A high amount of vegans or vegetarians return to eating animal products. According to this study, 84%, in fact. Ex-veganism is definitely a thing that concerns me. That percentage is high and makes me uncomfortable, sad, but also, empathetic. There is a part of me that gets it. I am learning that being vegan does not automatically make you healthy and I understand a little more why the fear of failing health would lead someone to actually consider or even begin re-introducing animal products into their diet.
I used to ascribe to the idea that if I was eating something plant-based, it was automatically healthier than it’s animal-based counterpart. Although ethically & spiritually that may have been true, my body begin telling me differently. I have prided myself on veganizing junk food favorites and have happily sought out vegan versions of pizza, burgers and all.the.beer to share happily on this blog and Instagram and spread the message that we don’t have to sacrifice taste for compassion. I was overdoing it on processed foods (faux meats) made of gluten and soy. Although I do not feel that any one of these ingredients caused me to experience health issues, I do think I had too much in my diet and it begin leading to health issues. My focus was not on nutrients, it was on is my food vegan or not?
And, I don’t think I am alone.
I do wonder if other vegans, like me, focus too much on good tasting food and proving to omnis that anything-they-eat-we-can-eat-too is jeopardizing our health and contributing to that high rate of ex-veganism. I have read far too many accounts in the past few years of vegans who were going back to eating animal products because they were experiencing health issues and they felt the need to honor the needs of their body.
Coming from a place of complete honesty, I admit that I judged them. How could they go back to eating animals knowing what they knew about the way animals were treated, the effects on the environment and the detriments to their health? But, when I got really honest with myself, I realized that my judgement was coming from a place of fear (as judgment so often does) that veganism was not a healthy path for me.
I have had a hard time losing weight as a vegan. I experienced great results a loooong time ago eating a high protein, low carb diet. Eating plant-based is not always convenient or easy, but my resolve to not contribute to the suffering of animals is stronger than ever and so I have stayed committed.
But, the migraines. Oh, the migraines.
They have been occurring for the past two years, varying in intensity, but showing up about once per month for 2-3 days on end. Excedrin and tylenol were not helping. Essential oils helped my mood and eased the symptoms. Drinking more water, yin yoga poses, chiropractor visits and massages all helped alleviate the blinding pain and nausea, but still did not prevent them from happening.
I tried to find a pattern. I thought they were caused from running. They did seem to occur more often following a run after my body felt tenser or I had worked out harder. I felt I could not advance in my fitness goals and so many times after an intense workout, I would be hit with a migraine. Although my heart and head wanted to run, my body was saying stop. I quit running and felt oh, so frustrated.
And, still, the migraines came.
Finally, I saw the pattern. I feel stupid that it took me so long, but I finally realized they were coinciding with my monthly period. I wanted to find out exactly what was going and had not had the best experiences before with my primary care doctor. The last thing I wanted was pain medication or another type of drug that came with a list of side effects. I wanted to work towards healing instead of symptom treatment.
I made an appointment with an integrative doctor who uses a combination of homeopathic remedies, herbs, supplements and chiropractic adjustments in his treatments. My intake visit unlike any other Dr. visit I have experienced before. I was given hot tea as we sat and talked for over an hour. He asked extensive questions about my symptoms, background, family history and current stressors. I was given a thorough exam and sent in for full blood work. I came back a few weeks later to discuss my results and course of treatment.
I was confronted with the reality that my vitamin D was low, I was slightly anemic, I was showing the effects of dehydration (even though I constantly chug water from my obnoxiously large hydroflask), I was having all sorts of digestive issues (mostly with my kidney and liver function), slight thyroid concerns (my t3 not covering to t4) and in much need of B vitamins. My doctor told me it seemed that my diet was unbalanced, and some of the symptoms were indicative of eating a high carbohydrate, low protein diet. The doctor recommended I take calcium magnesium with vitamin D, magnesium glyconate, a liver cleanser blend, B vitamins, B12, digestive enzymes, probiotics and a homeopathic blend to help specifically with symptoms from migraines (nausea, in particular). He was suspecting that because of my liver functioning, when I had my period and my hormone levels spiked, my liver could not detox fast enough and I would feel all sorts of nausea and then the migraine would set in.
