At 11 years old I opened the front door of my childhood home to a couple of Greenpeace canvassers. They outlined the horrific things that fishing – legal and illegal – were doing to my favourite creatures – whales. I donated my babysitting money to buy a copy of their latest newsletter, which showed images of ocean waters full of blood and dead dolphins. Right away, I became an animal and environmental activist.
Soon after, I became a vegetarian, for about two years. I made the choice at 13 because, as a caregiver hired by EarthSave Society to tend children at their monthly vegetarian potlucks, I was introduced to books, pamphlets and information that horrified me.
What I learned by reading Diet for a New America made me never again want to support CAFO meat (which is still true today).
I also believed vegetarianism was healthy, and I felt I could use an improvement in my energy and the state of my skin. But, shortly into this experiment, I started to feel unwell. I was tired, even more so than before, especially during my monthly period, I developed worse skin issues, and I began to struggle with depression.
I figured that I might have been feeling that way because I wasn’t being attentive enough with my diet. So I went to being a supplementing vegetarian. I started reading nutrition information, vitamin and mineral charts and pulling the copies of books like Diet for a New Planet from my parent’s book shelves to read, and spending the money I earned at a clothing store in the mall next door, at the Nutrition House, getting brewers yeast and Green Magma.
I kept this up for a while, and in that time my sister kept calling me out for cheating here and there. I decided I had better be completely vegetarian, and that not being strict enough might be part of my problem. So for 5 months, I was strict. This meant I had to prepare all my own food, because my mom still often made dishes with foods like ground beef, which now revolted me.
Being a child with little money, and incomplete cooking skills, the best I could do was pretty terrible. I did learn to prepare whole grains, but I mostly ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches, pasta with tomato sauce, french toast with honey, instant noodles, and potato pancakes with sour cream. Much of what I ate out was poor quality too, such as fries.
Everything I experienced above got worse, and I developed new symptoms, like brain fog, aches and pains, cramps and dry hair. I decided to see a doctor about my symptoms, and he thought my aches and pains were from getting hit by a car when I was 11, and the skin, hair and depression were hormonal. I was put on birth control pills.
After this, I has such bad fatigue and low moods that at 15 I would pound coffees and chocolate bars to try to feel any energy, to pick myself up.
I wish I could say I got the message. In fact, I still believed that vegetarian diets were healthy, I just wasn’t up to trying anymore. I was so unwell, I couldn’t do it. So, I stopped.
It wasn’t until decades later, after my health had spiralled to rock bottom and I had finally learned enough to have recovered it again, that I decided to dive into the research to figure out why an exclusively plant-based approach didn’t work for me.
Since I continued to feel bad after quitting the diet, it took me a while to realize, in retrospect, all the things that the doctor had said were the causes of my issues – like “hormones” had never bothered me as much prior to being a vegetarian.
The answer? Nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar imbalance and food intolerances.
As Functional Medicine educator Chris Kresser explains in this article, “deficiencies in several essential nutrients—including B12, calcium, zinc, iron, choline, and DHA—are far more common in vegetarians, and especially vegans, than they are in omnivores.”
Animal foods are the most nutrient-dense, bioavailable sources of most nutrients. Like, by a large margin.
This chart shows nutrient density, without even taking into account bioavailability.
|Category||Average Nutrient Density Score|
|Herbs and spices||12.3|
|Nuts and seeds||7.5|
|Fish and seafood||6.0|
|Lamb, veal and wild game||4.0|
|Eggs and dairy||3.1|
|Vegetables (cooked or canned)||2.0|
|Plant fats and oils||1.4|
|Animal fats and oils||1.0|
That’s not what we want to hear, as animal lovers, nor is it what we think makes sense as environmentalists, but it is the scientific nutritional truth.
We definitely don’t want to hear that the cuts of meat that make us squirm are the most nutritious of all, but that’s also true, as you can see in the chart.
I am not going to say that eating plant-based is the worst thing you can do. It’s not at all!! I am going to do a whole post on plant based eating.
But what I did, pretty much IS the worst thing you can do.In the nineties when I was eating vegetarian, I was not eating plant-based, I was eating carb-based. Junk-based.
I took out meat but I didn’t add in anything good. Another thing that turned out to be wrong from a scientific standpoint was that fat was bad and carbs were good. The low-fat, high-sugar diet I was eating was wreaking havoc on my hormones, my moods, and my energy.
If I had eaten avocado toast instead of honey toast, I probably would have felt a lot better.
Or maybe not.
In my case, it also turns out that I am allergic to wheat and gluten, potatoes and dairy – the exact things that I ate the most while vegetarian. And all of which are inflammatory, and awful for the gut, the seat of our health!
Even if I was eating good carbs, I probably would not have done very well, however.
I have learned that my body chemistry is not really made for large amount of carbohydrates, even good ones. Understanding that these types of variations exist is why I suggest dietary changes to clients only AFTER doing a complete and thorough investigation of a person’s biochemistry.
For many people, eating only plants will not be enough to meet their nutrient needs.
In the case of some nutrients essential for optimal function, like B12, CLA or carnitine, animal products are a necessary source. So being vegan most of the time is probably better than being vegan every day.
When we look, science doesn’t even seem to bear out the idea of being vegan as being better for the planet than animal husbandry. All it is superior than are the CAFOs, which we can all agree need to be eradicated.
So that’s a long post and a big topic.
Check back for another post in future where I will pick up this thread and discuss the benefits of going plant based.
Yep, because there are several sides to every story!