There is a long list of reasons why people fail on a vegan diet and return to the world of cheese sandwiches and fish fillets. They might have developed overt deficiencies or vague symptoms of poor health. Some ex-vegans say that they experienced depression or foggy thinking or fatigue without animal foods. Others struggled with challenging social situations or with cravings for animal foods.
The following ideas for staying happy and healthy on a vegan diet are all things I’ve written about before, but I wanted to condense them into a sort of checklist for those who are struggling to stay vegan. It may not cover everything (let me know if there are things you think I should add) but I think it addresses the most common barriers related to nutrition, practical issues, and social support. So, if you find yourself wavering in your commitment to veganism, or feeling generally unwell, maybe one or more of the following will help.
1. Take depression-fighting supplements. A diet that is too low in vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine, and DHA, (the long-chain omega-3 fat) could make existing depression worse, or possibly cause you to feel depressed even if you weren’t before. Suboptimal levels of some of these nutrients may affect concentration and produce vague aches, pains, and fatigue, too. Supplements/fortified foods are the only way to get vitamin B12 and DHA. If you don’t get adequate sun exposure to make vitamin D and are not using iodized salt, consider supplements of these nutrients, too.
2. Eat legumes. It’s true that vegans aren’t walking around with kwashiorkor, but it’s still possible to have a protein intake that is suboptimal—not enough to produce overt deficiency symptoms but enough to feel less than great. Although it’s extremely easy to meet protein needs on a vegan diet with minimal effort, some vegans who de-emphasize protein-rich foods could fall short, especially if they are restricting calorie intake. The key to meeting protein needs is to consume at least 3 servings of legumes (beans, peanuts, soyfoods) per day. Some people, especially those who are older, may feel better with more than this amount, though.
3. Get enough fat. Requirements for the essential omega-3 fat can fall short on very low-fat diets that eliminate all nuts and seeds, and eating too little fat may also compromise nutrient absorption. This is especially true if you tend to favor raw vegetables over cooked. Going from a fat-rich omnivore diet to a very low-fat vegan diet could leave new vegans feeling generally unsatisfied, too. You might feel tempted to add meat back to your diet when all you really need to do is add some healthy fats to meals.
4. Enhance iron absorption. Iron deficiency anemia is common among people eating all different types of diets. But when vegans develop it, it can be tempting to blame veganism and return to eating red meat. The best way to prevent it is to eat plenty of whole grains and legumes, along with good sources of vitamin C at meals (citrus fruits, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, leafy greens, cauliflower, cabbage). Vitamin C dramatically improves iron absorption. And, the best way to cure a deficiency is with supplements, not meat.
5. Opt for slow carbs. All whole plant foods are good for you, but choosing foods with a low glycemic index most often can help prevent fluctuations in blood sugar if you’re susceptible to them. Choose sweet potatoes over white; breads made from grains that haven’t been ground into flour; oats, barley and quinoa instead of rice; and beans cooked from scratch rather than canned beans.
6. Add what’s missing. I wrote recently about umami as a tool of vegan activism. A preference for this flavor, which is abundant in certain animal foods, could be innate or due to very early conditioning. Add it to foods by cooking with marmite, nutritional yeast, sundried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, miso, wine, tamari, ripe tomatoes, ketchup, dried sea vegetables, balsamic vinegar, and sauerkraut. Roasting, grilling, and caramelizing all bring out the umami in foods, too.
7. Opt for convenience when/if you need to. Convenience products like veggie meats, cheeses, and ice cream can help when time and cooking skills are issues—as they are for many Americans. Everyone’s circumstances are different and these foods may help some people stay vegan. The texture and familiar nature of veggie meats and cheeses can also add a sense of comfort to vegan meals.
8. Stay connected. I wrote last month about the value of mentors, but there are so many ways to stay connected with other vegans for support and resolve, especially through the internet. It’s important to find places that are welcoming and non-judgmental, especially if you’re struggling with veganism. One of the best is the forum at Post Punk Kitchen, where the discussion always seems respectful and informed. The Veggie Boards is another good place.
9. Stay up to date with good information. I’m extra picky about sources of vegan nutrition information because bad and inadequate information creates a risk that vegans will fail. This is my list of reliable resources on vegan nutrition.
10. Modulate your expectations. Eating more whole plant foods and fewer animal products is very likely to produce health benefits, especially for those who were eating more typical American fare beforehand. But, a vegan diet isn’t a promise that you’ll never experience any health problems or that you’ll get the body you’ve always wanted. If you expect it to do those things, you may end up being disappointed and might feel like a vegan diet “doesn’t work.” In fact, veganism always works. It will shrink your carbon footprint, and remove your contribution to some of the worst animal cruelty on earth. If those are your expectations, you’ll never be disappointed. Any health improvements you experience are nice fringe benefits.