The Vegan Myth
By Jessica Girdwain
For others, going vegan can pay off, initially at least. A vegan for almost two years, Susan Stella Floyd, 33, from Austin, Texas, lost 10 pounds within the first two months. But three months later she regained the weight--and 10 more pounds. She partially blames her "very carb-heavy diet." And while veganism promises healthy cholesterol, Floyd's levels were borderline high. Because a vegan diet may lack appropriate amounts of good fat (like omega-3's and vitamin B12), some vegans may suffer from elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine (associated with blood vessel damage) and lower HDL (aka good) cholesterol. Both, notes one 2011 study, can actually increase the risk for heart problems and stroke.
After reading books on veganism and working at a health foods store, Bonnie Farrell, 26, from Portland, Maine, figured she was prepared to go vegan. She ate mostly raw foods and also started to bike everywhere. A diet consisting mainly of fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds, combined with the sudden rigorous exercise, helped her drop 25 pounds. "I took it as a sign that my body was thriving," she says. Instead, the opposite was happening. Her energy levels would skyrocket, only to crash and leave her extremely fatigued. She became consumed by near daily panic attacks. Rounds of testing with two different doctors revealed a deficiency of several vitamins and minerals. Her adrenal system, which regulates stress, had "burnt out"; her thyroid was malfunctioning. "I felt like my body was locked in a prison," Farrell says.
What's going on outside isn't always pretty, either. "Vegan clients have walked into my office with scaly skin because they reduced their fat intake too much," notes Volpe. Dental health may suffer, too. Vitamin deficiencies speed up tooth decay, and overconsumption of carbs produces a highly acidic environment in your mouth, damaging gums and weakening enamel, explains Chicago dentist Dr. Rana Stino. That may explain why after almost two decades sans cavities, Floyd had four. Worse, Farrell was shocked she needed seven fillings--all in one visit. "It was terrifying," she says.
There's no problem with trying veganism, but go in without a game plan and you could put your health in danger. "Meet with a registered dietitian or your doctor first, preferably one who specializes in vegan diets," says Volpe. Then follow up with them if you don't feel right, as they can help make adjustments.
Eventually, Crosby Helms, Stubbart, Floyd, and Farrell all tried eating meat and/or dairy again, this time conscientiously dining on grass-fed, organic fare. "I felt deeply satisfied after my first bite of fried eggs and cheese," says Floyd, who no longer deals with crazy cravings and now has "awesome" cholesterol--which she links, ironically, to a return to eggs and bacon. A year after forgoing veganism, Farrell revisited her doctor. "My thyroid was running normally again, my nervous system was balanced. I felt like myself again. Why didn't I stop sooner?"