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Vegan Troubleshooting Reflections: Why Vegan Diet May Be Riskier Than It Seems, and Why, To My Own Surprise, I No Longer Follow It

by Jon Sasmor

Last Updated December 9, 2018

Family and friends have been asking me why my views on vegan diet have changed recently and why I've begun eating some meat. This article aims to share my thinking.

Could Paleo Vegan Work?

In early 2017, I went for a walk with Dr. Mark Lorenzato. Mark is an emergency room physician, an advocate of paleo diet, and also a researcher of immunity, vitamin A, and vitamin D. He has a lot of enthusiasm for his field, patience to give good explanations, and compassion and kindness that sticks with you after talking with him.

Mark told me what he thought were some important nutrients missing from vegan diets: vitamin K2, DHA, vitamin D3, vitamin B12, as well as short-chain polypeptides, creatine, carnitine, carnosine, taurine, anserine, and betaine.

I asked Mark whether, for idealistic reasons, it would work to follow a Paleo philosophy (natural foods and lifestyle) but with a vegan diet (excluding animal foods and adding supplements). Mark thought it might work at best ok, but not as well as a full paleo diet.

Mark's sincerity caught my attention. I continued at the time on my experiment with 100% vegan diet and trying out supplements to fill in the gaps. But, after talking with Mark, I had begun to wonder whether the experiment would continue in the long-term.

The Journey of Making

No native peoples ate a vegan diet. Many ate a near-vegan, mainly-plant diet, but also ate smaller amounts or occasional feasts of animal foods. In this way, vegan diet is largely untested in the long-term and is a self-hacking experiment for all of us who try it.

Several years of vegan experience and a passion for helping people, animals, and the earth led me on a path to support other vegans. VeganTroubleshooting arose to help make vegan diet work for more people.

Starting in late 2017, I learned some basic HTML coding and server administration and began programming this site myself.

Research and articles have followed about methylation, vitamin B12, and minerals, as well as other topics.

The intellectual journey of learning about underlying biochemistry, as well as my personal observations along the way, led me, to my own surprise, to think about vegan diet somewhat differently than before.

Researching Methylation

[Note: If the technical details in the next few parts are more than you'd like to read, please feel free to skip ahead to the less technical research and to my personal experiences below.]

The Martinov Model of Two Steady States of Liver Methylation: For Plant Food and Animal Food?

As I tried to understand the role of individual nutrients in the critical methylation group of biochemical reactions, I read around 20 journal articles about mathematical models of the methylation cycle.

One particular aspect of those models fascinated me. In the liver, which is the organ where the most methylation occurs, there are two separate forms of an enzyme that converts the amino acid methionine into the methylating agent S-adenosyl methionine ("SAM-e"). The enzyme is called methionine adenosyltransferase ("MAT"). One form of the enzyme, MAT-I, increases in activity when SAM-e level is low; the other form, MAT-III, increases in activity when SAM-e level is high.

Martinov et al proposed a mathematical model with two stable steady states of liver methylation in which SAM-e supply equals SAM-e consumption:

  • In the low-methionine steady state, the MAT-I enzyme makes most of the SAM-e, the methylation reactions regulate the flow of SAM-e to meet the methylation needs, and there is little to no methylation in the glycine to sarcosine overflow pathway.
  • In the high methylation steady state, the MAT-III enzyme makes most of the SAM-e, SAM-e concentration increases by an order of magnitude (10x), methylation of glycine to sarcosine increases in flow to absorb the overabundance of SAM-e, and the levels of the other methylation reactions stay constant. The high methylation steady state permits an increased flow through the transsulfuration pathway to produce increased cysteine and the antioxidant glutathione.

(Martinov 2010; Korendyaseva 2008; Martinov 2000.)

The two steady states make a lot of sense in the context of traditional diets. Methionine levels in the cells correlate with intake of methionine, which is an amino acid component of proteins. (Finkelstein 1990.) There might be 2 modes in the liver for methylation: one for lower, plant-based protein consumption; and one for periodic animal-food feasts.

