Acne and ED, Interlude: You Are What You Don’t Eat

 If you want to read the whole series in order, start here: 

Acne and ED, Part I: How Vegan Began

Acne and ED, Part II: The Never Ending Detox

Acne and ED, Part III: Un-Becoming Vegan

And so here I was, at a crossroads. I had committed to being a vegan. I wanted nothing to do with meat. And yet I was broken down mentally and metabolically. Worse, I was doing nothing but accumulating scars on the most visible part of my body. I agreed to at least indulge my mom in exploring another way of eating.

As I mentioned before, my mom is into Crossfit. And the people at her gym introduced her to a way of eating called the “Paleo Diet.” She was convinced that if only I started eating bacon, I’d be cured. I did not harbor such preconceptions when I suspiciously opened up Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint and started reading.

And I read the Primal Blueprint with a serious amount of skepticism. It basically told me that the lifestyle I’d been living and the diet I was following was completely wrong: my high-carb, low-fat, moderate-to-as-high-as-I-could-get-with-hemp-powder-and-brown-rice protein diet ran directly against the Primal Blueprint’s guidelines. Moreover, my sleep and exercise were, according to Mark Sisson, completely off-base and out of rhythm with my body. I finished the book in one night, and went to sleep with my brow furrowed.

I wasn’t convinced. After all, everything I’d read since becoming vegan said the opposite. How could eating meat be good for me? Weren’t egg yolks the reason for heart disease? What about the China Study?!*

It wasn’t until I borrowed Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat from the library that things started to make sense.

According to Taubes, the science behind the low-fat, high-carb diet is inherently flawed. The FDA adopted the low-fat mantra after confusing correlation with causation. The connection between dietary and somatic cholesterol has been debunked time and again, although the results of those studies have been purposely obfuscated by the government and the media, or else just simply misunderstood.

Moreover, if you look at the rates of heart disease, diabesity, and related diseases, you’ll see a direct correlation between them and the adoption of the low-fat, high-carb diet (circa the 1980s). And there are scientists today who are proving causation in study after study after study.

(For more on that, check out Taubes’ 2004 article “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” in the NYT, then read the book–and if you want to get seriously serious, read Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes’ 400+ page tome on the subject.)

Anyway, I’m not here to argue about plant-based versus animal protein diets (today). Just to explain why I decided to give Paleo a try.

Now that I had at least decided to proceed with an open mind, I borrowed my mom’s copy of the Whole30 and got to work.

The Whole30 is a tough-love 30-day diet and lifestyle change meant to help you cold-turkey transition to a healthier, cleaner way of eating. For people who approach it from the Standard American Diet of processed foods, it’s a shock to the system–no sugar, trans fats, packaged anything–that probably results in weight loss and huge medical benefits (I say “probably” because the creators of the Whole30 suggest that this isn’t about weight loss but about establishing healthier food habits). But there’s a shock to the system for recovering veg*ns, too: when you shift your diet from grains, grasses, beans, and legumes to animal proteins and healthy fats, you are fundamentally changing the way your body runs and reacts.

And since I’m no stranger to 30-day diets and transformations, I figured I’d give it a go. Why not? Giving up food wasn’t new to me. Every “diet” I’d tried was about what I couldn’t eat. Even though I constantly thought about the things I was eating–trying to trick myself into looking forward to egg white pancakes or packets of “green” meal-powders–it was always within the context of the things I wasn’t eating. And god forbid I go “off-plan” and cheat–then it was open-season for ED to start shooting me down with reminders of how horrible I was for eating the things I “couldn’t” have.

I was pretty much convinced that the Paleo thing would just be another list of foods I couldn’t have. And, technically, by starting with the Whole30, it was: No grains. No beans. No peanuts, for god’s sake.** No dairy.*** No, no, no. I even went further and did an autoimmune protocol, which means excluding potentially allergenic foods that cause or exacerbate everything from autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis to acne (the latter, of course, being the reason I tried it). On the autoimmune protocol I further limited my diet by excluding “nightshades,” which are a class of vegetable that contain “alkaloids[, which] can impact nerve-muscle function and digestive function in animals and humans, and may also be able to compromise joint function.”  These foods include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and any pepper, from sweet to hot.

And so this was how I found myself eating a breakfast of scrambled eggs for the first time in almost a year. (Okay, fine: scrambled egg whites. I had read and understood Why We Get Fat on an intellectual level, but ED doesn’t listen to intellect–ED only knows that there are more calories in whole eggs than in egg whites.) This was how I found myself enjoying tuna fish for lunch. (No mayo, but it’s surprisingly good with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and Italian spices!)

The Whole30 went well–in fact, while I wasn’t weighing myself, I visibly lost my vegan belly bloat.+ My acne, though by no means cured, was hugely alleviated. In fact, I was able to stop taking the doxycycline I had been prescribed during the vegan disaster.

Now that the month was over, however, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I still hadn’t completely gotten rid of the acne, still hadn’t completely committed to the idea of eating animal fat, still hadn’t moved past the 30-day diet mentality.

Less Acne Than on Vegan Diet

Scarred but healing

Staring into the abyss of “what next,” I failed to recognize that I was so busy concentrating on the foods I couldn’t eat that I had forgotten to consider the ones I could.

– K.

*The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell is the number one document to which the veg*n community turns to validate the high-fat:cholesterol connection. Denise Minger of Raw Food SOS debunks the China Study here.

