There are many reasons why people feel motivates to switch to a vegan diet, both in terms of having a cleaner footprint and in terms of one’s own health. But while the benefits of a well-conceived vegan diet are proven to work for many people, others experience mild to serious discomfort, especially in the transition period.
If you’re considering trying to go vegan, at least for a while, but don’t know how to start and what to watch out for, this post is for all of you out there. I will try to go through the potential side effects of going vegan, and science-backed advice for how to counter each one. Bear in mind that no two bodies function exactly in the same way, so what works for some may not work so well for you.
The bottom line, before we get started, is this: be kind to yourself and your body. Don’t try to push it into habits you don’t give it time to build and don’t expect miraculous adaptations overnight. If you notice something you do creates a backlash from your body, then either cease introducing this change in your routine or replace it with a milder version. Easy does it.
At the end of the day, the smallest progress is still progress. Don’t try to go vegan cold turkey, you may weaken your body too much to be able to keep it up. Baby steps are a more sustainable process than radical overnight changes.
Expect this not to be an easy journey. But, if you get it right, veganism will be very rewarding: you will age slower, have a better health and reach old age with grace. You will also contribute to diminishing animal cruelty and a greater protection to the environment. But before you get to the point where your body is used to the vegan diet, it will take a while.
You may even experience relapse periods, when you begin eating dairy products again, or eggs, maybe even meat. Even if this is the case; don’t worry: you haven’t failed in your mission, and you’re not incompatible with a vegan diet. Don’t get discouraged and pick it up again after a time. After more attempts, you will succeed in maintaining it.
Here are also some hands-on things to do while preparing for a vegan diet. These will make the transition easier:
Try an ovo-lacto- vegetarian diet for a few months before going full vegan. This will help your body experience less of a shock when you finally make the final step.
Learn to cook your own meals, without doing anything too elaborate. After all, the purpose is to be equipped with the skills to make yourself a quick and healthy lunch, not to spend all your time in the kitchen. You can take lessons and learn to have a healthier relationship with food on a culinary vacation tour. Think ‘Eat, pray, love’, only better.
Stock your freezer with mixed vegetable bags to fall back on if you ever find yourself without fresh supplies. Also keep wholegrain noodles in your cupboard and spices. This way, you can always improvise a nice curry or stir-fry with your provisions. Don’t go for a raw vegan diet, even if you plan to do it at some point. Such a drastic change will definitely be too much all at once, and the diet itself may not be very sustainable for the long term, though, of course, it is debatable.
Remember to always consult your doctor if you feel bad; don’t rely simply on internet advice, no matter how expertly documented. As I said, each body is different and what works for most people may not work as well for all. A radical diet change is always a vulnerable period in one’s life, so medical supervision is always recommended.
A period of purging is experienced by many who switch to a vegan diet. This means that you may feel very bad for a time like you’re experiencing the symptoms of a high fever or a flu. Such symptoms may include weakness, muscle pain, headaches, nausea and so on. Sounds bad enough to ward anyone against being vegan, right?
Don’t worry, this is just your body eliminating its toxins. Simply wait it out, things will get better in a few weeks tops. As you keep eating healthy, wholesome vegetables, cereal, fruit and seeds, your body will adapt to the good things and also finish off its stored toxins. If you want to get it over with, you can always go on a detox retreat. Not only it will end the purging without further discomfort, but it may even be a welcome induction into the vegan lifestyle, in a friendly environment, with nutrition experts who will help you adapt to the new diet easier.
Some people lose weight when they go vegan, others gain some. The point of a vegan diet isn’t necessarily to lose weight, even if you need it. This will come in time, as an almost passive benefit of maintaining a healthy diet. But you should be careful to ward off unwanted pounds, especially in the delicate transition period when your body may act chaotically. It all depends on what you eat, too. After all, fries with canned vegan mayo are also a vegan food, but it doesn’t mean that basing your diet on them is a healthy choice.
