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10 Things I Learned Going Vegan for a Week

Plant based diet

Ok, I know what you’re thinking.

In fact, I can see your eyes rolling from here.

Here we go again with another “going vegan changed my life” post.

Just what the internet needs.

And I am sympathetic, believe me.

The Vegan camp was the last nutritional outpost I had yet to visit.

And to be fair, although I did notice benefits, it didn’t exactly change my life.

Why hadn’t I tried it sooner?

I’d simply listened to too many episodes of BulletProof Radio, read too much on the benefits of ketosis, and heard too many stories of the long term difficulty of maintaining a vegan diet to even try going vegan for a whole day, let alone a week or a month. My ex-girlfriend told me horror stories about her hair starting to fall out after a couple of strict Vegan years. Mark Sisson’s anti-grain tirades were too compelling.

Furthermore, my assigned Gene Food diet type is California Coastal, a low glycemic, high omega-3 diet.

I couldn’t do Vegan.

Or could I?

The Vegans know some things

I began to ponder the issue after watching the “What the Health” documentary – which is basically a Vegan propaganda film. The newest Vegan film, called The Game Changers, got my attention as well.

My thought process goes a little something like this.

I like vegan meals, and always have.

Cafe Gratitude is a favorite of mine. I’ve heard very smart longevity doctors, like Peter Attia, talk about how we should only eat as much protein as our bodies need to maintain muscle mass. Even the most hardened Paleo guys and girls will concede that a Vegan diet can be a great short term detox. Add to that the very real dangers of our industrial meat torture chambers and I decided to give the vegan diet a try for one week.

See also: Can Vegans get enough Vitamin A?

Lesson #1 – Going Vegan Can Feel Amazing

I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt amazing during my week as a Vegan.

As I ate my plant based lunch at Casa de Luz in Austin, I sat and thought “wow, so this is why people get hooked on the vegan lifestyle, because they feel like fucking rockstars.”

Yup, I am one of those people. I am now that guy saying how great I feel as a Vegan (after one week).

I stopped eating meat (and animal products) and my body thanked me, loudly.

So, what were the primary benefits?

Lesson #2 – A plant based Vegan diet increased my mental clarity

If you regularly visit the blog, you’ve heard me talk about recent battles with a lack of focus / anxiety here in Austin in the spring. I seem to be having issues with histamine intolerance when the grass season is at its peak . This comes as no surprise as my allergy labs came back showing major allergies to central Texas grass species, such as Timothy grass.

See also: do Pollen allergies cause anxiety?

Going Vegan has restored my focus and given me a feeling of serenity. I feel noticeably calmer. The sense of calm grew with each additional day of my Vegan week.

Lesson #3 – I don’t need animal protein everyday for energy

My previous bias was that I needed animal protein for energy. However, a week as a Vegan week gave me a noticeable lift in energy and mood. I’ve written previously about how supplementing with L-theanine made me really nice to the people at Hertz-Rent-A-Car. Well, a purely plant based diet made me feel like that all the time. I avoided energy crashes, and generally felt a more consistent and stable motor propelling me throughout the day.

Lesson #4 – A Vegan diet can boost sex drive

I’d say I have a normal sex drive, but a week of going Vegan strangely, but noticeably, increased my sex drive. I say strangely, because of the critical role that animal protein and fat play in making testosterone. 1 2

Note: I offer these references but understand this is a hotly debated topic. For an opposing view, see: Vegan Men, More Testosterone, But Less Cancer, which seems to be somewhat supported by this Japanese study.

It’s also worth noting that this British journalist noted an increase in sex drive after trying a Vegan diet for 60 days. It’s also worth noting that her iron and B12 levels dropped significantly after 60 days on the diet.

Lesson #5 – I was eating too much meat

Despite the fact that he calls sites like ours “nutritionism,” or something like that, because we discuss the mechanism of action of abstract nutrients and enzymes in connection with food, I like Michael Pollen. I think he does good work. In an attempt to simplify the confusing world of food for the masses, he has given us this simple eating ethic:

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants. 

He’s probably right.

My Vegan experiment made me realize that I don’t need nearly as much animal protein as I’ve been eating. After a week of eating Vegan I feel lean, but more muscular.

I am undeniably happier.

A note on the Urea cycle

The Urea cycle is the process our bodies use to break down protein into ammonia and eventually urea, which is excreted through the kidney and urine. The enzymes that break down the nitrogen molecules in protein are driven by genetics, with some Urea cycle SNPs being associated with lower enzyme activity. My genetic chart has offered clues that I may not be able to effectively process as much animal protein as others can. I have had my serum ammonia levels tested on a couple occasions, and while they were in range, they were on the high side. Despite my urea cycle research, my thought was a gut bacteria imbalance, but I am starting to think the issue could be driven in part by my urea cycle genes and excessive protein intake.

For a complete rundown on that that topic, see: Can you handle a high protein diet? The answer may be genetic.

