ive found some foods that dont seem to aggravate my stomach but am finding my diet to be very limited, sticking to chicken, eggs. Rice, carrots and little else.
    Tonight I decided to have a plate of just vegetables for dinner. All FODMAP friendly, so I thought it would be a safe meal.
    I had squash, carrots, green beans and zucchini.
    What a mistake! I’ve had awful cramps all evening.
    Is it wrong to eat just vegetables, or too many, even though they’re supposedly the ‘safe’ ones?

  2. Hi Chris – I love that you made the blasphemous assertion that vegetables can be deleterious to your health. I’ve been primal for over 6 years after suffering from IBS for the prior 20 years. I started regular 12-14 hour fasting a year-and-a-half ago, got down to my goal weight, eliminated most of the stomach-related problems and felt like I really had my health dialed in. But about 9 months ago I developed perioral dermatitis. It was pretty minor at first but started streading a few months ago. I went keto thinking it must have been due to too much sugar from honey and fruit. That helped at first but then the rash flared again. Then I went keto elimination for three weeks and dropped eggs/dairy/nuts. That helped at first but then the rash flared again. It seemed like everything I tried worked at first and then stopped. That made me think it must be behavioral, and I finally realized that every time I started something new, I was really careful about eating at first. Eventually, I would become comfortable with the new diet and start to lapse back into overconsuming food. In particular, I pinpointed big-ass salads (as per MDA) as the biggest culprit! Anyway, the solution for me ended up being cutting out the majority of the vegetables I normally eat and making sure to stay in ketosis to help prevent me from overeating in general. I now eat a total of about 3-4 grams of fiber per day and feel great. Perioral dermatitis (as well as all lingering gut-related pain/bloating) is finally gone.

    • hey, I also cut all veggie and went carnivore for 3 months, this worked for the gut pain and bloating, but caused other issues like poor BM’s which caused pain. Introduced 50grams of oats, (25grams of carbs) BM’s are now ideal, lot less pain, still sticking to mainly carnivore. If I eat a small portion of carrots/eggplant on two consecutive days, pain and bloat, so I revert back to meats/fish/eggs with a little oats – seems to be a happier place – cheers, we all have to sort out our own recipe, good health

  3. For the past 10 years I have been undergoing a still undiagnosed and debilitating chronic pain syndrome. I’m currently mostly bedridden and on Wednesday, we will have a nurse coming to the home to collect blood samples for Grave’s disease, Addison’s disease, metabolic myopathies and a number of auto immune diseases that we had not yet tested for. I hope, yet recognize the unlikelihood, that one of those blood samples will test positive and I might have the chance to live a life that is not predominately sequestered to the bed. The pain has become so intense that I am unable to leave our one room studio apartment and can barely stand for five minutes. I have recently realized that I am undergoing severe muscle atrophy, either as a complication of this undiagnosed pain, or a later stage of whatever this disease may be. I sadly admit that I drink alcohol every night along with Benadryl and prescription sleeping aids because of my desperation to pass out from a days worth of unrelenting and maddening pain. I take Kratom during the day to tolerate 1 to 2 hours of work because of how intensely important it still is to me and I also take it during the many moments at night when the pain wakes me up and I cannot sleep without it. Sadly, the government has been attempting (under the thinly veiled influence of Big Pharma) to turn this herb into a schedule 1 illegal drug. Should that happen, I will have to utilize alcohol as my prominent pain relief, which would most likely end in organ failure, cancer or throat abscess turning into pneumonia that doctors say will also most likely kill me. Ignoring the current manipulation major news networks are attempting regarding this herb, it is the safest pain treatment I can use. The only downside I have discovered from taking Kratom is intense constipation. In fact, when this herb was in animal trials, the scientists agree that the mice that died died from constipation (though, they were given about 100 times the dose). I only bring this up because (and trust me, I am NOT a fan of fruits and vegetables), I was having large amounts of them, coupled with a lot of water (which I also am not a big fan of), daily MiraLAX and stool softeners just to get to go to the bathroom at all. I was actually surprised at the writer’s admonishment of brussels sprouts because they have a high percentage of soluble fiber. I was eating large amounts of them along with plums, also high in soluble fiber, and I was able to go to the bathroom by doing this. I know that no one can live without protein, so I ate chicken, but small amounts of it because animal protein is binding. Unfortunately, I ate brussels sprouts and plums for years (remember, I’m not a big fan of fruits or vegetables) and I gained such a strong aversion to them that their smell alone made me nauseous. I switched plums to oranges because they are equal in soluble fiber percentage, but the best I could find for a vegetable swap was broccoli (yet another vegetable he admonishes even though it is 40% soluble fiber) and, other than brussels sprouts, that was the highest percentage I could find. I was still surviving, being able to go to the bathroom, until I realized the muscle atrophy (the constant pain is so intense that I usually don’t notice anything else). It took for my wedding ring to slip right off my finger even though it was quite snug when it was first placed on my finger for me to notice it. To give you a sense of just how bad the atrophy is, I am barely above 90 pounds. Because my pain syndrome makes even the slightest exercise intolerable, I’m trying to fight the atrophy with diet, which means increasing the protein. But, once I did that, I couldn’t go to the bathroom anymore. I had to lower the chicken and try to find a plant-based protein that would hopefully not constipate me. I added cabbage (which is 40% soluble fiber, so I don’t understand why that one is on the “no” list either) so that I could include flaxseed (30% soluble fiber) and kidney beans (50% soluble fiber) to increase my protein intake in hopes to fight both the muscle atrophy and the constipation. I recognize that, according to this article, I’m consuming too much fiber, but I am doing my best to try to find foods with the highest percentage of soluble fiber verses insoluble fiber. I recognize that it makes my stomach bloated and uncomfortable, but my stomach pain versus my muscle pain is comparative to getting a leg cramp versus getting the leg sawed off. So, essentially, all I really care about is making the stool soft enough so that I can pass it rather than end up in the emergency room every few weeks. This is me, 33 years old and just trying to do my best to survive. If anyone has any other ideas for constipation relief, I would be grateful (I’m already eating Chia seeds by the way). Ideally, if constipation wasn’t an issue, I would be able to exclusively use the herb for pain relief. Trust me, you don’t need to tell me how incredibly harmful the other stuff is.