**No peanuts because no legumes. Apparently, as a defense mechanism, legumes contain a indigestible anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Phytates make all of the nutrients that Fitday calorie counters tell us we’re eating unavailable to our bodies. Moreover, peanuts contain proteins called lectins, which permeate the lining of our digestive tract and wreak all sorts of havoc on our guts and bloodstreams.

***Not a problem for me, since I’d stopped eating dairy in January of 2011. I’ve since had one container of Greek yogurt (July 2011-ish, if memory serves), and I felt so horrible after eating it that I haven’t looked back.

+Ah, the dreaded bloat. My yoga-and-vegan-induced weight loss lasted until November or so…After that, I started to gain weight and lose muscle (in part due to the fact that I wasn’t able to exercise at the level I had previously due to my ankle). But even after I returned to working out (and working through the pain), I couldn’t seem to get comfortable in my own body.

I will admit to taking progress photos for the sake of the Whole30. I have not done so since, nor do I feel the need to anymore. I’m posting them here solely to demonstrate the physical change that occurred after giving up veganism. Here is what happened after a month and a half of “Paleo” eating:

Belly bloat and weight gain on a vegan diet

First day of the Whole30

Losing weight and bloating on Paleo diet

About 1.5 months (Whole30 +15) post-veganism

8 thoughts on “Acne and ED, Interlude: You Are What You Don’t Eat

  1. I was a vegan for 3 1/2 years. Partly because I had lived off of fast food and soda my entire adolescents and gained a lot of weight with my first pregnancy, and the other main reason I switched to a plant based diet was because of my cystic acne. I’m 5’7 and at the time I weighed around 200lbs. By the 3rd year of veganism I weight 123lbs but still had horrible acne. Around that time I also fell in love with weight lifting but realized that I had absolutely zero strength. I researched and read everything I could in order to better my gym performance while trying to keep to a vegan diet. Thats when I went a little crazy trying to up my protein with vegan supplements. I gave up veganism when I realized it wasn’t working for me and being skinny wasn’t the end result that I thought I had wanted. I’m trying out this whole paleo thing, hoping that I’ll find a balance between my weight and skin problems. I really connected with your posts about veganism and find comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one who experienced negative side effects. It just goes to show that each person is different in their dietary needs.

    • Absolutely! My next post is actually going to be about the n=1 approach to nutrition. I’m glad that you’re at least willing to make the change to see what works for you. I hope that you find your solution–cystic acne (or any acne really) is awful, and no one deserves to have to deal with it. I’ve been listening to a lot of what Chris Kresser and the Balanced Bites podcast gals (Diane Sanfillipo and Liz Wolf) have to say about skin and the gut health connection–it’s really encouraged me to be proactive about experimenting with my diet to see what worked best for me. I wish you so much luck on your journey–and please feel free to keep me updated with what you’re learning!

  2. Great series! I was never a vegan, but I was a low-fat vegetarian for 16 years (and got fat & sick). It’s fascinating to me the extent to which I was willing to ignore what was going on with my body in order to continue to conform to a diet that I just “knew” was right. It is something I’m still trying to understand. And, yes, even after losing 60+ pounds (pretty much following and reading all about the misguided policy around fat, I still had this weird relationship with fat. I was willing to use *some* fat, but I couldn’t stop feeling a bit guilty about it, and I really couldn’t stop just being stingy with myself about it! It literally took years for me to get over my fear of dietary fat.

    • Thanks!

      It really is crazy how internalize these messages about diet–“vegetarian is healthy” or “fat makes you fat” etc.–and let them rule us. But then when we’re given real, science with which to make decisions, we can’t follow through. (At least that was my problem. It was only recently that I stopped leaving the yolks out of my omelets for fear of becoming horribly fat and dying of a heart attack at age 26, or whatever the “studies” say today…And I’m still standing!)

  3. Hi! Glad to have found your blog. I’m paleo and a month post Whole30. Sounds counterintuitive since I just did the Whole30 but my main goal is to shake that diet mentality since I believe that is the root of the problem. Look forward to reading more.

    • Yay! Welcome and congrats on making it through a Whole30. 🙂
      I’m also so glad to hear you say that you want to move past the whole “diet” mentality, because I’m 110% with you–it’s the most important gift you can give yourself. I’m actually going to be writing about that over the course of the next couple of weeks…I”m still learning how to fight the urge to count calories or record macronutrients, but for the first time in my life I can make it through a day without a plan or a goal other than to just enjoy the day and eat healthily when I’m hungry.
      I wish you so much luck on your journey–and I hope to hear how things go for you!

  4. So happy to have stumbled in here. I was vegan for 10 years, and have been back eating meat the last year after a horrible health scare. I eat autoimmune paleo in attempts to heal damage from my hashimotos and celiac diseases. For the first time ever, my cystic acne went away, and then somehow in the last couple months it has come back worse than ever. I also listen to Chris Kresser and the Balanced Bites ladies. I know my digestion is sub-optimal, but there isn’t too much more I haven’t tried at this point. Right now I can’t tell if the Fermented Cod Liver oil is helping or hurting – but i’m sticking it out, so we will see. 🙂

    • Hi Mickey! I’m glad you found me! I’m so sorry that you’ve had to go through some serious health issues…I really hope that the Cod Liver Oil works for you (and I’m interested to hear your results…I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m thinking about doing another n=1 experiment once I’m no longer dealing with the fallout from my hormone replacement therapy!). Good luck!! 😀

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