Are you among the 25% of adults in UK and US who have taken steps to reduce their intake of animal products? If so, you might have found yourself feeling more tired.
Here we look at why that might be, and what you can do to keep your energy level up.
The success of Veganuary over the past few years has been truly astonishing, with over half a million people signing up in 2021 compared to 23,000 in 2017. This trend shows no sign of slowing down and more of us every day are making the choice to remove meat and other animal products from our diet.
I was chatting with a friend recently who has done just this. She cut out all meat and dairy and only occasionally ate fish and eggs. After a couple of months, she found her energy levels were dipping every day, she was suffering headaches and a lack of concentration. She also started craving meat and eventually succumbed to a juicy steak. After just a few weeks of eating a small amount of meat and increasing her fish and egg intake, her energy levels were back to normal and all the negative symptoms disappeared.
What's causing the problem?
Many people who make a conscious decision to become vegan will generally do their research, get advice and plan their diet with care. Those of us who decide to just "cut down" assume we can simply remove the animal sources and plug the gap with more wholefoods, pulses and legumes.
And that's where the problems start.
People switching to plant-based often say they have less energy. Sometimes this is simply because they're eating less calories; meat and dairy are calorie-intensive so cutting out cheese, butter, milk, steak and sausages, and replacing them with the same size portions of wholefoods could mean losing a significant number of calories. The good news is you can eat lots more of these foods, so fill up your plate and introduce new foods to your daily meals.
It’s well-known that vegans and vegetarians need to pay attention to their protein sources. Animal products contain complete proteins, whereas you need to ‘blend’ your proteins to get all the essential amino acids when you’re dependent on plant sources (soy and quinoa are notable exceptions). Human beings seem to have understood this for millennia (long before we had Google). which is why dishes such as rice and peas form the basis of many traditional diets. Lack of protein can make you feel sluggish so check you’re designing your meals to provide all the amino acids you need.
Due to the absence of red meat in a plant-based diet, vegans (and vegetarians) are typically deficient in vitamin B12 and iron. This can lead to fatigue, headaches, dizziness and if left untreated, anaemia. (Independent.co.uk)
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin which helps make red blood cells and plays a crucial role in the health of your nervous system. Unfortunately, B12 is only found naturally in animal food and several studies have shown that, while anyone can have low vitamin B12 levels, vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of deficiency. (Although some plant foods seem to contain a form of vitamin B12 naturally, there’s no scientific evidence to show it can be absorbed by the body.)
The recommended daily intake of B12 is 2.4 mcg per day for adults and the only scientifically proven way for vegans to reach these levels is by consuming B12-fortified foods or taking a vitamin B12 supplement.
Lots of products specifically targeted at vegans are fortified with B12 including some plant milks, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast.
Other nutrients which might be lacking in a solely plant-based diet include Iron, Calcium, and Vitamin D. As your diet changes, so too does your microbiome, and the bacteria in your gut. Getting a personalised nutritional plan could help you develop a healthy, balanced eating pattern.
Most vegans and vegetarians will take supplements to achieve optimum levels of essential nutrients. The danger is that 'occasional' non-meat eaters may not be aware they are lacking.
I discussed this with my friend and recommended a high-quality wholefood supplement which will provide her with these key nutrients. As she adapts to her new plant-based life, and learns more about how to get the nutrients she needs from her diet, she may be able to reduce her supplement needs but, to achieve optimum wellness, some supplementation may always be necessary.