The low mode would maintain methylation on a regular basis. The high mode would keep methylation stable during feasts and allow the body to catch up on making cysteine, glutathione, and other sulfur-containing products. (Martinov 2000; Finkelstein 1990.)

Thus, when I looked at the Martinov mathematical model of methylation, I saw support for the idea that our bodies are adapted to a plant-based diet with intermittent periods of high-protein animal-food consumption. Perhaps there could be periods of winter and summer, famine and feast, or simply eating meat sometimes and plants only at other times.

The Homeostasis Chair Diagram: Falling Off the Chair

Reed and Nijhout et al have published extensively about their mathematical models of the methylation cycle and the folate cycle. One of their publications has neat 3D graphs showing how variations in activity of two methylation-cycle enzymes affect a third parameter in the methylation cycle. (Nijhout and Reed 2014.)

Those 3D graphs look something like a blanket draped over a ledge or a chair. The values of the surface are quite flat near the center, even as the two variables change. But near the edges, the surface falls off the ledge abruptly. The edge of the chair is where the body no longer is able to adapt to maintain homeostasis.

Something interesting happens when certain stabilizing biochemical interactions are removed from the model. The chair tilts. No longer is the body able to maintain homeostasis as well, even at the center of the chair.

The Nijhout and Reed graphs have direct connection to methylation nutritional supplements. Certain enzymes shown in the graphs are dependent on certain vitamins as cofactors. Methionine synthase (MS) is dependent upon the methyl B12 form of vitamin B12. Methyltetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) is dependent upon active vitamin B2 and upon a certain form of folate. MTHFR produces methyl folate, which enhances methylation, but also, when in excess, deregulates the methylation cycle by deactivating the glycine N-methyltransferase (GNMT) overflow relief pathway.

Those 3D chair diagrams made me wonder about large-dose nutritional supplements. Mega-doses of B12, B2, or methyl folate could change enzyme activity dramatically. Perhaps the change would push the methylation cycle off the chair. The methyl folate supplement affects the regulatory mechanism of methylation, too, so high-dose methyl-folate might tilt the chair and make it less favorable for homeostasis.

In the modern world, we already have many toxins and stresses which threaten to derail the methylation cycle and other aspects of the body's homeostasis. I continue to believe that nutritional supplements are very helpful to make up for deficiencies of nutrients in today's soil and foods. However, those chair diagrams made me wonder if high-dose supplements might be dangerous. They might tilt the chair or even knock the body out of homeostasis. After seeing the chair diagrams, I became wary about the idea that we could eat a diet missing some things we need and make up the rest with supplements.

My Methylation Diagram For Vegans: Abundant Nutritional Disadvantages

I expected my research about methylation to lead to a few simple suggestions for supplements and foods that vegans could take to match the methylation capabilities of omnivores. However, the recommendations turned out to be more complex and extensive.

Figure 1 of the "Vegans and Methylation" article shows in red the methylation-related nutritional substances for which vegans seem to be at a disadvantage. There are 16 distinct substances in red. And methylation is just one (important) group of metabolic chemical reactions; there are many others too.

Figure 1 of the "Vegans and Methylation" article.

Figure 1 of the "Vegans and Methylation" article. The methylation cycle, highlighting in red substances of interest to vegans and vegetarians. Click for larger image. Sources: Kennedy 2016; Mudd 2007; Wanders 2002.

At the end of writing "Vegans and Methylation," I was wondering if Figure 1 might be an illustration of why traditional cultures never selected a wholly vegan diet.

Researching Minerals

Missing Minerals and Mistreated Plants

When researching Vegan Troubleshooting's series about minerals, I learned about today's soils and plants. Minerals are missing from the soil, the food, the water, and in fact the entire food chain. Plants are doused with toxic metals and chemicals too. Plants on industrial farms are nutritionally depleted and raised in cruel conditions, just as animals are.

