My Experience With Vegetarianism — Updated With New Reflections
Published June 9, 2013 — Note:The old version of this account, published in 2005, can be found here.
I remember vividly the moment I realized everything had changed.
Working as an undergraduate in a campus dining hall, I spotted a young man lift up half a stack of plates to choose one he could approve of, as if there were something wrong with the plate on the top of the stack. As if the top plate — the plate of choice for most of us because of its obvious convenience — were somehow defiled by the air that had brushed across its surface in the few seconds that had passed since the person right in front of him had taken the one on top of it.
I cast a confused glance in his direction. Moments after passing judgment on the absurdity of this action within my own mind, however, I realized that just months earlier I had been doing the same exact thing. Not long before then, I too chose plates exclusively from the middle of the stack, often took ten to fifteen minutes to pick out a glass clean enough to drink from, and engaged in anxious behaviors far more damaging than this. My anxieties had been so severe that I had often been afraid to eat much of the food in my own home or drive my own car, even as my physical health had seemed to disintegrate at just as rapid a pace.
In only a few months, however, these anxieties had vanished so swiftly and with such a clean escape that for a few moments I had completely forgotten they had ever been part of my life. It was at that moment that I realized my health, both physical and mental, had undergone a revolution.
What had happened to me? How did I ever become mired in such illness, and from whence came my escape?
While both the cause and cure of any illness are always multifaceted, the key turning points in the story of my health have been the ill conceived and ill fated banishment of all animal products from my diet, which turned my mediocre health into something unimaginably worse, and my revolutionary recovery to a state of health more robust and vibrant than ever after incorporating high-quality, nutrient-dense animal foods into my diet.
Why I Became a Vegetarian
Some fourteen years ago, I read Diet for a New America by John Robbins. At the time I was full of youthful naivetÃ©, some might even say stupidity, wanting to change the world in ways it could never change. The idea of liberating animals from human husbandry appealed to my anti-authoritarian instincts.
Diet for a New America is by no means an anti-authoritarian book, but it paints a beautiful picture of the animal world as one rich not only in intelligence and beauty but even in compassion, telling stories, for example, of dolphins saving sea mammals from predatory whales and saving humans from shipwreck. It appealed to my sense of compassion, one of the values I had always cherished deeply in my heart, no matter how stupidly or wisely I had tried to put it into practice. It pierced my heart to read of the reprehensible ways animals are treated in modern, industrial “farming.” Robbins argued that searching out humanely treated animal products was difficult and unreliable, which seemed sound to me. Having captured my compassion, the book naturally awoke my indignation and led me to see human authority over animals as abusive and unjust.
Diet for a New America also convinced me that consuming animal products is ecologically irresponsible and the major cause of human disease. It seemed natural to me, regardless of whether it is true, that the world should be constructed in such a way that what is just and fair should also be good and health-promoting for those who do right and for the ecosystems they are part of.
So I took the plunge, bought a tofu cookbook, and purged every form of animal flesh from my diet. Six months later, I went from vegetarian to vegan and banished even eggs and dairy products from my diet. This diet qualified as vegan in most respects, although I didn't adhere to some of the more extreme elements, like avoiding honey.
My Journey Through Vegetarianism and Veganism
I thought my journey through vegetarianism and veganism would lead me to a promised land, that I would have health, and have it abundantly. I was sadly mistaken.
At the time I considered saturated fat and cholesterol the main causes of heart disease. The government recommendations on the sides of cereal boxes allowed twenty grams of saturated fat per day, and people were still getting heart disease. From this I poorly reasoned that the official recommendations allowed altogether too much of this terrible fat. I took pride that my diet was completely devoid of cholesterol and contained less than five grams of saturated fat per day. Surely, I thought, I would be immune to heart disease.
The FDA, moreover, recommended 25 grams of soy protein to reduce the risk of heart disease. In my mid-teens, I had been a fan of The Zone Diet by Barry Sears, which advocates a relatively high intake of protein (30 percent of calories). Now that I was vegan, I turned to soy for my protein. Sears had a new book out, The Soy Zone, which he advertised as “the healthiest Zone Diet ever!” I began eating lots of soy, both in traditional forms like tofu and tempeh, and in modern forms like commercial soy milk, fake meats, and muffins that I made from soy flour and canola oil, which is incredibly low in saturated fat. Adding soy protein to a cholesterol-free diet extremely low in saturated fat seemed like a one-two punch that was sure to knock out any chance I may have had of ever developing heart disease.
