There are a lots and lots of wonderful reasons for adopting a vegan diet, and I was one of the many people who decided to do the best thing for animals, the environment, and, what I thought at the time was true, my body. We’ve been told for years that meat, eggs, and animal fat are bad for us, “artery clogging”, and cancer causing. After reading the China Study and soaking up tons of scientific studies showing the benefits of removing animal products from the diet, I couldn’t believe I had been eating so “unhealthy” my entire life and became a proud vegan overnight.
To give you some background, I have Celiac’s disease. This means I CANNOT eat gluten. This isn’t the “oh I’m totallllllly allergic to gluten because I gain weight/get tired/don’t feel good when I eat it” kind of sensitivity. This is the “I break out into a severe bout of eczema all over my skin as an autoimmune response to my body attacking itself and am doubled over in pain” kind of intolerance. As a result of consuming gluten for the first part of my life without realizing it was the cause of my problems, I had a lot of digestive trauma to the microvilli in my intestines which are responsible for absorbing nutrients. My compromised digestion meant certain foods like grains (even gluten free), raw veggies, nuts, and anything too sharp, fibrous, and difficult to digest left me feeling uncomfortable, sick, and wasn’t absorbed by my body. This meant I could consume nutrient rich raw salads with nuts, seeds, and high protein gluten free grains like quinoa, millet, or amaranth all day every day and still be malnourished because my body couldn’t break down the food, absorb the nutrients, and digest them properly. That is the reason I got into juicing at a young age – because the fiber is removed and there is very little abrasion to the digestive tract. With juice, tons of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients could be easily digested and assimilated without any stress on my body until my intestinal lining could heal and I could break down foods and absorb their nutrients more easily. That’s also the reason I still eat so many lubricating, nourishing fats like coconut oil, flax oil, butter, and wild salmon.
A vegan diet relies on veggies, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds to obtain the nutrients needed to support life. These are the exact foods that were extremely difficult for me to digest in my teen years with a compromised digestive state. But, after reading so much pro-vegan literature, I was adamant it was the right way to eat and was convinced I could get everything I needed from a vegan diet. Based on this research, I started to believe my digestive issues were not residual from gluten consumption with Celiac’s, but actually from animal products. I was also heavily into juicing and a lot of juicing books advocated a vegan diet. So I went for it and kept it up for 7 years. I was vegan through and through, believed it, breathed it, told people about it, and only ate non-animal products for that entire time period. So why did I stop?
About three years into my vegan experiment, I felt really bad. I was always tired, always hungry, couldn’t keep weight on, had a tummy ache after eating anything, and felt generally off. It certainly couldn’t have been my perfect healthy diet, so I blamed my symptoms on everything else under the sun before looking at my diet. For a couple years, I thought it was because I was running long distances, studying for long hours in an intense academic environment, stress over my parents divorce, etc etc. Or maybe I was “detoxing” from all of the animal foods I had eaten before becoming vegan? Or maybe all of the molecular changes that a food undergoes during the cooking process that I kept reading about in my vegan books were causing me problems as I “detoxed” and became accustomed to purer and purer foods. I decided to follow an exclusively raw vegan diet and remove all cooked grains, root veggies, packaged foods, and soy products (more on my raw food experience in a separate post). I also thought I maybe I just needed more sleep, massage, or yoga, and tried everything I could think of to help get myself feeling better. I was in complete denial that this diet I believed in and had so much strong supportive evidence as being the healthiest way to eat could be causing me to feel so bad. I finally started researching deficiencies and problems with a vegan diet to understand if there were things I may have been doing wrong. I read a lot about iron and it’s absorption from plant sources (non-heme iron) being much more difficult than iron from animal sources (heme iron), along with a slew of other nutrients that were much more difficult for the body to utilize from plant sources. I also considered that a lot of the foods my diet was reliant on were difficult for me to digest. I started heavy B-12 supplementation, DHA supplements from algae, vegan iron supplements, sprouted brown rice protein, wheatgrass, seaweeds, and everything else under the sun. I ate raw and followed a heavy supplementation plan for about two more years until I was finally at the end of my rope. I had read every book about being a responsible vegan and was doing all of the things recommended for deficiencies or problems on a vegan diet and was still coming up short. I spent hours in the kitchen juicing, making dark leafy green salads, sprouting nuts, soaking grains, dehydrating crackers, growing sprouts, and making superfood green smoothies. I knew there wasn’t much more I could do before accepting this diet wasn’t working for me. I had given it enough time to see if it would “kick in” and “work” and it wasn’t. This was an EXTREMELY difficult decision to make because I had eaten this way for so long and truly believed in the reasons for eating this way.
