With the popularity of documentaries like GameChangers, and the increasing availability of vegan food, more and more people are transitioning to a plant-based diet.
While going full herbivore can definitely have its benefits, like with any diet there are also some important things to watch out for if you’re looking to perform optimally and be well.
I followed a fully plant-based diet for 5+ years, and as a Nutrition Coach helped numerous people do the same.
In today’s post, I wanted to highlight common areas that people overlook when they first make the change, and hopefully help you avoid the potential pitfalls.
This is not a commentary on whether a vegan diet is optimal. It’s just me sharing some thoughts and ideas on how to approach it if it’s something you want to experiment with.
So whether you’re looking to opt out of factory farming or simply eat more meat-free meals, you’ll have an action plan to help you do it as healthily as possible.
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When I first adopted a plant based diet, you had to go to specialist health food shops to get things like tofu or tempeh, and they weren’t cheap…
These days, for better or worse, you’ll find faux meats and processed vegan foods in most supermarkets.
I enjoy these foods from time to time, but there’s a common misconception that because something has a bright green vegan label slapped on it that it’s going to do your body good.
Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case…
Pulling up the ingredients list of an un-named, popular vegan product reveals:
At best, these ingredients provide no nutritional value other than calories. At worst, when combined together they’re a good recipe for inflammation and ill health…
Just like eating a junk food western diet probably isn’t a sustainable solution for your long-term health, arguably, neither is a junk-food vegan diet.
So what should you eat instead?
I don’t like telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, but here’s what I would typically be looking for in a healthy plant-based plate:
And it’s not about perfection.
As long as we’re working towards wholefoods and something like the above template 80-90% of the time, there’s a little room for indulgence.
Takeaway #1: Vegan convenience foods are not necessarily healthy. Instead, try to base your diet around 80-90% whole foods.
If you plan your vegan diet around the foods above, you’ll almost definitely be getting more nutrition than you would on the standard western diet
That being said, going plant-based doesn’t mean you’re immune to nutrient deficiencies.
In fact, there are a few crucial vitamins, minerals and fatty acids you may miss out on if you’re not mindful about food choices and/or supplementation. This study gives a pretty detailed insight on a vegan diet for athletes, but I’ve done my best to break things down below.
Nutrient deficiencies are no joke, so I’d recommend getting occasional bloodwork to keep an eye on:
Takeaway #2: Omega-3s, Vitamins B12, D, K2 & A, Iodine and Zinc are all important micronutrients that you may need to supplement with on a plant-based diet.
I experienced a fair bit of unwanted weight loss when I first went vegan, dropping from the mid 70kgs to just under 68kg. For a reference point, I’m now pushing 90kg…
This is also something I observed with numerous clients who came to me after transitioning to a plant-based diet.
People often don’t quite realise how calorie-dense animal products can be. Instead of upping our overall volume of food when we go vegan, we simply replace that steak with the same size portion of beans.
This can lead to a significant calorie deficient, which might sound good if you’re looking to lose weight, but isn’t necessarily a great long-term strategy.
Chronic under-eating can lead to a myriad of hormonal issues, just as overeating has its problems too. So to avoid both, I’d strongly recommend you bring some awareness to portion sizes if you go plant-based.
Tracking calories isn’t something I’m a big fan of, but it can be a useful tool for some in the early stages.
Cronometer is a free app I use from time to time just to check in.
Takeaway #3: When you first adopt a plant-based diet you may be prone to under eating, so you may need to increase the total volume of food to maintain your current weight.
It’s probably the most common question that comes up with a vegan diet:
Where do you get your protein from?
We know that protein is important for growth and repair, and muscle protein synthesis is a real consideration if you’re an athlete or someone who moves a lot.
On the surface, with a little planning ahead it’s not that difficult to get a similar quantity of protein in grams on a vegan diet as you would on an omnivorous diet (generally around 1.3-1.8 grams per kg of body weight).
You can use simple hacks like:
When we dig a little deeper, however, we realise that concentration of certain amino acids tends to be lower in plant foods compared to animal products, and that plant-protein may be more difficult for the body to digest.
So 100g of plant-protein doesn’t necessarily result in you absorbing the same quantity of amino acids as 100g of animal protein.
That isn’t to say you can’t get your protein requirements on a plant-based diet.
