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The Unhealthy Vegan?

I used to think that as a vegetarian I was fairly healthy, but I often suffered with colds and infections throughout the year. It became a running joke at work: as soon as I was about to take leave or go on holiday, I’d be sick. It had been like that all my life, even when I was a meat eater, so I assumed that it was just the way I was; that my immune system was weaker than others.

Whilst I had agreed with the concept of veganism since my late teens, I truly believed that my immune system and general health just wouldn’t be able to cope on a vegan diet (see my About page to find out why). And, in spite of seeing all the healthy, happy vegans on social media over the past few years, I was almost certain I wouldn’t be one of them – in fact I would have bet money on it.

No one could have been more surprised than I by how much I would benefit through changing my lifestyle. I became vegan for the animals, but it’s done wonders for my health and wellbeing, and I’m so grateful for that.

Thank you, plants!

Immunity

Over the years I’d tried everything to improve my immune system from taking echinacea to probiotics. In 2016, when I was vegetarian, I switched my cereal / toast at breakfast for a vegetable / fruit smoothie and high-quality multivitamin, but after nine months I was still suffering with colds and infections and came down with one of the worse sinus infections of my life. It dragged on for four miserable months and I couldn’t understand why: I was eating better than ever, hitting my ‘five a day’ quota and taking a multivitamin. Once again, I blamed genetics and some fault with my immune system. I thought I’d just have to learn to live with it, that I had no other choice.

As soon as I became vegan, the sinus infection I was suffering from completely cleared up – something which four different courses of antibiotics hadn’t been able to shift. Since then, over the past 15 months, I’ve had a mild cold – just a sniffle; certainly not the bed-ridden illnesses of old. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, I can hardly believe it. Even in the darkest depths of last winter, when colleagues and friends were dropping to their beds in droves, I carried on. Now that’s plant power!

Constipation

I was never regular, even when I was vegetarian and eating my ‘five a day’. To go four or five days without opening my bowels was quite ‘normal’ for me and so I was, in medical terms, chronically constipated – even though it rarely caused me to feel unwell.

That all changed after I adopted a more wholefoods plant-based diet and I noticed that my bowel movements increased to once or twice a day. Thankfully, my body is no longer holding on to toxins and waste products for days at a time!

Digestion and Energy

My energy levels tended to dip after a meal including animal products (which used to be almost every meal). I’d feel tired and bloated, especially in the evening, but when I changed my eating habits I noticed a real difference in my digestion, which in turn affected my energy levels.

I find that I now digest foods more efficiently, and can best describe it as feeling ‘clean’ when I eat. Overall, I have so much more energy than I’ve ever had over the past decade and I wake up feeling more refreshed and ready for the day ahead.

A few months after I switched to plant milk, my partner decided to give it a try too. He used to suffer from a lot digestive upsets and heartburn, and would go through packets of antacids to cure the problem, but soon after cutting 95% of the dairy from his diet his digestive problems disappeared. Lactose ‘intolerance’? No – we’re just not baby cows.

Dry Skin

I had always suffered with dry skin, which largely affected my legs, hands and chin area, and I would have to apply moisturiser twice a day just to keep it looking hydrated and healthy.

Within a month or two of becoming vegan, my skin felt smoother and softer. My hands no longer get sore during winter and I rarely need to use a hand cream. The skin around my nose and chin no longer gets dry, and I only need to moisturise my face before bed now.

Around this time I also switched all of my beauty products to more natural products so I don’t know if all of these improvements are down to diet alone, but if I run out of my regular brand of cream or shower gel, and have to use an alternative for a while, my skin still remains hydrated and fresh regardless.

Hair and Nails

My hair is naturally fine and I always used to shed quite a bit (I’m the only one who cleans the plug hole in the shower so I know how much hair I usually lose). But when I changed my diet my hair stopped shedding by as much as 80% and feels shinier, healthier, and more volumous.

I can’t be certain whether this is all attributable to diet alone as I also switched to more natural hair care products around this time, but even if I run out of my regular brand my hair remains just as healthy.

My nails are noticeable stronger too, which makes complete sense considering that our hair and nails are made of the same protein.

Sense of Taste and Appreciation of Food

As a teenager I was always embarking on one diet or another, and food was more of a thing to battle with than appreciate.

I used to be a scale hopper and weigh myself at least once a week, but I rarely use the scales now. I appreciate my body and the way it has changed since becoming vegan: I feel stronger, leaner, cleaner, lighter and fitter, and although I’m around the same weight as I was before I changed my diet, I feel different inside. It’s a hard thing to try and explain but you’d know what I mean once you experience it.

My relationship with food has also completely transformed. I can taste more flavours than ever before, mainly due to the fact that I have cut out a lot of processed foods and my taste buds are more finely tuned. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have eaten a plain avocado, or dreamed of making a dinner using pulses, I rarely ate seeds or nuts, or touched anything resembling tofu; now I eat all of those things and more – and I enjoy them! I love seeing what fuels my body and I appreciate the goodness in all of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, pulses, grains and seeds that I have the good fortune to eat.

