Whether you’ve read PETA literature, seen the Alicia Silverstone commercial, or just want to lose weight—going vegan seems like a healthy, earth-friendly choice. Indeed, this animal-free diet and lifestyle features zero cholesterol and 1/20th or less the field growing space required for beef. Since heart disease ranks as the number one killer in the U.S., and our demand for cattle contributes highly to destruction of the rainforest, a vegan diet makes sense. Unfortunately, some people jump right in without much knowledge and soon find themselves living less than optimally. This article lists the top four mistakes people make when going vegan—and offers ways to make a smart transition.
1) The “Fake Meat” and Potatoes Syndrome:
With Tofurky Brats, Tofu Pups, dozens of veggie burger styles, Chik’n and even BBQ Riblets in supermarket freezers, anyone can substitute a meat analog for meat and serve a Standard American Diet dinner with soy and wheat modifications. While these products can work well as transition foods, they also contain both wheat gluten and soy—two high contenders in the food allergy arena. Yes, they offer lower-fat, plant based protein alternatives, but eating gluten and soy at every meal increases your chance of feeling less than great on a vegan diet. Symptoms can include: bloating, sluggishness, irritability, fatigue, and constipation. People who did not previously notice sensitivities to wheat or soy might if these two foods make an appearance in every meal.
The body likes variety. Interview long term vegans and they will tell you that despite the exclusion of animal products, they now eat a wider variety of foods than they ever did as omnivores. Try to break out of the meat and potatoes mindset. Vegetable stir fries, salads with nuts, fruit smoothies with rice or hemp protein powder, and a world of ethnic dishes offer ample protein and nutrients without relying on wheat and soy. When you want to feel mainstream at a 4th of July party or even at family meals with omnivores, meat analogues can help you fit in. But allow yourself to embrace Mother Earth’s bounty: vegans do not live (well) on gluten and soy alone.
2) “I’m So Healthy I Don’t Need Vitamins Anymore”:
For some people who carefully plan their diets, this statement might be true. For most new vegans, it can appear true—for awhile. Compared to the Standard American Diet, vegan diets bring in more antioxidants than average people acquire through food. Several nutrients do require attention, though, namely: B-vitamins (especially B-12), zinc, calcium, and iron.
If you eat whole grains or leafy greens like kale, collards, spinach and chard, you can get lots of these items, but perhaps not quite enough. Although you have stores of B-12, without inclusion of animal products, your reserves can drop to dangerous levels. Low B-12 can result in a form of anemia, increased homocysteine levels (which can lead to heart attacks), fatigue, mood swings and mental fogginess. Gabriel Cousens, M.D. offers a comprehensive article on various vegan B-12 studies: http://www.therawdiet.com/b12.html. The other B-vitamins can help you manage stress, achieve mental clarity, and maintain energy levels. Bottom line: if you feel tired after a few weeks or months of vegan living, a B-vitamin complex and especially B-12 may raise your energy. If symptoms persist, ask your doctor for some blood tests.
Although studies show comparable calcium and iron levels in vegans and people following a standard diet, many people suffer from anemia and pre-osteoporosis conditions. You ingest adequate amounts by drinking green smoothies, eating (and chewing well) at least one salad per day, and juicing calcium and iron powerhouses like broccoli, spinach and kale. Fortified breads, cereals and orange juice can also amp up your intake. Legumes and small doses of blackstrap molasses offer other ways to increase your iron. Look at your diet honestly, though. If you do not consume these (or equivalently iron-rich) things several times per day, consider adding them in or taking a vegan multi-vitamin. If you prefer whole foods, you can add a teaspoon or more of spirulina (a blue green algae) to fruit smoothies for an instant nutrient boost. It’s green, but a kale, spirulina, avocado (and/or almond milk), banana, and agave nectar smoothie will leave you energized and wanting more.
Zinc poses a challenge to animal-free diets, but you can find it in pumpkin seeds, legumes and nuts. Their protein facilitates zinc absorption. If you find yourself getting sick a lot since going vegan, have lower sexual drive, or skin problems, make sure your multi-vitamin contains zinc. If you decide to take a separate supplement, you might want to check with your doctor first. Zinc overdose can quickly become toxic.
3) Low Fat, No Fat and Wrong Fat
Most people have heard of the benefits of Omega-3 Fatty acids, especially as doctors began recommending fish for its Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) profile. “Essential” means you must acquire these fats from food; your body needs them and cannot make them on its own. Ideally, you want a balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty acids, but without planning, a vegan diet can become very Omega-6 heavy. Corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oil all favor Omega-6 absorption. Imbalances of Omega-6/Omega-3 can lead to mood swings, mental decline, sore joints, poor immunity, and acne, among other problems.
High sources of vegan Omega-3 fats include: flax seeds and oil, walnuts, canola oil (controversial due to genetic engineering) and leafy greens. Hemp seeds and oil provide the perfect ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats, as does Udo’s Oils, a product created by scientist Udo Erasmus. Additionally, algae—from which fish receive their Omega-3’s—provide great plant source fats. In addition to spirulina, Omega-Zen 3, E3Live, and Crystal Manna offer vegan ways to balance your fat intake.
4) In Search Of: Perfection through Diet
No diet will solve all your problems, all the time. I have personally witnessed some incredible transformations in people switching to a vegan diet, but the changes proved long lasting only in those people who also made major lifestyle and attitude changes. Trying to eliminate every possible animal ingredient, animal testing or negative impact on an animal can become an obsession that interferes with abundant, joyful living. If you’ve made the commitment to live animal-free, I commend your choice. If you would like to inspire others to live this lifestyle, then I suggest you make it seem as easy and attractive as possible.
Yes, you’ll need to read labels in the grocery store and ask questions in restaurants. Yes, you might consult PETA’s guide to shopping, but ask yourself how far you need to go on every single item. We live in a world that, unfortunately, exploits animals and destroys our environment. We can each make small and large strides towards improving that state of affairs. We also live among other human beings. In your new found compassion towards animals, try to remember the people in your life. Education by example usually proves more effective than lectures, shame fests and ultimatums. If you turned to a vegan diet for health reasons, enjoy your new found health! If you turned vegan for the animals, become an advertisement for animal-free living! Look good, feel good, smile more.
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