Dealing with Difficult Emotions, Depression, Sadness or Anxiety after Going Vegan
One of the topics I get the most questions about here at Brownble are the vegan side effects, aka, what are some of the symptoms you might experience when switching to a vegan diet. I talk a lot about the physical changes you might experience when going vegan in this post, and I also cover some of the special, more emotional side effects of going plant based in this post, but today I wanted to talk about a comment and question that has been popping up quite frequently these past few months. It's the question of whether or not it's normal to experience difficult emotions, sadness, anxiety or depression when you go vegan.
There are so many resources when it comes to physical health and some of those physical changes one might go through, we hear endless talks about improvements in bloodwork, changes in digestive health, among others, but you know me, I love to give it to you straight, and since I consider talking about the negatives just as important as talking about the positives, and since I also consider mental health and well being just as important (and part of) physical health, I thought it was time to talk about these issues.
I've told you a lot about my experience going vegan in our numerous posts and podcast episodes on this subject. The truth is that the biggest change I experienced when going vegan was precisely in the emotional side of things. When I first went vegan I felt so incredibly positive and hopeful about the changes I was making. I felt that I was doing something that helped other beings and as a huge animal lover this was a big deal for me. I felt great about helping the planet, and I was having lots of fun experimenting with new foods, and of course, my number one hobby, cooking, turned into this even better and brighter adventure. I was like a little detective trying to find ways to recreate all my favorites. Veganism kept me busy, engaged, happy, cheerful and as I've mentioned many times before, it made this very self-conscious, shy girl, start practicing being different out in the world, which in turn made me practice the one thing I was needing the most: confidence.
I always remember this scene in one of my favorite Holiday movies "The Family Stone", when Luke Wilson's character tells Sarah Jessica Parker's character "you've got a freak flag, you just don't fly it". Well, I had a freak flag I had tried to hide away my entire life and veganism was the thing that made me fly it. It made me get that I was different, accept it and be proud of it. This is perhaps one of the greatest lessons and gifts veganism has brought into my life.
In spite of all this wonderful world of goodness, going vegan wasn't all rainbows for me, and if you're struggling emotionally after going vegan, you're not alone, and I'll do my best to give you as much support and encouragement as I can in today's post and episode.
An important disclaimer...
Keep in mind that I'm not a therapist, nutritionist or doctor, meaning this post and episode is meant as support, and is for informational purposes only. It's the personal experience I went through, and some of the stories I've heard from our dear readers and listeners, in the hopes that it helps you feel a little less alone, and especially guides you to getting the help you might need from a qualified physician, nutritionist or therapist. Sometimes all we need to start finding support is to hear the experiences of other people who are walking the same path as us, and that's precisely the idea behind today's post, but nothing should substitute the help of a professional if you're going through emotional distress or illness, so please use this as a call to action to get the help you deserve if you are struggling. Getting professional support is something that has helped me tremendously when I've needed it, and I know it could be an invaluable resource for you as well.
Food and emotions: The Misunderstanding of Emotional Eating
Although I'd like to discuss emotional eating in a separate post and episode all on its own because there's so much to say, we need to talk about it a bit here because food is so intertwined with our emotional selves. For many of us food has meant comfort, sometimes solace, often times a distraction from difficult moments. It's true that we need to start feeling our feelings and let food just be food, but it's also true that we are emotional creatures by nature, and that food is inextricably linked to that. Food is such a big part of our culture, it's part of celebrations, moments shared together, cultural narratives, family traditions. It's linked to us feeling better and comforted from the moment we are born and cry because we're hungry and get comfort and sustenance from our mothers. All the way up to wanting something sweet when we go through heartache later on in life. This is actually part of being a normal human being that finds food pleasurable, and there's no wonder that when we're faced with a big change like going vegan, emotions are shifted and the pieces begin to move. In a future episode we'll discuss what happens when emotional eating turns into a struggle, as it did for me, but for now, know that being attached to certain foods is normal, and going through any dietary change can challenge you emotionally. Having said that, after helping many people go vegan, and after going through this change myself, I've managed to see some areas in which we can place closer attention so that this transition isn't as difficult emotionally. It shouldn't be creating anxiety, sadness or difficulty, and I'll do my best to give you some tools further below.
