Sunday, March 17th, 2013

My Vegan Diet Caused Health Problems. Would Primal, Paleo, Or “Real Food” Be Better?

by Kristen Suzanne in Kristen Suzanne, vegan

Things have changed in my life recently, and I want to share what’s going on.

But first, it is important that I say I’m reporting this based on my own experiences. What follows is not a prescription for you. You’re on your own journey and I respect that. Please, do what you want for yourself. I’m sharing this because I feel it’s important, and so much has changed.

The big news: My family is no longer eating a vegan diet. 

As many of my readers know from my blog and books, I’ve been a hardcore, ethical vegan (some might even say militant) for almost a decade. To sum it up… well, there’s really no summing it up. The transformation has been too consuming and complex. But I’ll try…

My head has gone through so much thinking, researching, meditating, analyzing, soul searching, and emotion over the past four months that I can’t cover everything here in one post. Consider this the first of many posts as I continue this evolution. I’m still in the “researching” and “experimental” phases, and I hadn’t actually planned on attempting to tell this story until I was farther along. But I began to realize that A) people might want or need to know, and B), if I had waited too long, I would have forgotten some  of the details. Perhaps by jumping into the story mid-stream and sharing now, it will help me share more of it in better detail.

For starters, we still eat some vegan meals, but we don’t eat vegan at every meal.

It’s worth repeating: We are all different in how we respond to foods and what we want for our families. Food is a weirdly emotional subject for people and it’s hard to say anything about the subject that won’t ruffle somebody’s feathers… times a million when it comes to veganism vs. omnivorism. I don’t claim to have all the answers even for myself, and I can’t recommend what you should do for you or your family. All I can do is share what we went through, the changes we’ve made, the thinking behind it, and the results we’ve experienced.

So, why the change? It all started with our toddler, Kamea. I began having doubts about our vegan diet when she became strangely sick in the early fall. Wait. Back up… actually, when I think about it. I’d been dreaming of eggs for about three years. I ignored them though. Then, Kamea had a strange illness of sporadic vomiting, having trouble walking for a couple of days, and overall I was feeling instinctively like perhaps being vegan was not right for her. She consumed plenty of breastmilk over the years, thankfully, but her solids were nothing that made me feel like she was getting all she needed. Too often I was stressed about her diet. (I later became convinced that my maternal instincts had been correct.) That began the research. That, and I kept hearing and thinking about the word “balance.” That word kept popping up in my mind and what always followed it was the thought that my vegan diet was anything but balanced, because simply… a vegan diet is not balanced. It’s on the far end of the dietary spectrum.

So, it started with dreams of eggs, then raising Kamea during these critical developmental periods (particularly neurological development), that got me thinking about things. And then there’s the fact that I wasn’t without my own health issues. Me? Health issues? Now that I look back at it with the clarity of hindsight, yes. The problem was that I wasn’t making the diet connection. I figured it was “something else.” I had thought I was eating and living the ideal lifestyle so, despite making constant tweaks and adjustments (superfoods, fancy juicers, superherbs, tonic herbs, prepping foods various ways to optimize nutrients, following rules for combining or not combining certain foods like having vitamin c with iron rich plants – just to name a few), never in a million years would I have entertained the idea of making such a radical change. But, that’s exactly what happened.

As this journey started, I found myself asking questions like…

  • Are there cultures around the world who eat exclusively vegan and, if so, have they done so for multiple generations?
  • What nutrients are omnivores easily getting that vegans are trying, with much effort, to get with supplements?
  • Are there nutrients where supplements aren’t enough?
  • If we get enough of certain nutrients from supplements, are they ever still inadequate for some reason or less than ideal?
  • Does supplementing overlook essential co-factors that are known to science? What about the ones that aren’t yet known? (Seems like, every week, they discover more complex linkages between nutrients that are consumed together.)
  • Under what dietary circumstances did humans evolve and what does that say about my vegan diet?
  • How have things changed since I went vegan almost a decade ago with respect to plant based foods?
  • What vegan-promoting studies and experts was I relying on for information? Are they unbiased? Are they cherry-picking studies that support their philosophy while ignoring those that don’t?
  • What is the current state of animal agriculture? Has it changed since my first days of eating a vegan diet?

