How a vegan or vegetarian diet may be affecting your health
I’ve had two people come back into my life today, which has compelled me to write my first blog post and hopefully kick start something regular here. These two people who I saw today are friends of mine, both vegan, both exhibiting different conditions. Different conditions, which I believe would be less of an issue if they had not excluded animal products from their diets. The first person is actually a woman who we’ll call Maggie; beautiful lady, very health conscious but unfortunately she was recently diagnosed with MS. For those of you who don’t know what MS is, according to The National MS Society, “Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.” The second person is a good friend, avid surfer, in his 30’s with an almost debilitative condition of consistent lower back pain. It breaks my heart because he has been a surfer since a little kid and I hear him saying things like, he wants to give up or get a long board! These two conditions are completely different in their scope and what I am writing is not a story of how eating animal products became a magic cure for their conditions, but I do want to shed some light on how I have come to think that the addition of meat and, subsequently animal fats into their diet may help see their conditions improve, but in the broader spectrum of things I want to shed some light for anybody else out there who might be suffering something similar and not sure what to do.
Before I talk about Maggie I want to share a story that’s pretty close to home. Someone very close to me was once diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the brain which gives the impression that the brain is slowing down causing depression, speech and movement issues amongst other symptoms. She was not a vegetarian, she was also not a vegan but when I first visited her and observed what was going on, it became very clear to me that this condition didn’t develop from something she had done, but rather something she wasn’t doing. Before these symptoms came on, she was also told by her doctor that she had high cholesterol. Now, just to preface, she was living in the mid-west where you can imagine the typical meal, quite literally looks like a heart attack on a plate. As a result, she went on a statin and followed the doctors’ orders of a low fat, low cholesterol diet. Now here I come along, someone who loves eggs, loves meat, LOVES FAT! But also loves salad and so on. What I saw was a woman who was fearful of eating all these highly nutritious foods only to go on eating peanut butter sandwiches, low fat yoghurt, cereal and anything else that was high fiber and to put low fat in other terms, “high sugar”. To cut the story short, it took some convincing to get her to look at what she was doing differently and to start introducing all these highly nutritious foods back into her diet. She also stopped eating gluten, and still doesn’t to this day (over a year later) and as a result her symptoms have improved beyond belief. I wanted to share this because even I was surprised to see the remarkable change in her attitude and the sense of control over her life that was sparked by making some simple dietary changes. Today she still displays some symptoms but nowhere near as bad and, with the added energy and enthusiasm she has gained, she is now on a path to living happier and healthier life.
So let’s get back to Maggie. Maggie became a vegetarian for ethical reasons, meaning that she doesn’t agree with the way animals are bred only to be slaughtered and used as food for humans. I can emphasize with her completely on this and would never want to come off acting like these things don’t matter, because they do. When we look at the way conventionally raised animals are treated throughout their lives, up until the point at which they are deemed suitable for human consumption, it really is disgusting. They are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones to keep them from falling ill, symptoms which I believe wouldn’t exist if they were treated right in the first place. They are kept in small crowded cages, essentially living amongst their own feces. They don’t get appropriate amounts of exercises and then they are fed diets consisting of corn, wheat and sometimes even cardboard because it is cheap and fattens them up quickly, turning around a greater profit for the farmer. Now when you look at this and think about how that might look if you treated your own body in this way, it’s no wonder why these animals are fed so many synthetic drugs and hormones to keep them from getting sick because they were never really given a chance to live a life of vitality in the first place.
Now this is not the case for all animals that are sold in butchers, super markets and delis around the world. There is an option that we have as the consumer to purchase animals that have been raised ethically and in a way that is in line with the cycles of nature. There is an argument out there, that cattle production is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet and, yeah that makes sense when you look at the huge amount of space it takes to grow wheat and corn just to feed these animals, but the truth is, it doesn’t have to be like this. When cows, pigs, chickens, lamb and any other animal you might find on your dinner plate are allowed to roam free, living on the pasture eating grass, grubs, worms and whatever else they would have eaten prior to human intervention, what you see is a much more sustainable practice producing a happier, healthier animal. When you eat this happier healthier animal, you not only take on the favorable physical nutrition of the animal but also the energy and spirit of the animal. This is where I believe we need to shift our assumptions about meat consumption and encourage the continual practice and consumption of pasture raised and wild caught animals, both for their nutritional benefit and for the reasons of ethics which I just talked about.
So what does any of this have to do with MS? According to David Perlmutter, MD who is both a neurologist and a nutritionist, in his book “Grain Brain” he states that the origin of brain disease is in many cases predominantly dietary, being a diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat. Without going into the nitty gritty details described in his book, we can see a pretty serious connection between this wide spread fear of cholesterol throughout the 90’s and an increase in cases of neurological disorders.
So what else does he have to say? The human brain consists of 70% fat and so in order to keep it healthy we need to give it the nourishment that it desires to stay alive and healthy and the best nourishment comes from fats, both from animal and non-animal sources. Good fats like omega-3s and monounsaturated fats reduce inflammation, which is considered to be one of the major precursors to degenerative diseases. Certain vitamins, are also fat soluble meaning that they require the presence of fat to be absorbed by the body and without it, will they will not be absorbed in the small intestine. Specifically, we are talking about vitamins A, D, E and K. Many of these vitamins are essential for brain functioning. Saturated fats comprise 50% of the cellular membrane, which is the thin sheet that surround your cells, keeping everything inside.
