To me, there is no better way to eat than a plant-based diet. As a long-time vegetarian and former cheese addict, my move towards a plant-based diet took years. I know a lot of you are ready to dive right in, so let’s talk about some common problems I see on a plant-based diet – and how to fix them before they start.
What is a plant-based diet?
The term plant-based is often used interchangeably with vegan, but it can be a bit ambiguous, so let’s talk about what it means for me. I like the term plant-based because it feels inclusive of a variety of eaters – but also because it puts the emphasis on plants.
A vegan diet is one that includes no animal-origin foods, even honey. A plant-based diet can be a vegan diet, with 100% of your food choices coming from a non-animal origin; I typically agree that someone is eating a plant-based diet as long as 80% of their food choices come from whole plant foods. That leaves 20% for more processed vegan foods or even some animal source foods if that’s where you’re at. So, you could be vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian (eats fish) or even an occasional meat eater and still be eating a plant-based diet in my books.
Research suggests that if you’re trying to get healthier, it is the amount of healthy whole plant foods you eat that matters more than a label – which very much fits in with my positive, additive approach to healthy eating. For example, one 2017 study looked at how closely people fit an index of a plant-based diet, a healthy plant-based diet or an unhealthy plant-based diet and found that those eating the most healthy plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains had the lowest risk of coronary heart disease, even if they ate some animal product. The take home? It’s what you put in your body – namely whole plant foods – that matters most.
Plant-based Diet Benefits
People choose a plant-based or vegan diet for a variety of reasons. If you are concerned about animal welfare and ethics, avoiding animal-based products is paramount. You may have other reasons…but no matter what the reason, there are a lot of potential benefits of eating a plant-based diet, such as:
- Less inflammation
- Reduced risk of chronic disease
- Better digestive health
- Less risk of weight gain over time
- Decreased environmental damage
- Reduction in harm to animals
Make no mistake, a plant-based vegetarian or vegan diet is considered a healthy choice for all stages of life. Of course, the potential benefits don’t mean that I don’t also see some potential pitfalls. As with any way of eating, educating yourself on what a balanced diet looks like is so critical to ensure that you are feeling your very best.
The Most Common Problems With a Plant-based Diet
In our private practice, we see some folks who have been on a plant-based diet for 6-12 months and decide to get a nutrition checkup because something is a bit off. However, these issues are super preventable! So let’s tackle the five most common problems people encounter when eating a plant-based diet…and most importantly, how to fix them!
Fatigue on a Plant-based Diet
Feeling fatigued? Start with the basics: sleeping enough and staying hydrated are critical to keeping your energy levels up. But fatigue can also arise on plant-based diet if you aren’t eating enough – or you’re skimping on protein or minerals.
Iron is critical for keeping your energy levels up as your blood cells need iron in order to transport oxygen throughout the body. Traditionally, meat has been the main source of iron in the diet. As you transition to a plant-based diet, you will need to learn about plant-based sources of iron such as lentils, cooked spinach and blackstrap molasses.
If you are at least 80% plant-based, it is also important to take vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal foods, or in fortified plant-based foods but I do find it more reliable to supplement daily. B12 deficiency builds slowly, and can lead to fatigue and memory issues on the way to full-blown anemia.
I should also note that fatigue can be caused by an over reliance on vegetables and starches – to the detriment of protein and fat – or simply not eating enough because you aren’t sure what to eat! It is important to get enough calories, and eating more healthy fats such as avocado or extra virgin olive oil will help with that.
How to fix it:
If you are feeling fatigued, always check out this symptom with your doctor to see if you have iron-deficiency or B12-deficiency anemia, or another underlying cause like hypothyroidism. Then, take the nutritional approach you need to get energized!
Eat iron-rich foods at every meal. Plant-based sources of iron contain non-heme iron, which is less well absorbed than animal forms – but not to worry! Eating a variety of iron-containing foods at each meal alongside vitamin C rich foods on your plate (citrus, leafy greens, bell peppers, strawberries) will help improve absorption of plant-based iron.
Take Vitamin B12 daily and support your thyroid by eating iodized salt. I talk more about iodine on a plant-based diet in my book, Eat More Plants. Sometimes I recommend that while people are transitioning to a plant-based diet, they take an iron-containing multivitamin to cover their B12 needs and fill any nutritional gaps. It helps take the pressure off as you build up your intake of iron-rich foods! This is especially important for menstruating women who will lose iron with their monthly period. Once you’ve got the hang of your new way of eating, you can switch to just a B12 supplement if you wish.
