For many of us, eating foods that are rich in fiber is an important part of our path to good health – but what about when one is prescribed a low fiber or “low residue” diet? Today, Our Hen House welcomes Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary author Maya Gottfried, a longtime vegan who explains that with a little digging, those who abstain from animal products can find plenty to pick from on a low fiber/low residue diet.
Eating Vegan Food On a Low Fiber Diet
by Maya Gottfried
I first encountered a “low residue,” or low fiber, diet when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer seven years ago. I had two tumors, and my gastrointestinal tract was in danger of becoming completely obstructed. My doctors wanted to try to shrink the tumors with chemotherapy before operating to remove them. During this process, they prescribed a low residue diet, one that excludes most fiber. A nurse explained that it would feel completely counterintuitive to eat as little fiber as possible, and it did. Weren’t whole foods with lots of fiber the path to good health? Not if you have certain medical conditions.
There are a few medical circumstances that might cause one to be prescribed a low fiber or low residue diet. These include diagnoses such as colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and diverticulitis. Those who have had gastric bypass surgery may also need to cut down on their fiber intake significantly. The point of these diets (which are very similar, low residue excluding only a few additional foods) is to decrease the amount of stool in the intestines, and slow its movement.
There are slight differences in what different doctors suggest not eating on a low residue/fiber diet, but the rules are generally the same, and may be off-putting to a vegan, especially at first glance. The list of foods to avoid that I received from the hospital where I was treated included: seeds, nuts, most raw vegetables, many cooked vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts), most raw and dried fruits, beans, and lentils.
No beans, lentils, nuts, or seeds? Few raw veggies and fruits? It sounded to me like the “anti-vegan diet.” I felt frustrated and angry. How could a hospital treating colorectal cancers make things so difficult for a vegan? Their own integrative medicine department confirmed that a plant-based diet was best for me, so why was their colorectal cancer department making it so hard?
Once my tumors were removed and my surgeries behind me, I was hoping that the low residue diet was, too. Wishful thinking! My post-cancer care includes regular colonoscopies, and during the times leading up to those procedures, my gastroenterologist consistently prescribes a low residue diet. As my most recent colonoscopy approached in early December 2015, I dreaded the arrival of the list of foods that I could and couldn’t eat.
I was dismayed to open the list and find that tofu had now been added to the foods to avoid. What would come of my Sunday morning tofu scrambles? I looked closer, and noticed there was one hint of hope: The nurse who had sent the list included a note that yogurt and cheese were now allowed. I assumed this meant dairy yogurt and cheese, but perhaps the vegan versions were acceptable as well? I had faith that just as with every other seeming challenge to my veganism, there would be a cruelty-free path through this. I was sure there had to be a way to eat vegan on a low fiber diet without feeling I was suffering through every meal. I had questions, and I wanted answers. I was vegan; what could I eat?
My next step was to speak with two different nurses at the hospital. The vegan low fiber world began to open up to me. No longer was I bound up by the “no, no, no” of the “to avoid” list, but now I had a promising list of “yes, yes, yeses” to work with. I established I could eat vegan yogurt (yes!), vegan cheese (yes!), vegan protein drinks (yes!), and vegan meats (as long as they had no whole grains – yes!). Generally, I was to look for foods that were very low in fiber.
But despite my early stages of putting together the puzzle pieces, I still couldn’t understand why tofu was included on the “no” list. In fact, the American Cancer Society lists tofu as one of the foods one can eat on a low fiber diet. Could I actually question one of the written rules of “avoid” foods? Could I change the law?
I spoke to Dr. John Bagnulo, a highly respected nutritionist who has worked as a faculty member at universities and nonprofit organizations. He also questioned the inclusion of tofu on the “avoid” list. He said, “I’m really surprised at that; tofu doesn’t have any fiber.” He added, “Tofu is just protein with everything else washed away…. All the fiber’s gone.” Dr. Bagnulo pointed out that it didn’t make sense that meat from an animal was allowed, but not tofu, when both are predominantly protein with little to no fiber.
Now I decided to take the authority of the list to task, even though it came from one of the most respected cancer hospitals in the world. I called the nurse who worked with my gastroenterologist and asked, “Is tofu really not OK? There is only about 0 or 1 gram of fiber per serving.” She conceded. It was OK! I was given the green light for tofu. One small step for a vegan, one giant leap for vegankind.
Having gathered a fair amount of information about what I could eat, my low residue diet in preparation for my colonoscopy was not the horrible slog through a dietary desert I’d feared. Even on Thanksgiving (when I ate delicious Tofurky – without the stuffing), I felt well fed. Most days, I had vegan yogurt with skin-free potatoes and spinach for breakfast. Lunch was often a cheesy concoction that involved more spinach, Daiya vegan cheese, and Beyond Chicken vegan meat. Much to my excitement, mushrooms and tofu scramble were also on the menu. Though I personally avoid wheat, the meal options on a low residue/fiber diet grow exponentially when white flour is included. There’s vegan mac and cheese, a variety of sandwiches, pizza (just skip any sauce with seeds), and baked goods such as scones.
In a perfect world, a diet with lots of fiber is ideal. However, armed with new knowledge of what I can eat on a low residue diet as a vegan, I no longer fear my colonoscopy preparations. I know that not only can I survive, but I can thrive, enjoying my food while following the guidelines – and remaining true to my ethics along the way.
Maya Gottfried’s books for children – Good Dog (Knopf) and Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary (Knopf) – lovingly celebrate the individual personalities and unique spirits of animals through poetry. She has previously written for Our Hen House, as well as outlets including People online, Lilith magazine, and KrisCarr.com. More about Maya’s writing can be found here: www.mayabidaya.com. She lives in Beacon, NY with her partner Dietrich, and two adopted cats, Lucian and Bunny.