Diet for a New America had convinced me that animal protein is acidic and leaches calcium from the bones and teeth, and the marketing materials that masqueraded as science on my carton of soy milk convinced me that the isoflavones in the soy milk would ensure that the calcium they add to it would make it into my bones and teeth. Surely, I thought, this way of eating had purchased me lifelong freedom from dental decay and, in my older years far in the future, osteoporosis.
During this period, I tried to eat as healthily as I knew how. While I ate some foods made with refined wheat flour, I focused on whole grains, as well as pseudo-grains like buckwheat. I ate lots of fruits and vegetables, both raw and cooked, and ate nuts, seeds, and other unrefined plant foods. I used olive oil, canola oil, and Earth Balance for fats. I did eat processed foods from health food stores that were advertised as healthy, and ate preposterous amounts of soy, but not because I disregarded my health. Despite my love of skepticism and disdain for commercialism at the time, I was clearly naive to pseudoscience and marketing hype whenever it was consonant with my own beliefs.
Wherefore Art Thou, O Vegan Promised Land?
My experiences over the following two years shattered many of those beliefs.
My health had never been anything to envy. I had accumulated some seven or eight cavities over the course of my childhood, I had digestive problems since infancy, and I developed anxiety in my early teens. Pollen always did a number on me in the summer. Yet my anxiety was manageable and my physical health was mediocre. My anxiety largely subsided between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, probably because bronchial problems led me to cut out soda from my diet when I was fifteen and The Zone Diet led me to replace a lot of the junk food I ate with protein-rich foods like turkey sandwiches. Under my mother's influence, I had also begun using herbs with health-promoting reputations that may have helped.
After a year of my journey through vegetarianism, however, my health problems came back with a vengeance. The phobias and occasional panic attacks of my early teens gave way to disabling paranoia and multiple panic attacks per week in response to such an increasingly expansive array of commonplace triggers that avoiding them became impossible. Running gave me anxiety and my heart started skipping beats when it began working too hard. I became lethargic, apathetic, and socially closed off, and occasionally suffered irrational outbursts of anger. I often found myself lying on the floor writhing in digestive pain.
I was in the dentist's office when I was struck by the final blow. In a single appointment he diagnosed me with over a dozen cavities and two dying teeth that needed root canals. Wasn't a diet free of animal protein and rich in soy isoflavones supposed to protect my bones and teeth? Yet here I was with tooth decay, and not just any tooth decay. Massive tooth decay.
Questioning Vegetarianism and Veganism
After I had been vegetarian for a year and a half and vegan for a year, I slowly began questioning my beliefs. I had some profound personal experiences that had completely altered my focus in life, and while I still distrusted authority (a distrust, I've learned, that is essential to science) my desire to battle authority face-to-face began to fade and the tenacity with which I stuck to my ideologies waned. I began questioning and critically evaluating everything I stood for.
My ailing health certainly offered no defense of my vegetarian experiment. Intellectually, I grappled with the absence of vitamin B12 from plant foods. I dutifully supplemented with cyanocobalamin, a form of B12, throughout this journey, as recommended by Robbins, but the vitamin's apparent absence from plant foods began to shake my faith that vegetarianism or veganism offered a “natural” convergence of what is both healthy and just. Regardless of whether these two principles indeed always converge, I believed that they should converge, and that justice as a principle should transcend time and space. There was no evidence that veganism was brining me health, but even if it had been, could what is just fundamentally change in the modern era simply because of the technological capacity to produce vitamin supplements?
Although during this journey I started rocking out to punk rock lyrics like “meat is still murder and dairy is still rape,” the foundation of my ethical opposition to eating animal products had always been the reprehensible treatment of animals on industrial factory farms. I began to wonder if abstaining from animal products actually contributed to improvements in animal welfare or just gave me a false sense of moral purity while flesh from abused animals that could otherwise have been eaten just wound up rotting in the trash. I decided I could do more to improve animal welfare by supporting farmers who do treat animals well than by keeping my money from “farmers” that would be better termed “meat production engineers.”
Over the course of about six months, I slowly added animal foods into my diet. I added wild salmon, milk, and free-range eggs to my diet. I read some marketing material from egg manufacturers claiming that it was saturated fat that raised blood cholesterol, not dietary cholesterol, and I began to wonder whether an egg a day might just be harmless. I indulged with moderation. Despite adding these foods, however, my ailing health failed to improve.
