Common and Mostly Temporary Side Effects of a Vegan Diet
Eating a vegan diet or more plant-based foods overall is a very positive change for your health, but there are a couple of down sides - at least temporarily.
As I was becoming more and more plant-based, I loved to read stories about the positive changes that happened to others when they went vegan. Weight loss, energy! But just as with any news story, sometimes what you see on the surface isn’t the whole story.
Any change in diet will likely cause you some discomfort. If you are eating less food, for example, you may feel hunger or cravings. If you cut out your favorites, you may feel sadness. Remember that all of these “side effects” are temporary. In the long-term, eating healthy plant foods will bring about all of those positive benefits you are looking for.
As you switch to a vegan diet, here are some temporary side effects you may experience, and how to conquer them.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first. If you have increased your intake of plants – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans – you have increased your intake of fiber. This is ultimately a good thing for your body, as it can help manage several chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. It can also keep you feeling full so that you eat fewer calories and potentially lose excess weight you are carrying around.
But when your body suddenly takes in more fiber than it is used to, you can temporarily experience digestive problems such as abdominal bloating and gassiness.
When you are increasing intake of plant foods, increase fiber intake slowly. For example, don’t go from never eating a bean to eating three full meals of them! It also may be helpful to keep a food diary so you can track any personal digestive triggers you may experience.
Products such as TUMS, GAS-X, BEANO, etc may also be helpful when you experience stomach upset. Soon, you will likely find your body adapts and you digest plant foods better and will not need any of these products.
Lack of Energy
In the past, have you gone on a low-carb diet for weight loss? The most common side effect described is a decrease in energy levels. Carbohydrates provide the body with energy. Thankfully, you are less likely to have this problem on a vegan diet when it comes to carb intake. However, you will likely be eating fewer calories (veggies fill you up!) so your body may interpret this initially as not getting enough to fuel its needs.
While most vegans are happy that they no longer have to count calories to maintain their weight, at least in the beginning, you may want to track your intake just to ensure you are, in fact, getting sufficient energy through the diet. Also, don’t fall into the trap of eating junk vegan foods as snacks – potato chips and fries may be plant-based foods, but they are just as much empty calories as they were before!
This likely goes along with fatigue or lack of energy. Headaches are most likely the result of undereating, but lack of hydration may also be a factor – so be sure you are drinking plenty of water and eating water-rich fruits and vegetables. Also be sure you are sleeping well at night and getting plenty of rest.
If you have eaten animal foods your entire life, don’t think that you will just *poof* no longer desire them. For many of us, cheese is a real problem! I crave cheese like most people crave chocolate.
Actually, increased cravings on a vegan diet is no different than cravings you experience on any other diet. Low carb eaters miss bread. Low calorie dieters stare into candy store windows.
On a vegan diet – or any diet for that matter – have a plan to deal with cravings. If you have a sweet craving, opt for dried fruit. Salty cravings? Have a handful of nuts.
But probably the biggest step you can take to reduce cravings is to go back to #2 above – make sure you are getting enough to eat. Eat five to six small meals spread out across the day to keep a good energy source coming in. If you feel satisfied, you are less likely to crave junk.
Potential Nutrient Deficiencies
You can live a full and healthful life on plants alone. But you do have to plan your meals a little more thoughtfully. Nutrients of concern for vegans include B12, iron and calcium (among others). Be sure to do your research and have good dietary sources for these. While eating vegan can have incredible benefits to your health (lower heart disease, lower risk of obesity), you can still have health concerns if you don’t have a well-balanced diet.
Of course, this again is true for many diets – if you eat only meat, for example, you will miss out on nutrients as well such as vitamin C and phytonutrients/antioxidants. Those on diets that utilize only shakes for meals usually miss out on fiber.
Increased Time and Effort
You will no longer be able to just sit down at a restaurant and have whatever you want on the menu. There I said it. For some, this is a potential deterrent from any positive diet change. Just remember that taking care of your health does require some extra time and effort – and you are very worth it.
You will also likely find yourself cooking and preparing more foods at home. Again, this is effort but it is not a bad thing! You get to control additives such as salt and oil. You get to try new foods. You get to explore different cuisines!
At first, all of this may seem overwhelming. Remind yourself that the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Also, you will soon find that it is fun and exciting and you won’t even miss your old foods!
You know, it’s okay to grieve a former lifestyle. Even when your new lifestyle has lots of positive benefits, you still may feel deprived or sad. It’s really totally normal. A big change, such as going vegan can be stressful. As above, you are more focused on what you need to do to eat more plants. But what you really want to do is to lay on the couch with a big giant (non-vegan) cookie and a glass of milk.
Remember, this too will pass. Soon, it will just be another *positive* part of your life.
I only call this a stigma because we all know that the minute you announce you are eating vegan you will get all sorts of comments from well-meaning friends and family. They will ask you about protein (undoubtedly). They will ask you “what do you eat if you don’t eat meat.” They will try to push animal foods back into your diet because they think it is the “healthy” way to eat.
If you have an active social life, being vegan does not have to keep you from that. Planning, again, is key. If you are having a meal with family, be sure you know the menu in advance. If you are meeting friends at a restaurant, research the menu. You do not have to make a big deal out of it – just be sure you have planned ahead and you will have just a good of a time without concern or issue. And once they see that you are living healthfully and fully, you may even convert some folks to join you on your plant-based wagon!
Women's Health Magazine