Emotional Changes you Might Experience when Switching to a Plant Based Diet: Dealing with Difficult Emotions, Depression, Sadness or Anxiety after Going VeganSep 15, 2023
- Last week’s episode and post on the physical changes or side effects we might experience when we go vegan
- Our online program and vegan cooking classes in My Brownble
- Our online course The Roadmap: Going Vegan Made Simple
- Our Youtube channel
- The vegan for life food guide
- The Vegan for Life book by registered dietitian nutritionists Virginia Messina and Jack Norris
- A great chart to help you figure out vitamin B12 supplementation for vegans
- The work of registered dietitians Virginia Messina, and Jack Norris
- Read this article on the importance of finding community as a vegan
- Read this article to find out what my main struggles were when I went vegan, and how to navigate some common social events when you eat in a different way
In last week’s episode and post I talked a lot about the physical changes you might experience when going vegan, and today we are again talking about those initial days, weeks or months as a new vegan when it comes to emotional changes you might go through, whether or not it's normal to experience difficult emotions, sadness or anxiety when you first switch to a plant based diet.
There are so many resources when it comes to our health and some of those physical changes one might go through, we hear endless talks about improvements in bloodwork, changes in digestive health, among others, but going vegan is a big shift when it comes to your eating habits, especially when it revolves around the relationships that fill your life, as well as making sure the new diet is satisfying, fulfilling and enjoyable for you.
Today we’re going to tackle those emotional aspects of making this change, and with each one I’ll share my top tips to help you navigate anything that needs a little course correction.
The biggest change I experienced when going vegan was precisely in the emotional side of things. When I first went vegan I felt so incredibly positive and hopeful about the changes I was making. I felt that I was doing something that helped other beings and as a huge animal lover this was a big deal for me. I felt great about helping the planet, and I was having lots of fun experimenting with new foods, and of course, my number one hobby, cooking, turned into this even better and brighter adventure. I was like a little detective trying to find ways to recreate all my favorites.
Veganism kept me busy, engaged, happy, cheerful, it physically made me feel great and full of energy, and as I've mentioned many times before, it made me, a very self-conscious, not very assertive, shy person, start practicing being different out in the world, speaking my mind and advocating for myself, which in turn made me practice the one thing I was needing the most: confidence.
In spite of it being huge in me being able to be more assertive and stand up for what I believed in, and in spite of all the wonderful ripples eating more plants can bring to your life, going vegan can sometimes come with its challenging moments. Due to the fact that it’s a change that is so deeply tied to our emotional and cultural connections, there are some aspects of your life that will need some adjustments, and I wanted to make sure to cover some of those emotional challenges in order to give you as much support and encouragement as I can in today's post and episode.
An important disclaimer...
This post and episode is meant as support, and is for informational purposes only. It's the personal experience I went through, and some of the stories I've heard from our readers, listeners and students, in the hopes that it helps you feel a little less alone, and especially guides you to getting the help you might need from a qualified physician, nutritionist or therapist. It is never meant to substitute individual medical or mental health advice.
Sometimes all we need to start finding support is to hear the experiences of other people who are walking the same path as us, and that's precisely the idea behind today's post and episode.
Food and emotions: The Misunderstanding of Emotional Eating
Although I'd like to discuss emotional eating in a separate post and episode all on its own because there's so much to say, we need to talk about it here because food is so intertwined with our emotional selves. For many of us food has meant comfort, sometimes solace, often times a distraction from difficult moments. It's true that we need to start feeling our feelings and let food just be food, but it's also true that we are emotional creatures by nature, and that food is inextricably linked to that.
Food is such a big part of our culture, it's part of celebrations, moments shared together, cultural narratives, family traditions. It's linked to us feeling better and comforted from the moment we are born and cry because we're hungry and get comfort and sustenance from our caregivers, all the way up to wanting something sweet when we go through heartache later on in life, or want to snack on something crunchy that will distract us during moments of anxiety or stress.