It was intense cravings for red meat toward the end of that year that drove me over the edge. I smelled red meat even when there was none around. Come Christmas, I gorged with abandon. In the ensuing weeks, I ate lots of red meat, and ate it every day.
Weston Price and the Path to Recovery
Within a couple of weeks of eating red meat, my panic attacks completely stopped.
My anxiety problems were not cured, however. I still had phobias and some characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder, rolled back to the level at which I had suffered from them prior to embarking on my vegetarian journey.
The revolution, however, was not far away. A few months later, my boss, Wayne Kirley, handed me a pamphlet produced by a local farm about the benefits of raw milk. Therein, I learned of the work of Weston Price, whose work I have reviewed in detail here. I found the 1945 edition of his epic work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, on the 24th floor of my university's library, and quickly began reading it. I devoured it.
Price was the first research director for the American Dental Association, and after 25 years of laboratory and clinical research he became a medical anthropologist and documented the consistent effects all over the globe of the nutritional transition from traditional diets to diets based on modern, industrialized foods. The “displacing foods of modern commerce” — white flour, white sugar, white rice, canned goods, syrups, jams, and vegetable oils — produced physical degeneration in every group that adopted them. The first sign of this physical degeneration was dental decay, of which I had a mouthful.
Price also found, however, that groups across the globe with very different genetics, living in very different latitudes, altitudes, and climates all had remarkably vibrant health when they consumed their traditional diets, including freedom from tooth decay. This freedom was often complete or nearly so, even though some of the groups didn't bother to clean their teeth. Price believed this protection resulted from the nutrient density of their diets, and supported his belief with experimental and clinical evidence. Naturally, seeing this freedom from tooth decay, I wanted in.
There was just one catch, and it completely rocked my world: while these traditional diets were all very different from one another, they all placed great emphasis on obtaining fat-soluble vitamins from animal foods. Some obtained these vitamins from shellfish and other animal life of the sea; some from dairy; some from eggs and organ meats; some from insects. As a vegan, I had excluded all of these foods from my diet. My mouthful of tooth decay suddenly made perfect sense, and its solution seemed obvious.
With the help of Sally Fallon's educational cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, I began incorporating the principles I had learned from Price's work into my diet. I began eating organ meats like liver and heart; eggs and butter to my heart's content; raw milk from grass-fed cows; whole grains, nuts, and seeds that had been properly prepared by soaking, fermenting, or sprouting to neutralize anti-nutrients; fermented foods; soups made from animal bones; and food-based supplements like cod liver oil to provide extra fat-soluble vitamins. I continued to eat fruits and vegetables, but limited my soy consumption to small amounts of traditional forms like tofu, tempeh, and fermented soy sauce.
Not long after, I found myself casting that confused gaze towards the young man in the dining hall picking his plate from the middle of the stack. I had changed my diet to solve my tooth decay — and indeed, my tooth decay came to a crashing halt — but to my surprise, my anxiety problems had disappeared. This was and remains one of the most powerful transitions I have ever experienced.
My mood, mental stability, and energy level improved dramatically during this time. I no longer suffered from heart trouble when running, now that I ate eggs and butter with abandon (oh, the irony!). My digestive problems ebbed and flowed and I only mastered them some years down the road, but despite this setback I felt like a completely new person, and I faced life with a renewed, joyful, and lively spirit.
Poor Health on a Vegan Diet: Towards an Explanation
I know many others besides myself who have suffered from poor health on a vegan diet, but there are others who thrive for a much longer time than it took for my health to disintegrate. Perhaps there are even some who thrive on a such a diet for a lifetime. Why do these diets cause disease in some people, and why was I so sensitive? I will never know for sure, but twelve years after my initial recovery, I have some reflections to offer.
As I pointed out in my 2012 Wise Traditions lecture, Meat, Organs, Bones, and Skin: Nutrition for Mental Health, as well as my recent article by the same name, I am clearly not alone. Seven out of eight studies show that vegetarians are more likely to experience mental disorders than their omnivorous counterparts. None, to my knowledge have made similar comparisons with vegans, nor have any teased apart typical omnivores from those taking advantage of traditional, nutrient-dense animal foods that have largely disappeared from the modern menu, like bones, skin, organ meats, and raw dairy from pasture-raised animals.