It just means it may be worth aiming for more total protein than you would on a non-vegan diet (particularly if you’re active). So if you were consuming around 1.5g/kg of protein prior to going vegan, you might want to up it closer to the 1.8g/kg range.
On top of eating a wide range of beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, you can do this by including a good quality vegan protein powder and/or essential amino acids.
Takeaway #4: Protein is essential for growth and repair. You should be able to meet your requirements on a plant based diet with a few simple tweaks, and you can supplement with a protein powder or essential amino acids.
This is something that doesn’t get much airtime when we’re talking about vegan eating or nutrition in general for that matter:
Regardless of the quality of the food you consume, if you can’t digest it properly, it’s not doing you any good.
It’s important to note that on any diet this can become an issue, but I’ve personally seen it magnified on a plant-based one in some cases.
First up on our gut disruptor list is gluten – something that’s found in abundance in vegan convenience foods. While some people do just fine with gluten consumption, for many of us sensitive souls it leads to digestive issues.
The same can be said for soy – it often becomes a staple on a plant-based diet. It’s up there with gluten, dairy, eggs and corn as one of the most common food sensitivities.
Going a little deeper, it’s worth being aware of gut disruptors like lectins, phytic acid and FODMAPS.
To meet my protein and calorie needs, I used to consume copious amounts of beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and pseudo grains like quinoa and buckwheat. All of the above are rich in lectins (and to some degree phytic acid), which for some people can cause digestive issues and malabsorption of important nutrients.
The same can be said for FODMAPS. Found in seemingly random foods like garlic, mushrooms, wheat, honey, fruits, legumes and nuts, they’re a group of sugars that are difficult to fully digest and absorb. In some, they can lead to symptoms of IBS.
While some people can get away with consuming FODMAPS and lectins just fine, my sensitive gut wasn’t happy.
Gruesome spoiler alert: I’d often see these foods (and whatever I’d eaten with them) come out in their whole state the other end. It also seemed to exacerbate my autoimmune health issues, resulting in more joint pain and brain fog.
So how do you combat these potential issues?
I don’t have the full answer I’m afraid, but a few things that have helped me:
Takeaway #5: Look after your gut by limiting wheat and soy intake, being mindful of lectins and FODMAPS, and eating gut-friendly fermented foods.
Eating healthily isn’t just about what you do or don’t eat.
There are numerous other factors that we rarely talk about that are just as valid. These apply to any dietary regime you decide to follow, not just veganism, but they’re worth mentioning as a reminder:
Takeaway #6: Be mindful of other factors that can impact how well you respond to your diet, including stress levels, difficulty, sleep quality, and more.
It’s true that going plant-based has done wonders for some people, helping them come off medications and even reverse lifelong health conditions.
I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but that doesn’t mean it’ll do the same for you.
YES, a plant-based diet can be done healthily, YES it’s way better than factory farming, and YES there are vegan athletes out there killing it.
But there’s also the possibility that going fully vegan might not be the answer for every single person. Genetic factors, health status, activity levels and many other factors that we don’t quite understand yet can determine how we react to certain dietary choices.
It would be silly to ignore these variabilities, and the numerous stories of people who adopted a plant-based diet for many years, but started running into problems and had to stop.
Again, this isn’t an attack on veganism by any means!
It’s a gentle heads up about blindly following any dietary regime or movement without listening to your body and your true instincts. It’s very easy to watch a documentary or read a book and get carried away with a well-delivered message, and to be unaware that we’re just seeing just one part of the story.
When we combine this with our deep need to belong to something and to have a clear identity, it’s easy to jump on a bandwagon without really realising we’re doing it – be it Veganism, Paleo, or CrossFit.
Before we know it, we surround ourselves with people who only believe the same thing as us, and we get our information from books and websites that shine a positive light on the topic. We fall prey to confirmation bias.
There’s nothing wrong per se with getting involved with a group and having a shared goal. There’s actually a lot of value in being part of a community. The issue lies in clinging onto the same story if your body is telling you something isn’t right…
So by all means experiment with a plant-based diet. Give it your all and ensure you’re being mindful of the potential pitfalls mentioned above. It’s a noble cause, I’ve seen many people do it and have great success.
But on the flip side, do your best to enter with an open mind.
Lightly hold the possibility that it might not always be the right thing for you. For me, that’s a healthier mindset to approach any new venture in life.
It ensures we’re being more true to ourselves, and less prone to getting caught up with dogmatic thinking.
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