VEGAN 101: VEGAN SIDE EFFECTS, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU GO VEGAN
As part of our vegan 101 series, where we take you through all the basics regarding vegan diets and making the transition, I thought it was time to talk about those first few days, weeks and months into going vegan. I know that I personally had so many questions regarding some of the physical symptoms I was experiencing when I went vegan, and this is completely understandable. As with any dietary change, we are bound to experience differences in the way we feel especially those first few weeks. Let me be clear that by side effects I'm simply referring to those physical symptoms we might experience as part of the transition. Feelings in our bodies and minds that will soon find their perfect peaceful place of equilibrium (we also take an in depth look at some of the emotional side effects you might experience when going vegan here).
Here's the deal, if we were to start a low carb diet, a low fat diet or any "fill in the blank" fad diet, we would probably experience things like headaches, difficulty going to the bathroom, fatigue, and we wouldn't think twice about these symptoms. Why? Because these are what we would call mainstream diets, a.k.a the Barnes and Noble "filling the shelves" diets. We've heard of them on the news, from the neighbor who tried them and lost weight, so we feel confident that these uncomfortable symptoms are nothing to be worried about and they'll pass eventually (or until we give up on the diet as is usually the case). Something really strange happens with veganism though, we get this very scary, overwhelming fear that any new symptoms or changes in our bodies are signs that there's something wrong, that we're close to collapsing on the commute home, or that B12 deficiency will kick in, two days into our diet, because we forgot to take our supplement. Don't even get me started on the fear of lack of protein. Why does this happen with a vegan diet and not with a more standard over the counter diet? Because they -our family, friends, the media, etc.- have ingrained in our subconscious that we need to be really careful with veganism because it's somehow incomplete.
Before we get started with the typical side effects you might be experiencing, rest assured that a well-planned vegan diet can not only be completely nutritious and balanced, but it can actually give us an edge when it comes to our health (watch this AMAZING video for more on the relationship between vegan diets and disease). Yes, you can also follow an unhealthy vegan diet, so we're giving you access to our special vegan library resource page (access by clicking the big pink button at the end of this post!) which contains my favorite books, articles and resources so you can make sure that you're eating in a balanced way, getting all the nutrients your body needs. For now however, I just wanted to ease your mind by telling you that ANY dietary change (especially one as big as going from a standard meat-based diet to a plant-based one), will have effects on your body while it gets used to new foods. Then, after this first period of adjustment, it will have so many wonderful effects that your own doctor will be asking you what you've been doing. It might take some tweaking and some adjustments as you go along on your journey, but my hope is that you too will find your little sweet spot, and the ideal balance that is right for you.
Keep in mind that the little list I'm sharing with you today are some of the things I personally experienced, or what I've heard from readers, family and friends who have transitioned into a vegan diet. By no means is this meant as medical or nutritional advice (although I will guide you to those resources through the button at the end of this post). I simply want to share my experiences and ease your mind if you might be a few weeks into your journey and have been wondering about the physical changes you've experienced.
This is the mother of all disclaimers...
... only because there is nothing as precious as your body and your health. If any uncomfortable symptoms have you concerned, are lasting too long or not subsiding at all please consult your physician. You can also find a list and directory of doctors and dietitians who have experience with patients who follow this diet in our resource library below.
Are you ready?
We're going to talk about poop and other such fun vegan stuff. Don't say I didn't warn you! I will first add a list of the positive and neutral side effects and the negative or most uncomfortable ones, and then we'll have a special moment to talk about three of the ones I get asked about more frequently: pooping and feeling gassy, headaches and fatigue and acne. Keep in mind that everyone is different, and you may or may not experience any of these symptoms. Some people experience several, some experience none and it's all just smooth sailing.
Some common vegan side effects or symptoms
On the positive and neutral side:
- A sudden rise in energy levels accompanied by feeling the need to be more active physically. I remember I used to feel like I was jumping out of my skin and just felt like moving.
- More frequent trips to the bathroom. Most vegan foods (especially whole foods like fruits and veggies) are higher in water content, and they are a total fiber-rich powerhouse! I've heard from readers that used to have days and days of constipation that were suddenly going once a day or more. Yay for frequent pooping!
- Better smelling body odor. This one was always mind-blowing for me. The way we smell can sometimes change! (The opposite can also be true. More on this below!).
- A tan-like "glow" on our skin, especially if you're eating a lot of beta-carotene rich foods like carrots and sweet potatoes.
