Welcome back to Stirring The Pot. Thank you for joining me.
Two weeks in and still going strong? Are you enjoying the thrill of your new plant-based way of eating? Waking up in the morning with better digestion? Going through the night without heartburn? Are you looking forward to your meals? Is your mood lighter? Are your energy levels higher? If this describes you, then congratulations. You've already started your love affair with a vegan diet. However if this isn't you, and you're feeling less nuclear-fuelled and more wind farm, then join me for a bit of troubleshooting. Three of the commonest problems people can have when starting a plant-based diet is uncomfortable bloating, lower energy levels and a lack of enjoyment with their new food.
One of the first issues you might have noticed is an increase in bloating. It is important to realise that plant foods contain fibre. Animal foods do not. You'll naturally have started eating more fibre during Veganuary if you've replaced animal foods with plant foods. This fibre provides food for the health-promoting bacteria in your gut which thrive on fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. As a thank you, these fibre-eating bacteria produce molecules called short-chain fatty acids which reduce inflammation in your body, help your insulin work more effectively and reduce your cancer risk. This is part of the reason we feel better on a plant-based diet. The temporary downside however is that these bacteria also produce gases which we register as bloating and wind. Although the gas production improves after the first few weeks of a new high fibre diet, this may be little comfort if you haven't yet got there. Here are some suggestions to help. Beans and lentils are very high in fibre and should be introduced gradually into the diet. You might want to start with lentils as they are smaller legumes and more easily digested so produce less wind. Cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, onions and garlic are also big gas producers and should be introduced slowly. Tinned beans are more easily digested than dried beans you've soaked and cooked yourself. Adding a strip of a seaweed called kombu to cooking water can help with gas production. Peppermint tea helps some people with digestive comfort. Believe it or not, peppermint water is prescribed in hospital. And keep yourself hydrated. The fibre draws water into the gut which is great for helping with constipation but might leave you slightly dehydrated. Have a look at this help sheet from Plant-Based Health Professionals UK. And take heart, it does subside within a few weeks as the bacteria in your gut get used to this wonderful influx of fibre.
Most people find that their energy improves on a plant-based diet. This is likely due to the higher nutrient density of plant foods. Another possible reason is that high-fibre plant foods release carbohydrates gradually into the bloodstream keeping blood sugar levels steady. But if you find that you are flagging on a vegan diet, consider these possibilities:
Start by checking whether you are consuming enough calories. Plants are naturally lower in fat than animal products and so contain fewer calories. Make sure your diet not only contains lots of fruit and veg, but also good amounts of slightly more calorie dense starches such as grains, pasta, legumes and starchy veg such as potatoes, squash and sweet potatoes.
If your energy is still lower than you'd like after following these suggestions, try starting your meals, especially breakfast, with higher protein choices such as scrambled tofu, before eating the starches, such as toast, which increase sleep-promoting serotonin production in the body. The protein at the beginning of the meal can block this effect that starches have.
Broadly speaking, aim for your plate to be equal parts fruit, veg, legumes and grains.
If you are concerned that you're not following a balanced diet, both Physician's Committee and Plant-Based Health Professionals UK have excellent free 21-day meal programs that help you to get complete plant-based nutrition high in plant nutrients and starches and low in unnecessary fat and ultra-processed foods.
Sometime all it takes is time for your body to adjust to its new food source and start to feel energised.
The final aspect to address is boredom with your meals. If your vegan diet is going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight on January 31st, then fine, just muscle through. If, however, this is a glass slipper relationship, then you might need to start putting some effort in now. All lifelong love affairs require work and dedication and this is no different. Make a list of the meals you ate and enjoyed as an omnivore and think about ways to adapt them to your new vegan life. Plant-based meats can help with this transition. If you like sausages, mash and veg, try the same meal with veggie sausages. If you like beef chilli, try the same recipe with soy mince. Swap chicken for chickpeas in your favourite curry. If you liked a tuna sandwich for lunch, try this No-Tuna filling instead. Have a look at this food substitution chart for ideas. Most of us, whether we're vegan or omnivore, have very few meals in our repertoire which we recycle on a regular basis. That doesn't need to change now that you're vegan. Write a list of your omnivore meals and think of ways to adapt them so that you can enjoy the same range of foods as you did before. For snacks, a palmful of nuts does the trick, as does a quick healthy smoothie. Popcorn is another good one. Try it sprinkled with nutritional yeast. A bowl of non-dairy fruit yoghurt is easy and filling. Toast with nut butter or mashed avocado also makes a filling snack. A couple of dried apricots and some almonds is one of my favourites. I keep them out on the kitchen counter to make them accessible. Healthy snacks sitting in a cupboard are more likely to stay there. If you're at a loss for ideas, the Veganuary site has a wealth of recipes.
It's still early days and any major life change, which this is, requires time. Focus on the short term and enjoy the foods you are now including rather than thinking about the foods you have left behind. If you want inspiration then have a listen to this excellent podcast featuring Dr. Alan Desmond, a Consultant Gastroenterologist talking about a Healthier and Happier Gut in 4 Weeks. His enthusiasm is infectious. Good luck and I hope the shoe fits.
Please be aware that a plant-based diet is a very effective way to lose weight, so if you are taking medication please consult your healthcare professional as medication doses might need altering as you become lighter and healthier. Also, anyone on a purely plant-based diet requires vitamin B12 supplementation of at least 10 micrograms a day or 2000 micrograms a week (British Dietetic Association).