My decision to stop being a vegan was based on a gut feeling–literally and figuratively: the blog post(s) that I’m about to provide you with are simply based on all of the research I’ve done since making the decision to stop being a vegan.
I’m writing it all here not to promote any kind of orthorexia or nutritionism or restrictive eating or dogma–I’m writing it here because there are people who want to understand the potential health implications of a low-fat plant-based diet.
I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist–just a girl who is sick and tired of being sick and tired–and sick and tired of watching so many people make decisions based on half-truths, emotional appeals, and ingrained biases that ultimately leave them sick and tired too.
Wheat and Grains and Carbs–Oh My!
When you’re eating a diet that’s low in protein and low in fats, unless you go the Breatharian route (and I don’t suggest it, ‘cause you won’t live long), you’re going to have to fill in the gaps in your diet somewhere else. And that somewhere is usually found in carbohydrates.
Now, before we start quibbling over macronutrient ratios and carb counting and start pointing fingers at Drs Atkins and MacDougall respectively, let’s just look objectively at the facts:
- Many vegans eat diets rich in foods like wheat, grains, fruits, and veggies. Some vegans eat gluten-free grains* and other eat sprouted grains. Some vegans eat higher proportions of veggies (see: the Hugh Jass Salad), and some vegans eat higher proportions of vegan desserts.
- Unless they’re gobbling down tablespoonfuls coconut oil and/or fair trade red palm oil, vegans eat a diet that is by its nature very low in saturated fat. Also because they are not eating fish, vegans consume fewer Omega-3 fatty acids as well.
- Often, if vegans do add fats to their diets (although many avoid it because “fat makes you fat,” right?**), they’re highly oxidized and/or GMO seed oils, like canola and soy OR they’re adding extra Omega-6 to their diet in the form of nuts, nut milks, and nut butters (which throws off the Omega-3-to-6 ratio that’s necessary for heart health, one of the very things that a vegan diet is purported to protect. Irony?).
- A vegan diet is low in protein, which is essential for building muscle–and this is not just for the meathead bodybuilders out there.***
- A vegan diet is high in carbohydrates, even if you’re gluten free.
So here are the consequences of eating foods in this unbalanced way:
Fat: The Most Important Thing You Will Read All Day
Let me reiterate: this is the MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU WILL READ ALL DAY. If you take NOTHING away from this blog series other than this one section, I will be able to rest easy, knowing that I’ve done my job.
Just in case you were still under the delusion that fat is bad for you, that fat makes you fat, or that fat is going to cause your heart to explode, then please, for the love of all that is good and holy in this world, PLEASE go and do a little research for yourself. Don’t just believe the mainstream dogma. Fat, especially saturated fat (and also monounsaturated fats like avocado and olive), is good for you. You NEED fat in order to FUNCTION:
Fat and Cholesterol
I feel like this is one of the biggies that underpins the vegan argument, at least the one that gets parroted a ton (and one that I certainly parroted as a justification for eating that way): meats and fats are full of cholesterol, and dietary cholesterol causes heart disease. Sound familiar?
So here’s the thing, I’m going to defer to Jimmy Moore and other experts out there to explain why everything you ever thought you knew about cholesterol is wrong. But I would like to just dispel a myth that has unfortunately affected my own life:
Cholesterol is the master chemical when it comes to producing hormones. When you have adequate levels of cholesterol in the blood, your cells can break it down and use its constituent parts to make pregnenolone, a master steroid hormone. Now, “steroids” have a bad rap from the bodybuilding and athletic communities who inject the synthetic stuff, but it turns out that all of our bodies run on endogenous (made inside) steroid hormones, like estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.
Pregnenolone is broken down into progesterone and DHEA, and DHEA is broken down further to make estrogen and androgenic hormones. So. No fat = no cholesterol = no pregnenolone = no fertility or basic human function. Sounds like a good time, no?
Fat and Vitamins
Remember all of those supplements we’re buying in order to support a vegan diet? Well:
Many vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning that they can’t be properly absorbed without fat. So all of those fancy supplements you’re taking are worthless if you aren’t able to break them down and use them.
As I said above, your body needs fat in order to properly manufacture hormones–everything from estrogen and testosterone to vitamin D (which is a hormone, not a vitamin). So not only is fat directly implicated in your ability to be a functionally sexual human (and you DO want that, right?) but it’s also necessary for you to properly synthesize sunlight (unless you’re a vampire, in which case I can’t help you).