We also talked extensively about my diet and of course, the subject of protein intake came up. I know this can be a touchy subject for vegans and I myself have felt annoyed over the constant inquiry about my protein intake when someone finds out I don’t eat animals. But, the reality is, yes there is enough non-animal sources of protein out there, but am I always fitting them in my diet in the healthiest way? Nope. I was realizing that I was often getting my protein from a processed, not easily digestable-to-me source.
The doctor suggested I stop eating soy. I had a mini panic attack because that did seem to be my most plentiful source of protein. He then asked if I would consider at least adding eggs into my diet (cage free or range free, antibiotic free, even). That’s when my mini panic attack turned into a full fledged one that no amount of hot tea could calm down. I emphasized to him how important being vegan was to my belief system and that I needed to at least try this first completely plant based before considering further.
I panicked because I trust his opinion and expertise. He had professional experience and understood an Eastern approach to healing, he had my full blood work right in front of him and was suggesting I eat an animal product. Shouldn’t I at least consider it? What if veganism really wasn’t working for my health?
Fortunately, he agreed we could at least try this plant based at first, but definitely eliminating soy. He was adamant about this and speculating that I was not digesting soy properly. I left with a bag full of supplements and a head full of anxious thoughts. How were so many things so “off”? As a vegan, shouldn’t I be healthier?
I followed his suggestions. I took all my supplements and except for a few times eating out, I have almost completely eliminated soy from my diet and greatly decreased wheat. I have been striving to eat mostly whole foods and cook so much more at home.
I have not had a migraine for 5 months.
I literally want to shout this. I HAVE BEEN MIGRAINE FREE FOR 5 MONTHS! I truly feel like I have a huge part of my life back. I don’t disappear into pain for 3 days each month not able to do much more than painfully count down the minutes at work, then hide in the darkness of my room not moving much from my bed once I am home. I have also been able to begin running again and feel like a meaningful part of my life has returned.
I have more sustainable energy. I used to frequently experience a 4 PM crash that would leave me wanting to collapse in bed as soon as I got home from work or wondering how in the heck I would teach my evening yoga classes. My mood feels more even and I feel less prone to anxiety. I am not constantly thinking about food and I feel more nourished and satisfied from meals compromised of whole v. processed foods.
I thought it would be more complicated to cook without the convenience of faux meats or tofu, but it’s actually much simplier and keeps meals much more straightforward. It’s also much more inexpensive!
It has taken me some time to put this post into words. I do not want to come across as portraying veganism as unhealthy. It can be extremely healthy to eat tons of veggies, fruits and grains, but so many of us are doing it wrong. My intention with this post is to remind myself and maybe others, that veganism alone does not always equate to healthiness and it’s so important to frequently check in with nutrients.
This experience was a good reminder for me to examine my own sense of judgment of ex-vegans. It can feel overwhelming when your health is compromised and a medical professional is recommending eating animal products.
Thankfully, my symptoms weren’t that serious. The migraines were pretty significant in my small world, but not nearly as intense as the health/pain issues that some people have to live with an on-going basis. I can be too quick to say that “veganism is for everyone! Veganism is easy! If you love your dog you should be vegan!” But, for some who struggle with more intense health issues, it may not be as easy. I don’t have the answers for what the best diet is for everyone based on their specific needs, but I do have a more compassionate perspective on why one may feel they may need to eat differently or why the message of veganism can be so alienating and intimidating.
My commitment to ahimsa (non-violence) is stronger than ever. I try to use ahimsa to drive my thoughts, attitude and actions towards all beings. Ahimsa was what first motivated me to stop eating animals and it has taught me so much about the way I treat the earth, other humans and how my thoughts hold powerful energy. I am now learning how to extend that sense of compassion and non-violence out to myself and ensure that I am nourishing myself properly to truly have the energy to give compassion to all.