To Quit or Not to Quit Veganism: Part Two

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.

Cravings

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.

Animal Protein

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.

Edited: 2013-05-26T17:36:46 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.

Don’t Forget Bivalves: Clams, Oysters, Scallops, and Mussels

Oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels have significant amounts of cholesterol and they are not capable of suffering. If processed vegan foods don’t help, then ex-vegans might consider eating these animals to see if that would solve their problems before eating products from conscious animals.

Privilege

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.

Conclusion

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!

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117 Responses to “To Quit or Not to Quit Veganism: Part Two”

  1. Dan Says:

    Great point. You’ve given me much food for thought right there (no pun intended). I may have to replace my yogurt with another foodstuff.

  2. Jonathan Hussain Says:

    Very nice piece, Jack. Thanks for your insight.

  3. Tyler Says:

    Dan:

    >How are nut/seed butters considered whole foods? Most of them are roasted >and then pressed to extract the oil-rich, fibre-poor portions.

    A nut butter is a whole food if its made from whole nuts, at the basic level a nut butter is just a ground up nut with a bit of liquid. As always, one should check the ingredients of what they are buying.

    >What about nuts, soy, whole grains, other legumes and lentils? All have small >amounts of relatively healthy MUFA and PUFA, yet they can really add up.

    Nuts and Soy are rich in omega-6 (LA), so if you’re trying to avoid LA in a vegan diet there aren’t that many sources of fat left. Whole grains and legumes (minus soy) are low-fat. A whole foods based vegan diet is going to be fairly rich in LA, but without the added oils, etc it tends to have a decent omega-6/omega-3 ratio. If one doesn’t want to drop all oils, they can cook with canola (and to a lesser degree olive) and still maintain a decent ratio. But processed foods, for whatever reason, tend to use omega-3 deficient oils.

    >You seem to suggest that all direct oils are bad. PREDIMED just proved the >exact opposite using olive oil. Lyon Heart trial did the same thing with an ALA->ich margarine…..

    None of these studies compare the consumption of extracted/refined oils to a whole foods plant based diet without such fats.

    Also, as for as I know, none of them looked at the effect of simply adding oil to existing diets. The Lyon Diet heart study looked at Mediterranean-style diets, but the use of olive oil is just one aspect of the so called Mediterranean diet.

    Perhaps I have the wrong studies in mind?

    > but I think refined carbohydrates are the real culprit behind the current >worldwide diabesity epidemic. Caramelizing your arteries is not good.

    Why? Refined wheat has been consumed as a staple for many decades, yet obesity, etc rates have skyrocketed in the last few decades.

    But as with oils, refined grains are nutrient-poor, so the more refined grains vegans eat the harder it becomes for them to get all the nutrients they need. I think that is the primary issue.

  4. Christina Arasmo Beymer Says:

    I love you Jack! I would welcome her back.

    If you are able to get in touch with her, man-o-man I really think that some nice, D3 drops would help her a lot. A lot.

  5. Christina Arasmo Beymer Says:

    Tyler,

    This thread is old, but have you researched low-fat diets? Met failed vegans?

    In some people it causes some serious health issues. We are all not the same inside.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200304/the-risks-low-fat-diets

    Fat also helps more nutrients get absorbed from vegetables:

    http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20040727/fat-helps-vegetables-go-down

  6. Tyler Says:

    Christina,

    Yes, I have certainly researched matters and have known a number of failed vegans and vegetarians. From my experience, when people fail to thrive on veg*n diets it has far more to do with the over-consumption of processed foods, oils, etc than it does eating a whole-food based diet that happens to be low in fat.

    The psychologytoday article you’re citing is about low cholesterol levels, not fat intake. Low cholesterol levels have been associated with increased mortality, but this is because disease can cause low cholesterol levels. When you look at people that have had consistently low cholesterol the association vanishes.

    For the second, fat increases the absorption of fat soluble vitamins but you can increase the number of nutrients absorbed by eating more vegetables. Vegetables have naturally occurring fats, so fat soluble vitamins are absorbed whether you added fats or not.

    I’ve yet to see any evidence that low-fat diets cause health issues.

  7. Christina Arasmo Beymer Says:

    Okay, edited since I’m awake-ish now and looked shit up.

    Tyler,

    The article in Psychology Today is about fat intake, the title is “The Risk of Low Fat Diets.” Low fat intake contributes to low cholesterol. Low fat = low cholesterol = depression.

