Why I Stopped Being Vegan
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
I had a dream about eating salmon. Thick, grilled, juicy salmon. I ignored it, but a few weeks later, I had the same dream. I told a friend, and she laughed. I told another friend, and she said, "How strange." I told yet another friend and she said, "Maybe you should just eat some salmon."
My dietitian agreed, "If your body wants salmon, it wants salmon," she said.
But I haven't eaten salmon, or cheese, or eggs, or chicken, or beef, or pork, or yogurt in years. I thought I had the whole vegan thing down: rice and beans, legumes, tofu, veggies on veggies on veggies, fruit, nuts, smoothies, wheat grass, kombucha, rinse, repeat.
I decided to go vegan *ostensibly* for health reasons, and to flex my nonexistent knowledge-of-all-things-diet muscle. The arguments are easy to make: being vegan is better for the planet, it's better for health, it's better for animals (obviously). Veganism is idealistic and extreme, which appealed to me because I'm an idealist, and extreme. It also appealed to me, whether or not I cared to admit it, because I had an eating disorder and veganism conveniently cut out entire food groups. It was, quite simply, an easy excuse to eat less. Sadly, this is somewhat common among vegans, who by the way, make up about 0.5% of all Americans. Veganism is niche, and vegans with disordered eating habits are sadly, also niche.
I live in Orange County, CA, where there is an overabundance of organic grocery stores, catering to the likes of these kinds of people. So one day, after a long, hot trail run, I took my sorry little ass to my local Whole Foods and purchased a pre-cooked sockeye salmon filet from the deli section, along with some green beans and roasted fingerling potatoes. This meal somehow cost $24.00, but I didn't even care. I ate half my vegetables before diving into the salmon and it was marvelous. Magnificent. Everything I had dreamed of. And that was, basically, it. I left, no one the wiser.
Afterward, I decided to allow some animal products back into my diet, barring dairy products as I'm heavily lactose intolerant. So far I've eaten salmon and eggs, one stray sausage, and one delightful burger. It's been weeks, and while the addition of animal products has been welcome, my diet is still predominantly plant-based. I still eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and nuts and rice and beans. I still drink kombucha like a red-blooded suburban-livin' Californian. I still dislike factory farming and could wax poetical about the downside of pumping hormones into the animals we choose to ingest. But I digress.
There are a few very specific reasons I stopped being vegan, and they are:
1. I was WILDLY anemic.
And constantly supplementing iron was kind of a drag. I consistently supplemented (with these iron pills), got my iron up high enough to feel good, and stopped supplementing. My iron would then drop, I'd feel exhausted, and begin supplementing again. I stopped supplementing, by the way, because who wants to live on an iron supplement? I was ingesting iron-rich plant foods (spinach, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, hemp seeds, apricots, raisins, figs, creamed rice, to name a few). But it's no small secret that heme iron, derived from animal sources, is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, derived from plants and iron-fortified foods. I've been struggling with iron for years, and was quite simply, tired of it.
My last iron test measured hemotocrit, the percentage of blood volume made up by red blood cells. Normal levels are generally between 35.5-44.9 for adult women and 38.3-48.6 for adult men. My level of blood volume made up by red blood cells was 13.5, which resulted in me feeling sluggish, my heart rate spiking, my nails turning white and brittle, and constantly feeling cold and lethargic. Low iron is especially noticeable during activity; runs that once felt easy were beginning to feel very difficult. About 20 percent of American women are iron deficient, for a number of reasons: we lose blood every month through menstruation, we may not have enough iron in our diets, OR we may not be able to absorb enough iron. That's likely what was happening to me, and vegan iron sources are simply, mediocre.
2. My digestion began suffering, hard.
Vegan diets have a LOT of fiber, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Our bodies can adjust (CITE) to more fiber, and although I was vegan for years, I had long periods (often weeks) of bloated stomach pains, and incessant bowel movements. Too much information? I thought it was normal to experience such enormous lapses in digestive health, but I was fooling myself. It isn't normal to poop all day, and this is not especially revelatory. I tried probiotics, prebiotics, kombucha and wheat grass and no sugar and no fat but nothing really helped, which leads me to point number 3.
3. I was too stressed about my food, especially in social situations.
Mental stress doesn't only affect our minds, it affects our bodies and moods as well. Being vegan requires a certain degree of planning, organization, and dedication, but I found myself becoming obsessive as I planned when what where and how I would eat my meals, get all the nutrients I needed, have time to cook, et cetera. The stress was tripled every time I went out somewhere, doing research online to ascertain whether or not a restaurant was vegan friendly, eating big bowls of iceberg lettuce or veggie burgers or an amalgamation of side dishes. Veganism is inherently a bit restrictive, and I the amount of time I was spending thinking about food was simply not worth it.
Mental stress can result in: anxiety, headaches, restlessness, over/under eating, lack of motivation/focus, fatigue, irritability, social withdrawal, upset stomach, depression, insomnia, and more. I wasn't experiencing all of these at once, but my mental and emotional health was taking a toll. For a long time, I credited my vegan diet with my radiant health, good skin, and an upbeat mood. But over time, these all deteriorated. Since incorporating fish and eggs back into my diet, my skin has cleared up, my hair has become noticeably shinier, longer, and thicker, and my chronic fatigue began to lift, which made me (unsurprisingly) more upbeat and happy. C'est la vie, everybody.
If we'd all take a moment to be incredibly pragmatic about diet, we would realize there is no one diet that's good for everybody. As I've written about in the past, I practice something called Intuitive Eating, which essentially means cluing into hunger cues honestly and fully. This means eating when truly hungry and eating the foods that seem most satisfying. If, for instance, you feel real hunger and crave lean protein or carbs, you should listen to your body either way. There is probably a reason you're body wants certain foods. Read more about Intuitive Eating here.