5 common pitfalls to avoid when going Vegan

Yvonne O'Halloran

Working as a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist, I have helped many clients transition to a vegan lifestyle over the years, improving their lives dramatically.

But there are also some who leap in without really understanding how to eat healthy or monitoring what they eat to ensure the best results.

Some who have become vegan come to me for the problems they face, worried that being vegan isn’t right for them. But with any way of eating, if you get too much of one thing but not enough of another, your health may suffer. I have identified the 5 top pitfalls people face – and the ways to prevent them. I hope this helps you avoid them.

1) You lack energy and have fatigue

The number 1 cause I see for this is “Lack” of calories. Changing to Vegan means you are shifting to a high fiber food with fewer saturated fats.

Meat eaters mostly consume, meat, dairy and eggs that contain a lot of saturated fats, cholesterol and no fibre. Many are replacing these foods with vegetables and legumes. That’s lots of fiber and very little fat.

Weight loss can accompany the fatigue and lack of energy – but this can often be turned around by adding more calories to your diet with oats, wholegrain bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocados, olives, nut butter, lentils and beans. Many of my clients have found chronometer helpful in tracking their daily calorie requirements.

Other factors:

a) Low iron levels: Fatigue and lack of concentration is a symptom of iron deficiency. When you go vegan, you don’t consume any haem iron sources, only non-haem sources. Non-haem iron (from plant sources) is not as well absorbed as haem iron (from animal products) which may be a good thing. Too much iron is detrimental to our health and can lead to chronic disease, haemochromatosis (excess iron levels) and some cancers. However, iron is essential – To ensure you are getting adequate intakes of non-haem iron, make sure you’re adding vitamin C to your foods to enhance absorption, like:
– Lemon
– Red peppers
– Berries
– Orange juice
– Limes

Avoid having tea, coffee or calcium-based foods during or directly after a meal containing non-haem iron as these can interfere with the absorption.

Plant sources of iron include:
– Tofu
– Legumes (lentils, peas and beans)
– Wholegrain cereals- iron fortified
– Green vegetables
– Nuts particularly cashews
– Dried fruits like dried apricots
– Seeds: sesame and sunflower
– Tahini
– Backstrap molasses

b) Inadequate Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is essential for vegans as very low levels can lead to anaemia and damage to your nervous system. Low levels can make you feel lethargic, weak and lightheaded. Although it is called a vitamin, it is, in fact, a bacteria that blankets the earth. It used to be in our water but now that it is heavily sanitised it no longer is obtained this way. As a vegan, it is important that you take a B12 supplement in the form of cobalamin, about 2500 mcg every week. If you suspect you are deficient in B12 (or iron), you should get a blood test to check levels. You can also add in fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, fortified plant milk, fortified burgers and some fortified cereals. Even if you have fortified foods every day, I still recommend a supplement as a back-up.

2) Excessive Hair Loss

I hear this one often from new vegans and those who have been vegan for a while. There can be a variety of reasons for excessive hair loss, including thyroid issues and iron deficiency to inadequate biotin, lysine or healthy fats.

Missing Factors:

a) Lysine: is an amino acid that is essential in our diet as our body cannot make it and is important for the absorption of iron and zinc. Lysine also nourishes your hair follicles and encourages growth. Include foods daily like:
– Seitan
– Tempeh
– Lentils
– Black beans
– Quinoa
– Soy milk
– Pistachios
– Pumpkin seeds

b) Biotin: is a B vitamin that plays an important role in the health of your hair, skin and nails. Though deficiency is rare, it is possible. We need between 30 and 100 mcg per day. Consume foods like:
– Mushrooms
– Nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts)
– Wholegrains
– Legumes
– Cauliflower
– Bananas

c) Iodine: is important for a healthy thyroid and your thyroid gland uses iodine to make thyroid hormones which help control growth and repair damaged cells (including hair follicles) and support your metabolism. Iodine is in iodised salt (don’t overdo the salt). Aim for about 150 mcg per day. Most iodine sources are animal-based, but there are only a couple of plant sources including:
– Dried prunes
– Seaweed
– Iodised salt
– Iodine supplement

d) Omega 3 fatty acids: healthy fats are important for healthy hair, skin and eyes. Make sure you include sources every day like:
– Walnuts
– Flaxseeds (ground up)
– Chia seeds
– Hemp seeds
– Fortified foods

*(note) Iron deficiency can contribute to hair loss. See above for sources.

3) Bloating and Gas

This is one of the most common pitfalls for new vegans. The majority of the bloating and or gas is from the drastic change in eating habits. Your digestive system is adapting to this influx of beans and fibre, and generally, over about 2-4 weeks, this all settles down. Tips to reduce these uncomfortable symptoms include:
– Soaking your beans before eating them
– Starting with smaller lentils and build up to the kidney beans and black beans over a couple of weeks, so the body has time to adapt
– Eat your food slowly (like your mother told you to)

If symptoms have not settled down after four weeks, you may need to consult with a vegan-friendly dietitian as you may be sensitive to high FODMAP foods.

4) Feeling Down/Depressed:

Often a result of low levels of vitamin D – studies show a link between vitamin D deficiency and depression. As a vegan, it is important to get sunlight exposure to your face and arms for 5-15 minutes every day, with duration depending on where you are in the world. If you can’t, include fortified foods like plant milk, orange juice and cereals.

If daily sunlight exposure is not possible, then it’s a good idea to take a vitamin D supplement of 600 IU per day as plant sources alone will not be adequate without regular sun exposure.

5) Unwanted weight gain:

Many people believe that by going vegan, they will lose weight, and for many, they do.

However, if you are an unhealthy vegan and live off junk foods like vegan ice cream, potato chips and takeaways, then you will most likely gain weight.

Eat lots of whole plant foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, wholegrain breads, oats and legumes. Limiting treat foods, processed vegan foods, vegetable oils and alcohol and drinking plenty of water should help prevent weight gain and maintain your health.

*Disclaimer: This is not intended as medical advice. If you are concerned about your health, then please consult with your doctor or a registered vegan Dietitian.

**I recommend you get blood tests to check your levels every 6 months especially if you are newly vegan.

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