Releasing "magic vegan" thinking
Recently I've grown increasingly worried with the promises and expectations many advocates are placing on a vegan diet, especially when it comes to beauty, weight loss, physical health and mental health. I've watched films and read blogs in which well meaning advocates talk about a plant-based diet as a way to cure and prevent all major diseases, as a way to cure depression or anxiety disorders and much more. You know me and the issues I have with these types of claims. Every single person is different, and although a plant-based diet could provide great changes in your health and feelings of well-being, we need to stop looking at it as a magical diet, and just focus on it being a way of eating that we ourselves need to tweak and adjust to meet our needs.
We also need to respect our bodies and take any medication that is required if we have a specific condition, and with that, we need to accept that perhaps our minds and emotional selves need special attention and care just like a diabetic needs his or her insulin. I have only shared this in passing in the blog before, but as someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression, I know that deep desire to feel normal and not weighed down by it, and with that we sometimes latch on to special claims that veganism will cure us from all of it. For many of us this isn't the case. Before we get started with some of the areas where I found helpful tools when it came to making this change and feeling well emotionally and mentally, I wanted to take this moment to point out that our mental health should always come first, and we need to make sure we're taking proper care of it, either through medication, therapy, or other forms of treatment, and that includes the way we treat ourselves and the pressures we put on ourselves.
Are emotional changes normal after going vegan?
In a nutshell, yes, but also, it depends. If you're struggling with mental health issues, I think it's always very important to mention it to your healthcare provider or a qualified therapist to get the help and support you need. However, any big changes in our habits, especially with something as deeply social and connected with our identity (both personal and cultural), not to mention our taste buds and relationship with food, is bound to shift some pieces and could possibly make us feel sad, upset, anxious or overwhelmed. How could it not? Think of when we change jobs, move to a different city, have a baby, all these major changes can make us go through emotional changes that are sometimes stressful. Through the years, I've noticed some of the underlying issues people are having that could be causing a bit of distress, and I've seen some things that might help. Again I feel the need to say that if you're going through emotional difficulties, it's paramount that you find the qualified help you need, especially if you have a mental disorder, eating disorder, or you struggle with depression or anxiety, but here are some tools that might help you navigate this change and find balance. These can all go hand in hand with getting the professional help you need.
When it comes to the dietary change itself, here are some of the common causes of stress or difficult feelings, and some tips to help you navigate them.
Being too restrictive with food
I see many new vegans making the mistake of being too restrictive with food. The outcome can have two sides to it, both leading to stress, anxiety and difficult emotions. On the one hand, going beyond the already inherent restriction present in a vegan diet can feel daunting, it can feel like all your favorites are being taken away from you, and restriction itself is a source of stress for us humans. Especially if we feel it's being imposed on us by the expert du jour, without listening to our own bodies. On the other hand this can also lead to not getting the nutrients we need, a low calorie intake which can lead to low energy levels (often interpreted as apathy, sadness or additional stress), and even health issues due to nutritional deficiencies. If you've decided to eliminate animal products but also processed foods, gluten, sugar, oils, starches, fats, or whatever the trendy fear food of the decade is, there is another way. One that is more gentle on yourself, and through which you can absolutely find health and balance in spite of hearing many experts recommending something different. Take a look at our Frequently Asked Questions About Veganism post and episode, and this one on common struggles when going vegan, for more information and resources on this topic.
- Make sure you're eating enough and listening to your body's hunger cues.
- Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect vegan. Make changes at whatever pace is appropriate for you, and make sure you aren't feeling deprived, by still making your favorite meals but in their vegan versions. Our online program is a great resource with lots of delicious vegan recipes and cooking classes..
- Take it a step at a time, not adding additional restriction to the already inherent restriction present in a vegan diet. Unless you have a specific intolerance (as in the case of celiac disease) or condition, all foods can be a part of a healthy vegan diet, and they can help you feel pleasure with food and not add any stress while you make this change.
Not eating enough, experienced as a lack of energy
Being low in energy is one of the first things that puts me in an emotional downward spiral, and it can not only make us anxious about what could be going on, but it can also lead to feeling sad, depressed and worried.