The data on tooth decay are much less clear, but a 2010 study found that while vegans had similar numbers of decayed, missing, and filled teeth as omnivores, they had eight times more lesions with precarious demineralization, suggesting a much greater propensity for future tooth decay. This was true even though the study excluded anyone who had allergies or used medications, which probably diminished its ability to show a difference. Again, simply looking at “omnivores” tells us little about the power of high-quality, nutrient-dense animal foods that have largely fled the modern omnivorous menu, so these studies likely underestimate the true difference between veganism and an optimal diet including these foods.
Vegetarian and vegan diets have a number of potential problems:
- insufficient dietary cholesterol for those who do not make enough of their own
- thyroid problems from excess plant goitrogens including soy but also many other plant foods, and insufficient animal protein and B12 for their detoxification
- inadequate vitamin B6 and long-chain essential fatty acids
- inadequate zinc and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2
- inadequate vitamin B12, sulfur amino acids (methionine and cysteine), and glycine needed for methylation
- overabundance of carbohydrates like raffinose and stachyose from soy that could contribute to digestive problems
Although cholesterol is not considered an essential nutrient, there is evidence that it is essential for certain people who don't make enough of their own. I cover that on this site here: “Is Dietary Cholesterol an Essential Nutrient?” As I describe on this site, cholesterol is critical to brain health and digestion. It is generally thought that cholesterol does not cross the blood-brain barrier, but recent animal studies suggest it does, and dietary cholesterol improves all of the neurological problems in Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome, a genetic defect in the ability to make cholesterol.
My cholesterol tends to be very low. Nowadays, it runs around 160, but when I was a vegan my total cholesterol was only 106. My doctor thought this was great and seemed unaware that low cholesterol is associated with neurological problems. A couple of years ago, I got a genetic analysis from 23andMe, an excellent and inexpensive resource that looks at variations in over 500,000 genes from a single tube of saliva. This test revealed some interesting genetic variations related to cholesterol levels:
- I have a variant in the LDL-receptor that lowers LDL-cholesterol by 7 mg/dL on average. The LDL receptor takes LDL-cholesterol into cells, especially into the liver. This is generally a good thing because it prevents LDL oxidation, and thereby protects against heart disease, but it could be undesirable if tissues besides the liver are in need of cholesterol, because it would tend to drive cholesterol toward the liver at their expense.
- I have a variant in a protein known as sortilin that lowers LDL-cholesterol by 6 mg/dL on average. This mutation reduces the liver's secretion of cholesterol into the blood, which would seem to aggravate the problem mentioned in the previous bullet while perhaps providing less protection against heart disease.
The 23andMe data is probably incomplete, and I may have other mutations of interest. These mutations, however, could explain at least part of the reason my cholesterol tends to be so low. Perhaps they put my blood cholesterol at the edge of the cliff, while my cholesterol-free diet, very rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and extremely low in saturated fatty acids, pushed them right off the cliff into the abyss. To whatever extent my brain may have relied on cholesterol from my blood, it was likely starving to death.
I have no direct evidence I have ever suffered from a thyroid disorder, but soy and many other plant foods can, in excess and unbalanced by animal foods, contribute to thyroid disorders. I explain this in detail in my Thyroid Toxins Special Report.
Vitamin B6 supports neurotransmitter synthesis and is needed for the synthesis of arachidonic acid and DHA from plant oils. I have written about the role of B6 in essential fatty acid metabolism in my Special Report, “How Essential Are the Essential Fatty Acids?” Vitamin B6 is difficult though not impossible to get on a vegan diet, as I have discussed in this article: “Nutrient Deficiencies on a Vegetarian Diet.” I took a DHA supplement while I was vegan, as recommended in The Soy Zone, but I had no source of arachidonic acid. While I have no direct evidence I had a deficiency of this fatty acid, it seems possible. I wrote about the importance of arachidonic acid to mental health in my article, “The Pursuit of Happiness: How Nutrient-Dense Animal Fats Promote Mental and Emotional Health,” which was based on my lecture at the 2008 Wise Traditions conference, “The Fat-Soluble Vitamins and Mental Health.”
Vitamins A, D, and K2 are important to both mental health and dental health, which I've written about here and here, and their activity depends on zinc, which I've covered here. I supplemented with zinc off and on during my journey through vegetarianism, making an overt deficiency unlikely. I'm sure I had lower vitamin A and D status during my vegan years than afterwards, but I suspect that vitamin K2 was, from among this fat-soluble trio, the real hero.