I began to question whether a vegan diet could be balanced now, given today's nutrient-depleted food supply and today's stressful conditions, regardless of whether a vegan diet might have been sufficient in earlier times.

Nutrients Are Interrelated Gears

My paradigm of thinking about supplementing nutrients changed as I learned about minerals. Instead of seeing nutrients as a checklist of items each with a numerical requirement, I came to see them as a system of interrelated gears that need to remain in balance with each other.

We are deeply altering our bodies' metabolism by taking nutritional supplements and multivitamins. Some interference and support may be very helpful today due to the nutrient depletion of soil and foods and due to abundant toxins and stress. However, doing so in a "random" way with isolated supplements is likely to imbalance the nutrients further relative to each other, even if the supplements help at first.

Multivitamins almost all would be likely to worsen long-term imbalances, and especially so if they contain copper or iron. Multis are assembled based on the "nutrient checklist," often with the most inexpensive forms of nutrients instead of effective forms, often with mega-doses of individual nutrients, and rarely with consideration of the effects of nutrients relative to each other, as monitored by laboratory hair mineral analyses.

The interrelated gears paradigm made me think that a comprehensive nutrient balancing program made a lot more sense than individually seeking out nutrients to address with foods or supplements.

Vegan Mineral Imbalances

It concerned me to read that those studying mineral balancing were warning against vegetarian and especially vegan diets, due to certain mineral imbalances showing up routinely in the hair analyses of vegetarians and vegans.

Dr. Paul Eck's idea of "obligatory vegetarian" also concerned me — that is, one who avoids meat, whether consciously or subconsciously, due to inability to digest it. Based on his experience with many thousands of hair analyses, Dr. Eck believed that certain pre-existing mineral imbalances were both causes and effects of vegetarian diets. Those nutritional imbalances would cause poor digestion and predispose a person to become vegetarian, but the imbalances would worsen in the long-term on a vegetarian diet.

Long-term copper toxicity is one of those mineral imbalances. Copper seems to be a serious problem for vegetarians and vegans.

Minerals and Spiritual Development

My experiences with mineral supplements included spiritual as well as physical and mental benefits.

After these initial experiments, spiritual development based on mineral balance interested me. This was one of the reasons I decided to try Dr. Larry Wilson's nutritional balancing program. The program includes a limited amount of animal foods in the diet, along with the staple food of cooked root and cruciferous vegetables.

Dr. Larry Wilson's Adaptation of Yin and Yang to the Modern World

Many people may not believe in the Taoist and later macrobiotic concept of yin and yang. It's fine to skip this section.

Yin and yang are traditional Taoist concepts of opposite aspects of the energies of things. They have been applied to diet in macrobiotics, which advises eating a diet to balance yin and yang, with staples of brown rice and vegetables.

Dr. Wilson describes yin and yang in detail here. Generally, yin seems to be colder, more outward, chaotic, and expanded; yang seems to be warmer, more inward, centered, and grounded.

Dr. Wilson suggests that the world has become more more yin (chaotic) today with the abundance of toxic metals and chemicals, radiation, electromagnetic fields, medical drugs, and stresses, resulting in many people developing "yin disease," including those who eat more yin diets such as vegetarian and vegan diets.

Dr. Wilson proposes that to counter-balance the modern world, the macrobiotic balanced diet needs to be shifted to include:

  • a bit more of the yang foods (eggs, meat, sardines),
  • much more of the mineral-rich intermediate foods (cooked vegetables),
  • none of the yin foods (fruits, raw vegetables, alcohol and drugs),
  • and none of foods that may be toxic today (rice, wheat, shellfish, fish larger than sardines, sea vegetables, pork).

Dr. Wilson's application of yin and yang suggests a reason why vegan and vegetarian diets may be less effective now in the current, more yin times (mineral depletion, toxic pollution, electromagnetic fields, radiation, medical drugs, and high stress) compared with how the diets might have worked in the past when conditions were more yang.