This is all part of being a normal human being that finds food pleasurable, distracting and comforting and there's no wonder that when we're faced with a big change like going vegan, emotions are shifted and the pieces begin to move.
Being attached to certain foods is normal (it’s how we’ve managed to evolve and survive from a biological standpoint). Going through any dietary change can challenge you emotionally, but after helping many people go vegan, and after going through this change myself, I've managed to see some areas in which we can place closer attention so that this transition isn't as challenging emotionally. Going vegan shouldn't be creating anxiety, sadness or difficulty, and I'll do my best to give you some tools, but know that having emotional attachments to food is normal, and the idea is not to go into a battle against yourself, but to put in new habits that will work for you specifically and slowly but surely also begin to find coping tools other than food so that emotional needs are met, while still understanding that food as comfort is also sometimes a part of normal eating.
Releasing "magic vegan" thinking
Through the years I've grown increasingly worried with the promises and expectations many advocates are placing on a vegan diet. I've watched films and read blogs in which well meaning advocates talk about a plant-based diet as a way to cure and prevent all major diseases, as a way to cure depression or anxiety disorders and much more. You know me and the issues I have with these types of claims. Every single person is different, and although a plant-based diet could provide great changes in your health and feelings of well-being, we need to stop looking at it as a magical diet, and just focus on it being a way of eating that we ourselves need to tweak and adjust to meet our needs and find the place that is right for us individually. No two of us are the same, and our own individual needs have to be the ones that mark the pace and the changes and adjustments we need to make to help a vegan diet fit into our lives and not the other way around.
We also need to respect our bodies and take any medication that is required if we have a specific condition, and with that, we need to accept that perhaps our minds and emotional selves need special attention and care just like a diabetic needs their insulin. Our mental health should always come first, and we need to make sure we're taking proper care of it, either through medication, therapy or other forms of treatment, and that includes the way we treat ourselves and the pressures we put on ourselves when making this change.
Are emotional changes normal after going vegan?
In a nutshell, yes, but also, it depends. If you're struggling with mental health issues, I think it's always very important to mention you’re embarking on this change to your healthcare provider or a qualified therapist to get the help and support you need. However, any big changes in our habits, especially with something as deeply social and connected with our identity (both personal and cultural), not to mention our taste buds and relationship with food, is bound to shift some pieces and could possibly make us feel anxious, sad, upset or overwhelmed. How could it not? Think of when we change jobs, move to a different city, have a baby. All these major changes can make us go through emotional changes that are sometimes stressful.
Being too restrictive with food
I see many new vegans making the mistake of being too restrictive with their food intake. The outcome can have two sides to it, both leading to stress, anxiety and difficult emotions. On the one hand, going beyond the already inherent restriction present in a vegan diet can feel daunting, it can feel like all your favorites are being taken away from you, and restriction itself is a source of stress for us humans. Especially if we feel it's being imposed on us by the expert du jour, without listening to our own bodies.
On the other hand this can also lead to not getting the nutrients we need as vegans, a low calorie intake which can lead to low energy levels (often interpreted as apathy, sadness or additional stress), and even health issues due to nutritional deficiencies. If you've decided to eliminate animal products but also all processed foods, gluten, sugar, soy, oils, starches, fats, just to name a few, without a medical necessity, there is another way. One that is more gentle on yourself, and through which you can absolutely find health and balance in spite of hearing other vegans doing something differently. What worked for someone else might not work for you, and what works for you might not for someone else, even within teh context of a vegan diet.
- Make sure you're eating enough and listening to your body's hunger cues.
- Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect vegan. Make changes at whatever pace is appropriate for you, and make sure you aren't feeling deprived, by still making your favorite meals but in their vegan versions. Our online program is a great resource with lots of delicious vegan recipes and cooking classes to help you achieve delicious and nutritious variety in your diet.