- Clearer skin (the opposite can also be true... more on that coming up next).
- Shinier hair and stronger nails.
- Weight loss: sometimes but not always the case. This is one aspect of going vegan that I like to refer to as a neutral side effect since there are so many cultural expectations as to what our bodies should and shouldn't look like. Some of us are meant to be in a smaller sized body, some of us are meant to be in a larger sized body, and both can include health and well being alongside it. When we go vegan, it can happen that since whole plant-based foods are naturally lower in calories, some people experience weight loss upon going vegan, but this isn't necessarily the case for everyone. Remember, so many things can affect our weight, starting with our genetics, our metabolism, the foods we eat and our activity levels, our hormonal makeup, and our natural set point range when it comes to weight, aka the weight our bodies will naturally lean towards. I talk a lot about weight loss, restriction, dieting and body image in many of our posts and podcast episodes so make sure to check those out if you're struggling with weight loss expectations when going vegan or with body image (you can start with our dieting chronicles series, our bikini revolution series, or our body image series).
- Fewer PMS symptoms (yay ladies!).
- Your tastebuds come to life. By removing animal-based products from your diet, especially dairy, you'll soon experience a boost in the tastes and sensations produced by fresh foods, and your cravings will start to subside too, provided that you are eating plenty of meals and dishes that are satisfying to you.
- Odd cravings for foods you had never felt before (probably due to the fact that your tastebuds really come alive). I remember getting serious cravings for things like kale, shiitake mushrooms and brussels sprouts when I had never craved these foods before.
- Clearer focus and concentration. A feeling of lightness, and a boost in creativity and new ideas. More so related to having a positive mindset when making this change, and the empowerment that comes with it.
- Better performance in sports or physical activities in general, more stamina and endurance.
- A higher libido.
- A sense of relief, of doing good, of happiness due to the fact that you're making such a positive change for yourself, the animals and the planet. Greater awareness about the impact we can create and the power we all have on our own health, all of which affect your mental health and well-being.
On the negative side:
Remember to consult your doctor if you are feeling un-well or if any of these symptoms persist for too long (we're providing great resources and medical directories for vegan friendly doctors and dietitians at the end of this post).
- VERY frequent trips to the bathroom (more on this below).
- Gas and tummy discomfort: Ah yes, if you've been vegan for a while you KNOW what I'm talking about! Gas comes with the territory and it can really throw you off in the beginning. We'll get into some recommendations and details below.
- A change in body odor (either positive, as was my case, or in this case sometimes negative). Weird one right?! Don't worry, this usually clears up quickly.
- Skin rashes or acne. Although clearer skin can also be a common symptom after going vegan, some people experience acne (like me!). We're talking about what could be one of the culprits below.
- Trouble sleeping. As with any diet change, a new caloric intake and the types of foods consumed can change your sleeping patterns a bit. I felt completely hyperactive in the beginning, which made me wake up earlier than usual (I wish I still had that superpower now! I would get so much done!).
- Possible weight gain. See our point on weight loss above with some links to posts you might find helpful regarding expectations of weight loss when making this change, and how to find balance and improve your relationship with food without going into a mindset of restriction or deprivation.
- Sugary, fatty or meaty cravings, and cravings for animal foods in general. Any change in your diet can produce cravings for familiar foods, and this is especially true about our emotions towards food and the fact that we're changing our habits in such a big way. It's totally normal to miss some of your favorites, but there are so many vegan alternatives out there now that it's hard to not be able to satisfy a craving. Try some new vegan meats or cheeses, especially when you're transitioning. Make sure to include meals that are satisfying to you, and remember that a vegan diet is really just the swapping out of an animal-based ingredient with a plant-based one, and that you can make anything vegan to satisfy your tastebuds and stay happy and balanced with your new way of eating.
- Feeling hungry more frequently. If you're feeling hungry between meals, please eat! We underestimate how big of a caloric difference natural foods have over the ones we're used to consuming. You might just need to increase your frequency of meals or keep healthy snacks on hand until you find the balance that works for you.
- Feeling fatigued or experiencing headaches. A common symptom, we'll discuss this one in detail below.
- Emotional ups and downs, especially as you deal with family or friends who are unsupportive of your lifestyle changes. Find community. Come here. At brownble and especially if you're a member of My Brownble you always have a caring ear and all the support you will ever need on your journey, along with the support of so many others that are going through exactly the same issues as you are. We take an in depth look at some of the psychological and emotional challenges of going vegan in this post and podcast episode, in case you've struggled with difficult emotions, sadness, depression or anxiety after going vegan and you'd like extra support.
