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I love barbecue. I love bacon. I really, really, really love cheeseburgers. I was a vegetarian during and after college, but once I got back on the meat train about five years ago, I cranked that bad boy up to 100 mph, devouring every juicy, delicious piece of pork belly I saw on a menu and never looked back.
But, like many people, I watched What the Health. And even though there are a lot of inaccuracies in that movie, there are also a lot of valid points about the meat industry as well as the damage we're doing to our bodies by consuming copious amounts of animal flesh. The part that truly grabbed my attention, though, was that people had healed their chronic pain and inflammation after going meat-free for just two weeks. I was fresh off a herniated disc in my back and, though I had been in physical therapy for a few months and was generally better, I had lingering inflammation that I couldn't quite kick. WTH made me wonder if my high-fat, low-carb diet was the key culprit. I ate a pretty minimal amount of refined carbs, noshed on a decent amount of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, but also turned to eggs, Greek yogurt, salmon, chicken, hard cheese, and, in case I haven't made it clear yet, a decent stream of (delicious) red meat. (Related: There's One Big Thing Missing from the What the Health Documentary)
I decided to try going vegan for 30 days and see if it helped my back pain. I quickly learned it takes about 30 days to feel like you're even remotely in control of this new eating method—and about six weeks to truly feel good on it. Now, almost three months later, I'm amazed at how much better my workouts feel, how much better my back feels, and how much truly healthier I feel. (Related: Why You Need to Change Your Diet When You're Injured)
But those first 30 days were rough. And I discovered there's a heckuva lot more to going vegan than just cutting out meat and dairy.
Here, 12 things no one tells you about ditching meat.
1. You'll be super bloated at first.
Though I was trying out veganism to minimize inflammation, like any fitness-focused gal, I was, of course, hoping there'd be a bonus of keeping my weight under control with minimal effort. So you can imagine the worry when my stomach ballooned like I'd been pounding beers and stayed that way for 14 days too long. The fear that a vegan diet actually makes you bloated 24/7 was enough to make me consider ditching the healing eating plan.
"Most Americans eat 10 to 15 grams of fiber a day instead of the recommended 30 to 40 grams," says Jill Nussinow, R.D.N., vegan expert and author of The Veggie Queen cookbook. Vegetables, fruits, and grains are all fiber, which means going vegan overloads your body with the stuff. "Eating too much fiber too fast for what your body can handle will cause bloating because it takes time for your gut bacteria to change and process it, especially the fiber from legumes," she says, adding that the bloat should settle down after two weeks (accurate). In the meantime, drink lots of water to help push everything through—"like a mud clog in a pipe"—and add in probiotic foods like miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi, she advises.
2. You'll eat way more, and way more often.
I'm a pretty hungry human to start with, but the first two weeks of going meat-free I was ravenous on a regular basis, so much so that it was interfering with my schedule. I couldn't go more than an hour and a half without my stomach rumbling and my natural (over)reaction to low blood sugar setting in—a sudden flip to whiny, moody, all-consuming feed-me-now urgency.
Turns out, there's a reason: "Plants are digested more quickly as they don't sit in your gut the way that meat does, so you might feel hungrier, especially if you aren't including higher sources of plant protein or fat, which help keep you satiated," says Nussinow. Early on, upping my fats definitely helped—TBH, there are worse prescriptions than to add avocado and nut butter to everything—but even two months later, I find I'm hungry quicker than I was as an omnivore.
3. You shouldn't go cold turkey.
Your gut bacteria prefers to eat fiber, but it adapts to munch on protein and whatever else you're feeding it when fiber isn't around. As Nussinow explained before, going vegan means you're significantly upping your fiber count, and it takes some time for your bacteria to adapt. "The more you grow your good bacteria, the better you can digest beans and fiber, which is what causes you to bloat," says Nanci Guest, R.D., C.S.C.S., a Toronto-based vegan sports nutritionist. Easing into a vegan diet helps your good bacteria build up.