My Experiences in My Fourth Year as a Vegan

The sections above paint a picture of various changes in my thinking, to my own surprise, during 2017 and 2018. Now let me tell you some more about my own personal experiences and experiments during the same time period.


Worsening Symptoms

Despite wonderful improvements in health during my first three years totally vegan, by the fourth year, I was beginning to get frustrated by some symptoms that were getting worse.

These included feeling too tired, too easily stressed out, too anxious, too intolerant of cold, reactive to many specific foods and chemicals, and not thinking clearly especially after meals.

Weight Gain

Also, I was gaining weight again. In June 2014, I had gained 7 pounds in a month, which made me decide it was time for a change in diet, and led me to embrace whole foods and veganism. Recently, in June 2018, I again gained 7 pounds in a month, this time as a whole-foods gluten-free vegan, and this time eating much less. Also, by 2018, I had gained back 26 of the 49 pounds I had lost after going vegan.

I once again felt that the weight gain signalled a time for new changes.

Hair Analysis Shows Mineral Imbalances

In July 2018, I obtained my first results of hair mineral analysis. The results included patterns common to those who choose or have followed vegetarian and vegan diets, including copper toxicity, slow oxidation rate, burnout, and poor elimination of toxic metals.

I believe my symptoms and patterns probably predated the vegan diet, but they definitely weren't getting better on a very careful vegan diet.


Protein and Digestion

Most vegans are probably sick of the question "So where do you get your protein?" After all, there are a lot of protein-rich plant foods, including legumes, some grains, and, to a degree, nuts, seeds, and some root vegetables.

Some may say that people really need very little protein, and that the protein in fruits and vegetables is enough. Some may say that protein in plants is of a lower or higher quality than protein in animals. Those debates are beyond the scope of this article.

In my opinion, the main vegan protein problem is food intolerances. The plant foods richest in protein are also hard to digest.

Lectins in protein-rich plant foods may trigger Toll-like receptors and overactivate the immune system. (Cohen 2018; da Silva 2014; Unitt 2011.)

I seem to need a few servings a day of protein to feel good. That's why I was trying to eat so many legumes as a vegan.

But I noticed I would feel tired and brain fog after many plant protein foods. I pre-soaked all the legumes for easier digestibility. I stopped eating red kidney beans, pinto beans, pea and hemp protein powders, wheat and eventually rice, all due to negative digestive, cognitive, and energy effects after eating them. Black beans had milder effect so I ate them almost every day for a while, but not really enough for sufficient protein. Lentils were better, and by the end of my time as vegan, I ate lentils almost every day. Quinoa seemed to work ok too, and that too I was eating every day.

But I was beginning to get bored of lentils and quinoa. Those foods made me feel ok but not great.

Though much is said about vegetarians having difficulty with digestion if they go back to eating meat, my experience has been that animal foods so far have been easier to digest than the legumes I was eating before. And animal foods in modest amount also give me the impression of having enough protein.

I believe that digestive problems and food intolerances are extremely common, and that many people have food intolerance symptoms without realizing it.

Frustrating as it is to admit it, for me the answer to the vegan protein question was that after 4 years of trying very hard, I hadn't found a good way to get my body the protein it needed from plant foods alone.

Strong Reactions to Certain Foods

The more I tried to be careful with the plant foods I ate, the more I noticed sensitivity to many different foods. They included inflammarory reactions (brain fog, lethargy, terrible mood) and/or stress reactions (anxiety, panic, fatigue) to many different foods:

  • canola oil and soy oil, which are usually GMO
  • brown rice (usually high in arsenic the last few years), and, to a lesser extent, white rice too
  • reverse osmosis "purified water"
  • 2 specific brands of spring water
  • high-histamine / high-glutamate foods including peas, mushrooms, tomatoes, vegetable stock, soy sauce, as well as any leftovers over a day old
  • pressure-cooked vegetables of any type
  • any form of MSG (headaches)
  • most grains and legumes (see the section above).

