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by Dr. Will Cole
It all started in college, when I first decided not to eat any animal products: my journey towards better health. At the time, a vegan diet was considered the epitome of health, and so I made this transition coming from a place of the best intentions. I had educated myself on factory farming, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where animals live in deplorable conditions, and the damage that eating animals causes our health and environment. This had an emotional impact on me and also sounded like something I wanted no part of, ethically or nutritionally.
Of course, back then, I thought I knew it all (who doesn’t think that in their early 20s?). I was ready and willing to tell anyone who would listen about how being a vegan was better than whatever it was they were eating.
Today, many years of life experience and education later, I see this youthful arrogance for what it really was: Ego. It’s an ugly look, turning one’s nose up at people who don’t feel the same way. Now I realize that every person is on a personal journey and we should honor one another, no matter our paths. That doesn’t mean we can’t share what we have learned with others, but we can do it respectfully and without judgment.
Meanwhile, there I was, living as a vegan, and not feeling great. The turning point in my life was when I started studying functional medicine. I learned about getting to the root causes of illnesses and realized 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 doing what I thought it would do for me. So, after 10 years as a strict vegan, I quit—and now I feel better than ever.
Was veganism better for me than the standard American diet? Certainly! At the time, it was a definite upgrade for me. However, just because something is better doesn’t mean it’s the best. A vegan diet may be the best for some people, but it wasn’t for me. In my years writing about functional medicine health topics, I’ve received the most online vitriol from the vegan community, but at the same time, many of my vegan friends and associates get a lot of vitriol from the Paleo community. Those tactics don’t change minds; they only divide, and these healthy modes of eating share more in common than they have differences. The truth, as I now understand it, is that there is no one way to eat that is right for everyone.
For me personally, based not only on my own personal health journey, but on the thousands of patients I’ve seen over the years and my training as a functional medicine practitioner, I now know that pure veganism wasn’t the answer for me. But, as you will soon see, I found an alternative that was.
Why I stopped being vegan.
There were several serious reasons why I stopped being vegan:
1. My digestion was wrecked.
Years of not eating healthy, organic meat and fat can contribute to hypochlorhydria, or low stomach acid, as well as gallbladder issues. I developed both these problems, which I discovered by running functional medicine labs on myself. This made it difficult for me to digest all foods. This, along with all the grains and legumes I was eating, contributed to intestinal hyperpermeability, or leaky gut syndrome. In short, my digestion was a mess.
2. My detox pathways were weak.
Methylation, a complex process that acts like a biochemical superhighway in the body and facilitates detoxification along with brain, gut, and immune health, can be compromised by certain methylation dysfunctions, such as MTHFR mutations. I am one of the estimated 40% of the population with the MTHFR mutation, which could increase the risk of chronic brain, hormonal, digestive, and autoimmune conditions. For that reason, I (and others with this mutation) require nutrients that support these compromised pathways. Choline and vitamins B9 (folate) and B12 are essential for healthy methylation — and these three nutrients are abundantly found in wild-caught fish. Sure, I could supplement, but I had to ask myself, if I can’t get these nutrients naturally from the foods I’m eating, is my diet really optimal for my body?
3. My skin was breaking out.
I’m prone to acne breakouts. Vitamin A is an important nutrient for healthy skin, and when I was vegan, I wasn’t getting enough of this beneficial vitamin from the foods I was eating.
Retinol (what’s sometimes called “true vitamin A,” or the bioavailable form), is found only in animal products like fish, shellfish, egg yolks, cod liver oil, and grass-fed ghee. Plant carotenes, a precursor to vitamin A, are found in sweet potatoes and carrots, but these carotenes must be converted to vitamin A in the body, and the conversion rate to the usable retinol is poor, meaning you would have to eat way more of these foods to get the same amount of retinol that you would get from a much smaller amount of animal food.
Once I started optimizing my diet with true vitamin A-rich sources like cod liver oil, and foods rich in collagen (which also can’t be acquired naturally through plants) like wild-caught marine collagen, my skin quality improved dramatically.
4. My immune system was weak.
Back in my vegan days, it seemed like I caught every cold virus. I was often found tired and run down, and didn’t have much energy. I believe that this was in part due to a lack of healthy fats, as well as a lack of fat-soluble vitamins.
Vitamin A: In addition to it’s skin-improving benefits (mentioned above), Vitamin A is essential for a strong immune system, and vitamin A deficiency has been linked to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. This is because dendritic cells, the alarms of the immune system, stimulate immunity, as well as calm down excessive immune reactions that can cause damaging inflammation. It takes true vitamin A (retinol) to send this “calm down” message to the immune system, and I wasn’t getting enough.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is another essential vitamin for many metabolic and immunological pathways in the body. For example, Th17 cells are helper T-cells that produce a number of inflammatory chemicals, such as interleukin-17. With autoimmune conditions—such as inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis—Th17 cells run out of control.
