Story from a Once-Failing, Now-Thriving Vegan

From an anonymous, female animal advocate:

I went vegan in 1992 at age 15. At that time, most of us in the vegan community believed and promoted that eating only plants was the most natural and complete diet for humans. We pointed to our flat molars and long intestines as proof that humans are natural herbivores. We rejected supplements because we thought our diet was naturally perfect. We thought we’d get our B12 from mushrooms, sea vegetables, or microscopic bits of soil clinging to our farmer’s market produce. We thought we’d get enough vitamin D naturally from the sun. We had never heard of DHA and EPA.

After seven years of being an unsupplemented vegan, I had a health crisis when I was 22 and in graduate school. I wasn’t a junk food vegan–I cooked my own meals and ate my share of fresh produce. I’d always been an ace student, but I was finding it harder and harder to read my textbooks. I couldn’t concentrate. My short-term memory was shot. I felt tired and weak all the time and I was diagnosed with depression. I learned that these are all symptoms of B12 deficiency and I started to take vegan supplements: B12 and a multi-vitamin for extra insurance.

I have now proudly celebrated my 25th year as a vegan, and I take supplements regularly. In addition to the B12 and multi-vitamin, I now take vegan vitamin D3 supplements (I was diagnosed as vitamin D deficient a couple of years ago), algae-based DHA/EPA, and the occasional calcium pill.

I am healthier than any of my family members who are all omnivores. They suffer from a variety of illnesses (including diabetes and heart disease). In contrast, I can walk into a doctor’s office at 40 years old and check exactly zero disease boxes. I’m an active rock climber and hiker and still weigh what I did in high school, which is uncommon in my genetic family.

One other very powerful experience I had with my diet was using a nutrition-tracking food diary website for about a year. I logged every single food I ate, including home-cooked recipes, and the website broke down my daily, weekly, and monthly nutrition stats. It taught me a few important things:

  • I am not going to eat enough variety of food every single day to get all the nutrients I need, so a multi-vitamin really is a good idea for me.
  • I feel better when I eat a balance of good fats, protein, and healthy carbs at every meal.
  • I need a significant amount of vegan protein to feel my best.

I think many of us vegans get so fed up with being questioned about, “Where do you get your protein?” and we spend so much time debunking the protein combining myth, that we overcorrected in the other direction and began to believe that we’ll get enough protein no matter what plants we eat. It just isn’t true for me, at least based on how I feel after eating a low-protein meal. This is one of the reasons why I love and embrace the vegan meats (seitan, veggie burgers, veggie dogs and sausages, Field Roast, Beyond Beef, etc.) and soy products (tofu, tempeh, soyrizo). They may not be “natural”, but they help keep me healthy and feeling good as an active vegan, and that’s my most important dietary value.

Thank you for sharing your story!

26 Responses to “Story from a Once-Failing, Now-Thriving Vegan”

  1. Gordy B Says:

    Hi there, thank you for sharing your story. I haven’t read many posts from other long term vegans. I too have traveled the righteous road and found that I am a human. I have at times not taken great care of my diet but as I’ve got older I’ve found that I do better when I do take better care. A few years ago at 50 I had a health scare that resembled a minor stroke. This really made me sit up and pay attention and do some research. Tests showed that I was in pretty good basic shape so I was intrigued as to the cause of the mysterious incident. Doctors wanted me to follow a very conservative regime of medication which was designed to combat conditions that I wasn’t suffering from. My reading lead me to make some drastic changes in lifestyle choices. I learned that a high level of homocysteine (which for me was really high) can contribute to the symptoms of my episode. Unfortunately a lot of the research that has been done around the health benefits of reducing homocysteine levels is epidemiological and hasn’t been controlled for any lifestyle factors. So I decided to try and manage it as best I could my self. I drastically cut my (heavy) coffee intake, alcohol and foods with a high level of methionine (eg.corn). I also increased my Bs and folates by using a good quality (trusted) supplement and large quantities of organic leafy greens. It took a while but I’m now feeling really good and not missing the coffee at all.
    My B12 levels had been stable for years and I didn’t really think about it. Now I am aware of the importance of B vitamins and Folate for healthy neurological function I ensure they are maintained daily. Another recent discovery is Purslane which is a weed that grows wild around my house. It is high in Omega 3 and consuming it daily gives me a real boost.
    Anyway, thanks again for sharing and good health.
    GB

