As someone who’s been vegan for thirteen years, and who’s eaten a whole foods diet for half of that time, I never expected to deal with a chronic disease at my age (I’m 32). Yet, a few months after my bodybuilding competition in the late summer of last year, I started to feel crappy…then the joints of my fingers started to ache to the point that I could barely buckle Miles’s car seat…then one of my index fingers swelled up like a balloon. Classic signs of rheumatoid arthritis.
I’d read a whole lot, in scholarly articles and in books such as Disease-Proof Your Child and The Starch Solution, about the strong connection between autoimmune disease, allergies, and nutrition in infancy and early childhood, especially formula feeding and the early introduction of dairy. This is why I’m so outspoken on the subject of vegan children! I was formula fed (and ate tons of dairy and was obese for most of my life prior to going vegan). And my brother has an autoimmune disease. Still, I was unpleasantly surprised.
What precipitated it…I can only guess, but I suspect my pre- and post-contest diet and that’s both because diet is HUGE for inflammatory diseases and because my diet was so unlike what I normally eat. We ate a low to moderate amount of protein, I supplemented with very little protein powder, and I ate a lot of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. By the end of my contest prep, however, I was eating only around 1,200 calories a day (down from maintenance calories of 2,500) and most of it was tofu or seitan. No fruit whatsoever, although I still ate unlimited vegetables. I also supplemented with tons of leucine in the form of BCAAs which, if you’ve read Derek’s recent posts, causes plant proteins to act in the body more like animal proteins. That’s great if you want an anabolic boost for muscle growth, but may not be so great for all of the reasons that animal protein isn’t. However, even in the final days, the most protein powder I consumed daily was 2 scoops and we never ate faux meat so, compared to the diets of most pre-contest vegan bodybuilders, it wasn’t so bad – just not normal for me.
I met my goal of 12% body fat on this diet, down from a post-pregnancy level of 29%, so it was a win for me. But, as is common, the near-starvation diet made me a little crazy about food and I indulged way too much in vegan donuts and the like for months afterward. Aside from these “treats”, I was still easing off my competition diet gradually, and so still eating an unusually high amount of calories from protein. So from my plant-based, whole foods diet I’d gone to a diet with a much higher percentage of seitan, tofu, and processed flour products because I’d cut out much of the fruit and whole grains. Long before any symptoms showed up, I kept complaining to Derek about how something felt off. I decided to stop all protein powders and eat more fruit and no seitan. I cut way back on the treats. Shortly after I began making these changes, my symptoms appeared, along with bad allergies that wouldn’t go away. But it was the crippling of my hands that really terrified me: everything I love to do is done with my hands and, more distressing, even holding my son’s hand was incredibly painful.
On the recommendation of plant-based dietitian Julieanna Hever, I contacted the doctors (also plant-based) at TrueNorth Health Center. I consulted with Dr. Goldhammer and Dr. Klaper over the phone (which I highly recommend, especially because the first consult is free). Dr. Klaper prescribed a low-protein diet of sweet potatoes, brown rice, and green and yellow vegetables with no gluten, soy, citrus fruits, or nightshade vegetables – similar to an allergen elimination diet. I continued to improve, but still had unusually bad allergies. Even when my seasonal allergies abated, my joints still ached like loose teeth in inflamed gums – I knew this meant that the cartilage around my finger joints was still being eaten away.
So, I went back to a Facebook post in which I’d shared this issue and noticed again that of the 50 or so comments, many said a raw or raw til 4 diet had cured their rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory disease. I’d also seen some other research showing that higher potassium intake helps autoimmune disease sufferers, so it made sense that eating a mega-dose of bananas and/or potatoes might be beneficial. I wasn’t expecting a miracle, though, so I was unprepared for what happened. The first day I ate about 12 bananas, a bunch of dates and other fruit, and a couple of pounds of potatoes. The next morning, I woke up with zero pain in my joints. None.
Since then I’ve stuck to a mostly raw ’til 4 diet: I eat a small amount of tofu and beans also. I still think there is a certain level of exposure to allergens that I can’t control (without moving!) that seems to trigger my immune system. When my seasonal allergies act up I can feel a dim echo of pain in my joints, but it’s nothing like it was.
For most people, eliminating animal products is all it takes to make symptoms disappear, as they’re the worst offenders allowing antigens to get through the intestinal barrier. But, for those who are already vegan or who have severe symptoms, a raw ’til 4 diet is something to consider, as is medically supervised water fasting. Certainly anything is preferable to chemotherapeutic drugs, which are standard treatment and have been shown to shorten life by as much as a decade. For more details on the causes and treatment of autoimmune disease with diet, see this article.
All of this has me reflecting on my journey along the spectrum of the vegan diet, from junk food vegan to raw ’til 4-ish. Derek and I have experimented for seven years now, and kept records and photos all along the way – everything from tons of supplements to virtually none. He now eats a low protein diet similar to mine and recently won a physique contest and his pro card in the WNBF! And I haven’t lost much muscle so far, although I’m still catching up from the long period of being unable to weight train, that followed the wasting of severe dieting, that followed the reduced training of pregnancy and postpartum… I’m really curious to see how this diet is going to look on me if I can train consistently. A review of all my pictures and statistics over the years tells me that the key is really just whole foods plant-based and some exercise, and everything else is needless complication…but this variation of the diet has gotten a crippling degenerative disease under control, and I’m happy with the way I look as well.
I wrote an article with details about our many diet experiments and results, including photos from my pre-vegan days in 1999 until today, that’ll be appearing on www.veganbodybuilding.com soon. Here’s the last stage of my journey – the rightmost photo is after about 6 months eating in this fashion with inconsistent workouts. Where will more gym time take me, I wonder?