Your diet, or way of eating as I prefer to refer to it, should be flexible and adapt with you. I know that my ‘way of eating’ has changed so much over the last decade. From eating gluten, to going gluten free, to trying out a primarily raw, vegan diet to the other end of the spectrum with paleo, and then to a pure potato diet in my first trimester (hehe), I’ve tried almost everything.
One of the most common things we help clients with is feeling tired. I mean, who isn’t tired these days? Of course, anyone can suffer from fatigue and burnout regardless of how you eat, but as plant-based eating becomes more popular, I wanted to highlight some of the factors that can contribute to really low energy that are specific to plant-based eating. There’s often a really simple explanation!
You’ve probably heard the argument that “everything, including plants, has some amount of protein”. While this is true, you’d have to eat a whole lot of broccoli (about 10 cups) to get the amount of protein in one chicken breast. All joking aside, while it is absolutely possible to get enough protein on a vegan diet, you do have to make an effort, and I find women especially overestimate how much protein they’re eating.
Protein helps to balance your blood sugar levels, which leads to more stable energy, less cravings and better weight maintenance (as an added bonus). It’s also an important building block of your hormones and neurotransmitters, which play important roles in energy production. When we have a client who is recovering from fatigue or burnout or other hormone imbalances like a thyroid condition, ensuring they have an adequate protein intake is one of the primary considerations. You can order a hormone test here.
Women should aim for at least 20g of protein at each main meal to balance your blood sugar and men usually require more (this number varies depending on the individual). It’s also a good idea to include protein from a variety of sources, since many (though not all) plant-based protein sources aren’t complete, which means they are lacking in an essential amino acid or two. You may also need to add in a plant-based protein powder to get your protein up, especially at breakfast.
Here are a few examples of great plant-based protein sources:
I love to sprinkle some hemp seeds on a meal to increase the protein and Omega 3 content.
First thing’s first - if you’re eating refined foods like bread, pasta, packaged or processed foods and sugary foods every day, step one is to cut back on the processed foods and aim for a colourful, whole food vegan diet. These types of foods are fine on occasion but lead to major blood sugar fluctuations that will lead you on an energy roller coaster. Now that being said, by its very design, a typical vegan diet, which is primarily based on plants (which are mostly carbs), is a pretty high carb diet. For many people, this works just fine. For others, too many carbs, even nutrient-dense ones like whole grains, starchy veggies and beans makes them feel sleepy.
If you eat carbs already, but have really strong cravings for sweets or things like pizza, bread and pasta, if you’ve started to gain weight, and/or you feel sleepy after meals, it could be a sign that you’re eating too many carbs or at least too many in one sitting.
If starchy carbohydrates like rice, bread, pasta or potatoes are usually the star of your plate, you probably just need to re-organize your plate. A general guideline I often recommend is for you to fill at least half of your plate with low carb veggies (i.e. green veggies, bell peppers, cruciferous veggies), include at least a serving of protein (i.e. 1 cup cup cooked lentils) and healthy fats (i.e. avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil, olives) and then add a serving of your grain or starch. I would aim for roughly a quarter of your plate. Not every meal has to look like this, but if you struggle with low energy since switching to a plant-based diet, make this your goal around 75% of the time.
One of the most important nutrients to keep an eye on on a vegan diet is B12. You really cannot get enough B12 from a vegan diet alone. Even if you are eating fortified foods like some plant/nut milks, soy products, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast, you really should supplement. Deficiency of B12 can cause anemia and nervous system damage, which is of course hugely important for energy.
Fatigue is a possible symptom of deficiency, but also:
B12 is best absorbed in smaller amounts so you should take one B12 supplement daily providing at least 10 micrograms, or take a weekly B12 supplement providing at least 2000 micrograms. I recommend everyone get their blood work done once a year or so, but go based on symptoms as well, like if you’re exhausted, are losing hair, or have low thyroid for example.
Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, which is the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. This is very important for energy levels. It’s also needed for growth and repair (i.e. skin, hair, nails), it helps with detoxification and helps make neurotransmitters, all of which has an impact on energy.
One of the common causes of iron deficiency is low absorption. Heme iron is the kind of iron in animal products and it is generally the easiest form to obtain from food. Non-heme iron is in plant-based sources like beans and legumes, seeds and some veggies and it is generally harder to absorb. These foods also contain something called phytic acid, which can bind to minerals in the digestive tract, such as iron, copper, zinc and manganese, reducing absorption. Digestive issues like low stomach acid (i.e. heartburn, bloating, GERD), dysbiosis, or taking acid blockers can also impact your iron levels.
The first thing you should do if you suspect you have low iron is to get a blood test from your family doctor. If your levels are low, there’s a few things you can do. Firstly, make sure you’re eating enough plant-based protein sources. Deal with the root cause of your digestive issues like IBS, parasites, candida, bloating, heartburn, etc. if you have them. You can also squeeze lemon juice over iron-rich meals to enhance iron absorption because vitamin C is an iron facilitator. Take steps to reduce the phytic acid content of foods by cooking them properly, avoid coffee near iron-rich meals or supplements because it blocks absorption, and don’t take iron supplements with other mineral supplements as they can also compete for absorption. This is why getting your iron in a multivitamin/mineral formula can actually be counterintuitive.
As I mentioned above, legumes and beans, and many plants for that matter, contain phytic acid. Phytic acid may be one of the properties that makes them so good for you, but it also reduces their digestibility and can block the absorption of some minerals. Many essential minerals are also involved in energy production.
If you suspect this is your issue, cut back on the amount of beans and grains you’re eating, make sure you’re not always eating the same foods, and cook foods appropriately, which reduces the phytic acid content. Grains and legumes should be rinsed and soaked before cooking them - anywhere from 12-48 hours. Generally, the harder and bigger they are, the longer they should be soaked. If you eat a lot of raw foods, try to incorporate more cooked meals as well.
Most people feel really good once they switch to a [whole food] vegan diet, because it’s generally much healthier and higher in nutrients than how they were eating before. You also have to be more conscientious of what you’re eating, which often leads to healthier choices. But, just because you are vegan, doesn’t mean you can’t get sick, or feel burnt out, or tired, and it’s important to check in every so often to see if you aren’t really feeling your best (p.s. You should do this regardless of which way of eating you subscribe to!). It usually just takes a really simple dietary tweak to get your energy levels back up!
If, despite these considerations, you are still struggling with low energy or need more guidance, you can book a complimentary 15 minute info session here to learn about our 1:1 Nutrition Coaching. A personalized nutrition plan will take into account your unique dietary and lifestyle factors that may be impacting your health and find a solution that works for you by addressing the root cause(s) of your symptoms.