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A few weeks ago I was at home alone, scrolling through movies on Netflix. I’d been hearing all about the latest health-related documentary What the Health, so when I came across it, I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about.

In case you don’t know, the movie’s premise centers around the reasons why a vegan diet is good for you, and why eating meat is considered to be downright dangerous.

Needless to say, by the time I was 10 minutes in, I was screaming at the TV. And not in a good way!

Before you pounce on me (if you’re a vegan or vegetarian), please know that I have nothing against a vegan diet. There are many reasons to choose vegan, and I respect them. In fact, I’ve been vegetarian and vegan in the past, and so have tons of my clients, which is why I take issue with this movie.

What is up with the documentary “What the Health”?!?!

This documentary is FULL of misinformation and hype. There is so much fear-mongering, propaganda, and bad science, I honestly didn’t know where to begin when I first started writing this post.

Kip Anderson, who also brought us “Cowspiracy,” appears to spend a disproportionate amount of time calling the 800 numbers for various health organizations, and talking to some poor customer service rep who can’t and shouldn’t have to answer his pointed questions. When they obviously can’t answer his questions, he declares to the camera, “yet another organization that can’t answer my questions about the dangers of meat.”

Yeah, no kidding dude.

There is only one interview with an official spokesperson on camera. Kip shows up for the interview in casual clothes and a baseball hat, and immediately/aggressively makes it clear that he has an agenda.

He also makes a number of “factual” statements about the dangers of meat and other animal products, without anything to back them up.

He interviews a number of experts who appear very credible – several are physicians, including Dr. Neal Barnard, Dr. Michael Klaper, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. But all of these experts are vegan advocates, which hardly creates a balanced approach in the film.

For instance, at that 10-minute mark that I mentioned, Dr. Neal Barnard declares with exasperation that “diabetes is not caused by eating a high carbohydrate diet, and it’s not caused by sugar”.

What??? And this is where I began shouting at the TV.

There is literally no research showing that this statement, and many of the others made in the movie are factual, or that the experts’ opinions are in line with what has been shown in more recent studies. These people are just citing outdated science – and that is dangerous!

The misinformation about animal products

So let’s clear up some misinformation about the dangers of eating meat, eggs, and other animal products. Then we’ll get into how a vegan diet can affect your period and hormones.

Red meat first gained a reputation for causing heart disease after the Framingham Heart Study in the 1970s. At that time, cholesterol was singled out as a significant cause of heart disease and stroke.

Cholesterol is only in animal products, so meat, eggs, and dairy were quickly labeled as unhealthy. The recommended diet became low fat, moderate protein, high carbohydrate, with an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

And that’s where the trouble began – because the Framingham Heart Study pointed out the wrong problem, as it turned out. They identified a connection between cholesterol and heart disease. Further studies laid the blame for cholesterol problems squarely on the only foods that contained cholesterol. The conclusion was that cholesterol caused the blood vessels of the heart and to the brain, to narrow with plaque.

It was a simple equation, that failed to take into account the extraordinary complexity of the human body.

Then that finding changed – cholesterol didn’t cause high cholesterol in the body. Saturated fat did. Meaning that not only meat, eggs, and dairy were bad, but coconut was bad too. Oh, those evil coconuts!

Over time, it was found that the cause of heart disease was NOT cholesterol. It turned out that inflammation was what caused thickening in the vessels of the heart and to the brain. And what caused inflammation was, among other things, a high carbohydrate diet.

So avoiding animal products is not necessary for good heart health. And those facts that are quoted in the movie are no longer true.

Conventional vs organic/grass-fed meat and inflammation

The way that animals are raised has a MASSIVE impact on their health. The meat that we ate a century ago is not the same as the meat we are eating today. For the most part, in conventional farming, the animals are kept in very tight quarters, fed poor quality genetically modified grain, and given a vast assortment of medications including growth hormones and antibiotics.

This produces extremely poor quality meat with high levels of Omega-6 fatty acids, which increases inflammation in the human body, and causes painful periods amongst other problems.

It’s imperative that if we’re going to have meat in our diets, it come from the very best organic, grass-fed, hormone free sources. Otherwise the health AND environmental risks will far outweigh the benefits we hope to get from these animal proteins.