My 23andMe analysis showed that I have a genetic variant that reduces my ability to recycle vitamin K. Since vitamin K2 activates the proteins responsible for keeping calcium out of soft tissues where it promotes disease and inside bones and teeth where it promotes health, my inability to recycle the vitamin efficiently means I have a much greater need for it. Vitamin K2 is found in animal foods and fermented plant foods, neither of which I was eating during my journey through vegetarianism. I suspect this genetic variant is at least part of the reason my dental health is so sensitive to diet.
I supplemented with cyanocobalamin, a form of vitamin B12, during my journey through vegetarianism. I have my doubts about the efficacy of this form of B12, but I never got my B12 status tested during this time. Nevertheless, as I pointed out in my Wise Traditions lecture, Meat, Organs, Bones, and Skin: Nutrition for Mental Health, as well as my recent article by the same name, this vitamin can only support mental health when it has all its synergistic partners, especially the sulfur amino acids and glycine, of which vegan diets contain only small amounts.
My digestive problems likely aggravated during my experiment with vegetarianism at least in part because of the high amounts of raffinose and stachyose in soy, and perhaps other difficult-to-digest plant carbohydrates. The nutrient deficiencies and digestive problems probably aggravated each other in a vicious cycle. There is definitely a connection between the gut and the brain, but my mental health underwent its revolution long before I put an end to my digestive distress, so I don't think the digestive issues were the root cause of my other health problems.
These are just educated guesses, but I think they provide plausible explanations for my experience and that of many others, and offer at least some explanation for why I may have been more sensitive to these problems than many others are.
Reflections on Vegetarianism: Can It Be Healthy? Are Animal Products a Cure-All?
In the twelve years since my initial recovery from vegetarianism, I have learned many additional lessons.
After my initial recovery, I began to see health completely through the lens of nutrition, as if good nutrition were the solution to everything. In the summer and fall of 2006, I was under extreme stress and eating poorly because of financial trouble, and I suffered from several panic attacks. I had gone five years without any panic attacks until then, and now I've gone almost seven years without any panic attacks since then. The second time around, however, simply restoring a good diet failed to banish my anxiety. That time it took me cognitive and spiritual approaches to regain my health. That relapse of anxiety was one of the best things that has ever happened to me, because it taught me that while nutrition is an essential component of health, there are other facets of health that are just as critically important.
During grad school, I was under a lot of stress, often working at the expense of both my sleep and the time I needed to procure and prepare high-quality food. The quality of my diet declined and I started using caffeine much more often. I developed several cavities during this time. This provided an important reminder to me that my freedom from tooth decay was not simply a result of not being vegetarian anymore, but a result of an overall high-quality diet in the context of a healthy lifestyle.
Although I have no plans to go back to vegetarianism, I do think it is possible for many people to thrive on a well designed plant-based diet. If I were to try vegetarianism again, I would certainly do it very differently: I'd drop the soy and the polyunsaturated oils; I'd soak, sprout, or ferment my nuts, seeds, and grains; I'd use red palm oil for vitamin A, coconut oil for saturated fat, and olive or macadamia nut oils for monounsaturated fat; and I'd make liberal use of eggs and dairy products from animals raised on pasture. Denise Minger has an excellent set of tips for vegans that I would mostly use, though without going completely vegan. I'd eat bananas for vitamin B6, and I'd eat chlorella and green or purple laver (nori) for extra vitamin B12 (with these exceptions, edible algae do NOT contain true B12).
As I pointed out years ago in my response to T. Colin Campbell's critique of my China Study review, one can obtain plenty of zinc and vitamin B12 by using certain shellfish such as clams and oysters only several times per month. If I wanted to reduce my consumption of animal products, or avoid killing sentient creatures, I would opt to eat small amounts of these nutrient-dense and literally brainless animals.
I do periodically abstain from most animal products as a part of my spiritual life, but never on a permanent or long-term basis, never as a diet completely devoid of animal products, and not because I consider eating animal products unhealthy, bad for the environment, or unethical. I believe the best way to support animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and human health is to support farmers who raise their animals on pasture. This allows each animal to live life as an animal's life should be lived, makes the farm a sustainably complex ecosystem, and produces animal products of superior nutritional value.
Sometimes I get mail from vegans who tell me their health is fantastic. I wish all such people joy and the best of health. For those with very different experiences, I hope telling my story helps them find their own path to recovery.
Wishing you all true joy and the best of health,