There's also a psychological argument for not going cold turkey: Going vegan is like spending your whole life driving the same route to work, and then suddenly trying to navigate there via only backroads. It takes the simple and habitual act of eating and makes it difficult. Luckily, learning to navigate the grocery store, dinner parties, and restaurants becomes easier with time, but easing in and letting yourself rely on a few of the old, familiar roads can help increase your chances of sticking with it past the learning curve.
Guest recommends weaning off animal flesh—beef, chicken, fish, pork—while keeping in eggs and yogurt. Otherwise, it'll be so different for your system that you'll be more likely to give up. After four weeks, take the jump to full vegan.
4. Protein powders are your friend.
Hitting a high protein count based purely on whole plants can be hard, especially when you haven't learned all your plant-based sources yet. Adding a plant-based protein powder to your morning smoothie can be a serious savior (plus it'll keep you full longer in the a.m.). Any formulas with whey, casein, or egg whites are out, so look for hemp, pea, or brown rice protein, Nussinow advises. But be sure to find a brand with super-clean ingredients (we're aiming for clean here, after all).
5. It's really, really hard to eat on the go—especially breakfast.
Pretty much all healthy go-to snacks other than fruit are dairy-based (Greek yogurt, string cheese, eggs). A lot of mainstream protein bars have whey in them. Oatmeal and homemade smoothies will definitely be your savior, but trying to find a low-sugar version at the deli around the corner of your office? Yeah, right.
Keep an emergency food supply on hand, Nussinow advises: trail mix, vegan bars like Lara or GoMacro, even those individual peanut butter packets can be a huge help to beef up more accessible but less filling snacks like bananas. (Related: Vegan Alternatives for All Your Cheese Cravings)
6. It'll show you your food sensitivities.
I've long known that I have a sensitive digestive system. Bread, beer, bagels, certain vegetables, and other random sources make me nauseated, bloated, gassy, even sometimes inducing headaches. I minimized this for years by following a low-carb, high-fat diet. But going vegan, it's nearly impossible to eat less than 50 percent carbs if you want your protein to be above 10 percent (the majority of your plant-based protein sources are carb-heavy). The first few weeks, I steered clear of all grains other than quinoa (which is actually a seed) and offending vegetables. But after about six weeks, when my body leveled out and started to feel great on the refined-free, clean fuel I was putting in it, I realized while I had often said I am sensitive to carbs, I'm actually sensitive to refined carbs. And then I started to experiment a little: I bought a loaf of whole-grain bread and the gas that ensued earned wheat a spot on the sensitive list. Then I tried sprouted bread and was totally fine. I had been eating lots of sweet potatoes, but when I tried white potatoes, the sluggish digestion came with it. Getting your nutrition locked down means you're a lot more aware of when something doesn't agree with you.
The transition can be a good time to suss out offending foods, Nussinow says. "In general, you feel better choosing whole food. But there are people who are sensitive to nightshade vegetables, which include white potatoes, for whom sweet potatoes are still wonderful. Some people don't do well with a lot of grains, whole or not. And in that case, they should try rice or quinoa and fill in the meal with veggies, tofu, beans, tempeh."
7. You need to take vitamins.
Despite what What the Health said, studies show vegans are often deficient in not only B12, but also vitamin D (like everyone), omega-3s, calcium, and potentially iron. Studies on creatine show that fit vegetarians especially may benefit from adding the powder to their shakes since the nutrient comes from seafood. Additionally, Nussinow says you may want to add a probiotic to help with the bloating (she likes Thrive and Genuine Health Advanced Gut Health, which are high quality and vegan). (Here, more nutrition mistakes vegans make—and how to fix them.)