    • You really need to be tested for D deficiency and other nutrient deficiencies on top of ruling out disease. How often do you go outdoors and get sun on skin? I would also point out that many veggies and fruits can be high in oxolates and phytates which bind to minerals like calcium in the gut. It’s not just about soluble or insoluble fiber and for that reason I would seriously consider sending a snip if your hair for testing or getting food intolerance tests done if all your current list of tests come back negative because something you are putting into your system or a mere deficiency could be cause of your issues. B12 deficiency coupled with folate, Vit c or D deficiency as well as EFA deficiency when not addressed could have someone in your situation and just eating foods without correcting those deficiencies will not resolve the issue. Only you can do this much. It is not in the average GPS interest to fix malnutrition based sickness. In fact it’s their bread and butter.

    • I seriously recommend reading “Fiber Menace.” You actually don’t need fiber as well. Many people have been able to cure what you’re describing by eating only from the animal kingdom. That’s right. No plants. Google “Zero Carb.”

  4. My body refuses to digest broccoli and I can’t figure out why. It goes right through me without being digested at all.

    • it’s because broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable. cruciferous vegetables are brutal on people with sensitive stomachs. i avoid them completely, unless fermented (sauerkraut is ok, though cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable). this is related to the FODMAPs issue that Kresser mentions. most (maybe all) cruciferous vegetables are very high in FODMAPs.

    • That’s because you aren’t equipped to break down cellulose, which is what makes up fiber in plants. You find corn kernels in complete form in your stool (if you eat corn) for the same reason.

  5. Can anyone list more vegetables that are high in soluble fiber but low in insoluble fiber?
    I’d just like to add a few more foods to my rotation

  6. Beef liver contains most vitamin C by far. But doesn’t cooking, parching, frying… destroy vitamin C?

    • Yes amongst other vitamins. In fact I’d bet the only things not destroyed by cooking are minerals.

  7. So if I am constipated I should eat less insoluble fibre and more soluble fibre?

    I’m confused as other pages say the below:
    Soluble fibre attracts water and slows digestion.
    Insoluble fibre bulks out stool and helps it pass through the intestine and stomach.

    Which is corrrct? Which should I eat less of to ease constipation?

    Thank you for your help

    • You will want to consume insoluble fiber if you’re experiencing consipation. Definitely try eating less soluble fiber and bulking up your insoluble fiber intake. If your diet is high in beans/starchy vegetables I would suggest replacing them with maybe broccoli, cauliflower, bok choi, spinach. Hope that helps!

      • I really think it’s more trial and error. I have IBS and I experience really bad constipation at times. It usually happens because of dark green leafy vegetables. I have stopped eating them when my constipation was going on and my symptoms would subside after a couple of weeks. I would then re-introduce them and my symptoms would almost immediately come back. Eating potatoes and other starchier veggies would actually get things moving. And my bowel movements would no longer be uncomfortable. I also notice that a cup of coffee helps as well. I cut out my coffee for a bit and along with eating green leafy vegetables, I really got backed up. Having that one cup is crucial to keep things moving. Now this is just my specific situation and I’m aware that this will be different from the next person. You need to figure out what works best for you. I’m still figuring things out for myself.

        • yes, awesome information, and we all need to sort out what works for us as we are all different – thanks

    • Other pages also say you “need” 25g-35g of fiber daily, which isn’t true.

      Eat more fat if you’re constipated. Don’t scrub the insides of your intestines with Brillo pads.

  8. I eat almost 100% vegan and basically eat greens for most of my diet; I have fish here and there but no dairy, eggs, cheese, other meat. I’m thinking that because of the mass intake of greens it’s made my digestive system a bit loose (eeeek!!) and sometime difficult to pass…
    I drink 100% Split pea protein powder and am wondering if that’s helping or not?
    I ferment my own probiotic water kefir which helps a ton but that’s not always helpful in binding my poops (sorry to be so descriptive!)
    I do not enjoy the idea of consuming a lot of starch so please do not suggest adding rice/wheat/potatoes into my diet, but does anyone have any suggestions for what could help a loose digestive flow without consuming those said above?