7 years after going vegan and 2 years after eating strictly raw foods, I had eggs for breakfast. I scrambled two eggs in coconut oil and ate them with steamed spinach and sea salt. They were delicious and I felt really good that morning. I had no tummy ache and felt calm. I had eggs the next day and decided to have salmon for dinner with my usual salad on the third day. I kept this up for a couple weeks and started regaining an energy I hadn’t felt in years. Everything just starting feeling….BETTER. My concentration, sleep, mood, and body all started experiencing improvements. I knew deep down this was what I had needed to do all this time. I made a doctor’s appointment and did a full nutrition assessment. I was deficient in iron, essential fatty acids, B-12, Vitamin D, choline, and zinc. I had been heavily supplementing all of these things so I knew there was something about the plant sources I had been consuming that I wasn’t absorbing. Within a few months, I had corrected all of these deficiencies by consuming eggs, fish, turkey, and grass fed beef or bison. I removed grains because my Celiac’s disease left me unable to properly digest them and I had been relying on them as my main source of carbohydrate and protein as a vegan. My entire dietary philosophy shifted and I realized there is such an abundance of misinformation out there surrounding animal foods and vegan/vegetarian diets that I had fallen into. I had to accept the choices I made in good faith with all the information I believed was correct had damaged my health.
So where does this leave me now? Am I anti-vegan? Do I tell people they’re wrong if they choose a vegan diet? No and no. A vegan diet did not work for me. I can honestly say this from 7 years of personal experience. I will not eat vegan exclusively ever again. However, I learned some amazing and wonderful things about food, cooking, and consumption from practicing a vegan diet. For one thing, we do not need animal products with every single meal. Your meal is not incomplete if it is lacking an animal protein. Secondly, we do not need the excessive amounts of animal protein found in restaurant meals or ½ pound fast food burgers. A little goes a long way and meat should be a supporting component of a larger plant based meal. I learned to think of a salad with chicken as more appropriate than chicken with some salad. In other words, the veggies are the main dish. You feel me? Third, food doesn’t need to be so complicated. I learned to appreciate the true flavors of fresh fruits and veggies without feeling the need to load them with salt, sauces, and seasonings. I also learned the medicinal power of certain spices like turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, and ginger and how to use them in a way that is tasty and beneficial from a nutrition standpoint. Additionally, I learned how to read ingredient decks and became MUCH MUCH more aware of food additives. A vegan diet is so simple, and because it helps you appreciate the natural flavors of food, you become much more picky about unnecessary ingredients and chemicals. This is probably the best thing I took away from my time following a vegan diet. Lastly, I learned that just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Oreos are vegan. French fries are vegan. Potato chips are vegan. Much like the “organic” label, “vegan” has become associated with health. But just like there are unhealthy “organic” foods like cheese puffs, there are unhealthy “vegan” foods and it’s totally possible to be a super unhealthy vegan.
So the takeaway is this: Your body will tell you what it needs and that may not always be what your brain has decided upon. Food labels are really silly and can be detrimental if they hinder you from eating in accordance with your instincts. It’s never necessary/beneficial/important to adopt one way of eating and cling adamantly to it without regard for the messages your body is sending you. I wouldn’t take back the years I spent eating a vegan diet because I learned a lot about listening to my body and gained a much deeper appreciation for food I may not otherwise have. I also agree with much of the philosophy behind the vegan diet and take much more consideration of the way the animals I eat are raised as well as the implications on the environment in my food choices so I can eat as responsibly as possible when choices are available. BUT, I could have saved myself a lot of suffering and time had I listened to my body after the first signs this diet was wrong for me and been on the road to feeling better much sooner. I also wouldn’t have felt so ashamed for “failing” at the diet I thought was the best way of eating. I now accept the best way of eating is the way my body wants me to eat.
Have you tried a vegan diet and what was your experience?