Fat and Energy
Fat is a more stable form of energy for your body than carbohydrates. So even though foods that contain fat might have a higher concentration of calories, you get the double whammy of not having a blood sugar spike/crash while being able to feel more satiated. (And I’m not talking about “fatty foods” in the standard American diet, which are usually a conglomeration oxidized, polyunsaturated fats and sugar. I’m talking about good quality fats from coconut/red palm oil, grass-fed ruminants, pastured chickens, wild-caught fish, raw/good quality dairy if you can tolerate it, high quality olive oils and avocados….etc. So please don’t throw in an argument about McDonalds here, because I think that’s crap too.)
Fat and Brain Function/Mood
Fats coat your nerve cells and make it possible for your brain to function and your body to feel. Fats are also necessary for the body’s production of neurotransmitters–the chemicals that keep you from feeling depressed and anxious. My depression and anxiety skyrocketed when I was a vegan, because my body could no longer properly balance or manufacture my brain chemicals.
And of course:
Fats taste damn good. I’m sorry, but you will never catch me leaving a pan un-oiled because I’m scared to death of tainting my veggies with heart-disease-and-calorie sauce. I understand that some vegans do eat fats on a daily basis, but so many of us are in love with the low-fat lipid hypothesis that’s been the basis of our nutritional recommendations for the last 40 years or so that I fear that most vegans end up fat-deficient despite (or due to) their best efforts.
If you want to learn more, here’s a GREAT article on “The Truth About Cholesterol and Fat,” which goes more into depth on all of the above reasons why fat is our friend!
But How Do You Get Your Protein?
Ask any bodybuilder what their favorite macro is, and they’ll undoubtably point to the industrial size tub of protein they’ve staple-gunned to their gym bag. I jest, but protein IS an important part of muscle building, and it’s NOT just for bodybuilders. (Please don’t take this as an endorsement for protein powder though. Most of that stuff is highly processed crap that also contains sweeteners and fillers, whether you’re talking dairy protein powders like whey and casein, egg white protein powders, or vegan protein powders like hemp, pea, brown rice, or others.
Even if you’re not a gym rat, you need protein for several reasons:
Protein builds and maintains your cells and tissues–from muscles to hair and skin. If you’re not eating enough protein, you may suffer from brittle nails, thinning hair, muscle fatigue, and a whole host of other bodily ailments that have nothing to do with how many times you can bench press (although your bench performance will probably suffer too!).
Protein makes enzymes, carries cholesterol around the body (and, contrary to popular belief, you need cholesterol in your body), makes up your bone marrow, and helps move your neurotransmitters around so you can think and feel happy.
And here’s the rub, while we can definitely store fats for a long time and even carbohydrates for a little while, according to J. Stanton at gnolls.org, we don’t store protein. We use it or it gets turned into carbohydrates to be burned or stored, through a process called “gluconeogenesis” (no, there won’t be a test at the end of this post, don’t worry). And our body can’t even make some of the proteins we need in order to function. The ones we have to eat are called “essential” amino acids–and if you’re eating lots of incomplete proteins, like grains or beans, then you may be missing out on some of the essential cellular-level building blocks in your life. And while you can certainly combine foods to get to a more complete protein profile (like beans and rice, for example), you’re better off with a steak. Or an egg. Or a piece of fish. You’ll get a higher number of nutrients, fewer inessential carbohydrates, and it will probably taste much better too!
The Carbohydrate Conundrum
Believe it or not, there is more to carbohydrates than bagels and pasta. A carbohydrate is simply a starch or sugar molecule that is broken down into energy in the body. Simple as pie. Or rice. Or potatoes. Or kale. Yes, kale, the almighty vegetable that can do no wrong!****
A carbohydrate is just a form of energy that needs to be quickly burned or else it gets transported into your cells and stored as fat, by way of insulin. If you’re eating lots of “good carbohydrates” like veggies, you’re also getting a nice dose of fiber, which slows down the speed and intensity at which your blood sugar spikes, meaning you don’t release as much insulin as you would if you were eating a powdered donut. That said…
Green juice ain’t a miracle cure (although many vegans–and non-vegans!–think it is!)
Fruits and veggies are made up of sugars like fructose and glucose in addition to the previously-mentioned fiber. Fructose and glucose are the exact same things you find in candy and in bread. When you eat or drink molecules that end in “-ose” without the naturally occurring fiber that usually accompanies them, your body has no way to stem (get it? Stem? Cellulose? …Fiber? Anyone?) the tide of the sugar spike, so your body has to release a bunch of insulin.So while you’re getting MANY more beneficial nutrients from, say, an apple than Gummi Bears, when you juice the apple, your body is still going to let a whole lotta insulin into your blood stream.