How else can we can control the degradation of neural tissue? Exercise, caloric restriction, anti-inflammatory foods such as ginger and turmeric, DHA and EPA which is found in cold water fatty fish or fish oil supplements, coconut oil, fermented foods or probiotic supplements and more sleep!
Another important conversation to be had hear is one about the vitamin B12, which is only found in animal products. “B12 is involved in the production of the myelin sheath around the nerves, and the conduction of nerve impulses. You can think of the brain and the nervous system as a big tangle of wires. Myelin is the insulation that protects those wires and helps them to conduct messages.” Chris Kresser.
So hear you can see why I believe in Maggie’s case that her symptoms of MS may have been associated from a diet that is exclusive of animal products and how an introduction of animal products might help her to stabilize or even reverse her condition.
Now let’s have a look at my other friend, let’s just call him Mark. Mark has been a vegan since birth. Ethically he is not entirely opposed to eating meat, in fact he had small stint a few years ago but his argument is that if he’s gotten on this far without needing, why start now? This argument in my opinion has its faults and it takes a holistic health practitioner to connect the dots.
When I performed a postural assessment on Mark, one thing that I could see quite clearly was a pretty significant distention in the lower abdomen. In other words, there’s a little pot belly going on under that shirt. In most cases, someone would look at this and say hey, I need to lose some weight, but I do not agree. This distention in my opinion is a result of inflammation and this inflammation, I believe could contribute to what is causing his lower back pain. How? Well let’s have a little look at the anatomy here and see where things sit.
First of all, we need a clear understanding of what inflammation is. In the gut specifically, inflammation can come as a result of food intolerances, parasitic of fungal infection, dehydration or generally anything that might be irritating the gut. When you look at many of the foods present in a vegan or vegetarian diet, you will see that many of these elicit can elicit an inflammatory response. Inflammation in the gut results in not only pain and discomfort but also an inability to absorb nutrients properly, which could potentially lead to nutrient deficiencies down the track. When you get inflammation anywhere in the body, it tends to come with heat and so the body’s natural response is to do whatever it can to cool itself down. In the case of the gut, this shows up as a distended abdomen as the body tries to allow the heat to escape. Now this where we draw the connection between inflammation in the gut and low back pain. As the organs become distended to allow the release of heat, the surrounding muscles of the core will also become lengthened and weakened as a result. The core is essentially the support for the spine. In an anatomically correct human, each vertebrae of the spine would stack up on top of each other, essentially floating in the support of the body’s inner unit (or deep core as it is also referred as). When the muscles are no longer able to hold the spine in its optimal position, then we might see pain.
Now how does this tie into the vegan story. Let’s start with a typical vegan diet. You’ve got all your fresh fruits and vegetables and I’ve got no problem with that but if we only went around eating fruit and vegetables I think we would have a lot of hangry vegans. So what usually goes along side is grains, seeds, beans, lentils etc and all of these possess the ability elicit an inflammatory response throughout the entire body, meaning in the gut but also in every one of your organs. Fortunately, or unfortunately for us, there are no pain receptors in our organs and so symptoms of inflammation can often go undiagnosed or show up as seemingly unrelated pains. Take a heart attack for example, when a heart attack strikes, in most cases you will hear that pain was felt in the right arm as it was happening. This is what we call associated pain and occurs because the organ sits on the same neural pathway as the muscles of the arm hence sending a pain signal to the brain, which registers it as something being wrong.
Sorry to get off track… BUT! Although these types of foods can be tolerated in some individuals, in many they will trigger an inflammatory response which can lead to neural degradation, stomach issues, joint pains and the list goes on. So my argument here is not that Mark needs to start chowing down steak, but that he needs to take a look at the inflammatory effects of the common foods that are most likely present on the table at every meal he has and begin to see how he can integrate other more nutritious sources instead. Effective sources could come from the addition of pasture raised, grass-fed meats, eggs and wild caught fish.
So if you are a vegan and you are intrigued but don’t necessarily want to change your ways overnight, what can you do? I believe a very realistic first step would be to start with bone broths. Ethically this makes a lot of sense to me because the animal has already been consumed as food and to turn the remains into a nutritious broth, that is full of essential amino acids, collagen, gelatin and all sorts of other beneficial minerals, would be doing the animal a service as to not waste even the last bit of nutrition from it. Still feel funny about beef or chicken? Maybe fish stock is your option, especially when looking at brain health.
What’s important in the end is to stay true to what you believe but with one main caveat, make sure that your beliefs are still serving you well. If you’re doing something just because you’ve been doing it your whole life, but your health is at risk, then I think this is an appropriate time to have a think about what is more important. This article has been about animal products and their benefits but is by no means comprehensive enough to diagnose and treat your individual condition. For a list of further reading please see the resources below and if this story resonates with you and you would like some help, please reach out and we can perform an in depth analysis and put together a diet and lifestyle program to get you back to the level of health that you were born with.
How to Eat Move and Be Healthy. By Paul Chek
The Paleo Cure. By Chris Kresser
The Paleo Solution. By Robb Wolf
Grain Brain and Brain Maker. By David Perlmutter