by Dr. Will Cole
I was a young student in college when I first decided not to eat any animal products. This impulse came from a well-intentioned place – I had educated myself on factory farming, CAFOS (or concentrated animal feeding operations, where animals live in deplorable conditions), and the damage that eating animals causes our health and environment.
Back then, I thought I knew it all. I was going to tell anyone who would listen about how being a vegan was better than what they were doing. I was enlightened. Or so I thought. Little did I know that my new diet was slowly chipping away at my youthful energy and taken-for-granted health.
Now, if you are a vegetarian or a vegan, don’t worry – I am not here to convince you to eat one way or another, and this diet might work for you. But I look back on my youthful attitude now as egotistical and elitist. No matter how anyone eats, it’s an ugly look to turn up a nose at someone else and their beliefs. We are all on our own journeys and we should honor each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t share what we have learned along the way, as long as we do it respectfully and with love.
The turning point in my life coincided with the beginning of my study of functional medicine. One of the first things I learned about getting to the root causes of illnesses was that there’s no “one size fits all” approach to wellness. I had to come to grips with the fact that I was eating healthfully but wasn’t feeling healthy. Something was missing. My diet wasn’t right….for me.
So, after 10 years as a vegan, I quit – and now I feel better than ever. Was veganism better for me than the Standard American Diet? Certainly! But just because something is an improvement doesn’t make it optimal. For me, a vegan diet was not optimal. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not right for you.
I’m not here to convince you to eat one way or another. You can be a vegetarian or vegan and be in great health (like my friends Dr. Joel Kahn and Dr. Garth Davis). We all have different genetics, biochemistries, and microbiomes. We all have different requirements to thrive.
But for my own personal health journey both as a human being and a functional medicine practitioner, veganism wasn’t right. Here’s why:
1. I wrecked my digestion.
I believe that years of not eating healthy, organic meat and fat contributed to hypochlorhydria, or low stomach acid, and gallbladder issues. ( I found this out by running functional medicine labs on myself.) This made it difficult for my body to digest foods. That, along with all the grains I was eating, contributed to my leaky gut syndrome.
2. I weakened my detox pathways.
It’s estimated that around 40 percent of us have methylation dysfunctions, such as MTHFR mutations, and I am one of them. Methylation is a process that acts like a biochemical superhighway that helps with your detoxification system, brain, gut, and immune health. A mutation that weakens the effectiveness of this system could increase the risk of chronic brain, hormonal, digestive, and autoimmune conditions.
Choline and vitamins B9 (folate) and B12 are essential for healthy methylation pathways – and these three nutrients are found most abundantly in meat and animal products. Sure, I could have supplemented, but if I can’t get these nutrients naturally from the foods I’m eating, I don’t believe such a diet is optimal for me.
3. My skin was breaking out.
My skin is prone to breaking out, and when I was vegan, in addition to my wrecked gut health, I also wasn’t getting enough beneficial vitamin A from the foods I was eating. Retinol, what’s sometimes called true vitamin A, or the bioavailable form, is only found in animal products like fish, shellfish, fermented cod liver oil, grass-fed liver, and butterfat from grass-fed cows.
Plant carotenes, a precursor to vitamin A, are found in sweet potatoes and carrots – but the conversion rate to the usable retinol is very weak. In fact, research suggests that just 3 percent of beta-carotene gets converted in a healthy adult. Once I started optimizing my diet with true vitamin A-rich foods like liver, and collagen-rich foods like bone broth, I noticed that my skin improved. That was all the proof I needed.
4. I had brain fog and fatigue.
I believe that a lack of healthy fats in my vegan diet contributed to the brain fog I experienced. The omega fats found in fish make it a superfood for the brain. Sure, omega-3 fat ALA can be found in plant sources such as walnuts and flaxseed, but this form is not easily used by the human body. It must be converted into DHA or EPA, and that process is inefficient. My body wasn’t effective at this conversion, as evidenced by my energy crashes and fatigue. Once I started getting arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids from fish and other animal sources, I felt immediately better, because these two forms of fat play an important role in brain health.
How I changed my philosophy
Changing my diet meant changing my philosophy, and this wasn’t easy. I had to rethink many of my beliefs and prioritize my health. I’m not the only one who has made such a conversion and had to admit I was wrong about the best diet for me. My dear friend and colleague Dr. Terry Wahls, who was a vegetarian for years herself, said poignantly:
I spent some time reflecting on life in the wild. We all consume one another in the end. Our atoms and molecules are continually recycled. Every living thing without the benefit of photosynthesis must consume other beings – plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals. And in the end, they will consume me. I prayed and meditated on these ideas. Humans have been eating all these things for thousands of generations, so I decided I was not committing a crime against nature if I ate meat. Perhaps I was getting even closer to nature.
As for me, I also realized that I was not separate from or above nature, but a part of it. And because of my MTHFR methylation impairments and digestive and skin issues – as well as a family history of autoimmune conditions – veganism was not right for my long-term health.
What happened after I changed my diet
Today, eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, and fats, I feel better than ever. My energy is great, and my skin and digestion have improved dramatically. Now, I also coach people around the world who are struggling with the health problems I had. Consider a free webcam or phone evaluation, or check out my elimination diet course with mindbodygreen, to find out how to bring in healthy meats and fats into your diet. In addition, our new video course Heal Your Hormones, Brain, and Gut is available as well.
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