Raw Veganism nearly destroyed my health and I'm not exaggerating!
I'm sure this post will not make me popular. However, I think more people should share their stories with the not so healthful side of this way of eating. Perhaps, many don't for fear of backlash from the other members of the raw vegan community.
I lean towards being an all or nothing type personality so when I am in, I am all in. That probably doesn't bode well for some areas and this is one example. Can I just venture to say that when I started doing the Raw Vegan Lifestyle, back in about 2005 it was almost cult-like in it's following. Certain (but not all) pioneers really had the tendency to make one feel like eating even a morsel of cooked food would send you spiraling out of control. Loss of control is something that I do not like feeling. So, like I said, I was all in, and by default my family members were all in.
A couple years before my 5th child was born I had begun a journey towards the Raw Vegan lifestyle. It began with just leaning towards a Vegetarian lifestyle, then progressed towards Veganism and ended with a rather extreme Raw Vegan eating journey that I took my entire family of six on. Though gradually towards the end of my 2 1/2 years of Veganism I started adding in fish and eggs; I didn't fully change my eating style until after my sixth child was born.
Some of the health consequences I experienced from being a raw vegan:
My digestion was diminished.
When you do not have enough digestive enzymes to break down the foods you eat, it doesn't matter what you eat, you are never nourished, never satisfied and you have serious cravings. When your body is not getting what it needs it slowly starts to die. My brain was dying! I couldn't concentrate and I felt so scatter brained and forgetful. I was so depressed that I would sit in my bedroom for hours not wanting to come out and face normal daily life.
I actually have proof that a eating only raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains destroyed my digestion. When I started experiencing the symptoms I describe above, my doctor did a test where you swallow a small transmitter that measures the levels of Hydrochloric Acid in your stomach, mine was producing almost no HCL. This is a condition called hypochlorhydria. You can read more about it here. This explained my super dry hair and skin. By the way, most people who take antacids think they have too much, when most likely they have too little. My doctor recommended this book and I highly recommend it if you suffer from heartburn: Why Stomach Acid Is Good for You: Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux and GERD There are also several ways you can test your stomach acid without going to the doctor. Check out this article.
Because I was not eating meat, my body hadn't been producing as much hydrochloric acid; it had become lazy. At some point my stomach just decided since I wasn't eating complicated meals i.e. meals with different fuel types, why bother making stomach acid or digestive enzymes?
I ate a lot of salads as a raw vegan, nearly every day. Vegetables are very fibrous and that is where many nutrients are stored, but unless you are chewing very thoroughly that cell wall is not broken down enough to extract all the essential nutrients. That is where the green smoothie comes in so beautifully, blending vegetables is useful to break down the cell wall and release those nutrients. I still enjoy a green smoothie sometimes, but it is no longer the staple of my diet and I do not put more than a small amount of fruit in my green smoothie, and usually then only berries. This is a huge change from the almost two years of drinking a green smoothie sweetened with peaches, bananas, pineapples, etc. and I feel much better without all that fruit. I could never be a fruitarian, that is for sure. (Neither could Ashton Kutcher, by the way… Read more about the dangers of too much fruit here) And, yes, I still eat fruit, but in very modest amounts.
My iron levels bottomed out.
Even though I was eating plenty of dark green leafy vegetables daily, my iron levels were so low. If you've ever experienced anemia then you know how truly awful it feels to have low iron. I experienced some symptoms that were truly scary, like loss of concentration, confusion, depression, fatigue, and oddly…cravings for ice. After testing was done, I found out that I had pernicious anemia, a condition where a decrease in red blood cells occurs when the intestines cannot properly absorb vitamin B12. Well, honestly, I wasn't absorbing anything and this was just the tip of the iceberg.
My B12 was non-existent
I actually had no idea what was wrong with me, mainly because eating a raw vegan lifestyle is promoted as the healthiest possible way you could live. What I knew was that I could barely muster enough energy and strength to go from one room to the other. After the visit with my holistic physician (and believe it or not, he pushed the Hallelujah Acres Diet which also caused a problem because drinking copious amounts of carrot juice is also not a great idea) when I was diagnosed with Pernicious Anemia, I began receiving vitamin B shots. I began to feel somewhat better and continued on my raw vegan lifestyle.
Now, I've read lots and lots of articles by Vegans and Vegetarians who really get offended when anyone suggests that a Vegan lifestyle will deplete your body of B12. I understand that many Vegans feel this is a complete myth. I've read articles stating that the authors have come up with several examples of famous people who have practiced Veganism for decades with no ill effects. That's great, however that is the exception, not the norm. Many vegetarians and vegans supplement with B12.
The symptoms of B12 deficiency are simply horrible. I went through it and I've had friends who also walked through this learning journey from following the exact same lifestyle. Without B-12 you eventually start to feel like you are dying, for real.
I suffered from muscle wasting.
No matter how much I tried to keep up with exercise, I was losing my muscle tone, quickly. I went from feeling like a strong, solid, well built woman to a more slender but squishy woman. I would not say that I was ever “skinny” because I ate plenty of nuts and avocadoes to keep up my healthy fats, but I was not toned. Are there toned vegans? Sure. Was I one of them? No. Looking at pictures of my husband and children at that time I realize they were very thin. Comparatively speaking, they all have fast metabolisms and most of them are still thin even while eating bread, meat and dairy. However, I feel like they were too thin while eating raw vegan.
