Why I Transitioned From a Plant-Based to a Nutrient-Inclusive Lifestyle
This is a story I’ve alluded to through past blog posts and definitely on my Instagram page, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone into detail about my experience with plant-based eating and how it impacted my health. Well, today is the day, and I’m going to explain how my personal experience with a plant-based diet took its toll on my health, and how I am healing from the effects of this long-term diet using nutrient-dense whole foods that my body needs to thrive.
Growing up, I always ate a lot of meat. In fact, I distinctly remember being the weird girl at school who would have steak in her lunch (thanks for packing the best lunches ever, Mom!), and sometimes got made fun of for it! But it was clear that I tended toward a diet rich in animal protein. As I made my way through college and a few years after graduating, I was learning how to cook and eat for myself after dealing with anorexia in late high school and early college. I was learning how to eat intuitively, and as far as I can remember, I was doing the best I could.
As I started working and “adulting” I began to incorporate more structured exercise in the form of running into my routine. It was an outlet for me, and I truly enjoyed seeing myself improve the more I trained. However, in the midst of training for some marathons and a triathlon, I started to slowly transition away eating as much meat, and moving toward a primarily plant-based diet. I’m not sure I know when exactly it happened or why I started, but for some reason it felt right at the time. Looking back, I’m sure it had to do with wanting to continue to see improvements in my running and training, and I thought that eating plants would mold my body to be a certain “type” that would allow me to continue my newfound running passion in a healthy way.
When I say I was eating mostly plants, I mean just that. I did continue to eat eggs regularly, but aside from that, I was eating almost ALL plants, with very little fat in my diet (I remember feeling afraid of fat because I believed that eating fat meant putting on body fat -- Disclaimer: this mindset was completely flawed, and I’ll write an entire post on this at another time. I just want to be clear that the idea that eating fat makes you fat is completely bogus. More to come at a later date). I would have a tiny serving of salmon once or twice a month. So really, mostly plants.
In being so restrictive with my food, I was creating severe stress and anxiety around eating, which not only took the joy out of eating, but also puts the body in a stressed, sympathetic nervous system state, which can inhibit digestion, affect hormones, and disrupt the metabolism.
Over time, I really saw the physical effects of the digestive dysfunction in the form of chronic bloating and reflux (after eating and even between meals), changes in bowel movements, painful and swollen cysts in my underarms, gallbladder attacks, and general lethargy and fatigue. I also started having hormone imbalances in the form of irregular and missed periods, my metabolism slowed down significantly, and for the first time in my life, I was experiencing anxiety (physical and emotional symptoms).
Healthy digestion really is the foundation of our health, and when mine was compromised, I saw a clear ripple effect throughout many other systems in my body.
And now, not only was I feeling anxious around food because of the habits I had formed (i.e. avoiding meat, dairy, and fat) but I was now always anxious around food in the sense that any and all foods were making me feel physically sick.
It wasn’t until I expanded my diet and removed the restrictions that I started to see improvements in my health again.
After all, there are nutrients within the foods I was so strictly avoiding that I was depriving my body of for so long. It’s no wonder my body was failing me!
I want to put this out there: there’s no one right way to eat. Some people do much better eating a lot of animal protein, and others do not. Some people can thrive on a vegetarian diet (if they are supplementing properly) while others can suffer severe health effects if they follow a vegetarian diet. We are individuals, and our bodies are so different, requiring different nutrients in different amounts depending on our genetics, our environment, our activity, our stress, and our health conditions. But in my case, and I believe in many of our cases because traditionally we have eaten plenty of meat and fat throughout our species’ history, I am not able to thrive and feel well eating primarily plants.
Here’s what adding high-quality meat, fish, eggs, and animal fats have done for me:
Helped me heal the lining of my gut.
The epithelial lining of our intestine is made from collagen, a substance made up of amino acids only found in animal sources. Our bodies naturally produce collagen, and it’s the substance that creates the elasticity of our skin, the structure of our nails and hair, and the mobility of our joints. However, as we age, we produce less and less collagen ourselves, so it becomes increasingly necessary to make sure we are getting plenty of animal protein from the food we eat. As my gut has been healing, my digestive symptoms have been reduced significantly. When we have a permeable gut lining, we are more likely to be exposed to pathogens and we can have immune reactions to pretty much any food we eat. I know I did! The lining of our intestines are made up of tight junctions, and when that lining becomes too permeable, it allows for undigested food to leech through and into the bloodstream, where it is seen as a foreign invader rather than potential fuel. As such, the body becomes inflamed, and mounts an attack on many things we eat. It's no wonder I was having chronic bloating and distention and intense fatigue and discomfort after eating anything at all!
Healing the lining of the intestines takes time, so this should really be worked on with a health or nutrition practitioner. I had some help making sure I had the proper supplements and was eating the proper foods as my intestinal lining healed up. This included supplements that helped populate the beneficial flora in my gut, which helps boost the structural integrity of the intestinal wall in conjunction with the increased intake of animal protein for those essential amino acids that were important to really fortify it for the long-haul.
