Getting started: avoid the weakness trap

March 18, 2010

After spending more than ten years volunteering weekly in a vegetarian resource centre, I think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on the reasons people adopt a plant based diet, and maybe more importantly, why they switch back.  Here’s the number one failure reason I’ve heard:

“I tried going vegan, but I just ended up tired all the time.”

And do you want to know the two biggest tragedies about this?  First of all, I don’t hear about it until it’s too late to do anything, because they’ve already changed back and the actual switch is the hardest part to trigger, and secondly, it wouldn’t have mattered because my first reaction was to get defensive and immediately think “they must be doing something wrong, a vegan diet is full of energy!”

After hearing it enough times and gathering enough data, and yes, swallowing my pride, I’ve come to realize that not everyone automatically succeeds on a plant-based diet, and when it comes to physical weakness and fatigue, it’s usually to do with one or two key factors:

Make sure you eat enough

Let’s suppose you’ve decided you’re going to switch from the most average diet around (which, let’s face it, isn’t terribly healthy) to not just vegan, but ubervegan!  Whole foods, no frying, etc.  You’re not a nutritionist, but you just know that a lot of colourful foods is going to be better for you than that hunk of dead animal with fries on the side.  And the range of flavours!  Incredible!

The problem here is that steamed broccoli simply doesn’t have as many calories as feast of roast beast, at least if you fill your plate the same way you’re used to.  You basically have two options, either dramatically increase your portion sizes or consciously add some more calorie-dense foods to your meal (the typically lower fat content of plant-based foods is usually the culprit in the calorie differential.)

Over time, you’ll have no trouble meeting (and then exceeding, possibly by far) your calorie needs on a plant based diet, but a lot of beginners make the mistake of judging nutritional content by how much of their plate is covered.

This problem is often compounded by one of the side effects of not getting enough calories: you lose weight.  For a lot of us, that’s a good thing, and we’re wired up to keep doing the things that give us rewards, so we’ll continue to eat the way we do, lose weight, and somehow manage to not associate the fatigue with the weight loss.  I know it sounds silly, but when you think you’re eating enough (and the majority of people have no idea how many calories they consume a day, vegan or otherwise,) it’s easy to attribute the weight loss to some magic property of plant-based foods, and not the obvious fact that you’re not consuming enough.

The solution to feeling weak as a new vegan is pretty easy: weigh yourself every day.  If it’s going down, eat more.  As long as you’re eating actual food, which I’ll talk about in a moment, and not, say, potato chips/crisps to meet the deficit, your energy levels will take care of themselves.

Eat well

The other trap that new vegans sometimes run into with weakness is due to an over reliance on processed vegan-friendly transition foods.  This is usually less of a problem than the simple calorie count above, but it’s worth a quick discussion.

While mock meats, cheeses, etc are handy, if you approach veganism by simply replacing animal products with their analogues and keeping everything else the same, you might be doing your body a disservice.  Don’t get me wrong; these foods are really useful, and we still consume them fairly often ourselves, but they’re heavily processed, typically high in sodium, and while I’m not a nutritionist, I can’t recommend them as a significant part of your diet.

Looking at it another way, if you ate nothing but hot dogs all day, you probably wouldn’t expect to feel great.  Why would a diet of primarily veggie dogs be any better?

Try to get yourself on whole foods as soon as possible.  As I suggested in 3 quick tips for getting started as a vegan, you only really need four good recipes to get things going, and you’ll find yourself feeling a lot better right away.

Next steps

Being vegan doesn’t have to mean counting every calorie.  I rarely track my nutrition on a daily basis, but it’s a useful exercise for everyone to do one or two weeks of each year to see where they’re at.  I always find it funny that people will ask me how I get my protein but they don’t have any idea how many grams they themselves consume on any given day.

One free tool I’ve found handy is the nutrition log on Daily Burn.  They’ve got tons of foods in their database, and it’s one of the easiest interfaces I’ve seen.  As I’ve said, you probably don’t need to do this obsessively, but if you’re just getting started on a brand new diet, something like this can be a huge benefit towards making sure you’ve got your bases covered.

And most importantly, if you’re encountering problems with a vegan diet, ask for advice!  There are millions of vegans in North America alone, and they’re probably not all misguided fools surviving on sheer willpower :)  Leverage any vegans you know along with the internet, including sites like ours, and set yourself up for success by asking for help before and after you run into problems – I don’t want to run into you a year from now and hear another “I tried it but…” story!

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