- Make sure you're eating enough, you can use the plant plate as a guide to help you understand how to build a balanced plate without over-obsessing on perfection. We give you lots of resources on this topic here.
- Start paying attention to your hunger and fulness cues, and respect your hunger, i.e. eat when hungry, even if you consider that it's not time, or that you ate recently. Honour your hunger.
- Remember that plant-based foods are in many cases lower in calories, and this might mean you might need to eat more frequent meals, or larger meals, and that's ok. Make sure you're keeping your mind and body well fed and energized.
Not getting the nutrition your body needs, or feeling unsure about how to eat and worrying excessively about nutrition
Although we don't need to over obsess over every morsel of food that crosses our lips, understanding the basics of how to build a balanced plate and get the nutrients we need is very important. The human body didn't evolve on a vegan diet, so this means that we do need to pay attention to our general nutritional needs until it becomes second nature. On the other hand, there is no need to overly worry or feel anxious or obsess over nutrients. My favorite resource as I mentioned is The Plant Plate, created by registered dietitian nutritionist Virginia Messina. Following some very simple guidelines that don't require counting or measuring, can ensure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs to be healthy and also happy and balanced, leaving nutrition anxiety or worry aside.
- Learn about the plant plate in this post and podcast episode in which we give you the lowdown.
- Make sure your intake of protein is enough, as well as iron, especially if you're female.
- Get regular blood work done to check for nutrient levels, and supplement when needed.
- Always take a vitamin B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 deficiency is directly linked to conditions like dementia, depression and nerve damage, and is especially important if you follow a fully vegan diet or are over the age of 50. Here is a great chart that will guide you as to how much vitamin B12 to take.
- Special attention should be taken in the case of omega 3 fatty acids which have shown to help with depression. We'll discuss this in the next section.
- Stick to one nutritional resource, the most reputable and balanced I've found to date is in the work of registered dietitians Virginia Messina, and Jack Norris. By using the guidelines they recommend in the link above (The Plant Plate), and through their wonderful books Vegan for Her, and Vegan for Life, you can rest assured that you're in good hands, and there is no need to be overly concerned, worried, or obsessessive over numbers or excessive monitoring of food. It's why I love their balanced, and always science based approach so much.
Not getting a good source of DHA and EPA (omega 3 fatty acids)
DHA and EPA are essential for brain health, to help with depression, nerve health etc., and are therefore important to keep in mind when planning a well-balanced vegan diet.
- One way to include these in your diet is to include a regular intake of ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds or walnuts, to ensure we're getting their precursor -alpha linoleic acid (ALA)- from which our bodies are normally able to produce EPA and DHA.
- As a failsafe, especially if you've struggled with depression, it might be a great idea to supplement EPA and DHA directly, since our bodies make the transformation of these nutrients from ALA in different ways, and this could mean lower levels for some people. By taking a supplement if you've struggled with depression (or if you want to have a little nutritional insurance), you're giving your body a little edge, and a failsafe since we don't eat the same perfect diet every single day. For more information on omega 3s, dietitian recommendations and more, check out this post.
Dealing with an unsupportive partner or family members
This is a very frequent cause of distress when going vegan. Dealing with the strange reactions I received from friends and some family members when I went vegan really threw me for a loop and also caused one of the biggest hurdles I've had since going vegan. It can be difficult to suddenly have people commenting on our eating habits, and sometimes, well-meaning concerns can also take a turn into aggressive comments, rejection from others, jokes, and lots of opinions. In the case of having unsupportive parents (if we're children, teens or young adults still living at home), or unsupportive partners, it's completely normal to feel disappointed, anxious, isolated and upset.
- Remember that other people's reactions to this change are not about you, but are actually about the resistance they have to possibly making a change in their eating. It helps so much to reassure your partner that you are making this change for you, and that time together will stay the same, and traditions will change slightly but that you're still you, and that you have no expectations as to what changes they might or might not like to make.
- Having said this, don't preach or rely on any outcomes when it comes to your partner going vegan with you. Don't think that your partner is a bad person for not wanting to join you in making this change. Same goes for parents, children, friends or colleagues. Everyone has to go through their own journey with food. You can lead by example, but keep an open mind and respect your loved ones' time with this. Ask for respect in return since you and you alone are the boss of what your plate should look like.