  2. Ari Says:

    Hi Dr. Jack Norris!

    i find it is much easier and practical to eat fortified soy milk everyday for an extra 300mg of calcium, and very hard without it, and i know many vegans think the same too. but i’ve read some disturbing studies and i don’t know what to do anymore.

    besides that study showing calcium supplements may increase heart disease risk (which i know that only happens when the person is already eating enough calcium and then takes an extra supplement for no reason), i came across a study linking calcium and iron supplements with an increase risk of developing glaucoma, while i was researching on nutritionfacts.org…. :
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22247455

    while the study says only above 850mg of supplemented calcium is a risk is not yet sure…

    could you please tell me if the fortified plant milks that has around 300mg of calcium is safe??? and if its not…how do i get enough calcium???? it’s so hard without overdoing on kale….

    thank you!!!

  3. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Ari – I cannot guarantee the safety of anything, all I can do is tell you what I think the evidence supports. It’s hard for me to believe that 300 mg of calcium through fortified foods, added to a typical vegan diet of about 5-600 mg of calcium, could cause glaucoma.

  4. Ari Says:

    Also, could you please explain this article about circulating b12 in the blood and increased risk for prostate cancer?

    http://preview.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18268110

    is there anything to do with b12 supplements? or we just should keep our b12 levels among the normal range? are the supplements safe in the recommended doses?

    i’ve seen some articles saying that the cancer that causes elevated b12 levels instead.

  5. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Ari–

    I wouldn’t recommend something if I thought it wasn’t safe. A Cochrane meta-analysis (which I consider to be one of the best forms of evidence) determined that B12 supplements don’t cause cancer:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20937919

  6. Ari Says:

    according to this article, the supplement does not cause excess b12 in the blood it, but the high levels in the blood may be a reason to be concerned about cancer:

    http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/high-vitamin-b12-mean-9057.html

    is that right?

  7. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Ari–

    I’d agree with that article.

  8. Ben Says:

    No insult intended, but why do all the experts promoting a high-starch/vegetable-based diet look like they could not successfully fight their way out of a wet paper sack? I wholly agree w/ you on being okay w/ eating high-protein, processed foods as part of an overall whole-foods approach.

  9. Alex Ivanov Says:

    Thank you very much for your job, Mr. Norris! I’m sharing your information with russian-speaking vegan community in which there are still so much preconceptions about vitamin B12 and other health issues.

  10. Grace Says:

    Jack, this writer mentions using an online nutrition tracking website, but doesn’t give a name. Can you recommend one? I’d really like to track my daily nutrient intake for a while to see how I’m faring.

  11. Jack Norris RD Says:

    I created one at PeaCounter.com, though I haven’t worked on the site in a very long time so you might find better ones out there. I don’t know of any off the top if my head.

  12. jonathan wilson Says:

    I use this on a monthly basis to check if I’m deficient in anything
    http://whfoods.org/foodadvisor.php

  13. Ari Says:

    Hi dr. jack norris.

    have you seen this article? in brazil, it’s gone viral, everybody claiming that a vegetarian diet in indians are making them more likely to get cancer by a genetic mutation! honestly i tried to read it myself to understand, but it’s too complex, and i am no doctor.

    could you please take a look so i can answer to vegan people in brazil?

    http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/03/09/molbev.msw049.full.pdf+html

    thank you

  14. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Ari,

    That’s very indirect, inconclusive evidence to suggest that being vegetarian leads to Indians getting cancer.

