A meatless diet can be healthy, for sure, but vegetarians (and anyone on a plant based diet) 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 vegetarian diet. It's frustrating. You made a change for your health, but now you feel worse.
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 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 sometimes, for vegetarians (and those following a vegan diet) fatigue is because we’re not getting enough nutrients.
Common Reasons for Vegetarian Fatigue
I should be clear that when I say "Vegetarian Fatigue", I don't mean getting tired of a vegetarian diet. It's the fatigue many can experience when new to a vegetarian diet. Here are the most common reasons.
- You're not getting enough protein, particularly complete proteins.
- Your body missing some 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 an overall vitamin deficiency. Unfortunately, some nutrients vital to our health are found naturally only in animals and animal products.
For what you can do today, check out my 5 Easy Ways to Boost Energy on a Vegetarian Diet.
How Much Protein Do I Need on a Vegetarian 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 post Vegetarian Meal Plans here on this blog. And honestly, when I say meal planning, I'm also saying protein planning.
For me, this planning 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 than, say, a hard boiled egg or a handful of roasted pumpkin seeds.
In another post, I focus on how much protein you may need, and ways to add extra protein to meals.
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.
Whaat? 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?
It means you need more protein, more nutrients and more vitamins on a vegetarian or plant-based diet than on one that includes meat and fish.
Therefore, your goal 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, no more than ½ teaspoon, and massage it with your fingers, as in this delicata squash and kale salad. Chopping and mincing the leaves accomplishes the same thing, so add some kale or spinach (another leafy green with thick cellular walls) to your next smoothie. Here's a link to one of my favorites - a strawberry and spinach smoothie.
- 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.
- Focus your diet on whole foods, including whole grains. Minimize processed foods in your diet.
- Take advantage of food synergies. Some foods, when combined, pack a more powerful boost of nutrients. See below for examples.
Here are some examples of foods that when combined can act as a powerful boost of nutrients, and can increase the the bioavailability of micronutrients.
Foods high in Vitamin C, when combined with foods high in iron, increase the absorption of iron. So, next time you make spinach, add orange segments, diced red bell peppers, or sun-dried tomatoes to the pan. A great example is this Moroccan Citrus Salad with quinoa.
Both tomatoes and broccoli have been researched extensively for their cancer-fighting properties (particularly for prostate cancer). A study by the University of Illinois found that when combined, there is a measurable additive effect. Other studies have shown that this combo boosts immunity. So add some broccoli and tomatoes to a frittata for breakfast!
Enhance the antioxidant capacity of green tea by 5 - 10 times (!) by adding a squeeze of lemon to your next cup of tea.
Add nutritional yeast to soups, stews, popcorn, and egg dishes. Nutritional yeast is a complete protein. A complete protein contains all 9 essential amino acids which your body cannot manufacture on its own.
Combine beans with rice to make a complete protein of a dish. (Animal products contain all 9 essential amino acids.) This can be in a broccoli cranberry salad or this Ashe Mast Persian Soup
Vitamin deficiencies that cause fatigue on a vegetarian diet
But it's not just about bioavailability.
- Vitamin 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 nutritional yeast in your meals as an ingredient or topping (as with popcorn).
- Take B12 supplements.
- Include fortified cereals, whole grains 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 consuming 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.
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 either. 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.
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.
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