- Think of it as a simple choice you've made, the more you talk about this with ease, the more at ease your partner or loved ones will feel, slowly but surely adjusting to the idea and getting used to a new routine and new dishes that might be served when you bring something to the table.
- Read this post, and watch this video, with lots of specific tools to help you navigate the social aspects of being vegan.
Feeling financial pressures due to the new diet change
Although changing your diet to incorporate more plant-based foods doesn't have to mean spending more money necessarily, if we've been basing our meals on inexpensive fast food meals or convenience foods, there could be a stressful shift in our finances when switching to any kind of diet that includes fresh whole foods, not to mention some of the vegan products like veggie cheeses and meats. When we're in a position of privilege we tend to underestimate the stress, anxiety and emotional hardships that come with poverty or with living in an area that has limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This can add to our negative feelings and give great despair, and it's an unfortunate consequence of an unfair economic/food system around the world, which I hope will change in the future.
- Do what you can, even if this means your finances don't allow for a fully vegan diet right now. Every small change helps, and taking care of your emotional well being when going through difficult financial times is just as important as your physical health or trying to do the best for the planet and the animals. Do what you can, learn some tools and tricks to help you include more of these foods in your diet without adding to your financial burden (like the ones I'll mention below).
- Read this post in which I give my very unique perspective (and sometimes unpopular amongst vegans) on poverty, access to foods and going vegan.
- Use some of the tips we give in our free plant-based eating on a budget course for saving money where and when you can, and adapt your way of eating to your means and possibilities.
- Be kind to yourself and pat yourself on the back for any changes you're making in spite of the financial struggle. With time and practice, choices get easier. Every change no matter how small, can create an impact as well as inspire others along the way while making sure you're still being kind and respectful of your own limitations or financial means.
Missing animal foods
I love it when I see the shock in people's faces when I tell them I've sometimes had cravings for certain animal foods. It doesn't make me a bad vegan (there is no such thing), or an imperfect vegan (there is no such thing as a perfect vegan). It makes me human, and often times what lies behind the cravings is the memory of the social connections we had with people through food, or the simple taste and textures of familiar foods we used to love! This is normal.
- Make sure you're eating satisfying meals that make you feel happy and joyful. There is no need to say goodbye to your favorite dishes because you can make practically anything vegan!
- Explore some of the vegan alternatives such as vegan cheeses, meats, ice cream, milks, yogurts, egg replacers and the like, and include them in your diet, always make sure that you are not depriving yourself of the foods you love. There is no reason you should ban some of these store-bought alternatives, since your body will naturally start wanting and craving a variety of foods (fresh whole foods included) provided you give it access to them. You'll be filling your plates with delicious fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and you'll also be enjoying some of these familiar alternatives that will make the new diet easy to stick to, pleasurable, fun and familiar. Not to mention the fact that these products are often great ways to ensure meeting nutrient requirements such as protein, iron and vitamin B12 since these products are often high in them, or fortified with them. Let your diet be filled with variety, and satisfy your cravings by exploring new cuisines and recipes. Our online program My Brownble is a great place to start, as is our free breakfast and brunch course for all you breakfast lovers out there!
- Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect vegan, and that if you had something that contained animal products this doesn't mean the vegan police will come over, reprimand you, and tell you you're kicked out of the club. See this change more as a continuum of choices, where you are allowed to take detours and get back on the path as many times as you need to, and that with each detour you'll learn more and more as you go and find the balance that is right for you.
Feeling sadness or grief after learning about the suffering of animals
I get it, I can completely relate to feeling terribly upset after seeing the images and footage of the suffering of animals in our food system. Our exposure to this information and especially to the visual images can range from anger, to sadness to even trauma, especially if we begin work as activists and are in constant contact with the realities these animals face.
- Treat yourself with kindness before and after watching animal cruelty footage, have someone who you can talk to who understands how upsetting these images are, and who can help you feel a bit hopeful in spite of how upsetting this can be. I've found so much support in the simple act of having like-minded vegan friends, and for years this meant other activists or vegans online since I knew zero vegans when I made this change. Still, I knew I had my peeps and they were one click away.