As a result of trying a Vegan lifestyle, I will now be a 5 day a week Vegan, with a number of 100% plant based days mixed in with my protein days. This will give my body the rest it seems to need to cycle out the protein I eat.

Lesson #6 – Glucose isn’t always the enemy

It’s easy to hyper-focus on glucose, and the insulin response, as the body’s main driver of inflammation, and that’s where the Keto and Paleo camps seem to stay (don’t necessarily blame them). However, what is mentioned a lot less is the fact that consuming animal protein drives up insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which is a marker associated with cancer. 3 4

Note: while there is an association between IGF-1 and eating animal protein, there is some nuance to the data I link to as references above. For example, the first study I cite found a major correlation between protein intake and disease:

Respondents (n=6,381) aged 50–65 reporting high protein intake had a 75% increase in overall mortality and a 4-fold increase in cancer and diabetes mortality during an 18 year follow up period.

But the same study found that higher protein intake after age 65 was actually healthy:

Conversely, in respondents over age 65, high protein intake was associated with reduced cancer and overall mortality.

A similar result was found in the Danish study, which showed drinking milk increased IGF-1 in healthy children by 30%, but was also responsible for their growth to a tall height. Overall though, I think it’s fair to say that in healthy young and middle age adults, watching IGF-1 is a smart decision.

I had read so much from the Paleo community about the dangers of grains that I took my eye off the ball as far as the inflammatory aspects of meat are concerned. Furthermore, the bioaccumulation arguments that cause many to avoid large fish like swordfish for fear of mercury, also unfortunately apply to land animals.

For example, dioxin toxicity in beef is a real issue people need to be aware of. 5 Similarly, arsenic levels in poultry are now at scary levels, especially in conventionally raised chicken. 6

Lesson #7 – My yoga practice improved

Transitioning to a less scientific topic, I did notice a marked improvement in flexibility and stamina during my yoga sessions on a Vegan diet.

Lesson #8 – Our food system is in serious trouble

It’s hard to argue with the ethics of Veganism, especially as applied to our industrial food system. In 2017, we look back on the practice of slavery as the barbaric atrocity it was, but we do so with the benefit of hindsight. What will people looking back on 2017 find barbaric about our modern society?

I’m guessing Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, won’t be looked on fondly by future generations.

CAFOs mistreat animals, are responsible for more air pollution than the auto industry, and threaten the health of people the world over with rampant unnecessary use of antibiotics, yet they go largely unchallenged.

When people think global warming, they think LA traffic smog, not cows being force fed grains. But that is all changing as documentaries like What the Health shine a spotlight on the horrific realities of life for the animals we eat. I have yet to conclude that all meat production is unethical all of the time, but it’s clear that the industrial system that raises scared, unhealthy animals is wrong and is contributing in a real way to the sickness of this planet.

While these issues were on my radar prior to experimenting with a Vegan diet, eating nothing but plants for a week, and feeling amazing doing it, reinforced for me that the system is very far removed from the needs of the people it is supposed to serve.

Lesson #9 – Meat hunger is like sugar hunger

The more you eat sugar, the more you want it. There is good evidence that sugar is addictive like a drug. 7

I found the same to be true with meat.

When I’m in the habit of eating meat, I add it to my diet out of habit. Once I had a few days of Vegan living under my belt, I no longer wanted meat, especially chicken, which is usually a staple of my diet because it’s easy and marketed as relatively healthy.

Lesson #10 – I am not a full time Vegan

I still plan to eat eggs every so often, low mercury fish, the very occasional serving of goat or sheep dairy, and yes, some grass fed beef every few weeks. I will have sustainably raised turkey at Thanksgiving, a roast chicken here and there and may put some butter or ghee on my vegetables.

I won’t be a full time Vegan, mainly because I don’t think it’s healthy over the long, long term.

Having said that, I eat a majority plant based diet even within the confines of my Gene Food diet type. When I eat Vegan for stretches, I find myself relying more on grains, especially when eating out, then I ideally want to. Much easier to eat a piece of fish every so often than have to turn to a grain bowl. I also slipped and ate gluten once as a test, and regretted it. I’ve already blogged about how I proved gluten sensitivity with lab work.

Closing thoughts – the Vegan trap

If you’re considering going Vegan, or have already, it’s important to point out that most of the hard core Vegan advocates have only been Vegan for a short time. The concern I have with Veganism is the slow accumulation of nutrient deficiency over a period of years. For some, this will be omega-3 fatty acids, for others iron, still others may have issues with Vitamin A, or Vitamin D.

B12 is of obvious concern.

But be aware, it can take years for a B12 deficiency to show symptoms, so just because you feel great, as I did, on a one week Vegan experiment, it’s also important to realize that your body’s needs will change with time.

Vegan diets don’t work for all people, and it’s usually not until a few years on the diet that the problems start to develop.

So, be cautious, listen to your body, and stay healthy out there friends.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

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