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Getting Started

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!


Linda signed up to the newsletter this week, and she said that the very best tip I could give her would be “getting started” ideas for brand new vegans.  We’ve got a growing set of recipes and cooking tips on Eazy Vegan, so I’m not going to pick out some simple recipes.  Instead, here are three basic principles to keep in mind that I think can help new and experienced vegans alike:

Figure out your biggest problem

A complete overhaul of your diet is a massive change on a zillion levels of your life.  Your body may react differently, your social interactions may change, your finances might get into trouble if you stick to too many processed vegan foods, and other issues might erupt that’ll challenge your decision to go vegan.

Ask yourself, in a year’s time, if it all goes bad, what’s the most likely way you’ll finish this phrase: “yeah, I was vegan for a while but I had to stop because of…”

Fix that right now.

I don’t know what your hypothetical dealbreaker is, but it’s probably not unique.  If you’d like help brainstorming, feel free to get in touch, but work on the biggest challenge first.  Once that’s under control, repeat the exercise (nobody likes to admit this for some reason, but massive change is hard and usually presents multiple obstacles!)

If you try to fix everything at once, your brain’s going to be all over the place, and you probably won’t even realize what most of the problems are.  Fixing the biggest problem first will clear more room for you right away, and you’ll probably find that this fix will automatically fix a few other issues that you didn’t even know were related.

Ignore the fine print

In a perfect world we’d eat nothing but whole fruits and vegetables and everything would have an ingredients list of one.  Actually, scratch that, that’d be a pretty boring world.  I like the fact that there are a lot of items in the grocery store that some company has taken the time to prepare for me so I don’t have to, for instance, make my own tofu.

Lots of these items have weird ingredients in them that I can’t even spell, let alone recognize without practice.  You can burn up a lot of energy as a new vegan poring through each list, comparing each item to the entry in a list of food ingredients, and agonizing over simple mistakes you made just a few days before when you misread a label.

When you’re just starting out, focus on the easy 80%.  Consider the rest a transition process.  You’ll learn how to scan ingredients as you learn everything else (and the good news is that it’s getting easier and easier as products start to actually identify themselves as vegan.)

I’m not trying to tell you to ignore trace amounts of animal products, but you need to recognize that you probably don’t have a chemistry degree and this stuff can be hard to figure out, and animal ingredients hide in lots of places you don’t expect.  For example, every week I hear from a longtime vegan who just found out that beer is often filtered with fish guts (thankfully, it’s usually the same week they discovered Barnivore.)  Does that make them less vegan up to that point?  Personally, I don’t think so.

Focus on the big ingredients when you’re starting out.  Avoid bacon, for example.  Things like L-Cysteine will get sorted out later on in your journey.

Learn four recipes

OK, I said I wasn’t going to pick out recipes, and I’ll stick to that, mostly, but I want to call out a behaviour that I see in a lot of new vegans: they want to try absolutely everything, right away.

And this is exciting!  I remember when I decided to adopt a plant-based diet, and it was like a light went off in my head, and suddenly I had permission to explore entire aisles of the grocery store that I’d previously ignored.  I don’t know why, as an omnivore, I felt that I didn’t need to know what cous cous, falafels, millet, and, say, black eyed peas were, let alone how to use them, but there’s a tendency to think of a new vegan diet as “new everything” as opposed to “less of this stuff, more of this stuff.”

Unfortunately, this makes things a lot harder than it has to be when you’re starting out, and if something’s difficult, it’s more likely that you’ll give up.  Your body is going to be trying to get used to a new type of cuisine with different amounts of fat and fibre among other things, and if you change things up dramatically with every meal, you might have some difficulties there.  Your budget might suffer with the wider range of staple foods you’ll be buying to create each new meal (see our post on the three spices you need to get started for some help there.) And then there’s the matter of simply trying to remember everything!

Trying new things is something I always encourage, but if you’re just starting out, I recommend learning maybe four solid recipes that you can use as your home base.  Most people I know, omnivore or vegan, tend to eat pretty much the same stuff over a given period of time, so don’t worry about being in a rut.  I’d just hate for you to stop enjoying veganism simply because you can’t find the time, energy, and resources to keep the food supply moving into your belly.

I said I wouldn’t supply recipes, but here are some guidelines: learn a good bean dish, a good tofu dish (tofu scramble is super easy to figure out,) something as simple as a sandwich or wrap you can make for lunches, and finally some kind of cake or cookie recipe that’ll get you started with baking (it’s not as stereotypically vegan as my other suggestions, and you can take the desserts to work to win more people over!)

Think of these as your “home base” recipes.  You can try new things, but if you get the hang of four solid choices you’ll have something to fall back on when you’re having a rough day, or your body is craving something familiar.

What else?

These are three tips that popped into my head this morning, but there are a bunch more I could have gone with, so I’m turning it over to the other vegan readers: what one tip do you wish someone had told you when you were starting as a vegan?  Let us know in the comments so we all can learn!

Update: lots of great suggestion from fans over on the Facebook posting, check ’em out!