A meatless diet can be healthy, for sure, but vegetarians need to be sure they’re getting enough nutrients in their diets. Otherwise, in their search for better health, they can end up with unintended health issues. For example, experiencing low-energy is not uncommon for people new to a vegan diet. And you can feel fatigue on a vegetarian diet as well. It’s frustrating.
Because, hel-lo, none of us are trying to achieve low energy. We want to feel the best us.
God knows, there are a number of excellent reasons for fatigue on any given day. Poor sleep and / or stress are common culprits with our packed-to-the-gills lives. 🙋♀️ I don’t know about you, but I try to fit as much life into every day as I possibly can, and often more than I can realistically handle 🤪🤪🤪.
But often, for vegetarians, fatigue is because we’re not getting enough nutrients.
(Disclaimer: our dog Paprika (pictured above, after an exhausting romp in the park) does not follow a vegetarian diet.)
The most common reasons for feeling fatigue on a vegetarian diet:
- There’s not enough protein in your diet.
- You are generally not consuming enough of the key nutrients that your body needs. This is often because plant-based nutrients aren’t as bioavailable to our bodies as animal-based nutrients.
- Your body is experiencing a vitamin deficiency. Unfortunately, some nutrients vital to our health are found naturally only in animals and animal products.
What does bioavailability mean?
First, let’s talk about bioavailability. Bioavailability is a term often bandied about, and refers to the amount of nutrients actually absorbed and utilized by our bodies when consumed. Generally, our bodies absorb nutrients found in animal products more easily than those found in plants. And unsurprisingly, this is affected by our health, age, overall diet, and the food itself – how it’s processed, combined with other foods, and it’s structure.
The structure of the food?
A great example of how the structure of food affects the bioavailability of its nutrients is kale. Raw kale has stiff cellular walls, which are weakened when massaged, chopped or cooked. Weakening the cellular walls of kale allows our body to better access and absorb kale’s many nutrients.
How does bioavailability translate to a vegetarian diet?
This means you need more protein, more nutrients and more vitamins on a plant-based diet. Introducing more vegetarian meals into your diet often requires more more careful planning for your meals and snacks than you might have needed in the past.
In fact, I think meal planning is so important, I publish a Vegetarian Meal Plans series here on this blog. Please sign up for it if you’re interested in doing some meal planning of your own. Just be sure to check the box for Vegetarian Meal Plans on the form. I publish roughly 2 Vegetarian Meal Plans per month.
Protein planning, for me, is Step 1 in fighting fatigue. If I don’t get enough protein, I’m seriously dragging by mid-afternoon. And frankly, without some kind of planning, I’m more likely to reach for a cookie when my energy flags. So last month, I focused on ways to add extra protein to meals, and gave a couple recipe examples for you to try.
Step 2 is to get the max nutritional benefit possible out of each meal or snack.
Here are some ideas how you can do this:
- Next time you make a kale salad, massage the kale to break down its walls. Lightly salt the kale and add a drizzle of olive oil to make it super easy.
- Eat a diet balanced with both raw and cooked plants. Generally, tomatoes, carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, peppers supply more antioxidants to your body when cooked than when consumed raw.
- Add tomatoes (especially sun-dried tomatoes!), citrus or sweet bell peppers to cooked beans or your next helping of cooked spinach. The combination of some foods increase the absorption of certain micronutrients. For example, eating foods high in vitamin C + food high in iron = much increased absorption of iron.
Vitamin deficiencies that cause fatigue on a vegetarian diet
But it’s not just about bioavailability.
- B12 is the big one to watch. Vitamin B12 is one of the most crucial vitamins we need for continued good health. Unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, it’s found naturally only in animal products. Here are some ways to get your B12.
- Consume eggs and dairy, if your vegetarian diet embraces them.
- Include fortified nutritional yeast in your meals as an ingredient or topping (as with popcorn).
- Take B12 supplements.
- Include fortified cereals and veggie burgers (especially soy-based) in your diet.
- Note: Some forms of mushrooms, such as dried shiitake mushrooms and lion’s mane, may contain B12, but studies are still ongoing.
- Calcium, particularly if you follow a non-dairy vegetarian diet, needs attention. Look for calcium-fortified cereals, juices, and plant-based milks, in addition to tofu, edamame, soy nuts, and dark green vegetables.
- Iron. Plant-based sources of iron are not as bioavailable as animal sources of iron. (See the bullet in the above section on how to increase the bioavailability of iron). Increase your consumption of nuts, beans, leafy greens, and fortified grain products. And use a cast iron skillet!
- Zinc. We don’t need a lot of it, but a zinc deficiency will always result in a loss of energy. And vegan and vegetarians should aim for 200% of the DV to allow for bioavailability. This is fairly easy with a well-rounded vegetarian diet that includes legumes, tofu, pumpkin seeds, quinoa and dairy.
Final thoughts …
If you’re feeling fatigue on a vegetarian diet, don’t ignore it or treat it as the new normal. Your body is signaling you that something is wrong. But don’t panic. There are many easy dietary solutions, if that’s the issue. As an important note, on-going fatigue or low-energy lasting for more than a few days can also be an indicator of a serious underlying health condition, or depression. These require consultation with your physician or medical practitioner. In truth, a strict vegetarian diet doesn’t work for everyone.
In the next few days, I’ll share my top 5 strategies for maintaining a great energy level without fatigue on a vegetarian diet.
Disclaimer: I’m not a physician, although my husband is. And I’m not a trained nutritionist. No information here should be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. Additionally, if you have other complicating medical issues, you should consult a physician or practitioner before adding supplements to your diet.
If you want to subscribe to this Vegetarian Meal Challenge Series, click here. This series provides additional support to those interested in moving their diet to one that is more vegetarian. Throughout the year, we’ll share information, recipes, best tools for the kitchen, and must-have meal starters you can prepare on a weekend that will help create easy meals all week long.