I’ll start by saying I have nothing against being vegan or vegetarian. I have seen people absolutely thrive eating this way and I understand (and admire) the moral reasons behind it; it’s the reason I became vegan to begin with. Unfortunately, for me, it wasn’t as simple as just deciding to stop eating animal products. It led me down a complex path of health issues that I wasn’t equipped to handle at the time. It also made me realize that nutrition is powerful and incredibly individual. When it comes to food, in particular cutting out an entire food group, most blanket health advice is wildly inappropriate.
Initially, after becoming vegan (for say, the first 3-4 months) I felt amazing. I added a significant amount of plant foods to my diet (I was the epitome of the late-night pizza-eating, beer-sipping college student before). So of course, adding plant foods to my diet gave me a boost. Unfortunately, that boost eventually took a sharp turn and I entered a few years of suffering when it came to my health. That’s the thing with nutrient deficiencies, they can take a while to show up and our diet tends to be the last thing we blame for symptoms. Since nutrition education is something many doctors are lacking, it isn’t always the first thing they ask about. And unfortunately, they aren’t always quick to refer out to a Registered Dietician when they can’t figure your symptoms out.
Fast forward a year into being vegan, I felt sick all of the time. Tired, weak, and like a light had been turned off inside of me. I caught every cold, I developed debilitating anxiety, chronic insomnia, and lost about thirty-percent of my hair (closer to 60-percent by the time I was three years in). I had insane cravings for red meat 24/7; the kind that would later put pregnancy cravings to shame. I remember my hairdresser, who had known me for 10+ years gasping as she pulled handfuls of hair out after washing my hair. I cried and told her I didn’t know what was going on. To put it frankly, I looked and felt like shit. I was scared and worried. At the time, I didn’t understand supplementation, knew nothing about micronutrients, but I did eat a varied, vegetable-filled vegan diet. I took a multivitamin but didn’t further supplement with any specific nutrients. Perhaps if I had, things would have turned out differently.
Towards the end of my journey (at which point I was now eating limited dairy again) I landed in the hospital with a stomach ulcer. My doctor at the time blamed it on the extreme anxiety I had developed but didn’t link it to my diet (I don’t even think I mentioned my diet, to be honest). After a deep session with Doctor Google, a random story that sounded just like mine popped up. I could have written this girl’s blog post myself. Only, she had already figured out that her vegan diet was the issue. More searches and the stories were endless – all eerily identical to mine. After talking with my doctor, I decided to slowly add animal products back into my life. It was a painful, emotional decision for me because I did feel a strong conviction when it came to animal cruelty and the way we treat farm animals. I had been preaching (and judging) for years and I felt like a hypocrite. It’s something I still occasionally wrestle with to this day, and probably always will. But I’m honestly not willing to go there with my health, ever again.
Within a year of quitting veganism my hair was growing back, my energy returned, and I knew I had made the right choice. I didn’t go back to the type of meat eater I was before, though. I now view meat as a condiment – If I make a steak for Alex and I, I might take a few bites and then mainly eat whatever vegetables, grains, and fats we’re eating that night. I think about where our meat is coming from and I now buy exclusively from Belcampo here in Los Angeles (who interestingly enough created her shop because she was also vegan for 9 years, and wanted to create a more humane system for getting animal products into our homes). I tend to eat fish when I’m out and can’t control where meat is coming from. I’m not perfect by any means, but I make an effort. For me, this is the balance I choose between being conscientious and protecting my own health.
I would never try to convince someone not to be vegan if they feel great (and I expect that same respect in return). I believe that if I hadn’t felt so ill as a vegan, I’d still be one. I didn’t miss meat to be honest, I just missed my health. I will say, I am incredibly bothered by the misinformation out there about the health benefits of being vegan. A lot of the fear-mongering and documentaries pushing veganism are misleading. They typically take a varied, plant-based vegan diet and compare them to a diet based in processed, low-quality animal products that are lacking majorly in plant foods. And duh, whether you are eating animal products or not, your diet will best serve you if it is plant-based. I do not appreciate anyone using misleading information to guilt someone into eating a certain way. Unless you are a dietician, working 1:1 with someone, it’s really not within your scope to tell them what is healthiest for their body. Not to mention, so much of the research around dietary cholesterol and saturated fats is desperately antiquated. My shocking 180 in and out of veganism is proof for me; I don’t care about whatever study you’re touting (because to be quite honest I can show you a study touting any and every diet as *the* way to eat for longevity). My experience won’t be everyone’s, which is why we have to use our own intuition. My exact experience could happen to someone who goes from feeling great as a vegan to switching to a paleo diet. We are built with unique, complex systems that require different levels of macro and micronutrients. We have to honor what works for us, both for our morality and our health.
The most important thing I learned, is that It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can buy meat from more responsible sources, you can choose to eat meat a few times a week rather than every meal, you can choose things like eggs and fish which some belief to be more humane, you can eat smaller portions, or you can be vegan while safely working with a registered dietician or nutritionist. I’ve found this to be an extremely emotional conversation, and I challenge each of us to be more open and accepting of each other’s choices. People who eat meat are not automatically evil and vegans aren’t all running around passing judgment. Let’s try to remember that.