Breaking up with Veganism - The hidden factor that might make you ex-vegan

For 20 - 30% of the vegans reading this, I have some shocking and sad news.

Your vegan lifestyle won't be sustainable.

As someone who has spent over 20 years as a vegetarian and five as a vegan, this caught me by surprise. (It's a weird place to be when you've authored a Vegan Teen Cookbook.)

The reason I had to become ex-vegan? Genetics.

How my weight clued me in there was a problem

For the record, I loved being vegan.

Compassionate choices connect you to the natural world around you. You know where your food comes from. You cross the gap between pork chop and Babe. (Six-year-old Cathy was pretty traumatized when she realized hamburgers were actually cows.)

But over time, my body started putting on more and more weight. I wasn't feeling great and I didn't know why. It didn't matter how much I worked out or that I ate "healthy." It didn't matter that I slept well, had a meditation practice or drank 96 oz of water a day.

Something wasn't working.

I went to see a functional medicine doctor who ran tests: genetics, food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies and metals.

We discovered some things:

1) I have the Celiac gene (DQ2) which means I'm allergic to gluten. (We also discovered I have leaky gut from years of not knowing this.)

2) A compromised gut doesn't process nutrients. (I learned I'm really low on a lot of stuff.)

3) While I struggled with food allergies as a kid, I thought I had outgrown them.  (I didn't.) The test showed allergic reactions to all tree nuts, most beans and peas, peanuts, yeast, ginger, mushrooms, onions, dairy, eggs, nutmeg and pineapple in addition to gluten. (Vegans reading this realize this wipes out my food base.)

4) My mercury levels are high taking the "pescatarian" option off the table for me.  (Need to know which fish are the highest in mercury? Click this chart.)

But isn't veganism healthy? 

Compared to the diet I grew up with of Wonder bread, bologna, potato chips and Hostess fried pies—yes.

For over 20 years, I would have told anyone who asked that vegetarianism was the best possible diet. After all, when I adopted it, the wins were big for me. My skin cleared up. I dropped weight effortlessly. My energy went through the roof.

However, the variable I never factored in is: my shift to vegetarianism was coupled with ditching processed foods.  I traded brightly labeled boxes full of questionable ingredients for foods in their natural state.  I stopped eating applesauce from a jar and started eating apples.

Which made me feel amazing.

So, why would it stop working?

In short, my genetics.

The role genetics play in our ability to successfully live vegan. 

A Cornell University study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, revealed that people with different ancestral backgrounds require different ratios of nutritional substances in their diet.

The big idea is that if your people historically ate veg diets, then your body's nutritional needs are based in that diet. However, if your genetics are northern European (as I learned mine were from a 23andMe test), then a vegan diet may not be supplying everything your body needs. Over time, you can wind up with deficiencies—especially when it comes to amino and fatty acids.

Specifically, if different people need different ratios of nutrients in their diet depending on their genes, then what works for an Indian whose family has been vegetarian for generations may not work for a 99.9% white girl. (Seriously, that was the number for European on my 23andMe test.  Plain vanilla. Sigh.)

Your ancestral need for certain nutrients isn't the only factor. 

If you are Caucasian, you have over a 20 percent chance of having the gene for Celiac disease. (Translation: you have a digestive tract which negatively reacts to gluten.)

About 95% of people with Celiac disease have the HLA-DQ2 gene and the remaining 5% have the HLA-DQ8 gene. (source)

I always thought the gene for Celiac disease was pretty rare.

It's not.

The DQ2 frequency in Caucasian, Western European populations has been estimated at 20%-30%, and relatively high frequencies also occur in Northern and Western Africa, the Middle East and central Asia. There are low frequencies in populations in South-East Asia and the virtual absence of DQ2 in Japan. DQ8 frequency has a worldwide distribution, and approximately 90% of Amerindian populations carry DQ8. (source)

What happens to vegans who have undiagnosed Celiac?

Well, if you are like me, leaky gut syndrome, which is where the lining of the gut gets so inflamed, it becomes permeable, causing a host of allergic reactions and malabsorption issues.

Other symptoms for undiagnosed Celiac can be inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune issues, thyroid problems, inflammatory skin conditions, mood issues and even autism. (source)

The problem for vegans is gluten is a staple in much of the vegan diet—everything from pasta to seitan to soy sauce.  And many "fake meat" products are gluten-based.

As Josh Trent once advised:

It doesn't matter what compassion you have in your heart. Or what ideology you hold in your head. If your biology isn't on board, you can't live vegan.

When I first heard those words, I really struggled with them. And, I was pretty sure they didn't apply to me.

I was wrong.

With such a high percentage of people carrying these genetic factors, we can't just write off the gluten-free and Paleo crazes as marketing hype. 

My body was giving me clues. I just wasn't listening.  

I was ignoring the signals in my bloodwork, weight and energy levels to uphold my ideals. 

So, what do you do when your ideals don't match your reality? 

Most vegans understand: cats are "obligate carnivores." They can't survive on a vegan diet. (For the record, dogs can do okay on one, but their owners have to be smart about it and there are no long-term studies on the real effects.)

When it comes to personal choices, the struggle is emotional, mental and physical.

After all, most of us didn't just wake up one day and decide to test-drive veganism. It is usually based in an aversion to current factory farming practices and a compassion for animal life.

Not only that, but if all of your food choices have been plant-based for a long time, your beliefs become ingrained. Your preferences are shaped.

I had the first bite of chicken in more than 20 years and it was a mental game of pretending it wasn't chicken.  And even though I now know, I'm an "obligate carnivore" I'm finding it's a transition. One I'm still figuring out.

What will people say if you make the switch? 

The peer pressure against veganism is surprisingly intense. Well-meaning meat-eaters campaign against it all the time. 

"Don't you want a bite of this steak?" (Um. No.) 
"Don't you miss bacon?" (Did you see Charlotte's Web?) 
"Where do you get your protein?"  (Where do cows get their protein?)
"But nothing dies if it is just eggs or milk." (No, but the conditions the animals live in can be worse than death.)

Of course vegans can be equally as committed to their cause:

"That bloody steak looks disgusting."
"Do you know how that died?"
"Where do you get your fiber?"
"I bet you didn't know this was vegan." (I confess. I've said this one.)

If you find yourself in the position of becoming ex-vegan and there is backlash from either side; maybe, you need to upgrade your friends. Compassion for animals and other people doesn't preclude compassion for ourselves.

If you are thriving on the veg lifestyle, I'm delighted. We need people making the most compassionate food choices possible.

This post is for the percentage of vegans who are battling and aren't sure why. If you find that over time the diet isn't bringing you more health, vitality and energy, then your ancestry may be working against you.

When I first learned I would need to add meat back into my diet, I told my doctor that my husband, John, would be thrilled. He wasn't.  He just hugged me and told me we'd take it slowly. He also told me everything would be okay.

I believe him. 

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© Random Cathy
Maira Gall