What Going Vegan Does To Your Body, According To A Nutritionist
If you've been flirting with saying goodbye to dairy, eggs, and meat, you've probably got some questions. The myriad myths about veganism — "But what about protein!?" — can keep people from embracing it even when they want to. If you're looking to shake your eating habits up, it'll be helpful to know what going vegan will and won't do to your body.
A lot of people become vegan for health reasons, and that's understandable. "Going vegan has the potential to do wonders for your health," says a certified holistic nutrition consultant and founder of Gut of Integrity Stephanie Papadakis. These benefits can be as wide-ranging as added boosts of energy and clearer skin.
Many people become vegan for ethical reasons (myself included) rather than health reasons, but vegan diets are neither automatically healthy nor ethical. Mainstream veganism is often marketed as a trendy lifestyle change. This can draw attention away from the exploitation of migrant workers responsible for growing crops, or encourage gentrification when developers prioritize vegan cafés over businesses run by folks in the community. The most common ethical reasons for going vegan — animal welfare, or sustainability — can become murkier when people don't take this context into account.
Inside your body, though, going vegan will make some changes. This eating style is not a magical cure-all nor a surefire way to lose all your protein. To clear up some myths, here are four things going vegan will do for your health, and three things going vegan won't do.
1. Yes, You Can Get Enough Protein
When I introduce myself as vegan, 99% of the time I will be asked: "But like, how are you getting enough protein?" Papadakis says that the idea that you can't get enough protein as a vegan is simply false. "You absolutely can get enough protein on a vegan diet; you just have to be strategic about it," she tells Bustle.
This includes learning what combinations work best for your body. "Grains, beans/legumes, and nuts and seeds on their own are not complete proteins, but can be combined to make a complete protein." If you're not sure how to make those combinations, Papadakis has a pretty simple tip. "At each meal, eat a combination of the following to make a complete protein: grains + nuts/seeds; grains + legumes; or legumes + nuts/seeds." And there you have it: protein!
2. No, It Won't Make You Automatically Super Healthy
"A vegan diet won’t make you the healthiest person on the planet," Papadakis says. Especially when you're first starting out as a vegan, it's tempting to grab all the fake meats and processed faux-cheeses out there. Those can be tasty ways to jazz up a plate of greens, but "as with any diet, it’s important to eat whole, unrefined foods instead of processed and refined foods," Papadakis says. Those "chicken" patties in the frozen food section with a long list of ingredients you've never heard of? You might want to save them for those nights you just don't feel like cooking, instead of making them an everyday staple.
3. Yes, It May Shift Your Bowel Movements
Fiber is the part of plants that human bodies can't digest, and it also helps regulate your bowel movements. As you're shifting into a vegan lifestyle, you'll be eating more plants, and therefore, more fiber, and therefore, poop more.
"Because plant foods inherently have more fiber, you may become more regular and/or go more frequently," Papadakis tells Bustle. "This is due to the higher fiber content of a vegan diet and the simultaneous increase in carbohydrates that ferment in the gut (which could possibly cause irritable bowel syndrome for some)." But getting enough fiber-rich fruits and veggies in your diet also means that you'll have higher amounts of healthy gut bacteria, Papadakis says, which can translate into a stronger overall digestive tract.
4. No, It Won't Give You Anemia
It's true that eating a vegan diet will likely lower your iron stores, but it's a myth that this will necessarily lead to the blood disorder anemia. According to Papadakis, it's all about how you balance your sources of iron. Plants do contain a form of iron, known as non-heme iron, that the body has difficulty absorbing. However, knowledge is your friend here: "Combining non-heme iron foods like legumes and grains in dishes with vitamin C-rich foods (like beans and rice with salsa or hummus with lemon juice) can increase absorption by about five times," Papadakis says.
5. Yes, You Will Need To Supplement
Alas, if you're strictly vegan, you won't be able to get all the vitamins and minerals that your body needs on a daily basis, Papadakis tells Bustle. Vitamins like A, B12, D, iron, calcium, zinc, and omega-3s are found in animal products, not plants that you'd typically eat. Fortunately, they are all pretty simple to supplement if you're vegan, so you don't need to throw in the towel just yet.
You can get creative with how you get these nutrients. For example, you can get your daily serving of B12 with a couple of tablespoons of nutritional yeast.
6. No, You Won't Lose Muscle Mass Or Get Weaker
It just isn't true that you'll lose your hard-earned swole-ness if you're an athlete transitioning to a vegan diet. Sure, you'll need to pay careful attention to your nutrition, but if you're deeply into your sport, you're probably already doing that. Keeping your food mostly unprocessed is important for anyone trying to build or maintain their gym strength, including for vegans. In fact, some of the most powerful strength athletes on the planet are vegan.
7. Yes, You May Have More Energy When You're Vegan
It takes your body a lot less energy to digest plants than it does meat as long as you're combining the right amino acids together, so you've got a lot more energy to devote elsewhere if you're vegan. For example, you can spend that extra vegan energy working out, building a pillow fort to relax in, or sprinting toward the Girl Scout cookie stands for some Thin Mints because yep, they're vegan.
If you're ready to go vegan, welcome to the fold. It's not a quick-fix for all health issues, but it certainly does come with some cool benefits (your membership card, like your Hogwarts letter, will be delivered by owl). Just remember to plan ahead.
"Be ready to spend more time in the kitchen prepping your food so you have enough to eat," Papadakis says, "and bring snacks with you when you think there might not be anything to eat at that party on Saturday night." Because no one's ever said no to extra snacks.
Stephanie Papadakis, certified holistic nutrition consultant and founder of Gut of Integrity