8. It's more helpful to frame it as going "plant-based."
Your options are going to be limited (relatively) pretty much anywhere you eat or grocery shop. And that means it's really, really easy to get excited when a menu boasts a vegan mac and cheese or your favorite coffee shop has vegan pastries. But remember: "Crap is crap whether or not it's vegan," Nussinow says. My goal in going vegan was to minimize inflammation in my body, which meant steering clear of animal products and refined carbs and maximizing my plant intake. I found early on that viewing my diet through the lens of being plant-based helped me zero in on the dishes that were vegan and healthy—salads, grain bowls, stews—and expend less willpower steering clear of the ones that were vegan and crap.
9. You'll eat way healthier.
Okay, maybe this is one thing they do tell you about going vegan. But these days, every nutrition nut is so obsessed with how amazing *their* diet is—be it keto, high protein, the Whole 30—that it's really easy to write off someone saying, "I just feel so good all the time eating vegan." Because the reality is, most of that is vain praise. I've been there—I loved eating high-fat because, with low amounts of carbs, I was never bloated. And I felt like I ate pretty healthily—green smoothies, plain Greek yogurt, so many avocados. But when you're vegan, you can't sneak a bite of a buttery croissant or have cheese and crackers for dinner. Pretty much all refined carbs involve butter, eggs, or milk, so you're steering clear of that devilish category. (No more late-night grilled cheese sandwiches for me!) What you're left with: Fruit, vegetables, pulses, and grains. And with less calorie-dense foods and a lack of single-source proteins, you're loading a lot more into a salad or a grain bowl to reach the same energy and protein intake, so you're seriously kicking up your micronutrient intake.
10. Sunday meal prep has never been so important.
Because vegan meals are pretty much all produce and grains, there's significantly more cleaning, chopping, and cooking involved with each meal. Sure, being a healthy omnivore can take just as much work and time as being a healthy vegan, as Guest points out. But I found that most meat-free meals involve a lot more ingredients than chicken over greens does. Plus, in the early days, you're still learning your footing around things like plant proteins and nondairy flavorings. What I found: Life is a heckuva lot easier when I take the time to look up recipes, grocery shop, and do light prep at the start of the week. (Related: 5 Genius Dairy Swaps You've Never Thought Of)
11. You learn a ton about nutrition.
Going vegan cuts massive categories of our typical go-to foods—namely, protein—which forces you to look at a ton of food you've probably never really thought about the nutritional composition of before. Tahini and nutritional yeast are weirdly loaded with protein. Sweet potatoes are a great source of carbs and will keep you full for longer than most vegan foods. Soy milk, soy yogurt, tempeh, tofu, edamame, and many meat alternatives are all from the same source of protein, so for the sake of nutritional variety, you can't only eat these all day. Suddenly you're expending a lot more energy thinking about how balanced this meal really is because your protein count and carb count isn't as cut-and-dried as chicken and rice. (Related: 10 High-Protein Plant-Based Foods That Are Easy to Digest)
I've been a nutrition writer for six years; I can spew off what you should eat pre-workout, post-workout, midday, late night, when you're nauseated, when you're hungover, all without a second thought. But I was exhausted trying to cobble together my meals for the first four, maybe six weeks. It's exhausting relearning how to eat healthy. But, in reality, so was learning what a properly balanced omnivore meal looked like—that was just so long ago most of us don't remember.
12. It'll heal your relationship with carbs.
Back to the whole carb thing for a sec. We all know carbs get a seriously bad rap and that, while you should stay away from the refined kinds, the ones from fruits and vegetables are totally healthy. Upping my carb intake from my previous 20 percent to about 50 percent was a lot to wrap my head around, especially in the early phases when bloating—something that is typically tied to carb intake for me—was in full force. But framing this whole endeavor as plant-based meant I was pretty steadily steering clear of refined carbs and all my intake was fruits, beans, grains, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. Realizing that my body doesn't hate carbs, it hates refined carbs and isn't crazy about grains, has helped heal my relationship with the macro. Plus because I'm eating more carbohydrates (and exclusively ones my body agrees with), I feel so much more fueled during my high-intensity workouts.