Anne Hathaway first went vegan in 2012 as a way to lose weight for a movie role.
Almost immediately, the actor struggled with low energy levels — a reality that prompted her to ditch the diet altogether nearly two years later.
She was out for dinner with her co-star Matt Damon and her husband when it happened.
“I was the only chick and I’m the vegan, and everyone’s just going with the flow so I asked, ‘Is your fish local?'” Hathaway said. “And they said, ‘Do you see that fjord?’ So I had a piece of salmon, and my brain felt like a computer rebooting.”
Hathaway’s complaint about veganism is not unusual.
Lauren McNeill, a registered dietitian in Toronto, says the most common complaint from her vegan clients is that they struggle with low energy levels. However, this is probably due to how much — or how little — they’re eating.
“Many people don’t realize when switching over to a vegan diet that you need to be eating much more than you might be used to,” McNeill told Global News.
“Plant-based foods are much less calorie-dense than animal foods, meaning you will likely need to eat more to feel full. People who report low levels of energy on a vegan diet might simply not be eating enough.”
“Based on Hathaway’s comments, I’d be curious about what she was choosing on a vegan diet,” she said. “I think it can be a healthy choice for whatever reason you choose to be vegan, but it can require some extra planning to make sure your needs are met.”
McNeill recommends her clients follow the Healthy Plate method.
“…Half of your plate is vegetables or fruit, a quarter of your plate is plant-based proteins (like beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, edamame, nuts or seeds) and a quarter of your plate is whole grains (like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, bulgar, oats or quinoa),” she said.
“Canada’s new food guide is based on this method, and for good reason. This might not be possible all the time, but it’s what we do most of the time that really makes a difference.”
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If done properly, a vegan diet should be energizing, satisfying and packed with protein.
“If you are eating a well-balanced, diverse plant-based diet and eating enough food for your body, you will get enough protein,” McNeill said.
Protein is abundant in a plant-based diet, according to McNeill. If you think you need more energy from your meals, try beans, lentils and other legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products like tofu, edamame, tempeh and soy milk.
“We need much less protein than many people think — about 0.85 grams per kg of body weight — meaning that someone who weighs 150 pounds needs about 58 grams of protein per day,” she added.
Going completely vegan can be intimidating. McNeill understands this, but she wants to emphasize the good that a plant-based diet can do for your health and the environment.
“The livestock sector has been shown to generate more greenhouse gases than all cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships in the world combined, with over 18 per cent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions attributed to farmed animals,” she said.
“Following a plant-based diet has been shown to reduce risk of developing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.”
For McNeill, making an effort to eat more plant-based foods is a step in the right direction, even if you don’t go completely vegan.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone is on their own journey,” she said.
“Most everyone could benefit from incorporating more plant-based meals into their day if going completely vegan doesn’t feel right for them at this time.”
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However, Tsui — who specializes in disordered eating — warns that veganism can sometimes be used to mask disordered eating behaviour. Before going vegan, Tsui encourages her clients to think about the intention behind the switch.
“Are you doing it because of ethical reasons or because you think of it as ‘healthy?'” she said.
“In the new Canada’s Food Guide, there is a push toward choosing more plant-based foods. However, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to eat 100 per cent plant-based in order to be healthy.”
Both McNeill and Tsui would recommend that you consult a dietitian to ensure your switch to veganism goes smoothly. Here are some other starting points for staying healthy while on a plant-based diet.
Focus on what you’re adding, rather than on what you’re taking away
When transitioning to a vegan diet, McNeill says there’s a tendency to eliminate foods without finding replacements, and that can be problematic.
“Focusing on what we’re adding in rather than taking away helps to ensure that we’re not cutting out any food groups and getting all the nutrients we need,” said McNeill.
“For example, if you used to love eating scrambled eggs, try replacing it with a tofu scramble. If you always ate a tuna sandwich for lunch, try replacing it with a simple chickpea mash recipe.”
Slowly but surely, your meals will become less dominated by animal byproducts, and soon, they’ll be totally plant-based.
Tsui is also a big proponent of the slow and steady approach.
“Start by taking a look at your eating habits. What are some meals or recipes that you already make that are already vegan or can be made vegan with one or two substitutes? Then branch out from there,” said Tsui.
“It’s very common to dive in with both feet, but people end up getting overwhelmed and then they give up.”
Tsui will often recommend that her clients pick one to two days in the week to designate as “new recipe” days. “If it works out, great, add it to your repertoire. If it doesn’t, it’s just one day of the week,” she said.
A vegan diet will require additional planning to ensure you’re incorporating a variety of foods and vitamins to meet your needs.
Remember, taste changes and evolves over time
McNeill likes to prepare her clients for a new diet that may not be very palatable at first.
“Give yourself some time, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make the change overnight,” she told Global News.
“There are some people who can go vegan overnight, but most take a much longer time than that to adjust.”
McNeill also recommends working with a registered dietitian when making these changes to ensure you’re not missing any vital nutrients.
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For Tsui, becoming vegan will be similar to any other change in diet — it will require trying different things.
“It is going to require a little bit of experimentation,” she said. “Maybe you start with the ‘less healthy’ options as part of that transition.”
Tsui has heard from her clients that taste buds adjust over time.
You should be taking vitamins
According to McNeill, if you follow a vegan diet, you should be taking a vitamin B12 supplement with a minimum of 50 micrograms per day, or 1,000 micrograms three to four times per week.
“Some vegan food is fortified with vitamin B12, like most plant-based milk, nutritional yeast and many vegan meat alternatives, but I still recommend taking a supplement for a more reliable source,” said McNeill.
“Not getting enough vitamin B12 can cause anemia, fatigue and difficulty thinking or concentrating.”
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McNeill also suggests clients take a vitamin D supplement whether they follow a vegan diet or not, especially in the winter.
“Some people may benefit from taking a plant-derived omega-3 supplement as well, especially if they don’t consume omega-3-rich foods like flax seeds, hemp hearts, chia seeds or walnuts very often,” said McNeill.
Tsui recommends vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega 3 to both her vegan and non-vegan clients.
“Living in Canada… (vitamin D) is probably a supplement almost everyone needs. We don’t get enough sun here in Canada, and even when we do, we’re bundled up or have sunscreen on,” Tsui said.
“You don’t necessarily have to be vegan to need an omega-3 supplement… it could be anyone not eating two servings of fatty fish per week,” said Tsui.
“Our high omega-3 fish would be salmon, tuna or trout. I always joke that it’s (also the) small, stinky fish, like mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring… although those are less popular.”
Tsui’s main concern for vegans is finding a vegan source of these supplements since all three are typically derived from animal byproducts.
She recommends working with a dietitian to find what’s right for you, and McNeill agrees.
“Getting regular bloodwork will provide a more personalized look into what changes should be made in your diet or what supplements might be beneficial for each individual,” McNeill said.