    Fat soluble vitamins are made within a being. I make vitamin A from the retinol equivalents. And in order to make this fat soluble vitamin A from the retinol equivalents I need more of the raw material: carotenoids. Adding fat to the carotenoids increases absorption of more of the carotenoids so I have an opportunity to make what I need.

    I have seen lots of evidence that there’s plenty of health issues with low fat diets. Tooth decay, more wrinkles, low cholesterol, depression, brain fog, and loss of sex drive.

    Super-Sticky ‘Ultra-Bad’ Cholesterol Revealed in People at High Risk of Heart Disease
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110526204953.htm

    Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?
    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_04/b4068052092994_page_5.htm
    Dr. Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Oakland Research Institute, explains that higher LDL levels do help set the stage for heart disease by contributing to the buildup of plaque in arteries. But something else has to happen before people get heart disease. “When you look at patients with heart disease, their cholesterol levels are not that [much] higher than those without heart disease,” he says. Compare countries, for example. Spaniards have LDL levels similar to Americans’, but less than half the rate of heart disease. The Swiss have even higher cholesterol levels, but their rates of heart disease are also lower. Australian aborigines have low cholesterol but high rates of heart disease.

  8. Christina Arasmo Beymer Says:

    Rhys Southan is a very kind person. He helped me, a current vegan, become a lot more healthier.

    Regarding the comment on low energy: I have recently increased my energy levels significantly. My mother’s doctor suggested MSM to her and I am using it too. I added MSM (4-6 grams, not milligrams 1/2 dosed in the AM and PM) with vitamin C to my daily regimen. And lately, instead of 200 mg of DHA from algae, I increased to 400 mg. I also eat about 1 tablespoon of coconut fat before consuming vegetation. The MSM really helped me the most. Within 4 days of this stuff, I had remarkable improvements in my energy.

  9. Tyler Says:

    Chrstina:

    “The article in Psychology Today is about fat intake, the title is “The Risk of Low Fat Diets.” Low fat intake contributes to low cholesterol. Low fat = low cholesterol = depression.”

    That is the tittle and as often is the case, the title is misleading. The article is really about the association between low cholesterol and certain psychology conditions. The article doesn’t cite a study, nor does it define anything in the article. But an association between low cholesterol and some disease doesn’t mean the low cholesterol causes the disease, low cholesterol is caused by a number of diseases, poor diet, etc.

    ” And in order to make this fat soluble vitamin A from the retinol equivalents I need more of the raw material: carotenoids. Adding fat to the carotenoids increases absorption of more of the carotenoids so I have an opportunity to make what I need.”

    If someone has marginal intake of beta-carotene, then additional fats could provide some benefit. Added fat just increases the absorption rate, the nutrients are absorbed without added fat and you’re going to get more beta-carotene by adding an isocaloric amount of beta-carotene rich foods rather than added fats.

    “I have seen lots of evidence that there’s plenty of health issues with low fat diets. Tooth decay, more wrinkles, low cholesterol, depression, brain fog, and loss of sex drive.”
    I haven’t seen evidence of any of these things, do you have some research you can cite?

  10. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Tyler,

    > If someone has marginal intake of beta-carotene, then additional fats could provide some benefit. Added fat just increases the absorption rate, the nutrients are absorbed without added fat and you’re going to get more beta-carotene by adding an isocaloric amount of beta-carotene rich foods rather than added fats.

    That’s very interesting. Do you have citations to show that someone can absorb enough beta-carotene without any fat to raise their vitamin A to healthy levels?

  11. Daniel Says:

    Jack: I know this is a somewhat dated post, but this is a topic I’ve been thinking about A LOT lately. I was going to post something, but I decided it was way too long to post, and instead wrote you a message through your website. If you’re able to answer my question in a way that makes sense and gives me some resolution (you’d be the first person to be able to do that!), I would GLADLY make a donation to Vegan Outreach. Perhaps it could be the basis of a future blog post. Thank you.

  12. Daniel Says:

    Actually I may as well post my question that summed up my longer email to you, but there is definitely some context missing, so please, I ask that any posters here please refrain from any judgement. Thank you!