Low energy will most probably be an issue too, since vegan food is less dense, calorie-wise, as animal-derived ingredients. You will get adjusted to this new intake of calories soon, just bear with it for a while. Drink a bit of coffee and green tea (but not too much, lest you become dehydrated), as well as plenty of water. Sleep 7-8 hours a night, and take a nap during daytime too, if your schedule allows it.
It’s natural to experience cravings while also fighting to adjust to the lifestyle. Your body is a creature of habit and will crave the things it is used to, even if they’re not particularly good for it. Make sure you don’t starve yourself while switching to the new diet, in order to limit these cravings. If weight loss is a goal of the new vegan diet, put off on reducing your meal sizes. There will be time for such tweaks later, once your body gets used to veganism more. For now, focus on listening to it and giving it what it needs, which is enough food and rest. Also, you can consider the occasional non-vegan treat at the end of the week, if your cravings are intense and persistent. Becoming frustrated would be counter-productive, and, as I said, it’s all a process. Going vegan cold turkey doesn’t really work for most people.
You can keep these side effects at bay by following a few guidelines. While these will significantly help, they won’t take away some of the more unpleasant sides of going vegan. The purging period, for example, will most probably still be experienced. The good news is that by following this advice, you will lower the intensity of these side effects, and you will also counter-act some of the potential downsides of following the vegan diet long-term (like vitamin deficiencies and so on).
We understand that sustaining a vegan diet may already eat up enough of your time, with the meal planning, stocking and cooking times to account for. But being also active is a crucial part of making all those nutrients work for you, instead of promoting weakness and a generalized atrophy. You can find good opportunities to stay active throughout the day, by working on your tasks while standing up, pacing around the office, delivering a message in person to a co-worker, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and so on. You can also take time to practice yoga when you have the chance; it’s one of the most well-balanced forms of exercise you can possibly do.
Keep a kind vision about your body and don’t try to shape it purposefully. Many who start a vegan diet tend to overdo their fitness goals, which can be the ideal breeding ground for an eating disorder. Beware of orthorexia, too. You don’t want to obsess over the ‘right’ things to eat and planning meals in advance for too long; spontaneous eating and indulging in some treats are after all part of being human. Practice mindfulness towards your body and what you eat; light yoga exercises can also be a great idea. Not only will this count as exercise, but it will also be a proven way of maintaining a healthy relationship with food.
The truth is that your vegan diet may not be able to offer you every nutrient you need, in order for you to maintain chemical balances inside the body on the long term. This isn’t because a vegan diet is not good for you, on the contrary, but because it’s hard to keep things so varied and so balanced while also having other daily obligations.
The solution is to also get some dietary supplements, in order to prevent such imbalances. Calcium should be one of your chief concerns, but so should iron. Get blood work done once a year and consult with your doctor to see the best way to supplement your diet.
There are some combinations of foods that make the mix work better and be more nutritious than the sum of its parts. Any kind of legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas) and rice is one of those great superfood combos. The amino acids in these foods, when digested together, form super-complex protein that can sustain a vegan diet perfectly.
Green leafy vegetables (like spinach, kale, and lettuce) are also known to work wonderful with oils. They contain certain vitamins and fito-nutrients that are soluble in lipids, making them much more valuable to your body when you use an oily dressing on them. Also remember that certain vegetables, like tomatoes and carrots, are better for the human body when cooked. Even though some nutrients do disappear from food during the cooking process, the substances in these vegetables can’t really get absorbed as well in their raw form.
Keep reading nutrition articles when you have the chance, keep a moderately active lifestyle and don’t force yourself to restrictions in a harsh way. After all, going vegan should be about enjoying a healthier lifestyle, not about punishing yourself.
Miriam Cihodariu is a former anthropology scholar and fiction writer turned marketing and content strategist. Her passion for human meaning and narratives goes into every text she creates. She is currently the editor of the BookYogaRetreats.com blog and she relishes every minute of it.
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