Most of the research that has been done on animal products does not take into account how the animals were raised. On the few occasions when grassfed meat and dairy were singled out, they showed improvements in health. [1]

How vegan diets can affect your hormones

As I mentioned earlier, I was vegetarian and then vegan for a short time in my 20’s – the good old days of extreme experimentation! Within three months, my period had gone from five days down to three days, my hair started falling out, and I developed horrible melasma (all of which I’d experienced when I was on the pill).

It literally took me years to reverse these issues even though it only took a few months to cause them.

I often hear some version of this story from women who come to me. Many times it’s much worse. They not only lose their hair, but they stop ovulating and lose their periods completely. Their blood sugar becomes dysregulated because they have too many carbs and not enough protein and fat in their diets. Their thyroids go haywire, and their moods plummet.

I’m not saying this is the case for every woman on a vegan diet, but it is the reality for every single one of them I encounter. Here are the reasons why:

Nutritional issues related to vegan and vegetarian diets are…

#1 Often too low in complete protein, fat and cholesterol which are needed to make sex hormones.

Protein is an essential structural component of all hormones, which means you’ve got to consume sufficient
protein to make enough hormones. There are 8 essential amino acids that our body cannot synthesize, so we need to get these from our diets. Eating animal protein is like a one-stop shop for these essential 8. They’re all there in one piece of grass fed beef. But if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll need to work harder and go to more sources to get all eight of these.

Also, a low protein diet (less than 15% of total calories – or about 50 grams per day) decreases levels of prolactin, growth hormone, estrogen, thyroid hormones, and insulin. And it stimulates a stress response, which drives the
body toward fat storage, increasing both body fat and fatty liver. [3, 4]

High protein diets can damage the kidneys, so consuming too much is no walk in the park either.

#2 Full of anti-nutrients…

…like phytic acid and oxalic acid (grains, beans and soy are especially high) which bind to minerals in the GI tract and prevent them from being properly absorbed. This can lead to deficiencies in iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium levels. [2] PS. Few plants contain zinc, so it can become very deficient.

#3 Low in B12, and vegans are notoriously deficient.

The only way to get B12 is through supplementation or fortified foods, which is not ideal. Also, vegans tend to have lower stomach acid, which is a side effect of not having any animal protein in their diets. You need adequate stomach acid to break down B12 and utilize it though, so this is problematic. A chronic B12 deficiency is no joke!

#4 Missing the right omega 3 fatty acids.

While there are vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids, they are not well absorbed by the body. Chia, flax, and walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, but they don’t contain DHA or EPA, the most bioavailable and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. The body converts ALA to DHA and EPA very inefficiently, plus there are certain gene SNPs that affect the conversion as well. Interestingly, women convert ALA to EPA and DHA at much higher rates than men, probably because they make babies and these compounds are crucial for a healthy pregnancy.

#5 Lacking in vitamin D and iodine.

Both of which are critical for healthy hormones, a proper functioning thyroid, and normal periods. I’ve even dubbed vitamin D as the “period vitamin”, because of its impact on PCOS, PMS and irregular periods. Iodine for the thyroid is like gas for a car – it’s NEEDED. Here’s info on how the thyroid affects your menstrual cycle.

#6 Lacking in iron, because the most bioavailable source of iron comes from animal sources, such as liver and red meat.

Animal-based iron (heme iron) is already in its usable form, so no further processing is required for the body to utilize it. The iron in vegetables, on the other hand, requires the body to break it down into a bioavailable form. This means that the dietary recommendation for vegans is up to twice as high as the recommendation for meat eaters.

#7 Lacking in real vitamin A

Did you know that beta carotene is just a vitamin A precursor that needs to be converted in the body into the usable form of vitamin A (retinol). And unfortunately some evidence suggests that up to 50% of the US population has a genetic profile that reduces the conversion rate. These people must consume animal sources of vitamin A to avoid deficiency.