Many of my issues with specific foods could have been pre-existing, but the limited choices on a vegan diet led me to need a lot more of those foods. The vegan diet didn't seem to be allowing my body to digest well and to detoxify difficult foods.

Warning Friends About Vegetarian Diets Instead of Encouraging Them

This past summer, after I eliminated fruits almost entirely and began eating 10 cups a day of cooked root and cruciferous vegetables, the vegan diet seemed to be going better. I ate some lentils and quite a bit of quinoa, as well as some almond butter and tahini. Still, I felt I had mostly exhausted the available foods, and the vegan diet was getting quite precarious.

Some friends told me they had been eating less meat lately. I found myself worried about them. Even while I myself was still eating vegan, I found myself suggesting to others that they try eating a little more meat to see if they need it. This was the time I began to wonder if continuing vegan diet was in fact a bad example, for I had begun to believe that vegan diet might be far more dangerous than I had realized.


My Supplement Stack

During my time as vegan, I experimented with over 100 different nutritional supplements. I was very sensitive to many of them, and would notice fantastic benefits or strange side effects within minutes to hours. Many people tell me that they can't tell the effect when taking supplements, but my personal experience has been quite different.

I considered the experiments with supplements to be not only a part of making vegan lifestyle successful for me, but also part of a larger work to make vegan work for everyone who wanted it.

The supplements were effective in many ways. My methylation symptoms got better, despite the methylation disadvantages of vegan diet. Mineral supplements gave me cognitive, physical, and spiritual benefits too.

Whether vegan diet might have worked better for me with more, fewer, or different supplements is beyond what I can know. Many people probably will tell me I should have done various things differently with food, supplements, or other aspects, and quite likely they have good ideas.

Here are the supplements I was taking in my fourth year as vegan:

  • Vitamin B12 as both Methylcobalamin and Adenosylcobalamin, either as Enzymatic Therapy B12 Infusion and Anabol Naturals Dibencoplex sublinguals or as B12 Oils Adenosyl/Methyl transdermal B12 oil
  • Creatine, 0.6 g daily, ON brand creatine powder
  • Potassium ~533 mg K daily from NOW brand potassium gluconate powder
  • Magnesium ~150 mg Mg daily from Bulk Supplements brand magnesium gluconate powder
  • Boron, 3 mg daily, NOW brand as calcium borogluconate
  • Selenium, 100 mcg daily, from Healthy Origins brand SelenoExcell
  • Iodine, 2.5 mg daily, 1 drop 2% J Crow's Lugol solution
  • Mega-Mag Concentrace trace mineral supplement, 5 drops per day
  • Multi, Methyl Life brand Non-Methyl Multi, 1 capsule (1/2 recommended daily dosage), every other day
  • Cod Liver Oil (I know, not vegan), Rosita brand, 1/4 tsp a day
  • Zinc Lozenges, Life Extension brand "Enhanced Zinc Lozenges," on two occasions took 8 lozenges (150 mg zinc) a day for 4 days, starting immediately at onset of symptoms of a cold virus - which successfully cured the cold in 1 day each time (see Eby 2015); thereafter took occasionally, a few 18.75 mg zinc lozenges per week

The Supplement Graveyard

As I tried more and more nutritional supplements, the collection grew of unhelpful supplements, supplements that had helped at first but not anymore, and those that I took in such tiny doses that I barely ever used any.

I can't remember where I first found the term "supplement graveyard" online, but I know I immediately thought of the boxes of supplements in my bedroom and additional boxes that had previously been put in storage and then discarded.

By the end of the time as vegan, I was beginning to get frustrated with the supplement experiments. There were good reasons to try many individual supplements, and they helped in some ways. But I became hyper-sensitive to them, and more and more of them seemed to be triggering panic and anxiety too, without improving the worsening symptoms discussed above.