- Take it a step at a time, try not to add additional restriction to the already inherent restriction present in a vegan diet. Unless you have a specific intolerance (as in the case of celiac disease) or condition, all foods can be a part of a healthy and balanced vegan diet, and they can help you feel pleasure with food and not add any stress while you make this transition, especially in the beginning. Having said this, of course you have body autonomy in that you’ll be able to gauge how you feel best (and this answer will be slightly different for each person), and you can of course experiment with what works for you, so here’s an additional tip if you are making any further adjustments to your diet: ask yourself this question: “is the way I’m eating something that I can sustain, in this manner, for life? How will I feel a few weeks, months or years down the line and in a myriad of social situations?” If the answer brings about stress, or the answer is no, remind yourself that even if your motivation is health, positive health doesn’t necessarily require a militant regime of allowed foods and forbidden foods, that there is no food or meal that in and of itself will make you sick (unless you have an allergy to it) so see if and where you can add flexibility so that the positive changes you’re making CAN accompany you for a lifetime, without added anxiety, or excessive worry. This is a good question to ask yourself throughout your journey, when it comes to food and even exercise. When we’re looking for permanent positive change, the way we do things is just or perhaps more important than what we’re doing.
Not eating enough, experienced as a lack of energy
Being low in energy is one of the first things that puts me, personally, in an emotional downward spiral, and it can not only make us anxious about what could be going on, but it can also lead to feelings of worry, lethargy, a feeling of lack of motivation and even sadness.
- Make sure you're eating enough, you can use the vegan for life food guide as the main tool to help you understand how to build a balanced plate without over-obsessing on perfection
- Start paying attention to your hunger and fulness cues. Plant-based foods are in many cases lower in calories, and this could mean you might need to eat more frequent meals, or larger meals, and that's perfectly okay. Make sure you're keeping your mind and body well fed and energized.
Not getting the nutrition your body needs, or feeling unsure about how to eat and worrying excessively about nutrition
Although we don't need to over obsess over every morsel of food that crosses our lips, understanding the basics of how to build a balanced plate and get the nutrients we need as vegans is very important. This means that we do need to pay attention to our general nutritional needs until it becomes second nature. Although there are so many sources of the nutrients we need to thrive in plants, I am not on the vegan team that says “just eat a varied diet and you’ll get everything you need”. It will be a huge help to understand what the biggest sources of highly absorbable nutrients are, and make sure to include plenty of those sources and supplement when needed.
There is no need to overly worry or feel anxious or obsess over these nutrients and measuring or weighing our food. My favorite resource as I mentioned is The Vegan for Life Food Guide, created by registered dietitian nutritionists Virginia Messina and Jack Norris. Following some very simple guidelines, can ensure that your body is getting the nutrients it needs to be healthy and also happy and balanced, leaving nutrition anxiety or worry aside.
- Learn about the Vegan for Life Food Guide and read the new edition of the Vegan for Life book by registered dietitian nutritionists Virginia Messina and Jack Norris
- Make sure your intake of protein is enough through lysine rich foods (legumes are kings in this department that includes beans, lentils, peas, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, soy based meats, peanuts and peanut butter), as well as iron, especially if you're still within menstruating age (here the kings are beans and greens, and this nutrient is better absorbed when paired with vitamin C rich foods). Calcium is another nutrient we need to keep an eye on. Think calcium fortified non-dairy milks and other products, calcium set tofu, and dark leafy greens like kale, bok choy, collard greens, as well as broccoli and others). There are other nutrients you also need to keep in mind, so make sure to check out the resources mentioned.
- Get regular blood work done to check for nutrient levels, and supplement when needed.
- Always take a vitamin B12 supplement, or eat foods fortified with vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency is directly linked to conditions like dementia, depression and nerve damage, and is especially important if you follow a fully vegan diet or are over the age of 50. Here is a great chart that will guide you as to how much vitamin B12 to take.
- Special attention should be taken in the case of omega 3 fatty acids which have shown to help with depression and the correct functioning of our nervous system among with many other vital functions. We'll discuss this next.