Also, I was always cold. Probably due to my failing thyroid function. I still struggle with thyroid problems to this day!
Other Red Flags
Fellow raw vegan friends noted having detox symptoms that just would not end. In my opinion, they weren't detoxing… they were starving their body of nutrients. Some started having tooth decay and tooth loss and their babies born with rotten teeth. Even my own teeth started to turn a pale shade of grey during my pregnancy. Following a raw vegan diet is not safe for pregnant women and I had an entire pregnancy as a raw vegan.
Thankfully, I was able to deliver my baby before the worst of my deficiencies started to create problems. He weighed a whopping 12 pounds when he was born (at home), I've always said it was the “Popeye Syndrome” from drinking all those spinach smoothies, but perhaps it was more like a blood sugar imbalance. I was tested for gestational diabetes as are all pregnant women in the US and I passed, however, I suffered from hypoglycemia and both indicate a blood sugar imbalance. Women with gestational diabetes are at risk of having large babies. This was one theory as to why my son was so big. I can't verify that though, because none of my babies weighed less than 8 pounds and four of my six babies weighed over 9 pounds. Try giving birth to a toddler…
Later, when I was “schooled” by the Trim Healthy Mama sisters, who, spying my green smoothies in a jar, kindly explained to me how dangerous it was for my body to eat an excessive amount of fruit. Looking back at photos of myself at that time, I can easily see how my blood sugar must have been so out of balance, my face was so puffy, I was retaining water. I was diagnosed as hypoglycemic, but I felt terrible all the time. If you have read Serene's testimony, you will know that she traveled this same journey from Raw Veganism. I began to see that what I was experiencing was NOT normal.
The red flags really continued to pop up for me when I read that one of my favorite raw food pioneers had invented a jaw exerciser because she was drinking so many green smoothies that she was not chewing enough to keep her jaw muscles active! Honestly, when I read that I just felt a little sick inside. I knew that drinking a green smoothie could be a healthy thing OR it could be a legalistic thing. Creating an exercise tool for your mouth because you are not eating enough foods that need to be chewed is not normal. Sorry!
Some people manage to stay on this diet for years without recognizing the problems but that doesn't mean they don't have them. Often symptoms mimic detox symptoms and many people have problems or issues and they just tough it out. Sometimes it gets too extreme to carry on with the lifestyle. Other people are not able to continue eating this way for more than half a year because of how quickly it tears down their body.
Some foods are better for you when they are cooked. For example, you may not know that broccoli eaten raw has a substance which is can reduce the function of the thyroid? “Many vegetables in the cruciferous family such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard greens and brussel sprouts contain what are known as goitrogens. Goitrogens are naturally occurring compounds in some foods that may block thyroid function and can eventually lead to goiter and hypothyroidism. For people with an already weakened thyroid function, or for those who have a propensity to thyroid disorders, goitrogens can worsen the ability of your thyroid to produce important hormones. Goitrogens can be deactivated by heat. So, cooking your vegetables can deactivate a good amount of goitrogens.” (1)
Did you know that tomatoes have five times MORE lycopene after being cooked? Now, I love a slice of raw tomato fresh out of the garden, but I'm not gonna deny that I also love marinara sauce, spaghetti sauce and pizza sauce. Other foods that fall into this category are spinach, kale, carrots and mushrooms.
One place many vegans get protein from is nuts. While I believe nuts are very healthy consumed in modest quanties, making an entire dish out of various nuts is excessive and not healthy. While we're on the subject of nuts… a taco who's “meat” filling and shell are both made of nuts should not actually be called tacos. That's just wrong.
“No other animal cooks their food” was one thing I heard and may have even repeated myself. “One can just as well say that no other animal combines their kale and clover with tropical bananas in a high-speed blender to make the foods more palatable and digestible. Or, that no other animal plays chess. Judging what is natural is a slippery slope.” (2)
I'm sure that this is one phase of my life that my relatives can look back on and laugh at me over. I've learned so much in the years since then. Some of the things I learned during my raw vegan days are still with me and completely useful. Like using a stool for your stool.
I see the raw vegan lifestyle gaining popularity and hear young people boasting about spending an extended amounts of time living on only bananas and I cringe. I am not saying don't eat bananas. I'm not saying don't eat raw foods. I still eat a good deal of raw veggies, but I balance it out with some pastured eggs and some nice grass fed steak with organic butter on top. I still end up doing things “all or nothing” style because moderation is not my strong point. I tend to be a purist where foods and my body are concerned.
However, if you simply insist on following the Vegetarian or Raw Vegan lifestyle, be aware of the risks and have your nutrient levels checked before you have problems. Certainly, this post was not meant as an affront to those who choose follow the raw vegan lifestyle, rather as a warning to proceed with caution. Being the person who had a ready answer for the question, “but where do you get your protein?” I can honestly say, I've been there, I've done that. My personal opinion is that a healthier way to incorporate the raw food approach would be to at minimum include raw dairy, fermented vegetables, fish and eggs. I prefer to include quality meats in moderation, sprouted and sourdough breads, in addition to lightly steamed vegetables and properly prepared beans and grains.
I like to think of my journey as a learning experience. Sometimes life lessons are painful. “The real winners in life are the people who look at every situation with an expectation that they can make it work or make it better.” ~ Barbara Pletcher