Planet, Plant Based and B12: My Own Journey.
In 2013, I started my studies into sustainable food systems. I studied food buying options for British consumers. In my journey I read hundreds of Life Cycle Analyses (LCA) papers, which give the scientific working of various environmental footprint metrics with given food items. Meat was at the top of every single LCA with highest footprints, by a long way. Not being a meat lover anyway, I knew that reducing my meat intake was an easy step to reduce my environmental impact.
Fast forward almost 6 years and what was a niche topic is now very much mainstream knowledge and veganism is gaining popularity. And I have spoken a lot (!) about why I don't think veganism is the only answer. I have a huge amount of respect for those to choose to be local organic seasonal vegans. I think thats incredible and I would certainly love to eat 100% local organic and seasonal!
But all out veganism is not for me.
I have experimented with different types of eating over the past 6 years. I love vegan food. I don't really enjoy meat that much and I am genuinely much more comfortable with a plant based meal. I am a huge advocate for less animal product consumption but never zero. Lets make that clear. At no point, EVER have I EVER advocated for a vegan diet. It's important to recognise, as the picture for me, gets super fuzzy.
My diet in The Philippines was rough. Food culture is lacking where we lived in The Philippines, and I ate a lot of very plain food. This was in an effort to reduce our impact, eat local seasonal foods and also stay within budget. And living on an Island, with very poor food security equates to poor choice. No vitality and choice of vegetables. Local food is extremely meat heavy, and pretty questionnable meat at that. For somebody that 1. Doesn't enjoy meat and 2. Wanted to avoid unethically sourced and meat in general, a huge chunk of fatty, unflavoured, pork STRAIGHT off the Pig, wasn't ideal. I spent a lot of my time in The Philippines putting a brave face on how crappy I was feeling.
I noticed something was "up" about 2 months before I came home. My symptoms looked a little like this:
- My periods got weird. I am used to regularities in my cycle, and I knew pretty quickly it wasn't normal. They got short, started later and were energy zapping. At the time, I blamed the heat.
- My digestion didn't seem right. I got reeeaaally constipated (sorry if it's TMI) and lost my appetite. For somebody that ususally eats ALOT, this was a bit of a red flag.
- I had very low energy, it felt painful to exercise in any capacity. I did a yoga class almost in tears throughtout as basic stretching felt sore and aching. I also struggled with the heat a lot, even with light walking. I felt under a fog that was impossible to shift.
- Almost constant tired-like- headaches.
- When I got home I felt very low in myself (unusual) It was extremely hard to focus and concentrate and I was very tired. By tired, I mean really exhausted.
- Small scratches, cuts etc were not healing.
So we get to November 2018. I visited the Dr with a long list of symptoms and after blood tests, I was diagnosed with very low B12. My levels were about 10% of the healthy range.
Low B12 is normally due to two reasons: A poor digestion for B12, or a diet lacking in B12 (normally attributed to veganism). Now I could 100% see that our diet was poor in The Philippines and COULD have lead to definicinces. But I ate ALOT of marmite, which is very high in B vitamins. We did also eat some cheese and chicken. In Bali I had an incredibly rich and varied diet, including fish. I was not vegan.
Because my levels were low enough to cause damage (low B12 over time can cause nerve damage, reproductive problems to name a few) I was put onto a course of 6 injections- of which I had 5. I felt a complete turn around about 6 days after my first injection. I actually felt strength coming back and a cloud lifting from my brain. I cleaned the whole house on day 6 and felt like superwomen with muscles again!!
About 2 week in, I broke out in the worse (actually, the only) acne I've ever had. Apparently this a quite a common side effect of the injections. I found that reducing my caffeine intake helped to reduce the inflammation, but I finished up the injections on number 5 because of this.
I had a blood test in January that showed low blood count, apparently common after low B12. Although I was feeling better during the first period of January, apparently I wasn't better and it wasn't as simple as getting my B12 up. This had long reaching consequences.
I will have a blood test in March, and then August. These blood tests will show up whether I will need to have tests every 3 months and if there is another underlying problem or if it was purely the bad Philippines diet.
My gut tells me there is something underlying, that our very bad diet on Malapascua bought to light, but I can just hope thats not the case. I had a period of feeling a lot better, and now a period of feeling not so great again. Time will tell if this is B12 related again or not.
Either way, I know that B12 can be absorbed through plant based sources. But, with the symptoms I had from a semi vegan diet, that I do not want to repeat again, and the threat of an underlying problem, I will never be vegan. I never was. I never ever advocated for veganism, and I experiencing low B12 myself I am an advocate for non vegan sustainable diets. I have a HUGE amount of respect for vegans and power to them. But I'm sure I'm not alone in actually genuinely suffering from dangerously low B12 and I hope that for other people that struggle with veganism and have health concerns that prevent them from being vegan, you don't have to ever be vegan. Ignore the extremists. Do not make yourself sick to fulfil somebody else's idea of what is sustainable. There are plenty of ways to be conscious and ethical consumer of food.
Me developing low B12 could be cause for non vegans to shout about the dangers of "reducing" animal product intake. That would be silly. It could also be a chance for vegans to promote the fact low B12 occurs even in non vegan diets and how eating a balanced vegan diet is the way to do. I don't think this is my message either. My issue with B12 could be entirely a fault of my biological function.
I think the message that I want to give from this mid stage of my B12 journey is to remind you that we are all different. It is SO incredibly IMPORTANT for you to follow what is right for you. Do not follow the bullish advice of an influencer online for something so important as your health. You HAVE to do what is healthy and correct for you. I will never ever be vegan (no matter how much I love that lifestyle and the food) because I believe that it is both completely possible (and sometimes more so) sustainable being an omnivorous and that is what I need to do for my own health. I will continue to eat some vegan food because I love it, but I am actually trying to INCREASE my intake of eggs and white meats. I will never be a beef eater, that's the hard line!