Getting Muscle and Leg Cramps on a Vegan Diet? Here’s Why…

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Cramps in general are not well understood.

We know that certain things cause them in certain situations, but it can be hard to immediately know the cause of cramps.

For example, the most common causes of muscle cramps are:

  • Extended periods of sweating from heat or exercise – Your electrolyte levels get low and may result in cramps.
  • DehydrationOne of the most common causes of cramps because most people just don’t drink as much water as they should.
  • Mineral depletion – Cramps can be caused by a lack of potassium or magnesium, but probably not as often as you think.
  • Too much fat – A lot of fat in one meal can lead to stomach cramps and diarrhea. This should be obvious if this is the issue. It’s especially a problem for those with IBS.

There are other causes as well, just not as common as those 4.

The only one of those directly relating to diet is mineral depletion.

So the question becomes: Does a vegan diet put you at a higher risk for calcium or magnesium deficiency, or for eating too much fat?

Let’s look at them one at a time, and then I’ll summarize at the end.

Vegan Diets and Potassium Deficiency

Potassium deficiency has known to cause cramps for a long time, that’s why the classic advice is to “eat a banana.”

Almost all of the best potassium sources turn out to be vegan:

  1. Spinach
  2. Swiss chard
  3. White potato
  4. Plantain
  5. Pummelo
  6. Durian
  7. Eggplant
  8. Adzuki Beans
  9. Melon
  10. Soybeans

Bananas aren’t actually that amazing of a potassium source compared to other fruits and vegetables.

It’s not hard at all to get potassium on a vegan diet, and a deficiency bad enough to cause regular cramps is unlikely.

But if you’re eating no vegetables, it definitely is possible, just as it is on an omnivorous diet.

Vegan Diets and Magnesium Deficiency

Studies have shown that cramps via magnesium deficiency does occur. However, research has also shown that only a small percentage of cramps are actually caused by magnesium deficiency.

So it’s not the most likely cause of your cramps, but is a possibility.

Like potassium, the best sources of magnesium are all vegan. There are tons of great vegan sources of magnesium, here are the best ones:

  1. Swiss chard
  2. Buckwheat
  3. Oats
  4. Spinach
  5. Sesame seeds
  6. Brazil nuts
  7. Hemp seeds
  8. Rye grain
  9. Cashews
  10. Pine nuts

It’s also added to lots of cereals and some non-dairy milks, so it’s unlikely that you’re deficient in magnesium to the point that it’s causing cramps.

How Do You Check for Potassium or Magnesium Deficiency

If you’re not sure if you’re deficient in either of those minerals, I highly recommend using a food tracker that shows you your mineral intake.

Cronometer is the one I recommend, here’s my full Cronometer review that explains why.

It lets you input what you ate for the day, and will show you how much potassium and magnesium you had (as well as a ton of other nutrients).

cronometer-report

Do this for a few days and you can be pretty sure if you’re sorely lacking in any particular nutrient.

Do Vegan Diets Usually Contain More Fat?

Last up is the fat issue.

When you switch to a vegan diet, the biggest thing that changes is protein.

Other than a few foods like seitan or tofu, most of the best vegan protein sources are legumes or nuts.

Legumes have a lot of carbohydrates in addition to protein, while nuts have a ton of fat.

If you’re eating a lot of nuts and nut butters, it can definitely cause some stomach issues and cramps. This should be a pretty obvious issue to spot compared to the others.

Again, Cronometer or some other food tracker can help you identify any areas of your diet that stand out.

Summary

A healthy vegan diet is not likely to be the cause of any cramps.

It’s possible to be deficient in potassium or magnesium if you mainly eat vegan junk food, but a well rounded vegan diet with whole foods will prevent most deficiencies.

If you’re getting stomach cramps and issues in particular, it’s likely caused by having too much fat in one meal (or overall on a regular basis). This often happens when new vegans start eating a ton of nuts, which are very high in fat and calories.

In conclusion, no, you’re not more likely to get cramps (leg or otherwise) on a vegan diet.

In fact, you’re probably less likely since vegan whole foods are loaded with minerals, but that has not been studied or proven yet (just my speculation).

About the author

Dale C.

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance writer. Trying to do my small part in making the world better by writing about the wonderful world of veganism.

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