These are just a handful of the hundreds of questions that would run through my head almost every day. I couldn’t help but ponder such issues, and time and again, I was moved by many of the answers I was opening my eyes to see. Truthfully, my world was about to get seriously rocked. Turned upside down. What started as a troubling little nag in my mind started peeling layers back until I was in nothing short of a full-scale identity crisis… what if I’ve been wrong… ALL THESE YEARS? Even worse, what if I’ve harmed my child? I can assure you, these are issues that nobody wants to face, but I owed it to myself and to my  family to seek out the best available information — regardless of the source — that was available anywhere to be found.

“Meat-curious vegan” seeks answers.

The first thing I discovered was, wow, there are a lot of us. Since switching back to an omnivore diet, I’ve learned there are legions of people with nearly identical stories to tell, including more than a few esteemed nutrition and health experts. The common thread: We were vegan, some quite smugly, thinking it was the human ideal of a smart-n-healthy diet, but then, only after several years, started to experience health problems, and then switched back to omnivore, and the health problems disappeared. That is a pattern that I heard over and over. But there was an interesting second pattern…

What we also have in common — made somewhat easy no doubt due to having adapted to a strict (vegan) diet for many years — are the strict kinds of omnivore foods we eat now vs what we were eating pre-vegan. I’m speaking about high quality. Even more so for former raw fooders, whose restrictions (such as avoiding grains) make some vegans’ diets look like junk food. So the strange irony is that hard-core vegans and raw fooders actually have more in common with, say, a hard-core paleo diet than the population at large. In short, we’re all accustomed to reading labels, grilling restaurant staff, ordering hard-to-find ingredients online, preparing food ourselves to ensure its purity, and eating plenty of vegetables.

For those of you who don’t know, I originally went vegan for ethical reasons. With health benefits an added big bonus for this nutrient-minded gal, the vegan diet seemed like a no-brainer. I remember over the years when people would go vegan and then stop because they didn’t feel well on it, I used to think to myself, “Well, they’re simply not doing it right.” Some people complained of lack of libido, lack of iron, lack of energy, etc. I now realize, quite humbled, that many of those problems may have been valid, even if they were doing a vegan diet “right.” Perhaps it took longer for the vegan diet to take a toll on my health than others. More likely I just couldn’t admit it to myself because my beliefs were so strong, constantly reaffirmed by my full-time immersion in the understandably self-reinforcing vegan culture (minorities do need to stick together and support each other, so this culture is understandable).

But after taking a careful look at Kamea’s vegan diet and what a growing child needs, and starting to recognize some cracks in our own adult vegan diet, I started to feel differently about it all. I’m now confident that these cracks started some years ago, but I wasn’t seeing a possible dietary connection. But then added on top of these deficiencies came pregnancy and breastfeeding — which is depleting on any mom — and the cracks became gorges that were impossible to ignore. But I tried to, or I tried to explain them away. I rationalized that maybe I was sleep deprived and messed up hormonally from breastfeeding. But, seeing Kamea on a vegan diet pointed out things I hadn’t previously thought about (and I’m convinced MommaBear instinct is quite a bit more powerful than cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias). I started looking to the future when Kamea would wean and I wondered if her vegan diet would be nutritionally adequate. My mind started to spin and I was questioning all of my previous assumptions, and at the same time I was getting more and more frustrated (and quite distraught) from having been vegan so long and wondering what implications that had for my family. I personally concluded that I was not willing to experiment with my child’s or family’s health.

What were my specific health issues from being a vegan so long?

Fertility. Well, you all know we struggled with fertility. It’s still a big “what if,” but I feel in my core that we were not nourished enough to conceive on our own. I now know that, despite superfoods and supplements up the wazoo, we lacked some essential fertility-supporting nutrients… stuff you just can’t get in a pill or any bizarre exotic mix of daily goji berries and maca. I could go on at length about just this one issue, but it deserves an entire post which perhaps I’ll write at some point, with all the gory technical details.