- Stick to a nutritional resource, the most reputable and balanced I've found to date is in the work of registered dietitians Virginia Messina, and Jack Norris. Through their wonderful books Vegan for Her, and Vegan for Life, and their comprehensive evidence based free websites you can rest assured that you're in good hands, and there is no need to be overly concerned, worried, or obsessive over numbers or excessive monitoring of food. It's why I love their balanced approach so much.
Not getting a good source of DHA and EPA (omega 3 fatty acids)
DHA and EPA are essential for brain health, to help with depression, nerve health etc., and are therefore important to keep in mind when planning a well-balanced vegan diet, and they’re especially relevant for today’s topic in regards to mental health.
- One way to include these in your diet is to include a regular intake of ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds or walnuts, to ensure we're getting their precursor -alpha linoleic acid (ALA)- from which our bodies are usually able to produce EPA and DHA.
- As a failsafe, especially if you've struggled with depression, it might be a great idea to supplement EPA and DHA directly (in addition to the ALA sources listed above), since our bodies make the transformation of these nutrients from ALA in different ways, and this could mean lower levels for some people. By taking a supplement if you've struggled with depression (or if you want to have a little nutritional insurance), you're giving your body a little edge, and a failsafe since we don't eat the same perfect diet every single day.
Dealing with an unsupportive partner or family members
This is a very frequent cause of distress when going vegan. Dealing with the strange reactions I received from friends and some family members when I went vegan really threw me for a loop and also caused one of the biggest hurdles I've had since going vegan. It can be difficult to suddenly have people commenting on our eating habits, and sometimes, well-meaning concerns can also take a turn into aggressive comments, rejection from others, jokes, and lots of opinions. In the case of having unsupportive parents (if we're for example teens or young adults still living at home), or unsupportive partners, it's completely normal to feel disappointed, anxious, isolated and upset.
- Remember that other people's reactions to this change are not about you, but are actually about the resistance they have to possibly making a change in their eating. It helps so much to reassure your partner that you are making this change for you, and that time together will stay the same, and traditions will change slightly but that you're still you, and that you have no expectations as to what changes they might or might not like to make.
- Having said this, don't preach or rely on any outcomes when it comes to your partner going vegan with you. Don't think that your partner is a bad person for not wanting to join you in making this change. Same goes for parents, children, friends or colleagues. Everyone has to go through their own journey with food. You can lead by example, but keep an open mind and respect your loved ones' time with this. Ask for respect in return since you and you alone are the boss of what your plate should look like.
- Think of it as a simple choice you've made, the more you talk about this with ease, the more at ease your partner or loved ones will feel, slowly but surely adjusting to the idea and getting used to a new routine and new dishes that might be served when you bring something to the table.
- We have many posts in our blog and videos within our Youtube channel to help with specific tools to help you navigate the social aspects of being vegan.
Feeling financial pressures due to the new diet change
Although changing your diet to incorporate more plant-based foods doesn't have to mean spending more money necessarily, if we've been basing our meals on inexpensive fast food meals or convenience foods, there could be a stressful shift in our finances when switching to any kind of diet that includes fresh whole foods, not to mention some of the vegan products like veggie cheeses and meats.
- Do what you can, even if this means your finances don't allow for a fully vegan diet right now. Every small change helps, and taking care of your emotional well being when going through difficult financial times is just as important as your physical health or trying to do the best for the planet and the animals. Do what you can, learn some tools and tricks to help you include more of these foods in your diet without adding to your financial burden, like looking for budget friendly recipes, shopping for beans, lentils and whole grains in the bulk bins at the store, and fruits and vegetables that are in season or choosing frozen options. These plant foods are often much less expensive than than animal based products and saving money can also happen. Take advantage of sales of those vegan alternatives if you enjoy them, and especially, be clear about your budget and sticking to it when you shop for foods, knowing where to maximize savings.
- Be kind to yourself and pat yourself on the back for any changes you're making in spite of the financial struggle. With time and practice, choices get easier. Every change no matter how small, can create an impact as well as inspire others along the way, while making sure you're still being kind and respectful of your own financial means and possibilities.