  15. Lauren Sprang Says:

    Thank you for sharing your story anonymous! I will be sharing it. 🙂

  16. Jim Felder Says:

    Ari,

    The Oxford study that you mentioned is being completely misquoted in the press (who loves to tell bad things about healthy diets since their readers love to hear good things about their bad diets). The study was investigating a hypothesis that humans will eventually develop genetic adaptions to take better take advantage of the nutrients in a vegetarian diet. And they found that people of from areas in India where vegetarian diets have dominated for thousands of years did in fact have genetic changes that were the product of thousands of years eating a majority whole food plant based diet. And how did the study come to that conclusion? Bu noting that Indians from culturally vegetarian regions of India were slightly more at risk of diseases such as cancer, as well as heart disease WHEN THEY EMEGRATED TO THE WEST AND SWITCHED TO A MEAT HEAVY WESTERN DIET than those of European decent.

    It said absolutely nothing about a vegetarian or vegan diet causing an increase in cancer rates. And in fact it said just the reverse by noting how low the cancer rates were in the vegetarian populations in India.

    I wish journalists had to have a license just so that we could revoke the license of those hacks who wrote the original article and those even more the license of those bottom feeding journalist who parroted that original article without doing their own investigation.

  17. Mona Says:

    I have a very similar story; I became a vegan in collage after someone left an article on how veal is “made” for me to read. After five years on an unsupplemented vegan diet I had similar health issues you describe; fuzzy thinking and constant low energy. I reluctantly added small amounts of meat back into my diet, and my health issues cleared up.

    The need to eat meat became increasingly intolerable to me so I was determined to eliminate it again, but this time do a lot of research to make sure I could stick to a vegan diet for the rest of my life. That is when I found your work, and learned of the need to supplement L-lysine, B12, DHA and D3. Wow what a difference this time around, I know I can stick to a plant-based vegan diet from now on.

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and research that has allowed me to eat in line with my ethics. I particularly appreciate the inclusion of specific research data and actual product recommendations.

    As a result of my experience and what I have learned, thanks in large part to you, several of my family members have either become vegans themselves or drastically cut down on their animal product consumption.

    So thanks again I am very grateful for all that you have done.

  18. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Mona and Brenda—

    Thank you for your kind words, I’m so glad my nutrition work helped you!

  19. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Oops, Brenda’s comment was on the Best Study on Vegan Protein Intakes to Date thread.

  20. Calvin Hague Says:

    It would be convenient Jack if you could produce a multivitamin that contains all nutrients you recommend so that vegans can simply take one pill per day rather than B12, D2, and DHA.

  21. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Calvin–

    The UK Vegan Society has a supplement that covers a number of the bases for vegans. But it’s not possible to combine DHA into a multivitamin or to put enough calcium into a multi.

  22. Christina Arasmo Says:

    Very, very good! Thank you for sharing your story.

  23. Laura Says:

    I just saw this article again after Jack linked it to his Indianapolis talk. If anyone is still looking for a nutrition tracker, I really like Myfooddairy.com. On the plus side, it has an easy interface for creating and saving your own recipes with a nutritional breakdown. On the downside, it costs a few bucks a month. I think sparkpeople.com has a similar tool that is free, but last time I checked it wasn’t as easy to create recipes. If you have a fitbit, I think fitbit also has a food diary ap. One great feature of that ap is that you can take a photo or scan of a barcode on a packaged food product rather than having to manually enter nutrition info for packaged foods.

  24. Sheryl Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I too seem to thrive better on a lot of vegan protein, and I’m vigilant about my supps. Thanks for a great story.

  25. Garreth Says:

    Would taking a 2500mcg b12 cyanocobalamin tablet once a week work just as well as taking a 1000mcg tablet twice/week as per your recommendation, or would it be better to break the tablet in half?

  26. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Garreth,

    2500 µg once a week is probably enough, but I’d feel safer cutting it in two and taking it twice a week.

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