When I looked into my closet at the supplement graveyard, I began to doubt that supplement experiments could fill in all the gaps in the experimental vegan diet with no known history among native peoples.

Creatine Supplement as a Stimulant?

The most puzzling supplement for me was creatine.

Creatine produced remarkable effects!

  • much more energy,
  • improved athletic performance,
  • stopped between-meal hypoglycemia crashes,
  • allowed me to try intermittent fasting of skipping a meal a day,
  • increased sex drive,
  • improved stress response,
  • higher body temperature,
  • vivid dreams,
  • positive outlook,
  • and general sense of well being.

If I stopped the creatine for a day or lowered the dose, I had a terrible day or few days! The effects above would reverse, and worse.

The catch was, that within a few weeks, if I kept taking creatine, the above effects would moderate, and panic and anxiety and stress response would worsen.

I tried all sorts of dosing variations, including a large loading dose, trickle dosing throughout the day, more, less, more often, less often. None of them could be sustained well.

Looking back, I believe that the creatine acted as a sort of a stimulant. Though creatine is a natural substance and our bodies make it and rely on it, adding it as a supplement worked more like a stimulant. Creatine is a rapid energy transfer molecule and probably could work wonders for a variety of low-energy symptoms in the short term. However, after a while, it drives the energy metabolism in an unbalanced way and can't keep up. Creatine doesn't fix underlying impairments in energy metabolism. It patches over them temporarily. (Hypothesis: mega-doses of vitamin B12 and other methylation supplements may act as pseudo-stimulants too.)

Dr. Wilson's application of yin and yang fits with my experience of creatine supplements. Isolated supplements, in general, make the body more yin (chaotic / outward / expanded). That's why Dr. Wilson recommends only a small number of carefully balanced supplements in his nutritional balancing program.

For me, creatine was so critical and effective, yet simultaneously so trouble-making and elusive. It fixed a lot of things, but only temporarily and not at the underlying causes. Creatine was like a mirage.

Creatine made me think that the experiments with isolated supplements weren't working.

Conclusions: Vegan Diet Too Risky

Reflecting back on my own experiences, and on what I've learned about methylation and minerals, I now believe vegan diet is much more dangerous than I had thought. It is an unproven experiment deviating from our historic role in the food web and from the established ways of traditional cultures.

I'm not saying we should eat huge amounts of meat, but I think that having none, one is taking a risk.

There is an irony I can see looking back at my time as a vegan. When I started, my primary reason for vegan diet was to reduce my carbon footprint. Unnatural environmental pollution was reaching an unprecedented level in the history of humanity. Ironically, one of the things I did in my personal life in response was to adopt a diet which also was unnatural in the history of humanity.

I definitely do care about how animals are treated. And plants too. In fact, since starting to eat meat again, I've had more conversations about animal cruelty than I did before as a vegan. Also, now I face the choice about which meat to buy.

It may offend some for me to say so, but I feel more connected with nature since eating some meat. It feels like I'm accepting myself as a being in the food chain.

There was a lot of "victim mentality" underneath my point of view about vegan diet. The animals are victims of poor treatment, the earth is victim of the humans, the humans are victims of the corporations, future generations are victims of our current generation, I'm a victim of being alive at a time when we're doing horrible things, and so on. I don't think the victim mentality was helpful or healthful, and for me now is a time to have more faith and move forward.

The world does have a lot of challenges. We need to be healthy and strong and independent-minded to face them. I don't think that becoming polarized and hateful and angry, and quite possibly, quite unhealthy in subtle ways, will contribute to the world moving ahead. There are unknown forces that will guide us into the future.

There are quite a lot of challenges I've passed through in my life and quite a lot of wonderful things have happened. Vegan diet gave me some good experiences and some bad ones.

After a lot of research and reflection, my views about vegan diet have changed, to my own surprise. Vegan diet poses serious long-term risks that I'd rather not take anymore.