Ex-Vegans, Happiness and Vitamin B12

People abandon plant-based eating for any number of reasons, but it’s often because they didn’t feel well as vegans. Some are so convinced that their former diet was damaging to their health that they even become activists against veganism.

If you poke around the internet and read stories of ex-vegans, it becomes pretty clear that at least some of them never wholeheartedly embraced the principles of vegan lifestyle to begin with. In one interview, Rhys Southan, an ex-vegan who blogs about veganism, said, “I’ve come to appreciate ethics as one possible ingredient in a meal, but not a mandatory one.”

Other ex-vegans might believe that, animal suffering notwithstanding, the personal sacrifice involved in being vegan is just not worth it. Ex-vegan Pamela Wilson writes on her blog: “I found the vegan lifestyle, with its emphasis on purity from animal products, emotionally and socially taxing in a way that was incompatible with my maximal well-being in the long term.” 

Quite a few ex-vegans seem to buy into myths about protein and fats—the type of myths that make it impossible for them to believe that a diet free of animal foods can support health. They expect to feel unhealthy and so they do. They also confuse food cravings with nutrient or dietary needs. Health beliefs can have a powerful placebo effect which helps explain why some people feel instantly better when they adopt a vegan diet and some feel instantly worse.

A recurring theme among ex-vegans is that they often felt depressed and their thinking was “fuzzy” when they ate a diet free of all animal foods. Some attribute this to a lack of EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fats in fish oils), among other things. But a study comparing mood among vegetarians and omnivores showed better scores for the vegetarians despite their lower intakes of EPA and DHA. (And even if EPA and DHA are an issue, there are vegan sources of these fats now.) Others suggest that vegans don’t get enough saturated fat in their diet for proper brain function. There is no dietary requirement for saturated fat, though, since the body can make all it needs from unsaturated fats.

Diet can affect mood, but that doesn’t mean it is always the culprit. For one thing, mood may simply change over time for a host of reasons. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that happiness in life follows a U-shaped curve. That is, overall happiness declines as we head toward middle age and then starts climbing again well into our eighties.

It would be interesting to know if vegans are any more likely to be depressed than anyone else. Brain scans suggest that vegans and vegetarians are more empathetic than omnivores. Being empathetic isn’t necessarily always great for mental health. It can be painful to be especially sensitive to the plight of enslaved and abused animals.

But there are certainly dietary factors that can affect overall mood and plenty of things that we vegans can do to protect our mental and emotional health. I’ve written here about some of these. One of the most important factors is vitamin B12. Based on some recent research, Jack Norris has updated his recommendation for this nutrient. Take a look at his post and make sure you are getting enough B12—either from fortified foods or a chewable or sublingual supplement.

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29 Responses to Ex-Vegans, Happiness and Vitamin B12

  1. miles June 3, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Rhys is my brother and I sometimes wonder what led him to eventually feel bad as a vegan. I've been vegan for nearly six years now (vegetarian for over 12) and obviously share the majority of his genes and yet I'm doing perfectly well. The placebo effect might be part of the explanation in his case as his close friend and roommate gave up veganism and declared it unhealthy shortly before he did. I'd also speculate that he was low on vitamin D and possibly B12 but there's no way of knowing since he never got tested.

    Anyway, thanks for this post and your excellent blogging in general.

  2. Tracy H. June 3, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    Miles, thanks for posting. That was very insightful.

    Ginny, as always, great post!

  3. The Selfish Vegan June 3, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    Interesting read. I'm really surprised to hear that some people say they don't feel "well" when following a vegan diet. Since switching, but my husband and I have felt so much better. Clear-headed, more energetic, etc.

    Although, we do put quite a bit of effort int eating a complete and varied diet, so maybe that's the difference…

  4. The Valley Vegan June 4, 2010 at 8:11 am #

    It's interesting, the point about the social isolation associated with being a vegan. One can make themselves isolated regardless of their lifestyle/ethical choices.

    Me? Personally I choose not to be isolated. How? Either I am up front with those I am with and tell them straight out "I am vegan" and how they deal with that information is their own problem from that point on. Or my other option is to keep my personal choices "personal" just as they, too, I'm sure, have some personal choices they don't feel like discussing with me.

    The idea that being vegan somehow makes people feel sick or unhealthy is totally shocking to me! I even noticed a HUGE improvement going from vegetarian to vegan 4 years ago.