Missing animal based, non-vegan foods
I love it when I see the shock in people's faces when I tell them I've sometimes had cravings for certain animal foods. It doesn't make me a bad vegan (there is no such thing), or an imperfect vegan (there is no such thing as a perfect vegan). It makes me human, and often times what lies behind the cravings is the memory of the social connections we had with people through food, or the simple taste and textures of familiar foods we used to love! This is normal.
- Make sure you're eating satisfying meals that make you feel happy and joyful. There is no need to say goodbye to your favorite dishes because you can make practically anything vegan!
- Explore some of the vegan alternatives such as vegan cheeses, meats, ice cream, milks, yogurts, egg replacers and the like, and include them in your diet. Always make sure that you are not depriving yourself of the foods you love. There is no reason you should ban some of these store-bought alternatives, since your body will naturally start wanting and craving a variety of foods (fresh whole foods included) provided you give it access to them. You'll be filling your plates with delicious fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and you'll also be enjoying some of these familiar alternatives that will make the new diet easy to stick to, pleasurable, fun and familiar. Not to mention the fact that these products are often great ways to ensure meeting nutrient requirements such as protein, iron and vitamin B12 since these products are often high in them, or fortified with them. Let your diet be filled with variety, and satisfy your cravings by exploring new cuisines and recipes. Our online program My Brownble is a great place to start, as is our free breakfast and brunch course for all you breakfast lovers out there as well as our free course Tofu Mastery with many delicious classic versions of old time favorites, made with one of the oldest vegan alternatives known to man, and perhaps the one I eat most often, tofu.
- Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect vegan, and that if you had something that contained animal products this doesn't mean the vegan police will come over, reprimand you, and tell you you're kicked out of the club. See this change more as a continuum of choices, where you are allowed to take detours and get back on the path as many times as you need to, and that with each detour you'll learn more and more as you go and find the balance that is right for you. I have had my fair share of imperfect vegan meals or foods through the years, many by accident, and some by necessity, and that is fine to say, and more than normal to experience as part of your journey.
Feeling sadness or grief after learning about the suffering of animals
I get it, I can completely relate to feeling terribly upset after seeing the images and footage of the suffering of animals in our food system. Our exposure to this information and especially to the visual images can range from anger, to sadness to even trauma, especially if we begin work as activists and are in constant contact with the realities these animals face. This is what made me go vegan and there are images and footage that have never left me.
- Treat yourself with kindness before and after watching animal cruelty footage if you choose to do so, have someone who you can talk to who understands how upsetting these images are, and who can help you feel a bit hopeful in spite of how upsetting this can be. I've found so much support in the simple act of having like-minded vegan friends, and for years this meant other activists or vegans online since I knew zero vegans when I made this change. Still, I knew I had my peeps and they were one click away and they got it.
- Know your boundaries and limits when it comes to violent imagery, and don't force yourself to go beyond these limits, especially if you've already decided to go vegan or are trying to make more vegan choices. As a personal example, I watched so much footage before making this change and sometimes encounter it again and I bear witness, and sometimes I encounter it and can’t put myself through that again. Carlos, my husband went through a similar journey before going vegan, and now chooses not to watch any longer as he keeps eating and shopping according to those values. Some vegans have never watched footage like this, others have. For me, it was the thing that made all the difference and I know that it has helped me stay vegan all these years. Find where you stand, and stay true to what you need and can handle.
- Always balance the negative imagery with positive imagery. Sometimes beautiful video or photos of rescued farm animals who you'll soon see are just like our dogs and cats, can also help inspire you to make changes. Make sure you infuse a bit of hope to the upsetting messages and images we're often exposed to when we go vegan.
- As with all of these tips, get support and talk to a professional whenever you feel the need to.
Expecting a certain outcome after going vegan and not experiencing it (i.e. weight loss, clearing of acne, etc)
I blame this one on the countless advocates that make global promises when it comes to individual bodies and switching to a vegan diet.