I no longer have so much anxiety and fear around food.
When we are anxious or stressed out, we cannot physically digest our food because we do not release the stomach acid and digestive enzymes needed to digest without feeling bloated, getting heartburn or acid reflux, and/or dealing with SIBO, candida, and/or leaky gut conditions. By freeing up my mindset around food and allowing myself to eat the foods I had previously feared, I’m not only getting the nutrients that my body needs to function optimally, but I no longer feel anxious around food and eating. I’m able to enjoy the veggies, and also the steak, the butter, and the gelato, and none of those things feel good, nor bad, nor restrictive or dangerous. I’m able to eat all foods (that serve me), and that in itself is so freeing. When we are able to let go of the rules we have surrounding food, no foods are bad foods; no foods are off-limits, and we can make peace with food, which allows us to get the nutrients that our bodies truly need. We can start to listen to our intuition (after a period of getting back in tune with it of course, which can take some time), and find out what our body actually needs rather than what we tell it to want. For me, I was telling my body for years that it needed to avoid fat and meat because of bad information, influence from society, and just getting carried away with my own thoughts. It was when I made peace with all foods that I started seeing my most significant healing, because I was also addressing the anxiety was experiencing every time I was eating. Lifting these food rules and restrictions was game-changing for me and was the key to my healing digestive issues. When I removed the stress around food, my digestion could happen as it should -- I started to release more stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes. When we are stressed and in a sympathetic nervous system state, we do not produce stomach acid nor any of the other digestive juices and enzymes that are triggered when we are in a rest-and-digest or parasympathetic state. It’s no wonder that lots of people who have anxiety around food (or otherwise have chronic stress in their lives) have digestive issue!. Over time, this chronic stress can cause digestive dysfunction further south in the GI system such as:
- Leaky gut
- Acid Reflux
- Abdominal Distention
My hormones are re-regulating.
Fats, specifically cholesterol, are the building blocks of our hormones. Without regularly eating fat (and enough of it!) a few things happen to interfere with hormones. First off, we can’t create the hormones because we don’t have the cholesterol to build them on. That’s an easy one. Secondly, when we don’t eat enough fat, it’s almost guaranteed that you are eating more sugar and carbohydrates, which are not bad! However, when they are out of balance with fats, it can cause our blood sugar to roller-coaster up and down, which can create a chronic output of cortisol, which interferes will virtually all of our hormones. Blood sugar dysregulation is not the only reason for chronic cortisol output -- chronic stressors like a demanding job (or a job that you don’t like), overtraining, undereating, chronic infection, recovery from surgery, the morning commute, excessive caffeine and/or alcohol, eating poor quality or processed foods (unhealthy oils, factory-farmed and hormone/antibiotic-laden meats, pesticide-ridden produce, and of course packaged, processed foods). However, addressing blood sugar dysregulation is one of the best things you can do to rebalance your hormones. And one of the best ways to do regulate your blood sugar is by adjusting macronutrient ratios to avoid insulin spikes and dips so that you body can start utilizing fat as energy rather than relying primarily on glucose (the substance that sugar and carbohydrates are broken down into in the body). Try adding more fat into each meal. But if you’re just starting out introducing more fat into the diet, make sure that you’re able to digest your fats properly -- adding in beets and lemon juice can support your bile production, which is necessary for emulsifying the fats we ingest. Which leads me to...
My gallbladder, which was on its way to having gallstones, is back to normal.
I haven’t had a gallbladder attack in probably 7 or 8 months, and this is HUGE for me. Years of eating a low-fat diet had created some biliary sludge in my gallbladder (which showed up on an ultrasound), which would lead to extremely painful gallbladder attacks that would last anywhere from 24-48 hours with no relief until it passed. You see, in order to digest fat properly, we need to have healthy, free-flowing bile (which is stored in our gallbladders). When we don’t eat enough fat, that bile can start to become stagnant and sludge-like, and eventually, can lead to gallstones, which can block the opening of the gallbladder and get stuck. This can be a huge problem, so making sure your bile is healthy and free-flowing is incredibly important.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR QUALITY PROTEIN AND FAT
When it comes to eating protein and fat, not all are created equal.
Here’s what I recommend looking for when you are purchasing animal products and good-quality fats:
- Grass-fed and hormone/antibiotic-free ruminant meat (beef, lamb, etc.)
- Pasture-raised pork
- Pasture-raised chicken and eggs (cage free and free-range mean nothing, so make sure you’re getting pasture-raised!)
- Grass-fed butter or ghee (clarified butter)
- Organic dairy (best if grass-fed and raw, but if your state doesn’t allow for raw dairy, just going for organic and non-GMO will do just fine!)
- Wild-caught fish
- 100% unrefined coconut oil (avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils!)
If you have digestive issues, hormone dysregulation, or issues with energy and feeling like you're functioning at your highest level, please get in touch with me! I’d love to help when I open my schedule up to clients early summer 2018. And if you're interested in learning more about transitioning from a plant-based lifestyle to one that is more nutrient-inclusive, please get in touch!