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!

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mirna Orozco March 24, 2014 at 12:55 am

Started this vegetables, fruits and nuts diet, i will do it for 10 day, but planning to become a vegetarian for health purposes. its being 3 days now, and i feel energy deficient and my head just keep on
pondering, i never had headaches like this in my life, what is going on?

David May 14, 2014 at 2:04 am

@mirna orozco Sounds like you’re having a detox reaction. I’ve been vegetarian now for about six weeks and am gaining, not losing fat. I work out intensely at the gym 3 times a week. It’s a mixed bag: I have less liver discomfort (maybe due to less of a toxic load from factory-farmed meat products here in China, air is already very toxic) but I am feeling sluggish, weak and frankly in need of a ‘good feed’, despite cooking lots of supposedly ‘good veggie food’ from books like Mouthwatering Vegan, Mayim’s Vegan Table, etc. I wanted to stop meat for animal cruelty reasons, my dilemma is that I cannot sustain this feeling as crappy as I now do. Any ideas most welcome.

Dennis May 24, 2014 at 7:06 am

Vitamin B12 is critical for vegans. I take time released 1000mg daily. Also I’ve been making Indian vegetarian reciepes and their bold taste are more satisfying as a meat substitute.

Stephan Pellegrini August 13, 2014 at 4:08 am

I have been a Raw Food Vegan for 4 weeks now and it has been amazing. My energy levels have literally shot through the roof, my gym workouts have doubled with no effort and I feel amazing. A few thing piss me off to hear people say, first the protein issue, I use Garden of Life Protein Powder, 34g of Protein per serving, that is ALOT more than a 8oz steak which is the USDA recommendation. The B12 issue is BS, I take a multi-vitamin and it has 300% of your B12, so way over kill there. And I don’t see the point in being a Vegetarian, they are still consuming animal products which contain casein which causes heart disease, heart attacks and many forms of cancer. Vegan just makes total scenes to me and my body is doing wonderful.

Nate November 5, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Hey just for all you out there who are anemic there are some things you should know:

Iron requires other nutrients to be absorbed. While foods like spinach are high in iron they lack the nutrients to help with absorption. Vitamin C helps with iron absorption, try drinking orange juice when eating iron rich foods.

Supplements may not be absorbed properly either, I would stick to eating lots of foods that naturally contain the nutrients you need. Except perhaps B12 and iodine.

Ann December 23, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Been plant based vegan for 10 months… felt great for awhile, now have had dizzy spells, exhaustion even after waking in a.m., insomnia and some heart racing here and there and feel so discouraged. Taking BComplex supplement, as well as Calcium, D, sometimes zinc, sometimes C, sometimes Kelp. On Thyroid med and Lysinopril as well as asthma med. Any thoughts? The dizziness drives me nuts.

Kori January 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm

I can’t seem to make sense of this. I switched from a meat-heavy standard american diet, over the course of a couple of months, to a mostly vegan diet. I didn’t do anything too extreme, or cold turkey. I eat a mostly whole foods diet, full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a touch of “fake meat and cheese products.” I switched for ethical reasons mostly, but I figured a big perk would be the health benefits. I get the amount of calories I need to, I balance carbs, good fats, nutrient rich veggies and I honestly think I am sort of eating the ideal, responsible vegan diet. I take supplements and drink a lot of water, and yet, somehow, I always feel tired… I have anxiety… I’m GAINING weight (???)… and I just don’t feel like I’m running optimally at ALL. I was once a paleo/low carb enthusiast and my body ran very efficiently on predominately animal products and vegetables. I recently had a huge ethical crisis and could no longer support factory farming. I do NOT want to go back to meat but I hate what is happening to my body!! Please help me!! I’m getting fatter and sicker everyday… this is crazy!

lisa December 13, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Hi. It’s been a week that I started the vegan lifestyle and before that I had an eating disorder. I tried a lot of fad diets and I always ended up with gaining weight. I thought that I should start this new lifestyle but today the end of the first week beeing vegan I’m feeling so tired. I have headache and I’m feeling like the fattest girl in the world. I don’t know what’s wrog or it’s just the vegan lifestyle that doesen’t work for me

jenn June 28, 2016 at 12:51 pm

I want to share a few thoughts in response to those who are having trouble with fatigue and weight gain, oh, and headaches.
An issue I had in the beginning, was the amount of fat that can be consumed in vegan foods. Nuts, seeds, avocados, salad dressings and the use of oils in cooking can make the vegan diet fattening. When I first began eating plant-based, I used all of the above to feel satiated, but I began gaining and not feeling as great. After more research, I began reducing the amount of nuts and other fat dense foods. I began cooking Kamut, barley, and Brown rice mixed with lentils, just all in the rice cooker and this provides me with chewy, filling, satisfaction. I began using broth and water instead of oil in sautéing and getting fat free salad dressings. If the dressing is over 3 grams fat/serving, I dilute it with lemon, lime, a variety of vinegars, herbs and spices, fresh garlic and even some water.
A note about cooking with oil: bringing most cooking oils to a high heat, makes them change chemically and unhealthy, even carcinogenic.
Another pitfall for me, is what I call the snack vegan problem. There are so many great tasting vegan desserts and snacks, but they are usually full of refined foods, sugar, fat and salt. I have a friend who is a vegan and she lives on chips and fries and oily stir-fried or roasted vegetables. She seems fine eating that way, but for me, it leads to feeling miserable.
One more issue that I had was headaches in the beginning. I quit all refined carbs and sugars and my blood sugar went whacky! Luckily, I got some good advice that helped immensely. I don’t normally drink fruit juices (if I’m going to eat fruit, I want all the food value that the whole fruit packs), but I had awful headaches because of plummeting blood glucose. Four ounces of orange juice would usually help in about 15 minutes. If I still had a headache, I added another four.
I hopes this helps some of you!

Jason June 29, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Thanks Jenn! Diluting the dressing is a neat idea, hadn’t thought of that before!

Lisa July 2, 2016 at 8:07 pm

When I eat white rice, white potatoes and other white starchy food on the vegan diet, I gain weight. But when I ditch the white stuff and ate beans and 100% whole grain pasta, I lost weight. If you are trying to lose weight, ease up on the white starchy foods. I will introduce those foods when you have reached your weight loss goal and you are only maintaining. Stick to beans, brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, quinoa and lots of fiber foods for your meals. And not recommending, but I still lost weight quickly when I added fried plantain (with palm oil) to my beans. Beans and fried plantain is one of my favorite dishes growing up where I’m from.

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