Skin issues. Over the years, sometimes I had an amazing glow, especially in the beginning of being vegan and raw. But as the years passed, time and pregnancy took their toll, and with extended breastfeeding… well, my skin started to suffer. I had some horrible breakouts that lasted long and didn’t heal quickly. I started to notice that I had pale, grayish looking skin, and dark circles under my eyes. Of course, I’m a mama to a toddler and constantly sleep deprived so I thought this must all be par for the motherhood course. But then there was the rash I had on my finger since before I was pregnant with Kamea. It would get irritated (and frighteningly worse) with water and too much dish washing, and it would itch, get red, etc. It would come and go, but mostly come for over three years. I kept hearing in my mind what my mom always said, “Your skin manifests problems happening within.” So, I wondered. My diet is awesome, right? Why do I have this rash? Surely my insides are glowing and beautiful. This rash couldn’t mean anything about my food choices. Well, I now have some ideas as to why my vegan diet resulted in skin problems.

My teeth. Since pregnancy and through breastfeeding I’ve had two teeth break plus some other issues. Again, I didn’t think anything of it because I thought my diet was pretty perfect; in hindsight, I was missing important nutrients.

My butt was sagging. I’m 36 years old and, despite regular exercise, my butt was starting to sag. I was embarrassed. I started looking at pictures of when I was younger, maybe 8 years ago and I had a full face, olive skin, and although I was younger back then, I certainly didn’t anticipate a freakin’ saggy soft ass at the tender age of only 36! Oh, and the skin on my knees was sagging. I was like, “Seriously? My knees?… WTF, am I suddenly 80?” Overall, I was looking way too old for my age. I kept wondering how that was possible when my family history didn’t support that (both sides aged with good skin), plus, HELLO(!), I was eating such an antioxidant-rich vegan diet… so what was wrong with me?

Nausea. And, the bloating. I can’t tell you how many times I complained to Greg about feeling nauseous after eating or saying “I feel so fat” from the bloat I had even though I was only weighing 117. Again, I never dreamed it was my diet. In hindsight, I wonder if being a long term vegan contributed to low stomach acid which could explain these things. Or, perhaps it was the vegan food such as grains and legumes, which can be hard to digest.

Lastly, my cupboard was becoming a pharmacy of supplements as I tried to keep my family’s intake of nutrients balanced, but which probably was even more unbalanced as I took many supplements in isolation. I became increasingly leery of this because I knew intuitively that the best nutrients are found in real whole foods… not isolated in supplements. Not to mention, it had become a monthly line item on the household budget comparable to a car payment.

Clearly, something wasn’t right.

There was a lot going on that I didn’t realize … until I opened my mind to the possibility that something was not right in my diet. Humbled, but nevertheless intrigued, I pushed on. (At least as a non-vegan, I can now eat crow! Ar ar ar.)

At first, it seemed more than just a little weird to end the vegan chapter of my life… as I said, it was more like an identity crisis. These labels carry so much meaning and weight with them. Fortunately, now just a few months later, it actually doesn’t seem like a big deal. At some point, a switch in my brain just flipped, and that was that. It was about my family’s health, not a philosophical crusade. It boils down to the fact that my family was missing nutrients, and now we’re not.

Some Specifics

Here are a few things that concerned me about our vegan diet, but I didn’t realize it until a few months ago:

  1. Nuts and seed oils (as well as grains) can be high sources of omega six fatty acids, which can be a problem especially when my diet wasn’t a strong source of omega three fatty acids in spite of my consumption of hemp, chia, and supplements. For example, eating a vegan burrito (or even a sans-tortilla “bowl”) at Chipotle was not a great choice like I had thought it was. There is refined soybean oil in about everything Chipotle makes. And, don’t get me started on the tortilla (see number 3 below). Another example: Eating loads of nut-filled raw brownies was not great either. I’m not saying raw chocolate brownies are completely bad, but in hindsight, it’s not as innocent as I once believed, especially when scarfing down several at a time or if I was eating all raw all the time. I realize that a lot of people eating “exclusively raw” might not have the issue of inflammatory omega six refined oils, but most people aren’t exclusively raw. And, even if you are raw, there’s a lot of omega six fatty acids in a raw diet while lacking quality omega three fatty acids to balance it out. As I was not usually all raw, once I started looking closer at the vegan foods I was eating, I was pretty shocked at what I found.
  2. Drinking all of those protein shakes because I craved protein. I became curious as to why I was even craving protein, not to mention the possible consequences of consuming a powdered and concentrated food like that with warnings of metal contaminants, etc. A protein shake here and there, no biggie, but to have it much more often than that because we were trying to add protein to our diet is another deal altogether. (Why did it take me so long to realize this???)
  3. Um, gluten is the devil. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Retinol is important for so much including pregnancy, fertility, breastfeeding. And beta-carotene will not cut it – at least not for my family. (This one alone probably pisses me off the most because retinol is only in animal foods. You never hear vegans warn about it like they do B12, and who knows the problems I caused my family by avoiding it.)
  5. Iodine and my lack of it from not eating fish (and mostly gagging at sea veggies) was not good. And on top of that… consuming massive quantities of crucifers (daily juicing, anyone?) might have negatively affected my thyroid, which could alter many things including fertility. Honestly, I knew crucifers could be problems for people with thyroid issues but I presumed my thyroid was in top shape. Who knows what potential damage I was doing to my thyroid gorging on so many green juices, green smoothies, green powders, and kale salads, and not balancing it with enough iodine-rich foods.
  6. Important nutrients were missing (fat soluble nutrients, choline, etc), and supplements weren’t cutting it. I sure tried though. I’ve learned a lot over the months regarding the importance of fat soluble vitamins, the source of them, the absurdly complex ways that they interplay with each other for optimal health, how they are important for other nutrients that aren’t fat soluble, and — bottom line — how much easier and better it is to get them from foods instead of trying to add them through isolation in my diet. At the risk of flogging myself too much for one blog post, I just can’t believe I didn’t consider this stuff before.
  7. Cholesterol is not the devil. This alone flipped my worldview upside down when we learned more about cholesterol. Do you know I had a cholesterol reading once a few years ago that was 95?! And, to think I bragged about that. I’m ashamed of that now.
  8. Soy, always a bit iffy, now seriously scares the crap out of me, no matter what form.
  9. I questioned the amount of grains and legumes we had in our diet and how it contributed to our problems. Not only are they an inferior source of nutrients (especially for a growing child like Kamea), but they increase the overall sugar load in the body and I was eating a lot as a result of increased hunger due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, being active, and basically not being nourished. (The degree to which legumes are problematic for human digestion continues to be hotly debated and researched as you read this.)

How did I make the transition?

At first I was learning about vegan foods that might not be that great for you, such as wheat and gluten. Then I learned how grains and legumes in general are just not so good. Now, as a raw fooder, I was already aware of many of grains’ problems. But the problem is that if I’m not eating anything from animals, and then I decide to cut back on nuts due to their poor fatty acid profile, and fruit has too much sugar to be a large part of my diet … pretty soon I start running out of things to eat. Then, add breastfeeding to the daily caloric requirements, and my weight started to drop precipitously. I had to get more calories, so I had started consuming more grains and legumes despite their disadvantages. But once I learned more about why they’re bad and started revisiting my options, the whole equation changed, because it became much easier to get high quality calories from animal products.

So I began by eliminating grains and legumes from our diet. It’s been 4 months since I’ve had either and I don’t miss them a bit. I am committed to a 85/15 flexibility rule where I don’t freak about a meal here and there that might have grains or legumes (hold the gluten though), but I’ve not felt the need to implement that much “cheating” yet.

We eliminated all soy. We reduced carbs overall (including cutting down on fruit) because I think we were eating too many. When you take out all of those aforementioned foods, that takes out a lot of food. Then, as I learned more and more the importance of nutrients we were missing or not getting enough of, or not getting them in an easily assimilable form, I was drawn to foods for those missing key players. Enter: high quality animal foods. So, it was a process of cutting out certain low-quality vegan foods and then adding in certain high-quality animal foods. It was a process and it didn’t all happen overnight. I plan to detail the specifics in a future blog post.

