I became a vegetarian at the age of 15, because “I loved animals.” I hadn’t done much research; I just decided to do it with my rebellious best friend.
We recreated our version of punk from our bedrooms with “Meat Is Murder” stickers and “I Am Not A Nugget” pins. As the novelty washed away, I still considered vegetarianism part of my identity. I did love animals. I still do. I felt like saying no to consuming them was my small contribution to fighting factory farming.
Looking back, I missed a few key aspects to this lifestyle change. For starters, I didn’t do my homework. I thought supplementing beans as my main protein was sufficient and that all carbs were created equal. I also didn’t fully understand what was going on behind the scenes of animal production, or that there could be ethical ways to consume animal meat and fish, mainly because I was terrified of what I would learn. And I didn’t understand the toll that not getting the right nutrients was taking on my body—and my skin.
MY HEALTH WAKE-UP CALL
Things changed in my twenties as I tried every treatment possible to deal with a sudden maddening adult-onset cystic acne. My face was covered in red marks. I’d tried everything from blood pressure medicine to birth control, to acne drugs to countless expensive creams. No treatment was working. I sat in front of my new holistic dermatologist and explained my diet and lifestyle. He thought my diet might be the root cause of my acne worries.
He asked: “How attached to vegetarianism are you?”
After seeing the inside of a myriad of offices, after using creams that dried my skin or made it sting, after folding into myself with self-doubt, I didn’t know how to answer. Was I being hypocritical in saying that I’d eat meat if it meant a better quality of life?
Shortly after my appointment, my mother cooked me a plain piece of organic, free-range chicken and put it on a small plate on the counter. She left a fork and knife next to it. I wandered into the kitchen alone. My cat was doing slow laps between my legs and I told him that I loved him.
Then I ate it—the whole piece of chicken. And I loved it.
WHY EATING MEAT WORKED FOR MY ACNE PROBLEMS
A strong case for me to eat meat was that on my un-researched veggie diet, I wasn’t getting enough amino acids, a key component to proper health. There are 9 “essential” amino acids that our body can’t produce, and which we need to acquire through diet. Animal protein covers the 9 essential amino acids, but plant and vegetable sources are simpler organisms that do not always contain all 9, says Brandon Mentore, a functional medicine practitioner and sports nutritionist. By adding more complete, complex nutrients to my already loaded fruit and veggie diet, I began finding out what foods worked for my body, and filling in the gaps.
It’s also beneficial to experiment with eating some animal protein while you’re doing an Elimination Diet, a diet my doctor recommended, in which you eliminate and then slowly reintroduce a variety of foods to help identify food sensitivities and reduce immune system inflammation, both of which are said to contribute to acne.
“Rotating nutrient sources in the diet is one of the first steps to improving health,” explains Mentore. It’s difficult to tell which foods are causing reactions when you’re always eating them. This diet eliminates common sensitivities, like foods containing dairy, eggs, and wheat, and reintroduces them over time while assessing symptoms.
Gretchen Hanson, vegan chef and health coach for 30 years, has advised many vegan and vegetarian clients to consider returning to animal protein when they are experiencing health issues. “White meat proteins like chicken generally have a low allergen reaction, which is why they are commonly used in the Elimination Diet,” explains Hanson.
If you’re wondering how certain foods could cause health issues when you once tolerated them just fine, consider this: some nutritionists say that eating the same nutrient source can raise the immune and inflammatory responses and can lead to negative health effects, like intolerance to that food, acne, and ultimately autoimmunity. For example, if someone eats eggs every day for a long period of time, there’s a chance they could develop a sensitivity to them, though that is not always the case. Either way, variety in your diet is a good thing, and eating different animal proteins (think fish, poultry, wild game, and eggs) is one way, though not the only way, to help build a healthy body, according to Dr. Elizabeth Trattner.
Two and a half years later, my face is clear of cystic acne, and I am conscious about eating meat that is raised wild, organic, and free range. Through the elimination diet, I learned that I have sensitivities to dairy and yeast. No more pizza for me. And I changed other things, too.
Not everyone responds the same way to a vegetarian diet, or to any diet. Genetics, ancestry, and geographical environment play a big role. “From a genetics and ancestry standpoint, people who come from and live in a place where there is strong UV light, such as equatorial regions, do much better with vegetarian diets,” explains Mentore.
Strong UV light provides energy, which supplements the nutrients from food. “This is why equatorial tribes such as the Hazda or the Masai can eat vegetables and carbohydrates without any health problems,” Mentore says, “This is a direct contrast to Innuit, or Eskimo, tribes that live in a weak UV sunlight environment and eat a primarily ketogenic diet high in fat and protein.”
All this to say that if you’re eating a vegetarian diet, you just need to be smart about diversifying your food sources and making sure you get your essential amino acids and the nutrients you need. After about six months to a year of being vegetarian, you can check the health of your hair, skin, and nails. If these tissues become brittle, dehydrated, thin, cracked, itchy, inflamed, or break out into a skin condition, like psoriasis, your diet is likely not adequate, says Mentore. You can also consider your energy levels and digestion. If you’re fatigued, losing muscle tissue, and have digestive problems, look at your nutrient profile more closely.
Of course, an omnivore diet was only one factor in the big picture of healing my skin. It was the right choice for me and maybe one day that will change as my body changes. But for now, I’m grateful that I’ve learned to eat in a way that helps me to be healthy, and I’m happy to do that as ethically as possible.