A little more detail on a few of these issues
Pooping and Gas
Fruits and vegetables are so high in fiber that they provide us with countless health benefits. Think of fiber as a giant scrub brush that is passing all the way through our digestive system to help move things along. This means that people eating plant-based diets will get a gold star in the pooping department, but I do remember that for me, the first few weeks were NUTTY! I was going to the bathroom really frequently until my body stabilized on its own. I still go to the bathroom twice as much as I used to in my meat-eating days (and this is awesome!), but an upset stomach is a thing of the past (and I must say that this - stomach pains, gastritis, diarrhea - was a much more frequent occurrence when I was a meat-eater).
When it comes to gas, let me ease your mind that this subsides with time. It really takes a while for your body to get used to the increased intake of fiber, and especially if beans and other legumes are new to your diet. If you're experiencing excess bloating, or a strange sensation in your tummy (the best way I can describe it is a constant feeling of having just had something fizzy to drink), all of this is usually gas, and your body will slowly adapt to digesting these foods. Keeping a journal will help so much with noticing which foods might be causing the most discomfort. Once you have the culprits, you can try to add these slowly into your diet. This is how I discovered that contrary to common recommendations which insist lentils don't need to be soaked before cooking them, soaking marked a world of difference for me. To this day I can't eat lentils that haven't been soaked, but I never have problems with eating beans! Go figure?!
Headaches and Fatigue
Headaches and fatigue might be a common symptom especially if you aren't eating enough calories. I've heard this symptom from people who are trying to avoid too many carbs, or are worried about the effects the new diet might have on their weight and so they restrict their intake. This feeling might go away on its own, but as with any diet you try, if you're eating too little your body will respond with these warning signs. Listen to your hunger signals, and if you're hungry, please eat. Always keep healthy snacks with you, eat well rounded balanced meals, and if you need to, try eating smaller but more frequent meals. This is the way I eat (3 main meals and 1 or 2 snacks) and it really makes me feel my best. For you, three bigger meals might be the key. Listen to what your body is telling you during, after, and between meals.
Oh boy can I speak from personal experience when I talk about this side effect. I remember reading books and articles that said that your skin would clear up like magic on a vegan diet. Why then was I suffering from acne when I had never had this issue before in my life? Thanks to the help of my doctor, I found the secret little culprit. I was taking too high a dose of my vitamin B12 supplement on just a few days, rather than taking smaller doses every day. First let me say this: if you're vegan, you need to take vitamin B12. This is non-negotiable, period. B12 deficiency can lead to severe neurological, metabolic problems and even death, and if there's one vitamin vegans need to take it's vitamin B12 (as well as any person over the age of fifty no mater what their diet is). There are however different ways to take this vitamin. Many people go for a higher dose just a couple of times a week (what I was doing), while others prefer smaller daily doses (what I do now). Don't get me wrong, the majority of people don't have the B12 acne issue. My husband for instance takes a higher dose twice a week and he has never had acne, but I needed to do the daily smaller dose approach. My skin cleared up and I haven't had this problem since. For all the information you need on proper B12 supplementation click here.
Although the lower daily dose of B12 solved this issue for me, any change in diet can cause changes in your hormonal balance. If your problem persists or you are getting concerned about anything related to your hormonal health, please consult your doctor.
One final note: don't try to be a superhero
I've heard of so many people who try to go vegan, sugar free, oil free, gluten free, soy free, and "you name it" free all at the same time. Such a restrictive and "all or nothing" approach might take you straight to unhealthy territory rather than the health nirvana you probably thought was attainable by attempting something like this. Please don't try to be a superhero. By trying to do it all you'll only feel deprived, anxious and like your entire world was been turned upside down. Instead, focus on why you are probably here, you want to be vegan or start making as many choices as you can. Make this your focus and then go out and live your life. It is far too precious to spend it worrying or over-obsessing. A vegan diet is actually a very simple thing, and it's full of health giving and body loving foods that you can enjoy just as much as your old time favorites.
Please know that you can always find a supportive community here. Stop by the comments and say hi. Tell us your story. This choice you have made is so positive for you and the world we live in, and we'll be with you every step of the way.
When in doubt, read books, watch films, consult the experts and get inspired...
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