Iron Deficiency

Whenever I visited the doctors they were keen to point out that vegetarian women (in particular) were at risk of iron deficiency (my iron levels were always borderline), and because of my low immunity I never felt as though I would be able to recover well if I donated blood. Thanks to the transformation in my health since becoming vegan, I signed up to become a blood donor in February. I had my first appointment last month and was pleased to find that my iron levels are super high. I had no ill effects after my donation – just the amazing feeling that that I was doing something good.

Mindfulness

For me, becoming vegan was a bittersweet pill. On the one hand I felt more balanced and at peace because I was finally living in line with my morals and trying to be a kinder human, but on the other I felt complete and utter despair for all of the unnecessary pain and suffering that I could do nothing about.

I likened this to waking up (which I have since discovered other vegans relate to too) but when I opened my eyes, in the true sense of word, I realised I was living in a nightmare. The cruel and evil practices that our society has developed to exploit the other beings with which we share this planet are truly barbaric, and I’d encourage anyone to look into this for themselves. If you haven’t seen Land of Hope and Glory or Earthlings, then that’s a good place to start.

I’ve since learned to channel these feelings and my energy more positively, and one of the ways has been to start this blog so that I can help others by sharing what I learn along the way.

Becoming vegan changed the way in which I see the world: my appreciation for our planet, and the animals and people we share it with, has become more amplified than ever.

Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia is a condition in which blood sugar (blood glucose) drops to below normal levels. It is often associated with diabetes but (like me) you don’t have to be diabetic to suffer from it.

I can’t remember the first time I had my first attack, but I was fairly young. If I exercised or exerted myself for more than two hours I might start to feel weak and shaky, almost to the point of passing out, and would need to eat a high calorie snack. Sometimes it would happen for no apparent reason, but I just put it down to having a fast metabolism.

After becoming vegan I started to eat more wholefoods, but reduced my bread consumption and cut refined cereals out of my diet (most sandwiches in the shops were not vegan when I transitioned, and I couldn’t find a cereal that that was vegan friendly). I felt a little bewildered at the time, because I wasn’t sure what to eat, but I soon realised there were absolutely loads of delicious food options. Not having convenient access to cereals and bread just so happened to be a blessing in disguise because my blood sugar crashes stopped. I realised that if I stuck to eating other plant-based wholefoods my blood sugar would stabilise throughout the day, every day. How blooming marvellous!

I have linked the triggers for my hypoglycaemic attacks to:

  • Bread (even wholemeal) and refined cereals – particularly if eaten at breakfast or lunchtime, or a few hours before exercise
  • Food / drink with a high sugar content – if not eaten with anything else substantial (i.e. wholefoods)
  • Drinking more than one cup of coffee, especially on an empty stomach
  • White rice or pasta, especially if eaten at lunchtime, or a few hours before exercise – but this appears to be less of an issue if it makes up less than 50% of the meal and is balanced by more wholefoods.

I still eat bread occasionally but I limit the amount and feel better for it. Instead of eating a refined cereal in the morning I have a smoothie or bowl of organic porridge oats with nuts and seeds. If I do eat bread-based products at lunch time, I tend to choose wraps and flat breads which I find I metabolise more slowly.

Over the past fifteen months, I have only experienced a couple of hypoglycemic attacks, which I’ve linked to trying new vegan sandwiches on the market (it was what proved the point about bread) and drinking too much coffee. By keeping a small pot of nuts and seeds with me, I’ve been able to remedy the problem before it’s had a chance to manifest – although it’s far better if I stabilise my blood sugar properly in the first place!

Invisible Killers

Above, I’ve included all of the noticeable health benefits that I’ve become aware of, but what about those I can’t see or immediately feel? Most diseases affecting our internal organs are rarely detectable until we become symptomatic, by which point much of the damage is done.

My maternal grandfather had a great deal of problems with his arteries and sadly died when his aortic bypass ruptured, aged just 65. My father died as a result of heart disease aged 60 and was suffering from type 2 diabetes and hypertension at the time of his death, so I am more conscious than ever to care for my body.

There is so much research to correlate the prevention of some of the most prevalent degenerative diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even several forms of cancer, with a whole-food, plant-based diet.

Only last year (2017) scientists at Imperial College London published an article in the Journal of Epidemiology which found that the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease and cancer significantly decreased according to the amount of fruit and vegetables consumed, with the optimal amount being around 800g (10 portions of fruit and veg a day). It was hot in the press, but there was criticism from nutritionists that it would “create unrealistic expectations”, however this is simply not an issue for most vegans. I tend to get five of those ten before I even leave the house in the morning, and so I often reach between 8-10 portions, even when I’m not even trying!

If I can physically feel and see the changes, in just the short time that I have adopted a more whole-foods plant-based diet, then I can only imagine what this is doing for my health in general. I’m not super strict and still eat cakes and other processed foods so I’m probably not benefiting as much as I could be if I was 100% wholefoods plant-based, but I’m slowly changing with the more I learn.

Whilst there’s no absolute guarantee on what I will or won’t suffer from in my lifetime, I feel better than ever, I’m helping our planet, and saving lives in the process. Anything else is a bonus.

“Genetics loads the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger”

Dr Caldwell Esselstyne

 

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