Vitamin A plays a critical role in fertility, promoting full-term pregnancy, and fetal development, in particular facial bone structure. Widespread deficiency is the reason soooo many kids have to have braces now. Liver and egg yolks are the highest sources of vitamin A. I also recommend Rosita Real Foods Cod Liver Oil because it contains vitamin A, along with vitamins D and K, which will help protect against any chance of vitamin A toxicity.

#8 Zinc and selenium deficiency

Zinc is mostly found in oysters and meat, so I’ve found that vegetarians and vegans are almost always deficient. While it’s found in nuts and seeds, those sources are often accompanied by phytic acid which inhibits the absorption of zinc. A deficiency often shows up as hair loss and period problems – at least that is what I see the most, along with frequent colds or sickness. Other factors that affect zinc are use of the birth control pill, alcohol consumption and small intestinal disorders (the place where zinc is absorbed).

Ways a vegan diet can affect your period & health:

  • Irregular periods – periods that come very infrequently, every 35 days or more. This is an indicator of sputtering ovulation, caused by lowered estrogen and progesterone.
  • Shorter, lighter periods – if your period has suddenly dropped from 5 days to 2 or 3 days, like mine did when I went vegetarian, caused by lowered estrogen and progesterone.
  • Missing periods – it has disappeared for more than three months. This indicates that ovulation is not occurring anymore, and is linked to lowered estrogen and progesterone.
  • Hair loss – means that certain B vitamins and minerals like zinc have become deficient
  • Low thyroid function – unexplained tiredness, weight gain for no apparent reason, cold hands and feet, dry brittle hair and nails.
  • More frequent colds or infections – this is a sign of zinc deficiency
  • Blood sugar dysregulation – sugar and carb cravings (gimme the pasta!), feeling hungry within an hour after a meal, mid-morning or mid-afternoon crashes that only caffeine and carbs can cure.
  • Acne or other skin conditions – acne, keratosis pilaris (those rough bumps on the backs of your arms), eczema and psoriasis are often signs of vitamin A and zinc deficiency.
  • Urinary tract infections – this is a sign of lower levels of estrogen, which is common in vegans.

Bottom line

In my coaching practice, I continually come back to the fact that each of us is built differently. Some people thrive on a vegan or vegetarian diet, whereas others become really ill. This is why I don’t recommend one particular diet in my Fix Your Period Program – I hate trying to fit myself into a box, and I don’t want you to either.

There is no one diet that works for everyone. Most diet proponents whether they are vegan, paleo, raw food, keto, etc. have an agenda, so it’s up to you as the boss of your body, to do the detective work to figure out what is right for your physiology.

I will say this though, collectively we can and should be doing as much as we can to eat more vegetables and fruit!! EVERYONE  can benefit from this, and the simple truth is we’re not even near where we should be when it comes to vegetable intake. This is what the documentary should have focused on more…but I get that telling people to eat their veggies isn’t super sexy or provocative! 😉 

If you want to eat a vegan diet, do it. Just make sure you’re getting complete protein every day, and taking care of your nutritional needs AND supplementing. If you start to experience any of the symptoms I described above, that’s a clear signal from your body that it isn’t getting enough of the nutrients it needs to function optimally.

Then it’s up to you to decide if this is indeed the right diet for you. As I said before, I 100000% respect a person’s decision to not eat animals, but my question is, if it’s going to cost you your health, quality of life and potentially even your fertility, are you willing to take that risk? Even a tiny bit of animal protein will go a long way towards correcting underlying imbalances.

If you’re currently eating animal products, make sure you’re eating the best quality meats, dairy, eggs, and fish available. For fish, buy wild caught. Make sure to buy grass-fed meat and dairy, and for chicken and eggs, stick with free range or pasture-raised. Quality realllllly matters. It’s up to us to support farms and sustainable companies whose values align with our own.

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Medical Disclaimer

Information in this post and on this web site is provided for informational purposes only. The information is a result of practice experience and research by the author. This information is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional or any information contained on or in any product label or packaging. Do not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing medication or other treatment. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional, herbal or homeopathic supplement, or using any treatment for a health problem.

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References:

  1. http://www.csuchico.edu/grassfedbeef/research/Review%20Grassfed%20Beef%202010.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2266880/
  3. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep25145
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9605218