    My question:
    If you remove any ethical or environmental concern about eating meat, fish, eggs, or dairy (I’m already convinced that dairy is not good for me), is there a case to be made, from strictly a health perspective, of adding some animal foods to a plant-based diet? And if so, why, and how often, how much, and what kinds of animal foods? I suspect eggs and seafood would be the healthiest, but I’m just making an informed guess.

  13. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Daniel,

    Because at least a few people have been vegan since conception and grown into healthy adults, it gives me reason to believe that for most people, there is nothing in animal products that we are unaware of and cannot supplement with in order to grow a healthy, human body. This does not preclude rare, genetic problems.

    We do not know if people in other diet groups have lower rates of any diseases, or overall mortality, than vegans who are supplementing with vitamin B12 and getting enough calcium. I think it is possible for people on other diets to be as healthy as your average vegan, but I do not know that any other diet is generally more healthy than a typical vegan diet.

    Of course, there have been people who do not thrive on a vegan diet, or the particular vegan diet they have chosen, for a variety of reasons (some of which we might not know).

  14. Daniel Says:

    Thanks for the words of wisdom Jack. That makes sense. Adding to that train of thought, do you think it’s possible for someone to “supplement” with animal foods, while on a plant-based diet, and therefore not take supplements in pill form? For example, if someone were to eat oysters and/or eggs from companion animals, or if they were comfortable eating certain other types of animal foods (which would obviously make that person not 100% vegan) — where would the line be in terms of eating enough of those animal foods to not have to worry about supplementing, while still maintaining a plant-based diet? One meal per week? Twice a week? Once a month? Twice a month? I just have absolutely no idea.

    I recently read this blog post by Matt Frazier (No Meat Athlete), who wrote a plea for paleos and vegans to stop fighting, highlighting the similarities between the two diets, an interesting read. There is NO WAY I’m going paleo or anywhere close to it– I can’t imagine having a dead animal-based diet, and in fact I am feeling really healthy with my diet as is. But it got me thinking when he wrote:

    “To me, the evidence that we are built to hunt and eat meat is pretty convincing. Does that mean we should eat meat at every meal? No. But does it mean we should eat meat sometimes? If your only goal is health, I’d say you’d do well to eat an occasional piece of fish, or even wild land animals.”

    That’s definitely taken out of context though, so here’s the link for the full post: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/vegetarian-paleo-diet

    I’m not saying I’m set on going this route, but it would be helpful for me to have a better idea, and it would make me feel more empowered. Knowledge is key!

    By the way, I noticed somewhere online that you and I are both Cincinnati boys who made the trek to California. I used to make the ritual visit to Skyline and Montgomery Inn on trips back home, but not anymore!

  15. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Daniel,

    > do you think it’s possible for someone to “supplement” with animal foods, while on a plant-based diet, and therefore not take supplements in pill form?

    The only essential nutrient that you can’t get from whole plant foods is vitamin B12. So if you eat a few animal foods twice a day, then you don’t need a B12 supplement. If you think that you need a direct source of DHA, then a couple of servings of high-DHA fish would provide that.

    In Matt Frazier’s post he says: “Therefore, by looking at how humans ate and lived for most of our evolution, we can determine what the type of diet we’re “meant” to eat. Unfortunately for vegetarians, a lot of what we are “meant” to eat, in the evolutionary sense, is probably meat: Relatively speaking, agriculture is a recent development. For a much longer period than we’ve been growing our own food, we hunted it and we gathered it.”

    I think there are some major flaws in those sentiments (from a health perspective). If you’re interested in some of them, read the articles by Paleoveganology I’ve reposted (http://jacknorrisrd.com/?s=paleoveganology).

    > I used to make the ritual visit to Skyline and Montgomery Inn on trips back home, but not anymore!

    Cool. I can see avoiding Skyline from a paleo perspective, but if you’re doing it from a vegan perspective, do it no more! Skyline has had a vegan chili for many years that is delicious as a two-way. I eat there multiple times whenever I’m visiting Cincinnati.

  16. Daniel Says:

    Thanks for that info. I’m pretty overwhelmingly convinced that there’s no merit to the idea that “even just a little meat every once in a while goes a long way.” I don’t think eating a moderate amount would pose any health problems, but it seems like to have any nutritional benefit at all, I’d have to eat it fairly frequently– at least a lot more frequently than I’d be interested in eating it. I’m better off not eating any at all. I see no rational reason to think that meat or other animal-based foods have any magical properties, and clearly, except for the B12, as long as I’m eating a healthy, whole foods diet, I can get all the necessary nutrients from plant-based foods, although sometimes I have to make some extra effort and be creative for things like zinc, calcium, iron, and vitamin D. Let’s face it, most meat-based eaters don’t eat a fraction of the variety of veggies that most plant-based eaters do, and they probably are missing out on key nutrients, without all the controversy. But, to not leave any rock unturned, isn’t there a distinction between essential nutrients and beneficial nutrients?