Vitamin D, in conjunction with vitamin A, has been shown to synergistically dampen the Th17 inflammatory response. As with vitamin A, vitamin D is most abundant in fish, egg yolks, and ghee. Of course, soaking up the sun can also help—about 20 to 60 minutes a day, depending on your complexion, should generate enough vitamin D, and this is something anybody can do, no matter their diet. Consider getting a test done every few months to ensure that your vitamin D levels are healthy.
Vitamin K2: Often-overlooked, fat-soluble vitamin K2 is also crucial for healthy immune reactions. One study in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that vitamin K2 was effective at inhibiting the pro-inflammatory iNOS in the spinal cord and the brain immune system in rats that had multiple sclerosis symptoms. Unfortunately, K2 is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the Western diet. Vitamin K2 is best paired with the other fat-soluble vitamins, A and D, in whole-food form like grass-fed butter oil (ghee). Natto, a Japanese superfood made from non-GMO fermented soybeans, also has high levels of K2, for those who still choose not to eat animal foods.
My Ketotarian transformation.
What’s a former vegan who knows the benefits of animal products but still leans towards a plant-centric diet to do? The answer to my own dietary dilemma turned out to be a protocol I developed that I call the Ketotarian Diet. This diet combines the best parts of a ketogenic diet with the best parts of a flexible plant-based eating plan. Here’s how I did it:
- First, I eliminated all of the foods I normally reached for on my conventional vegan diet: Gluten-free grains, loads of high-fructose fruits, and legumes.
- I replaced these foods with antioxidant-rich low-fructose berries, plant-based fats like avocados and coconut, and mounds of nutrient-dense vegetables such as dark leafy greens.
- While I chose to be mainly plant-based, I knew I needed more omega-3s and vitamin A in my life that I couldn’t get as easily from plant foods, so I chose to incorporate wild-caught fish and cage-free organic eggs on occasion as well.
By incorporating more healthy fats, the change in my brain fog was almost instantaneous. Finally, I was fueling my brain with the exact thing it is made out of: fat! My skin started to clear up within a matter of weeks.
Other aspects of my health took a little bit longer to improve noticeably. For example, nutrient deficiencies can’t be fixed after only a few days of eating more nutrient-dense foods. It’s logical that what took time to deplete takes time to rebuild.
My leaky gut syndrome and weakened immune systems took some time to repair themselves, as well, but by incorporating healing food medicines and eliminating the inflammatory foods that I was unknowingly destroying my gut with (grains, I am looking at you!) my gut lining was slowly restored and repaired and my microbiome was recalibrated to a healthier balance of primarily friendly bacteria. An adult gut takes anywhere between 12 and 24 months to fully heal, and since that is where the majority of the immune system resides, it took almost that long before I noticed myself getting through cold and flu season unscathed.
Any major life shift requires a period of transition. When I first started eating ketotarian, it took me while to figure out my new normal. I had to figure out my carb sweet spot (how much I could eat in a day to stay in fat-burning mode) and calculate my macros (fat, protein, and carb ratios), and that was something that I wasn’t used to doing. However, once I had it all figured out for my own needs, I was able to eat intuitively and not stress over specifics.
Another funny thing happened as I worked through this transformation from vegan to ketotarian: I hadn’t realized that I wasn’t fully satisfied with the foods I was eating until I made the shift to foods that truly fueled me and helped me thrive. I finally knew what it was like to feel satisfied! By eating a plant-based diet based on the ketogenic principles of high-fat, moderate protein, and low-carb, but without the often inflammatory conventional meat and dairy products that make up most ketogenic diets, I was able to shift my metabolism from burning sugar to burning fat, through the use of nutrient-dense plant superfoods. This lowered my inflammation, reduced my cravings, enhanced my brain health, and increased my energy. I have never felt better, and while I would never tell you how we are all meant to eat, I truly believe that this is how we are all meant to feel.
Finally, there is the ethical issue, and this was a little harder for me to justify at first. What about the environment? What about animal suffering? Then again, as the health problems had been creeping into my life, I realized it would be ridiculous to continue eating in a certain way that was not serving my health, just so I wouldn’t have to admit that I was wrong. I searched for an answer, and I finally found one. My dear friend and colleague Terry Wahls, M.D., who was a vegetarian for years herself before returning to animal foods to repair her own health, 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.
This helped me feel better about my new diet, as I 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—I could not deny that pure veganism was not right for my long-term health.
Now that I’m eating plant-based, high-healthy-fat ketogenic meals, I feel better than ever—so much so that I wrote a book about it, Ketotarian. While this diet may not be right for everyone, it is certainly right for me. My energy is great, and my skin and digestion have dramatically improved. Maybe this is the answer you are looking for, too. I hope I can spread the message about this nutrient-rich dietary option, and I’m looking forward to other people feeling these benefits in themselves.
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