Make sure that you are eating enough food – and enough plant-based protein and fats – to keep you full and give your body the energy it needs. Remember that many plant-foods like vegetables have fewer calories than more processed or animal-based foods like cheese so you may need slightly larger portions to feel satisfied. Humans cannot live by kale alone!
Hair Loss on a Plant-based Diet
Hair loss is another complication complication of a plant-based diet that we don’t talk about enough. I most often see this when there is a lack of protein or minerals in the diet but omega 3 fatty acids are also important for hair growth. It’s worth noting that severe stress, being postpartum or even thyroid issues can cause your hair to fall out too.
Again, a lot of this ties into the importance of ensuring that your transition to a plant-based lifestyle involves consuming a variety of whole plant foods. Whole plant foods contain a broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals and macro nutrients to properly sustain growth and repair of each and every one of your cells, including hair. Eat whole, eat enough and you’ll be nourished!
How to fix it:
First things first: if you have unexplained hair loss, always talk to your doctor first as it might be a sign of an underlying health condition. Once that’s checked out, you can focus on nutrition.
Ensure that you are balancing your meals: put a concentrated source of plant-based protein such as tofu or lentils on each plate. Eating legumes, nuts and seeds daily will also ensure that you don’t lack for critical nutrients like iron and zinc.
Increased Gas and Bloating on a Plant-based Diet
Passing gas is, ahem, a natural part of life. We literally all pass litres of gas a day! When you’re eating a high fibre, plant-based diet, gas is a fact. When the indigestible parts of plant carbohydrates (such as fermentable fibres, FODMAPs or resistant starches) are fermented by gut bacteria, they produce gases we must pass.
Food preparation can help: one way to reduce this effect with beans specifically is to soak legumes for 24 hours. Rinse well and cook in fresh water. To speed up soaking, you can also boil them briefly in excess water, let them stand for an hour, and then discard the soaking water before starting to cook them again with fresh water.
I have a post on the plant-based diet and bloating that you might find helpful, along with another on five non-food ways to banish the bloat. Bloating is far more complex than you might imagine; it can be caused by simply eating a large volume of food – or even neglecting to fully chew your dense plant-based foods.
Chronic bloating could also be a sign of something like irritable bowel syndrome; so if your bloating is bothersome…or accompanied by any other symptoms like pain or diarrhea, you should give your doc a call.
Sugar Cravings on a Plant-based Diet
We all crave a sweet from time to time, but sometimes, our clients report having MAJOR sugar cravings when they go plant-based. Most often, I find that this is due to over-consuming starchy convenience foods, such as toast and pasta as a main part of a new plant-based diet. These foods lack a balance of fibre, protein and fat that keep your blood sugars stable and appetite calm.
What’s more, when your blood sugars are crashing all of the time, your body craves sugar as it is the quickest way to get them back up again. This can lead to feeling hungrier, more often and lead to weight gain by overconsuming calories (while still feeling hungry!)
How to fix it
I know I am sounding like a broken record here…but the answer is a balanced plate. If you aren’t super active, favour vegetables, proteins and healthy fats at meal time over starchy foods. Swap regular breads for higher fibre sprouted grain breads. Eat whole intact grains like wheat berries, millet and oats instead of prepared pastries or crackers.
Weight Gain on a Plant-based Diet
There are a few reasons why someone transitioning to a plant-based diet might gain weight but many of them come down to eating a balanced diet that puts whole plant foods first and keeping your blood sugars (and therefore appetite) in check.
When you’re new to plant-based eating, you might not be used to eating nutrient-dense plant foods such as beans, seeds or whole grains – or you might not even be sure what you should eat now! This can mean defaulting to easy options like toast, cereal or pasta whenever you’re hungry. While these are foods that can absolutely fit in a healthy plant-based diet, if you are constantly eating starchier higher-glycemic foods to sate your hunger, you’re probably going to be hungry all the time.
Similarly, it’s also really common for people simply to remove the animal products from their typical meals and not replace them with anything. So you end up losing out on the satisfying, blood-sugar-balancing power of healthy fats and proteins.
How to fix this:
In order to support healthy weights over time, ensure that you are focusing on single ingredient, whole plant foods most often. And, make sure that plant-based meals always contain a mix of high fibre plant foods, along with plenty of protein and a bit of fat to keep blood sugars and appetite on an even keel. I recommend that a meal is 50% vegetables, 25% plant-based proteins such as organic tofu or chickpeas and 25% whole grains such as sprouted grain bread, whole wheat pasta or millet.
A big thank you to Megan Leong, Dietetics Student, for her assistance in putting together this post.