By Neva Davis at Neva Vegan – The first time I considered becoming vegan my doctor talked me out of it. I was a young vegetarian and at constant war with my mother over it. I was not getting enough calories in general since my mother “wouldn’t prepare any special meals” and sabotaged things like vegetables and rice and potatoes by adding broth or bacon. I was considering transitioning into veganism, without a real understanding of what that meant.
My mother marched me off to the doctor so he would tell me I couldn’t be vegetarian. Instead he told me it was perfectly healthy to be vegetarian, but because of my special health considerations I would have to eat an egg and some dairy every single day. I completely believed him.
I’m actually allergic to milk and eggs, but because my allergy isn’t life-threatening (just itchy and annoying) he encouraged me to consume them anyway, but that’s another story for another time. I’ve been vegan now for more than 13 years and it hasn’t killed me yet!
A lot of times my vegetarian friends will tell me that their doctors have told them they can’t be vegan. Some have even quit being vegetarian because their doctors have told them that their specific health conditions require them to eat meat.
I think I’ve heard them all at this point. “The doctor says people with rheumatoid arthritis need red meat every day.” “My doctor said it isn’t safe for women with fibroids to be vegetarian.” “Because I have lupus all the experts agree I can never be vegan.” And so on. I’m waiting for “The doctor said that because I have big feet I need to eat eggs.”
I don’t mean to make light of chronic health conditions. Obviously that’s a lot to deal with, and I can’t blame people for being frightened and depending on the advice of experts. The problem is that even if those doctors are experts on arthritis or auto-immune disorders, most aren’t experts on nutrition. They might not even understand veganism. They might picture you subsisting on a diet of white rice and iceberg lettuce. There are actually ways to get the nutrients you need on a vegan diet, the trick is figuring out what you need, and what foods work best for you.
In my case I was born with a minor heart defect that at times during my life has appeared to doctors to be better or to be worse. At one point they felt it was quite severe. Most experts agree that my type of heart defect, mitral valve prolapse, can cause changes in the nervous system as the body attempts to deal with the less efficient workings of the heart. This creates a kind of syndrome. For me I have a tendency to develop anemia, I have fatigue, and some other weird symptoms. My doctor felt that I would not get the iron or other nutrients I needed on a vegan diet and this might worsen the heart problems. Worsening the heart problems could lead to sudden cardiac arrest. Better not take any chances, he told me.
I admit that when I finally did throw caution to the wind and become vegan, I was not the most careful vegan. I didn’t really take my vitamins, I ate the same foods day after day. The truth was that I was sick of listening to doctors. I was sick of heart sonograms and various restrictions. I was sick of doctors making that “oooh” noise when they listened to the clicking sound my heart made, but never offering me any real guidance of how to live with it. When I began having chest pains in junior high school during gym class the doctor diagnosed a worsening of my prolapse and a note was sent to school that I shouldn’t run, since putting too much pressure on my heart might have disastrous results. I hated feeling singled out in that way as much as I hated the chest pains. As a new vegan I went running whenever I felt like it. I loved to run. I loved my vegan food. I felt ok because I didn’t suddenly get worse as a vegan. But I also wanted to do what was right for the animals no matter what. I wish someone had been able to reassure me then, during that uncertain time.
But there was another reason I decided to just go ahead and become vegan and just go ahead and run. Both of my cousins who I’d grown up with (I have another much younger cousin, different story) died as a result of their minor heart defects. They didn’t run. They weren’t vegetarian, much less vegan. They’d gone to the doctor. Then one day Patti fell over dead. A couple years later, at a convention for her work, right in the lobby of a fancy hotel, Chrissy fell onto the floor and was dead before anyone could even dial 911. This is what I’d always been warned about, sudden heart failure. Now, seeing both of my cousins felled by it, I couldn’t help but think it was somehow unavoidable. Why not just live my conscience and celebrate the time I had? So I did.