What about my hardcore ethics? Once I had committed to making a change for my family’s health, I was afraid I’d enter omnivore-land begrudgingly, crestfallen, and with a heavy heart. And at times it felt completely foreign. Yet my old distant memories made the idea of eating certain foods familiar at the same time; after all, I was an omnivore for decades before going vegan. Additionally, I actually, naturally, started seeing my food differently. I considered evolution, my ancestry, biochemistry, health, how animals are raised and processed, and the ecological web of life on earth.

Above, I listed a lot of health challenges I experienced while being vegan for so long. So, what happened when we introduced animal products?

Night and day is what happened.

  • My skin, almost literally, changed overnight. I haven’t broken out in four months. My face filled out. My skin tone changed and I have more of my natural olive tone color to it. I look in the mirror and I see my former self. Oh, and the pesky rash I had on my finger? Gone. As if I never had it, not matter how often it gets wet from doing dishes.
  • My digestion changed practically overnight as well. I no longer get bloated or nauseous after eating. And, I never feel fat (and you should see all the fat I eat now – whoa).
  • My body composition is changing and it looks so much better. My ass isn’t sagging anymore, thank god!
  • I feel more nourished now but I’m still healing from being depleted for so long. Hopefully we’ll conceive naturally this time around. That’d be awesome. Speaking of… my monthly cycle changed instantly! If that’s not proof that something is going on with one’s endocrine system, then I don’t know what is.
  • Kamea has done super terrific, too. Whew, this mama is finally at ease. When eating an all vegan diet (aside from breastfeeding), keep in mind that there is little margin for error, not just with nutrients, but plain old calories. If her appetite wasn’t strong, she wasn’t getting enough calories. If she was finicky, she wasn’t eating enough, or it would pressure me to feed her lower quality foods I knew she’d eat, like the tortilla on my Chipotle burrito or extra nuts, just to make sure she got enough calories. Or there was the issue that many vegan foods are high in fiber so her belly filled up before she could get adequate calories. Or the fact that I had so many rules to follow regarding where to get certain nutrients in the plant world, like pumpkin seeds for zinc, and so she filled up on those and there wasn’t much appetite for other important foods. I faced constant hand-wringing daily dilemmas… all gone now. Her appetite went up, her caloric intake went up, her nutrients went up, and she started gaining weight at a healthier rate. I went from being a constant ball of stress about her eating enough to feeling totally relaxed and relieved knowing she was getting everything she needs, especially as she started to ween. This stress was taking its toll on me, emotionally, and affecting my sleep… all things that are terrible for health. All of these are much better now, secondary effects of the dietary change. It’s like I’m living a new life relatively void of anxiety compared to how things were before. I only wish I had done it sooner.

All of these changes happened immediately and it was proof for me that we were going in the right direction.

It’s true that there were many times I felt great as a vegan, especially in the beginning years. Perhaps there was a cleansing element to it; or perhaps it was mind-over-matter, a placebo, because I was on a serious animal ethics mission so I didn’t think my issues were food related. I am only now recognizing this for what it was. I now suspect I was in a constant state of denial because I thought I was doing the best one could do. There were periods when I went all raw and it was heavenly. But, I never stayed all raw because it felt too unbalanced. Add to that a pregnancy and extended breastfeeding. I simply became depleted and my body showed the signs, and it’s during the past year or so that it hit me the hardest. I was forced to open my mind and consider that my diet had shortcomings. I’m so glad I did. “When I knew better I did better.”

I have to admit that looking back, I have deep regrets. I was vegan for too long, and it was not in my best interest during my pregnancy and especially having Kamea being vegan as a growing child. Ugh, better late than never though.

So what do we eat? Well, I think this post is long enough, so I will happily share the details of our meals in upcoming posts. It’s very interesting, and comical at times, and I’ll give a little hint to pique your interest: When I do things, I do them BIG.

I’ll say that much. I am on a steep learning curve and feel like a total noob in the kitchen at times, like I’m starting all over from square one. In a future post, I’ll also share the various people, books, websites, and other resources I’ve been studying that supported this transition.

PS. I had my blood work done after having been eating this way for a couple of months and the results? Stellar.

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