This week’s nutrition article isn’t strictly about nutrition – well, at least not completely about nutrition. But it is an issue that a few of you have brought up recently, so I thought it would be helpful to post something about it.
Many of you have been asking why you are feeling certain things after going vegan, whether it is normal and if there is anything you can do about it. Now, first things first I need to set out the disclaimer – if you are feeling unwell, it is always a good idea to seek medical advice. Nothing in this article is a substitute for medical advice.
Now the boring bit is out of the way, let’s move on to the most common issues people experience when going vegan and ways to deal with them. Going vegan is the best thing you can do for the animals and the planet, and a whole food, plant based diet is extremely healthy. However, adopting this lifestyle or diet can involve a lot of changes, and these may initially leave you feeling physically uncomfortable, or maybe just a bit confused!
Energy and tiredness
Lack of energy and tiredness is quite a common complaint people have when first adopting a whole food plant based diet. A big reason for this is that, unless carefully planned, you will likely be consuming fewer calories than you were when you were an omnivore/vegetarian. Whole, plant foods are more nutritionally dense, but often less calorie dense, than the standard omni diet (or a junk food vegan diet). That means you could be eating the same quantity of food as you were before but, in reality, consuming fewer calories and therefore getting less energy for your body.
There are two ways to deal with this. First, you could ensure you are adding in more calorie dense whole foods to your diet (such as nuts, seeds and avocados) and just eat when you are hungry. This approach means listening to what your body needs, and is probably the easiest approach as it doesn’t involve counting calories at all. Second, you could calculate the calories you need and make sure that you are eating that number of calories by using a tracking app. If you are taking a real interest in nutrition, this is probably the approach for you as it will help you to understand your body’s needs. Check out our post about counting calories here.
Our bodies, and more specifically our gut bacteria, get used to the types of foods we eat. Our gut bacteria will therefore be optimised for whatever we eat most – so if you have been eating animal products or junk food (vegan or non-vegan) that is what your body will be ready to digest.
When you start including healthier, whole foods into your diet, it will take your body some time to adjust. Often a big part of this will be due to the high fibre content of whole plant based foods. Fibre is an indigestible part of plants that cannot be found in animal products and most highly processed foods, but which is crucial to our health and ability to digest food properly. If you are used to eating unhealthily, your body will have to work hard at first and your digestive system might be a bit overwhelmed by the extra work it has to do. This should get better after a few weeks, and at that point your digestion should be better than ever! Good digestion has a positive impact on overall health, so once your body gets used to the extra fibre you should start feeling great!
Getting used to cooking more
Ok, not strictly nutrition related but something that a lot of people struggle with at first is cooking. If you have been used to living off ready meals and processed junk food, you might find that you struggle a bit with the effort required in the kitchen. There aren’t that many whole food plant based take away options, so some time and effort will be required to make the shift in your diet.
If you’re already used to cooking, this won’t be much of an effort for you, but if this is new to you then the best thing to do is to take it slowly. Try out a few simple recipes first while you get used to cooking, rather than diving in at the deep end and attempting gourmet meals straight away. Get into the routine of cooking and get used to simple cooking methods, and before long it will become second nature and you will wonder what you were ever worried about! Not only will you find it is much easier than you thought, it will likely also save you money and, added bonus, you will be producing less waste! Win win situation!
This is an annoying one! You can have great intentions, but what do you do when those pesky cravings start? Well, it will depend on the cause of the craving and you as a person. We are naturally creatures of habit, so if you have eaten certain foods all of your life, suddenly giving them up can cause cravings for those foods. One good way to avoid this is to make sure you aren’t in a calorie deficit during the early days of your plant based diet. If you are unusually hungry, that will make it difficult for you to resist the cravings.
During the early days of your transition, it might help you if you find replacements for foods that you crave. For some ideas for what to swap, look at our post on healthy food swaps here.
Another contributing factor is taste buds. Our taste buds get used to the kinds of foods we eat, so if you are used to eating foods that are high in salt and fat, you might find that, at first, whole plant foods taste quite bland. Just give it a little bit of time though, and your taste buds will adjust. Once that happens, you will realise just how much more flavourful plant foods really are. I used to love salty, fatty foods, but now I find that I can’t eat much even if I try as they just taste unpleasant.
The message here really is that cravings are normal. They can be annoying, but stick with it and they will pass. Once they have, you will be glad you didn’t give up!
As you will probably know, there is a big difference between veganism and a plant based diet. Veganism is an ethical belief against the exploitation of animals, part of which means excluding animal flesh and products from your diet. It does not mean that it is healthy, especially now since veganism has become more popular and there is a LOT of vegan junk food available. A plant based diet also excludes animal flash and products, but it is usually more associated with health and dieting rather than an ethical belief or lifestyle.
If you go vegan, that is brilliant (Jonny and I are both ethical vegans), but if you are eating a lot of processed and junk food, don’t expect the health benefits associated with a whole food plant based diet. It is entirely possible to have an unhealthy diet as a vegan. If you are looking for the health benefits too, you want to eat predominantly whole foods, such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains. While Jonny and I are ethical vegans, we do also eat very healthily, and about 95% of our diet comes from whole, plant based foods.
Although there might be a few initial challenges, going vegan and following a plant based diet is the best thing you can do for your health, for animals and for the planet! Stick it out and you won’t regret it!