- Know your boundaries and limits when it comes to violent imagery, and don't force yourself to go beyond them, especially if you've already decided to go vegan or are trying to make more vegan choices.
- Balance the negative imagery with positive imagery. Sometimes beautiful video or photos of rescued farm animals who you'll soon see are just like our dogs and cats, can also help inspire you to make changes. Make sure you infuse a bit of hope to the upsetting messages and images we're often exposed to when we go vegan.
- As with all of these tips, get support and talk to a professional whenever you feel the need to.
Expecting a certain outcome after going vegan and not experiencing it (i.e. weight loss, clearing of acne, etc)
I blame this one on the countless advocates that make global promises when it comes to individual bodies and switching to a vegan diet.
- Release magic pill thinking. We sometimes go into a dietary change like this expecting everything and the sun to change when it comes to our bodies. The truth is that no diet is perfect or magical, and it's important to take a change like this step by step, and with plenty of compassion for ourselves especially when it comes to the way our bodies look, or the overcoming of conditions or disease. Veganism can bring about great changes, but it's not a magic cure for everything. With time, patience and a little experimentation and plenty of awareness of our own bodies, we can start finding a balance that helps us feel our best, without putting so much pressure on ourselves or on eating perfectly in order to achieve a perfect outcome. Our most recent Body Image series is a great place to start to help you on this uphill battle to accepting where you are while you find your peaceful and happy place in this imperfect world we live in.
Feeling isolated or alone
Sometimes, especially when encountering a lack of support in our family system or with friends, we can start to isolate ourselves. We feel more comfortable skipping the office potluck or the family gathering than having to answer endless questions or smile when a joke is being told at our expense. Isolation can certainly bring about feelings of anger, sadness, depression or anxiety so it's very important to try to step out into the world even when this feels a little scary.
- Read this article to help you find community and companionship and understand why it's so important to feeling well and at peace, along with lots of resources and places to find like-minded vegans online or in your area.
- Read this article to find out what my main struggles were when I went vegan, and how to navigate some common social events when you eat in a different way, how to find support on your journey and more.
Feeling sad because of missing the "right here, right now, anything goes" way of eating
I can be a spoilt little kid sometimes (only child syndrome I know...). I remember that when I first went vegan I would have these internal tantrums when I was at a coffee shop, I wanted a piece of cake and none of them were vegan. Or I went to a restaurant with friends and I got angry that they had 20 items to choose from when there were only 2 veganizable options for me. As humans we hate the word no, and we hate that feeling of restriction. This can feel especially hard if the people that surround us aren't especially supportive. Here's the bottom line, when I went vegan no one forced me to, I made this choice because I wanted to try to eat in a more sustainable way and I didn't want to cause more pain to animals when I knew many people wouldn't make this change but that I would be able to. This was a choice, not an obligation or a doctor or government imposed regime. When I realized that this was a choice, and when I started navigating the world looking for vegan options I would enjoy, I started seeing them everywhere! I started finding options at non-vegan restaurants, I started finding my voice in asking for what I wanted or needed, and found out that most people were happy to help. I started exploring vegan restaurants where the entire menu was for me, finding vegan stores, and learning how to make everything I loved with the simple switch of an animal-based ingredient for a plant-based one. Not to mention the fact that in the years I've been vegan, options have multiplied at a staggering speed! Fortunately for animals and for us vegans, the world is quickly changing and giving us the products people are asking for.
Soon deprivation had left the building for me because I realized this had been a choice. It wasn't that I couldn't have the bacon and eggs, I chose to have something different but just as yummy. When we feel and look for abundance I firmly believe that this is what we encounter, and when we fall off the path we wanted to be on, nothing happens or changes and we can get back on. It's not about being perfect or a food saint, it's about doing what you can, at whatever speed, pace or level you can find your balance in, making sure to always take care of yourself in the process, both physically and mentally, and getting support and help from a professional whenever it is needed.
"Veganism is kindness and that needs to begin with you."
I hope this post helped you in navigating some of the difficult emotions that are not only common, but completely normal when we're attempting any change that goes against the current. I hope that if it's been an uphill battle for you, you start using some of these tips and using the resources I've shared, and get professional support when needed, to start finding peace and happiness with your choices. I for one will always be here to support you along the way.