    My yoga instructor gave me a very simple bit of advice regarding healthy vegan eating: "Eat the rainbow every day." Done.

  5. Rhea Parsons Riker June 4, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    My feeling is that the deciding factor of how well one will feel on any "diet" is whether the person makes sure he or she educates him or herself and gets all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are vital to good health. Regardless of whether one is an omnivore or herbivore, the food intake needs to be healthy.

    There are many people who are vegetarian and vegan who are overweight and malnourished. French fries and potato chips are vegan but not the foundation of a healthy diet.

    Education is key. If a person makes sure they are getting what the body needs, a compassionate vegan diet is healthy for both humans and the animals.

  6. Mark June 4, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Is there any relationship between dietary fat intake and mood?

    I've found that keeping my fat intake around 30-35% fat of daily calories makes me feel much more relaxed, focused, and energetic in my workouts. I get the fat almost entirely from nuts, seeds, and a algal DHA supplement. Whenever my carb (I don't any eat sugar and not much high-GI fruit) level gets higher and the fat lower, I feel much more restless and unfocused. I've known a lot of vegans who are eating a very low amount of fat, as people use non-stick cookcare and cooking sprays plus they are scared of calorie-dense foods like nuts.

    Maybe it's just me and my personal perception, though!

  7. Karoumy June 4, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    Doesn't gluten intolerance lead to poor moods and fuzzy-headedness as well?

    Most of the mock meats are made from wheat gluten so maybe that's a factor?

  8. Ginny Messina June 5, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Miles, thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I really appreciate it, especially since I'm not usually in the habit of picking on my readers' non-vegan family members! (Although I certainly pick on my own non-vegan family members :)

    And I agree with the other comments here that paying attention to nutrient needs is crucial to feeling well–and also avoiding overly-restrictive versions of vegan diets. I think a lot of ex-vegans would say that they did make sure their diets were well-balanced and still felt unwell. There is a general feeling among some (not all by any means) ex-vegans that a vegan diet can't be adequate. I think that belief feeds into their perception that they don't feel well.

    And yes, quite a few seem to gravitate toward a Paleolithic diet, which is gluten-free, and then claim that they feel much better. Whether this means they were really gluten intolerant (which I doubt since I don't think gluten intolerance is very common) or just feel better because they believe they were gluten intolerant, I don't know. Most omnivores certainly eat a lot of gluten.

  9. The Valley Vegan June 6, 2010 at 11:28 am #

    @Ginny: " I don't think gluten intolerance is very common" You'd be surprised how common it really is! Actually, this is strange because I don't think I am gluten intolerant whatsoever except that many of the high gluten fake-meats really upset my stomach – especially the fake ground beef sometimes used in chili. Gluten can be difficult for our bodies to deal with, for some people (like those with Celiac's Disease) it can be deadly.

    Anyway, I'm just speaking as someone with no known gluten intolerance, yet has difficulty with certain high-gluten foods. I just stay away from things i know bother my stomach!

  10. The Blissful Chef June 7, 2010 at 11:17 am #

    Great post as usual! I actually new Rhys when he was vegan and I was shocked to find his vegan-bashing blog.

    A large number of vegans I know don't eat well and are sick all the time. Just because you are vegan doesn't make you healthy. I eat a whole foods diet, no alcohol, low oil/sugar/gluten, and the older I get the better I feel. It's awesome!

  11. Rhys June 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    I wrote a response to this entry here. It's a little longer than I planned.

  12. Elaine June 7, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    I think Ginny has said before that nutrition information/knowledge changes often and there's no lack of debate about what is "right". I believe she's also said that the only consistently defensible argument for veganism is an animal rights one. I suspect people who abandon veganism were not with it initially due to animal rights, but due to other concerns (environment, personal health).

    I do have former vegan friends who claim that they gave it up because they feel better eating *some* animal products (none of them returned to anything close to previous levels).

    I am not critical of people who have honestly tried. I am prone to believe two things: a) the power of culture can convince many that what they're doing is somehow "wrong" or "unhealthy" and b) some people may have different body chemistries such that it is *easier* to get what their bodies need with a non-vegan diet.