    There’s B12 of course, which is essential, and easily obtainable in a pill. There’s DHA, which, as I understand it, we can get from ALA, which our bodies can convert to DHA, but that’s not necessarily the most reliable conversion process, from what I’ve read. Either way, there are algae that provide DHA and EPA directly. Then there’s K2, D3, Carnosine, and Creatine– essential? No, I don’t believe so. Beneficial? Maybe– how so? I don’t know. In regards to all those nutrients, we probably focus to much on individual vitamins anyway, and should instead look at the diet as a whole.

    I can see other appealing aspects of why someone would want to eat animal foods for nutritional purposes, not just gustatory purposes, in that they’re very convenient sources of dense protein. I know that there are no issues with anyone I’ve ever met with protein deficiency. But I think there is something to the idea of eating a lot more protein than we need, to stave off hunger so you’re not tempted to eat too many carbs, and making the body work harder to metabolize the protein, and promote fat loss and muscle growth. But of course with a little creativity, it’s easy enough to find as much protein as you want without meat, and it wouldn’t be worth all the death and suffering that comes with meat production. And of course all the risks associated with eating too much of it.

    As for the paleo theories that we’re made to hunt, and therefore should eat meat, thanks for that link. After reading those articles, I definitely see all the flaws in that argument, and agree that they don’t hold water.

    I will say that it would be unrealistic and impractical to think that everyone in the entire world should go vegan, as some people advocate. Unless you want to supply B12 supplements and probably a lot of other nutrients to the majority of the world’s population. But of course, many people around the world would be well served by reducing our consumption of it, and for those who are able to, eliminating it completely from our diets. And it’s clearly naive to think we’d even be able to convince everyone in the U.S. to eliminate animal foods entirely, for many reasons, including culture, education, poverty, and current food policy (which we should try to change somehow). That’s why I can really get behind the ideas held by this organization: http://www.farmforward.com/farming-forward/food-choices Eat as few animals as possible, ideally none, and if you do, make sure they don’t come from factory farms.

    I’m not sure if I can call myself a vegan, because I do think there is a role for some use and humane exploitation of animals, including food in some cases. As for me, I’m just not going to eat them, and if I do every now and then, it will be because I want to, not really for the nutrition– and never from a factory farm. Maybe that makes me a vegan, maybe not, but I’m not really concerned about how I’m labelled.

    Anyway, I appreciate your clarifying those nagging questions. It’s refreshing when a vegan advocate just states the facts, without using scare tactics. The next time I’m in Cincy I will try the vegan chili– that shows you how long it’s been since I’ve eaten there. It’s sad how big a problem obesity is there– too much Skyline. But it’s ok in small amounts.

  17. Alex Says:

    We need to balance emotions and intellect for our own health. Citta: heart and mind. Subjective and objectives. Direct experience and philosophic analysis.

    It is important to study, philosophize, and contemplate the neural capacity of clams. It’s equally important to observe with our own eyes and feel our own heart. Mindfully decide action based on both perspectives (traditionally four: body, feeling, mind, philosophy) not one over the other.

    If I see a creature react (to pain or love or…) in a way similar to myself, I feel its reaction in my heart (empathy). Whether I am fooled (by clams or the wind or robots or cinematography) I must still live in peace with myself. Is a clam more like a robot or a pet. Do I feel OK intellectually and emotionally destroying this being? Truly?

    I observe that many people are self-polarised intellectually xor emotionally. This is a mistake. For almost all of us, it’s easy to ethically compare humans with stones. Most can intellectualize and empathize with mammals versus bacteria. Each of us must calibrate our own moral compasses with regard to clams, petri dish muscle tissue, advanced AI robots, etc. These fringe cases test and perfect our humanity.

    The heart protects us from intellectual dishonesty (am I justifying immortal acts for sensual gratification?). Philosophical intellect provides a calm and consistent framework (why do I focus on beautiful creatures rather than…).

    Mind Heart
    Balance

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