    I’ve also tried beans but it seems to make things worse…is there any supplements or other vegan protein powders I should take?
    I am no joke addicted to eating broccoli/kale/bok choi/cabbage/spinach/lettuce (aka all insoluable fibers) and won’t remove those from my diet which is why I seek something to add rather than take away.

    Thank you!!

    • I also forgot to mention-I get regular blood tests done and am healthy and have no health issues at all.

    • Super, so you admit you have a digestive problem, you know it is caused by excessive leafy greens, but you refuse to take your energy from animal products or starchy veggies/grains/rice or lower your intake of greens. SO what your basically saying is you have a problem, but not willing to make any change. Are you looking for a solution or someone to praise you for your “addiction” to vegetables?

      • Whoa there no need to be so critical and harsh. Of course I’m not looking for praise for eating so many veggies, I simply wanted to know if there was someone who has a similar lifestyle to mine that has found something that helps their digestive track. SQ mentioned psyllium husks which I had never heard of, aka that’s that kind of suggestion/s I’m looking for. I’ve tried many times introdudicng rice/starchy foods into my diet and they’ve never helped me which is why I don’t consume them… Since they aren’t helping me, I found it necessary to ask for suggestions that don’t contain them.

        If you have any helpful tips that would be lovely, but please refrain from responding with negativity and attitude.

        • I’m completely vegan, I have been for almost 2 years and a vegetarian for over half my life. I recently had the exact same digestive issue and couldn’t understand what was happening. I’d also eaten lots of greens, but started eating more per meal and raw. Vegetables are extremely good for you. They not only contain nutrients, but have phytosterols which lower cholesterol which is important for most people that eat dairy or meat. Those products may also increase the risk of colon cancer if they sit in the colon too long on a regular basis. Back when people couldn’t go to a store and get various vegetables at any time of the year they also didn’t live long enough to develop most cancers.
          Anyway, this change in digestion when my diet hasn’t changed too much was disturbing and after going to the doctor and being told that it was no cause for concern and cleared medically I still wasn’t okay with it and decided to try things. I went searching online and found vegan digestive enzymes with probiotics. I ended up not being able to take these routinely due to peppermint being an ingredient, which caused acid reflux because I don’t eat small portions or often enough. I did give them to my mother who has digestive problems and she started taking them with a probiotic and she said that her digestive system is close to normal functioning which is very rare for her. I started to take probiotics and they’ve helped me with the same issue that you’re having. My random schedule, long with hours, and constant travel may have worn me down and maybe my body couldn’t sustain the good flora.

          • Wow thank you for all that great information. What was the brand/name of probiotic you and your mother tried? So glad to know I’m not having this struggle alone! I even started eating 1- 1&1/2 cups of rice a day and that hasn’t helped at all. I’ll definitely try out the probiotic you are mentioning because I’m at no disadvantage if I don’t ha ha!

            • I recently heard Chef AJ on her Weight Loss Wednesday Episode 4 talk about the cure she found for digestive problems, Heather’s Tummy Fiber, Organic acacia fiber. Maybe this would help you.

        • Miso soup with seaweed and tofu is the easiest thing for me when I’m struggling. Oatcakes are a good source of calories, but, gentle on gut.

  9. So happy I came across this article ! I just recently got home from a 5 day stint in hospital from Small Bowel obstruction and I was told to lay low on high fiber foods !! Thank you for the break down

  10. The not-so funny part here, is it is the Soluble Fiber that is usually the worst, and causes the worst bloating etc since that is bacteria’s fav food, like in the case of SIBO. And OTOH, they don’t really eat much Insoluble Fiber, do your homework folks

    • You’re supposed to have bacteria in your gut. SIBO is aggravated by excess carbohydrate. It also denotes bacteria in the small intestine sometimes extending into the stomach. Bacteria (and fungi) in your large intestine are totally normal, and YES, you should feed them.

  11. Hello! I have the Personal Paleo Code book and have been trying to find the bonus chapter it mentions on digestive conditions on the website. So far no luck; I’m sorry, I’m not very techno-savvy. Any direction would be gratefully appreciated; thank you!

  12. I was complaining to a german lady (art tutor) that ever since I had started to eat more healthily (after a terrible diet my whole life, but a very healthy digestion), my digestion had gone to pot. She is very into healthy eating, and she said I was eating too many veg, and that my 60 year old system just couldn’t cope with, and clearly didn’t need that amount of fibre. She suggested that I ate fewer veg, and that I got the goodness without the fibre by juicing them and also by steaming. It seems some of us just don’t need that much fibre to have a good digestion. I only started following her advice about 3 weeks ago, but I am already seeing a difference and feel much less like I have IBS or similar. Chris, your piece has just underlined, explained and clarified what I should be doing, especially the difference between soluble and non soluble fibre. Thanks. Hazel

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