    I dunno. I actually went to read this post hoping that I'd find out a little more about B12…I've historically always suffered from anemia. But, ever since I went "almost" vegan, my folate levels are so high that the doctors don't know how to interpret them. Nobody knows if it's dangerous; my doctors are assuming it's not. However, I'm not comfortable with the "we don't *think* there's a problem" approach. …anybody know if this is a typical "problem" for vegans? More importantly — anybody know if it *is* a problem?

    "Normal" folate levels are, I believe, between 3 and 16. My scores (taken twice) are "above 20". In other words, so much higher that they don't even count them. All other blood tests are normal (and currently, not anemic — yeah!).

  13. The Valley Vegan June 8, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    The only thing I struggle with is B12… I used to drink fortified soy milk (2 cups a day) to get my RDA, but recently I switched from soy to almond (yes yes, just for the taste!!) which is not fortified. So now I am on searching for vegan B12 supplements.

    I find it ironic that veg*ns are the ones that need B12 the most, and yet finding one that doesn't use animal byproducts is incredibly difficult!!

    • the afro July 3, 2011 at 2:10 am #

      Solaray has a vitamin called ‘Mega B Stress‘. It is like taking a legal, healthy tranquilizer. It is a time released capsule that calms you down in the most hectic of environments.

      It contains Vitamin C, Niacin, Pantothic Acid, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, B12, Biotin, mAGNESIUM, AND Folic Acid. It is still one of the most effective on the market–anywhere.

    • Cherie February 20, 2013 at 8:10 am #

      It’s my understanding that there are actually more non-vegans, aka meat eaters who are low in B-12. It’s just more highly publicized as a concern with vegan diets.

      • Ginny Messina February 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

        Vegans who don’t supplement with B12 have poorer B12 status than either meat-eaters or than vegans who do take B12. It should be publicized as a concern in vegan diets since vegans who don’t take supplements are at risk for a deficiency!

  14. ginger June 9, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    I was vegan for 3.5 years until I was diagnosed with severe depression and moderate mood disorder. During treatment I began to crave dairy and meat.
    After some internal struggle and what-not, I discovered I'm intolerant to soy in all forms (including soybean oil), eggs, refined sugar and gluten (including oats-even if they're certified GF).
    I've been free of gluten, soy and sugar for about a month and a half and all of my symptoms have gone away. I loved being a vegan, but my dietary restrictions now are far worse than they ever were as a vegan.

  15. Ginny Messina June 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    Elaine, I don't know of any problems associated with very high blood levels of folate–except that you do have to be extra careful about B12 since high folate can "mask" early B12 deficiency.

  16. beforewisdom June 12, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    This is my two cents as someone who went vegetarian 30 years ago and who went vegan back in the 90s( and who has had nothing but excellent health ).

    I've seen articles that people, even nutrition experts aren't good at being aware of how well they are eating, unless they keep written records. People, with an almost fact-like certainty, will tend to underestimate their calories and overestimate their nutrition.

    That hit home for me a few years ago when I used a food diary to lose a large amount of fat. I was shocked to see, that I, being the nutrition god that I am, was also mis-estimating what I had been eating. A lot.

    I've known a number of ex-veg*ns over the years. Nobody was as diligent about nutrition as they claimed to be or thought that they were.

    I tend to be very skeptical of these people for that reason.

    Additionally, the ex-veg*ns I knew/know didn't divert their time to publish newspaper articles, books or blogs. To them, a vegan diet was simply something that didn't work for them and they moved on.

    Life is short.

    If someone is willing to devote good amount of time towards writing about something they are not into, then that makes me suspicious of their true motivations.

  17. beforewisdom June 12, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Valley Vegan wrote:
    I find it ironic that veg*ns are the ones that need B12 the most, and yet finding one that doesn't use animal byproducts is incredibly difficult!!

    VitaminShoppe.com is a huge online and brick-and-mortar distributor of supplements. They list all of the ingredients on the back of all of their containers and they will list whether or not their ingredients are animal sourced.

    Freedavitamins.com specializes in hypoallergenic, kosher, vegetarian vitamins. It is what I use.

    I have never had a problem finding a variety of brands of supplements in any urban/suburban area that I have lived in.

    If you don't want to google on how to read labels there are a large number of online vegan mail order sites to get supplements from who will guarantee that your supplements are vegan. Here are a few of my favorites ( there are more ):

    https://www.vegangoods.com/

    http://veganessentials.com/

    http://veganstore.com/

  18. The Valley Vegan June 13, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    @beforewisdom — Thank you! I actually found a supplement at Whole Foods this weekend. It even says on the label that things come from plant sources. I like not having to guess!