- Release magic pill thinking. We sometimes go into a dietary change like this expecting everything and the sun to change when it comes to our bodies. The truth is that no diet is perfect or magical in and of itself and by definition, and it's important to take a change like this step by step, and with plenty of compassion for ourselves especially when it comes to the way our bodies look, or the overcoming of conditions or disease. Veganism can bring about great changes, but it's not a magic cure for everything. With time, patience and a little experimentation and plenty of awareness of our own bodies, we can start finding a balance that helps us feel our best, without putting so much pressure on ourselves or on eating perfectly in order to achieve a perfect outcome.
Feeling isolated or alone
Sometimes, especially when encountering a lack of support in our family system or with friends, we can start to isolate ourselves. We feel more comfortable skipping the office potluck or the family gathering than having to answer endless questions or smile when a joke is being told at our expense. Isolation can certainly bring about feelings of anger, sadness, depression or anxiety so it's very important to try to step out into the world even when this feels a little scary.
- Read this article to help you find community and companionship and understand why it's so important to feeling well and at peace, along with lots of resources and places to find like-minded vegans online or in your area.
- Read this article to find out what my main struggles were when I went vegan, and how to navigate some common social events when you eat in a different way, how to find support on your journey and more.
Feeling sad because of missing the "right here, right now, anything goes" way of eating
I can be a spoilt little kid sometimes (only child syndrome). I remember that when I first went vegan I would have these internal tantrums when I was at a coffee shop, I wanted a piece of cake and none of them were vegan. Or I went to a restaurant with friends and I got angry that they had 20 items to choose from when there were only 2 veganizable options for me.
As humans we hate the word no, and we hate that feeling of restriction. This can feel especially hard if the people that surround us aren't especially supportive. Here's the bottom line, when I went vegan no one forced me to, I made this choice because I wanted to try to eat in a more sustainable way and I didn't want to cause more pain to animals when I knew many people wouldn't make this change but that I would be able to. This was a choice, not an obligation or a doctor or government imposed regime.
When I realized that this was a choice, and when I started navigating the world looking for vegan options I would enjoy, I started seeing them everywhere! I started finding options at non-vegan restaurants, I started finding my voice in asking for what I wanted or needed, and found out that most people were happy to help. I started exploring vegan restaurants where the entire menu was for me, finding vegan stores, and learning how to make everything I loved with the simple switch of an animal-based ingredient for a plant-based one. Not to mention the fact that in the years I've been vegan, options have multiplied at a staggering speed! Fortunately for animals and for us vegans, the world is quickly changing and giving us the products people are asking for.
Soon deprivation had left the building for me because I realized this had been a choice. It wasn't that I couldn't have the bacon and eggs, I chose to have something different but just as yummy. When we feel and look for abundance I firmly believe that this is what we encounter, and when we fall off the path we wanted to be on, nothing happens or changes and we can get back on.
It's not about being perfect or a food saint, it's about doing what you can, at whatever speed, pace or level you can find your balance in, making sure to always take care of yourself in the process, both physically and mentally, and getting support and help from a professional whenever it is needed.
Always remember that veganism is kindness and that needs to begin with you.
I hope this post helped you in navigating some of the difficult emotions that are not only common, but completely normal when we're attempting any change that goes against the current. I hope that if it's been an uphill battle for you, you start using some of these tips and using the resources I've shared, and get professional support when needed, to start finding peace and happiness with your choices.
I know that in the past two episodes we’ve talked about some of the things that can go wrong or that may need adjustments, so I wanted to make something very clear before we’re done for today. Going vegan has been one of the most incredible, life changing, life connecting, health promoting and most spiritually and emotionally special changes I’ve ever made in my life. It’s been over 10 years since I’ve made this change and I thank my lucky stars every time I remember the first books, documentaries and hard information that made me take the plunge. I wouldn’t be here, a decade in, if the journey had been difficult or uncomfortable or if the things that were hard didn’t have simple fixes. Anything you go through has so many ways of being tweaked and adjusted until you find your sweet spot, even if imperfect, and we will always be here to support you along the way.
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