I was a young student in college when I first decided not to eat any animal products. It 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 caused our health and environment.
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.
Today, I see the tenacity of my youth for what it was, a form of egotistic superiority. Turning our noses up at people who don't feel the same way we do is an ugly look. Now, I realize that we are all on our own journey and we should honor each other. That doesn't mean we can't share what we have learned, but we should do it respectfully and in love.
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.
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 for me, just because something was better didn't make it optimal. I hesitated even writing this article. In my years writing about functional medicine health topics, I've received the most online hate from the vegan community. Those tactics don't change minds; they only divide.
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. My digestion was wrecked.
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 leaky gut syndrome.
2. My detox pathways were weak.
It's estimated that around 40 percent of us have methylation dysfunctions, such as MTHFR mutations, and I am one of them. Methylation is the biochemical superhighway that helps with your detoxification system, brain, gut, and immune health. This mutation 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 supplement, but if I can't get these nutrients naturally from the foods I'm eating, is diet really optimal for my body?
3. My skin was breaking out.
My skin is very prone to breaking out. 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—and both contributed to unhealthy skin.
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 during my vegan diet contributed to the brain fog I experienced. After all, the omega fats found in fish is a super food for the brain.
Sure, omega-3 fat ALA can be found in plant sources such as walnuts and flaxseed, but it’s not easily used by our bodies because it must be converted into DHA or EPA, which is an inefficient process.
My energy crashes went hand in hand with my fatigue. Arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids are two forms of fat that could play an important role in brain health. And the most bioavailable sources for these brain foods? Fish and other animal sources.
What Happened After I Changed My Diet
So there I was, a staunch vegan with health problems creeping into my life. Was I going to continue not eating any animal products just so I wouldn't have to admit that I was wrong? 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.
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.
Today, eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, and fats, I feel better than ever. My energy is great, and my skin and digestion dramatically improved.
These days, 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.