    I'll keep those links around, though. Thanks for sharing!

  19. adkinsramirez61 June 15, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    Give a fool enough rope and he will hang himself...................................................

  20. queerveganrunner June 19, 2010 at 10:16 pm #

    just stumbled upon your blog through runvegan.wordpress.com very impressive. as a committed vegan, i find education my best tool (not weapon!) in having intellectual discussions with non-vegans *and* in fueling myself. certainly, i don't always practice what i preach in terms of healthful eating (as someone else said – french fries are vegan!) but i am happy to find this blog as a reference and reminder to be mindful of my food choices within my vegan diet. cheers!

  21. landanimal July 4, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

    Yes yes. I saw a quote from ex-vegan Mariel Hemingway recently saying that being vegan made her "weak." Without any knowledge of her habits, I am quite certain that she was not making the effort to get proper nutrition as a vegan. If someone like ultramarathoner Scott Jurek can do it, why can't someone like Mariel? I believe it is a question of eating the proper foods regularly. I even heard another former vegan say that they ate fruit-based and avoided sugar. Not possible! Vegan dieting is easy and healthy if you take the little bit of time to get the little bit of education you need to get the protein, fats, etc through nuts, beans, etc. Every single time I hear a "vegan horror story" I want to roll my eyes.

  22. Rebekah August 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    Thank you for this post! I agree with so many of the points you have made. I was an ex-vegan once (am back to being vegan now) and during my first year-long stint as a vegan, I did not feel strong and healthy. But it was because I didn’t take the time to learn about nutrition or to cook properly. I subsisted on pasta with red sauce, peanut butter with raisins, and toast with olive oil. Occasionally I’d cook up a healthy meal, but that was rare. I was a vegan who hardly ate veggies! Now I am sure to eat a healthy, balanced, vegan diet, and I feel great.

    The other point I am glad you made is about how people suggest that veganism will automatically make them lose weight, make them beautiful, clear-headed, etc. While this may happen for some people, it doesn’t happen for everyone, and it can really make people feel like a failure. I know I was like, “what’s wrong with me, I went vegan and I’m still the same weight.” Books like Skinny Bitch and The Kind Diet come to mind. While I appreciate these authors promoting veganism, I have to wonder how many people will give it up if they try it and don’t lose any weight. For example, I made the chocolate peanut butter cups in The Kind Diet cookbook…each peanut butter cup contains 360 calories! And I personally found it impossible to eat just one.

  23. whitney November 1, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    Great post, thank you for this!
     
    Whitney

  24. Sonia April 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    Veganism led me into a severe b12 deficiency that nearly cost me my life.  And what is scariest, is the fact that a b12 deficiency closes us to the outside world. Many vegans, and I was one of them, become so closed minded, that they are convinced THEY are right and don't need to supplement b12.
    I had to start very slowly with b12 supplement – I was getting all sorts of neurological problems as I was slowing bringing my levels up. (my lowest level was around 50).
    I litterally felt I was coming back to my senses, I felt I was coming back to life, mentally, emotionally, and physically too.
     
    I now rely on a supplement. I am happy, sane and lead a normal very healthy life.
     
    If you're reading this and suspect you may have a deficiency, or you simply don't feel your best on a vegan diet or have any recurrent life (job, relationships) problems that you can't solve, get checked.  Your B12 may be low.
     
    Best of health to all of you,
    Sonia

  25. the afro July 3, 2011 at 1:45 am #

    I was the happiest I had ever been as a vegetarian, and I didn’t even take a separate B12 pill. On raw food quite neurotic and lethargic, and now I’m looking forward to veganism.

  26. Sarah August 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    Hi Sonia,

    Not sure if you’ll find this message, as it’s been a while, but I’m curious what your neurological issues were like? I’m recovering from a number of deficiencies, B12 included, and I’m curious to know more about your experiences. Perhaps we could talk via email, or if you’re ok with speaking a bit more about it on here, that would be great. I’ve also had neurological symptoms, but I didn’t start slow on the B12. My nutritionist also has me on a high dose at the moment (higher than usual).

    Let me know if you’re interested in chatting. I know there are a lot of forums out there about B12, but they are not necessarily vegan folks, and many of them are unsure if it’s B12 or other things (MS, etc).

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