In February, my post To Quit or Not to Quit Veganism briefly mentioned ex-vegan blogger and holistic health counselor Alex Jamieson. Jamieson had just written an article about how she was no longer vegan.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by the producer of The Current, a radio show in Toronto. They were doing a story on Jamieson’s choice to no longer be vegan and the backlash it entailed, and wanted to interview me.
The Current’s story aired on May 15 (link). None of my comments were included, which is probably just as well because I wasn’t very eloquent.
After listening to the show, I have further thoughts on Jamieson’s experience with veganism and since she continues to publicly talk about it, I feel okay about doing so, too. In fact, in her interview, she says that she might some day return to a vegan diet so this is in the spirit of helping her or people like her.
I definitely have sympathy for Jamieson – it must have been very stressful to feel like you could no longer eat a diet that you have been promoting. If I started to believe that I could no longer be vegan because my health was failing it would be quite disconcerting.
Here is Jamieson’s story from what I can piece together:
She ate a lot of junk food most of her life, and she also had iron deficiency issues. She went vegan and felt great for about 10 years after which she started having cravings for animal products. At a certain point, she started menstruating too frequently. She tried adding “mineral rich” foods and iron supplements and it didn’t help. She tried eating foods higher in protein (as I pointed out in my previous post, none of the foods she mentions eating for protein are terribly high in protein). She started eating eggs which made her feel a lot better, and then added back meat. She now eats 75%+ plant foods and her menstrual cycles have normalized and she feels good. When speaking about it in the interview, she attributes her improvements to “animal protein.”
Let’s go through the usual suspects:
Vitamin B12 – Jamieson doesn’t mention B12 anywhere. But her symptoms are not indicative of B12 deficiency.
Choline – Jamieson starts out craving, eating, and feeling better from eggs. Eggs are high in choline. But once again, her symptoms don’t seem to be typical of choline deficiency. I did some searching and found an article, which I do not consider reliable, suggesting that choline deficiency can cause liver problems, “resulting in excessive estrogen produced during menstrual cycle leading to hormone imbalance and endometrial cramps (link).” Severe choline deficiency can cause liver problems, but I don’t know where they got the part in quotes and if there is any direct evidence for it. Still, choline deficiency is a potential culprit.
Iron – Except for the fact that she never says she got her iron levels tested, there’s little question that she likely had iron deficiency given her history of it and the fact that she was having frequent menstruation. The question is whether she could have improved her iron deficiency by way of adding vitamin C to her meals and doing the other typical things that are recommended such as avoiding tea and coffee at meals.
Cholesterol – In watching some of her videos Jamieson appears to be on the thin side and her diet sounds very low in fat. A low-fat diet with low body weight could theoretically lead to low steroid hormones (made from cholesterol) leading to menstrual disruption (though admittedly less frequent menstruation, not more, in most cases). And eggs are probably the easiest way to get cholesterol, so a craving for eggs could make some sense.
Can you crave foods because they have cholesterol, choline, or iron and you are deficient? Can you crave fat? It’s hard to know – there is very little research on craving nutrients during deficiency. And if a low fat intake (leading to low cholesterol) was a problem, why didn’t she just crave higher fat, higher saturated fat, or higher choline plant foods?
When I haven’t eaten in a while, I crave the versions of foods that contain more of those nutrients and with less fiber, presumably so that my body can get the nutrients faster. While an apple will provide carbohydrates, when real hungry I prefer cookies or juice. It doesn’t mean that’s the best or only way to get those nutrients on an ongoing basis.
If someone has gone for years on an exceptionally low-fat diet and has depleted their fat stores to the point that they are having low-cholesterol and hormone irregularities, combined with iron deficiency, it seems plausible that they might crave the food that is most quickly going to replenish those nutrients such as eggs (cholesterol) and meat (iron).
In searching around, I have found that there are other low-fat vegans who have egg cravings (link), so apparently it’s not unusual.
Probably the most obvious thing about eggs, when it comes to what separates them from other foods sensually, is the sulfur smell, which I find rather disgusting and it’s hard for me to imagine craving them unless you really have a serious deficiency! The sulfur smell is probably due to a high level of sulfur-containing amino acids (cysteine and methionine). Could it be those amino acids that people are craving in eggs? It seems possible, but unlikely since those amino acids are also in tofu in decent amounts, yet these people don’t crave tofu. Not a lot is known about sulfur and nutrition, but it’s something to consider.
Jamieson repeatedly refers to what she needed as “animal protein.”
What we know about physiology and nutrition would indicate that there is nothing important about animal protein that separates it from plant protein except in cases of extremely low intakes. On the other hand, we shouldn’t rule out that she had extremely low intakes.
In her video on food cravings (link) Jamieson tells people that if they are craving protein, to add hemp seeds to their diet. I cannot find reliable info on how much protein hemp seeds have, but it looks like the highest amount being tossed around is 5 grams per tablespoon. Unless you are blending a whole lot of hemp seeds, you aren’t going to get large amounts of protein from that ratio. How about a Tofurky Italian sausage instead, with a whopping 29 grams of protein?!
Jamieson mentions that she was flirting with orthorexia, and people with orthorexia are unlikely to even consider processed foods like Tofurky.
I don’t think protein was likely her problem (or her main problem), but if you think you’re low on protein, eat something with some serious protein. Most of the vegans I know who are not failing to thrive do eat processed foods, and I’d venture that a good 1/3 of my food intake is processed. It is disappointing to hear about people who quit veganism to take up eating higher-fat, higher-protein animal foods when they could have tried the higher-protein, higher-fat plant foods but didn’t because they are processed.
Don’t Forget the Shellfish!
Oysters and clams are high in cholesterol and they are not capable of suffering. If processed vegan foods don’t help, then ex-vegans might consider trying oysters and clams to see if that would solve their problems before eating products from conscious animals.
At minute 19:00 of Jamieson’s interview on The Current, the interviewer talks about how having the luxury to debate our food choices comes from a “very privileged place” and suggests that this whole conversation is “navel gazing”.
I object. Calling veganism “privileged” is a common dart thrown at it, usually by people who are, themselves, living relatively privileged lives. We should keep in mind that the farmed animals are the least privileged of anyone in discussions about whether to be vegan or not. Eating gourmet cheeses and steak, or being any sort of “foodie” is a privilege. Buying fair trade bananas and chocolate is privileged. The forty-hour work week and child labor laws only can happen in privileged societies.
So, while I agree that many people in the world do not have the option to eat a vegan diet (for one thing, some people don’t have access to vitamin B12 supplements or fortified foods), just because everyone cannot do something doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing for the rest of us to do. It’s not a good excuse for middle-class (or wealthier) Americans and Canadians to embrace farmed animal exploitation just because some other people are too poor to buy vegan packaged products at Whole Foods.
I do not want to blame the victim – Jamieson had failing health as a vegan and there might not have been any way to help her that we know of. And I think it’s commendable that instead of going from vegan to all-out paleo, she went from vegan to 75% vegan.
In her interview on The Current she says, “I may go back to a completely 100% plant-based diet. If and when that’s appropriate for me. I’m not ruling that out. The only problem is that I’m no longer welcomed back into that vegan community. I’ve been shut out of that conversation to help people be healthier in that way, to even promote plant-based living because I’m somehow a heretic.”
I would welcome her back.
Alex, you could be the first high-profile ex-ex-vegan – think about it!