Vegetables consistently top the "healthy foods" charts, but if you have difficulty digesting them, you want to steer clear. Because they're high in fiber, some people have trouble digesting raw vegetables, specifically, and it can lead to digestive symptoms like gas and bloating.
The good news is that, if you have difficulty digesting vegetables, there are things you can do to make them easier on your tummy instead of cutting them out of your diet completely.
Raw vegetables can be difficult to digest due to their high fiber content. However, not fully digesting them doesn't equal "no benefit." If raw veggies are a problem for you, cook them first or make sure you're chewing well enough to take stress off your stomach and intestines.
The Digestion of Fiber
Unlike fat, protein and other types of carbohydrates, fiber passes through your digestive tract almost fully intact. Instead of getting broken down by the stomach and small intestine, fiber makes it all the way to the large intestine, or colon. Once the fiber reaches the colon, it's either broken down or fermented by the bacteria that live there naturally, or it remains mostly untouched, depending on which type of fiber it is.
Soluble fiber, which is found in the highest percentage in beans, oats, peas, apples, citrus fruits, carrots and barley, travels to the large intestine where bacteria finally begin to break it down. After it's fermented, it turns into a gel-like substance that helps balance blood sugar and lower cholesterol. Insoluble fiber, which is the main fiber in raw vegetables, bran and nuts, doesn't get broken down by the bacteria as much. Examples of insoluble fibers include:
High-Fiber Content of Vegetables
Because raw vegetables contain a high percentage of insoluble fiber, they can be a little hard on digestion. It's not that you don't digest the vegetables at all, but the indigestible fiber slows down the rate at which the vegetables move through your digestive system. This can produce excess gas that results in uncomfortable digestive symptoms, like abdominal cramps, bloating or diarrhea after eating vegetables.
But just because your body doesn't digest the fiber in raw vegetables doesn't mean that it's not beneficial. Both types of fiber have several benefits. While soluble fiber balances your blood sugar and reduces your risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels, insoluble fiber increases the bulk of your stool, normalizes bowel movements and helps prevent constipation.
The fermentation of fiber in the large intestine also produces byproducts called short-chain fatty acids, or SCFAs. There are several different types of SCFAs, and all of them have health benefits. One in particular, called butyric acid, helps keep your gut healthy, according to an April 2015 report in Nutrients.
SCFAs are also linked to improved insulin sensitivity (or a decreased risk of insulin resistance), increased energy expenditure and reduced risk of inflammatory bowel diseases and certain cancers.
Cook Your Vegetables
With all the benefits fiber has to offer, eliminating vegetables may not be the best option, especially since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of many of the leading causes of chronic disease.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to better tolerate vegetables. You can make vegetables easier to digest by cooking them instead of eating them raw. According to the University of Florida, cooking helps soften the vegetables, breaking down the plant walls and some of the fiber and making them easier to digest.
As an added benefit, cooking vegetables also makes some of the nutrients, like vitamin A, calcium, iron and lycopene, bioavailable. In other words, when you cook vegetables, you absorb a greater amount of some of the nutrients. Cooking also reduces the risk of foodborne illness, which is often connected to eating raw, leafy greens, especially if they're not properly washed.
Chew Your Food Well
Another thing you can do is pay attention to how well you're chewing the raw vegetables. Your stomach gets a lot of the credit, but digestion actually starts in your mouth. Although saliva is 98 percent water, the remaining 2 percent consists of enzymes, mucus, bacteria and electrolytes that work together to start breaking down the food you eat before it gets to your stomach. As the water in your saliva moistens the food, the enzymes start to break down carbohydrates.
The more time the saliva stays in contact with the food, the more it gets broken down. That's why adequately chewing your food is so important. If you don't chew raw vegetables enough, they reach the stomach as large chunks instead of small pieces. These large chunks are harder to digest and can put increased pressure on the stomach and delay gastric emptying — the time it takes for food to leave the stomach.
But it's not just about your saliva. Your teeth play an important role, too. When you chew, your teeth break down the cell walls of the vegetables and they either rupture or separate. This not only releases some of the nutrients in the vegetables so your body can absorb them, it makes them easier on the rest of your digestive system.
Choose Fermented Vegetables
Another way to make raw vegetables easier on digestion is by consuming them in a fermented form. Although fermented vegetables are still considered raw, they're exposed to beneficial bacteria, enzymes and fungi that start to break down the vegetables in the same way they're broken down in your large intestine. This fermentation process helps make the vegetables easier to digest and makes some of the nutrients more bioavailable.
As an added bonus, fermented foods are also teeming with beneficial bacteria, called probiotics. Probiotics promote the proper balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut and can help keep your immune system healthy. They may also help you control your weight and protect you against chronic inflammation. According to an August 2018 report in Frontiers in Microbiology, fermented foods are one of the quickest and easiest ways to introduce the beneficial bacteria to your gut.
If you have trouble digesting raw vegetables, opt for fermented versions instead. They have a sour taste that might take some getting used to, but including them in your diet (even in small amounts) can be beneficial. Kimchi, sauerkraut, olives and pickles (or fermented cucumbers) are all examples of fermented vegetables.
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet"
- Nutrients: "Effects of Dietary Fiber and Its Components on Metabolic Health"
- Nutrients: "Dietary Gut Microbial Metabolites, Short-Chain Fatty Acids, and Host Metabolic Regulation"
- University of Florida: "Eating Defensively: The Nutrition and Food Safety Benefits of Cooked Produce"
- Canadian Society of Intestinal Research: "Saliva: More Than Just Drool"
- The British Journal of Nutrition: "Re-evaluation of the Mechanisms of Dietary Fibre and Implications for Macronutrient Bioaccessibility, Digestion and Postprandial Metabolism"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "The Behavior of Dietary Fiber in the Gastrointestinal Tract Determines Its Physiological Effect"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Fermented Foods Can Add Depth to Your Diet"
- Englewood Community Hospital: "5 Must-Eat Fermented Foods for a Healthy Gut"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables"
- Frontiers in Microbiology: "Fermented Foods as a Dietary Source of Live Organisms"