So keep that in mind if you’re thinking that juicing is going to help cure or defend you from diabetes. Although, granted, if you’re juicing instead of eating Twinkies, then go for it. Just know that there are many better options out there.
And then there was bread…
So, you’ve read Wheat Belly and you’re currently snacking on some vegan, gluten-free cookies while you read. You’ve replaced bagels with oatmeal, and you’re “buttering” your gluten-free, sprouted grain Ezekiel bread with Earth Balance vegan margarine. Good first step. But gluten is not the only bad thing in wheat, and wheat is not the only grain that could be harming your health. And while you may not be ready to give up your Puffins cereal, just know that there are good arguments for cutting down on (or cutting out) your grain consumption entirely:
First of all, grains pack a high carbohydrate punch for not very many nutrients. If you’re a hard-charging athlete, this may not be a big deal for you, but the average joe doesn’t need to eat the mostly empty calories.
Grains–grasses–don’t want to be eaten. They’re living creatures with defense mechanisms that work much like a tiger’s claws: they deter other animals from chowing down. And while a plant can’t fight back the way a tiger can, it still has some lovely little toxic proteins and anti-nutrients hidden beneath its cell walls to make you feel less-than good when you eat it. (Brain fog? Sugar crash? Immune reaction? Bloating and gas? Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s the wheat talking):
Grains, like soy (and, yes, like nuts and seeds too), contain phytates, those ugly little anti-nutrients that make it hard for your body to absorb the nutrients you’re attempting to consume. Phytic acid binds to essential nutrients like zinc, so even if you eat a “balanced” diet and you fortify it with supplements, your body might not be absorbing any of the nutrients you need. So by turning your lunch into a sandwich, you’re making it easy to carry your food but hard to actually reap any of the benefits.
Grains also contain lectins (again, also found in nuts and seeds, so you shouldn’t be going to town on those either–and this is a whole argument for another time), which are little proteins that punch holes in your gut lining and get into your bloodstream, promoting “leaky gut” and also causing an immune reaction (or causing or exacerbating an autoimmune disease/condition). You can neutralize some of the damage that lectins do by sprouting/fermenting your grains (and nuts and seeds) before consuming them, should you decide that you can’t live without your morning cup of oatmeal or your sourdough bread.
And then there was gluten…along with gliadin and 23,000 other potentially harmful proteins. These proteins are present in more than just wheat–and if you think you’re avoiding the potential harm they’re doing to your health by going “gluten-free,” you are sadly mistaken. And “gluten-free,” despite its marketing health-halo, does not mean healthy. It means “not-containing-gluten,” not “low in carbohydrates/starch/sugar.” So watch out for that, ‘cause your insulin is still going to spike when you eat it.
A Word About Fake, Processed, and Artificial Foods
I bet you’ve heard the “sugar is evil” mantra so many times these days that it makes you want to vomit. No? Just me? Okay, so we get that sugar’s bad for you. So why not just supplement with fake sugar? Alternative sweeteners are constantly being touted as the quick fix for a deprivation diet–you know, you can’t eat real cookies, so make cookies with Splenda! You shouldn’t chew real gum, but while you’re starving yourself, here’s a healthy serving of Ace-K and sorbitol! And we all know how much healthier diet soda is than regular...
Not every vegan eats fake sugar. There are also plenty of people in the ancestral health world who like a bit of Stevia in their Paleo Pancakes or who use xylitol to sweeten their grain free desserts. But it’s definitely a huge pitfall that can damn a vegan diet, because, while you’re “safely” avoiding the evil sugar dragon, you can still be disrupting gut function or spiking your insulin levels with the sugar dragon’s ugly step siblings. (Mixing metaphors here, but you get the point.)
Another potential pitfall for vegans is fake meat. Tofurkey, Chik’n, Quorn, facon…do me a favor and actually read the ingredients of a Boca Burger and then tell me how “Disodium Guanylate” and “caramel color” sounds any more healthful than plain and simple 1-ingredient hamburger. Again, there are plenty of vegans who don’t eat the fake stuff, but it’s definitely part of the dialogue, so it must be addressed.
To be continued…
*A good start, but not necessarily the whole story.
**Wrong. Also, dietary fat is a necessary part of your diet. Say it with me: Ne. Ce. Ssary.
***I know you’re not a meathead. I was a bodybuilder once too.
****Also lies. Raw kale contains oxalic acid, an anti-nutrient that has to be cooked out before you can safely consume it and expect to get the nutrient benefits that everyone touts. Also, it’s a goitrogen, which means that it can screw with your thyroid function. That said, kale chips are still amazing, and you shouldn’t stop eating kale cold turkey. Just find ways to neutralize the damaging effects through cooking.