Every now and then over the next few years a little nagging voice would pop up in my head and remind me that it’s foolish to disregard doctors’ advice. So I didn’t go to the doctor. Nah nah, nah nah, I can’t hear you!
Fast forward many years later. I started having some health issues, related actually to years of ignoring my asthma, so off I went to the doctor. After going through everything else and getting a new inhaler, I asked about the heart thing. The doctor observed that she couldn’t even hear it (my murmur used to be so audible that doctors got panicky, hence the sonograms), my heart seemed to be doing fine. At every check since then they’ve sort of marveled “I can barely hear it now.” I know that just not hearing the little click doesn’t mean it’s gone, but I do know the doctors worry more when it’s more pronounced.
I’m now older than either one of my cousins were when they died.
I try to take my iron now. I try to eat sensibly and eat enough (ok, I like some foods that really aren’t sensible and I eat a little too much). I try to exercise and take care of myself. I know that this thing might come back and cause me problems some day, but I find a certain comfort in knowing all those dire predictions didn’t come true for me and they probably won’t come true for others.
So how do we know what we should be eating if our doctors don’t know?
Some general guidelines I use, though mileage might vary are:
1. If your doctor is saying that your medical condition requires a certain nutrient that a vegan diet won’t provide, do a little research on your own. A vegan diet really can provide enough protein, enough iron, and many other nutrients. If you need extra B12, try fortified soymilk or supplements.
2. Go to forums and discuss diet with other people with your condition. Some of them will be as uninformed as your doctor, but you might find some that are vegan themselves who can give you tips. Or go on a vegan forum and ask if anyone else has the same condition and wants to form a support group. After meeting a lot of vegans I’ve found that for every friend who told me his or her medical condition made it impossible to be vegan, I seem to have met a vegan who had the same condition and swore that symptoms improved after becoming vegan.
3. Concentrate on being healthy overall, which means exercise, and not just being vegan, but eating healthy foods and avoiding junk food. Try to stay away from transfats for example. Being as healthy as possible will help your body deal with other health conditions. Oh, and keep hydrated–my chest pains might have been the result of dehydration rather than physical exertion. It's strange how we forget that one.
4. Look at the effect of stress. Many chronic health problems are exacerbated by stress. We can’t eliminate all stress from our lives, but we can try to find ways to lessen it and handle it a little better.
5. Keep expectations realistic. Many people with chronic health conditions do feel better on vegan diets. However, it’s not an instant cure for everything. It’s hard to judge how you would feel at any given time if you weren’t vegan. You might have good days and bad days which seem completely unconnected to your diet. I’m not promising being vegan will cure everything. I’m just saying that if you want to live your ethics but are worried about your health, it will be ok. Lot's of us are navigating it too and we're all ok. I think sometimes when people expect that going vegan will immediately cure a chronic condition they get frustrated and give up too soon. I can’t say I felt better the day I became vegan, or even in that first year. I do however believe that all things considered I’m far healthier today than I would have been if I’d never gone vegan.
6. Eat a wide variety of foods. You might think that veganism is a very limited diet, but I eat more varied foods now than I ever did as an omnivore or even as an ovo-lacto vegetarian. It’s not uncommon for someone (cough, cough, my father) to fall into a pattern of eating a piece of dead cow, a side of rice, and a side of broccoli every single night. As a vegan I found and enjoyed a wider variety of fruits and vegetables than I ever knew existed. I’ve also learned about how different substances in these fruits and vegetables help my body and how they aren’t easy to duplicate in supplements.
7. Find a doctor that understands and supports your decision to be vegan. It might take a bunch of phone calls, but it’s really worth it. When I found a supportive doctor (he isn’t vegan himself sadly, but he also thinks it’s ok that I am) he made some suggestions for me like trying to get some flax seed oil into my diet, and herbs that ease inflammation. If your conversation with your doctor just shuts down because he/she doesn’t think you should be vegan then that’s going to rule out a lot of open and important discussion. Seriously, you’re paying for your medical care, so try to find someone who can help you get the support and information you need.