Vegan Does Not Mean Invincible
Hi. My name is Seth, and I’m a vegan who had a heart attack.
Yes, this is the weekly meeting of Mortal Vegans Anonymous. Come in, grab a cup of coffee. You’re in the right place.
Anyone who has been vegan for more than a few months knows there is no shortage of myths and misnomers about vegans and what being vegan is like. While the health benefits of living vegan are very real and well-documented, it is a sizeable myth that these benefits are automatic, or that anyone who is vegan is simply going to be the most healthy version of themselves possible.
The truth is, vegans come in all shapes, sizes, and fitness levels. The vast majority of the time, eating a vegan diet will make someone healthier than they would be on an omnivore diet—but for many people, “healthier than I would be” doesn’t come with a guarantee of extremely healthy. If one is eating a whole foods vegan diet (meaning, vegan food but also no processed foods), chances are that they are looking good and feeling great. But not all vegan food is unprocessed—many folks go vegan simply “for the animals” and desire the same basic kinds of foods they ate before they went vegan. Health is not a great concern for these people. We often get the question, “If vegans don’t want to eat meat, why do they make so much of their food look and taste like meat?” The answer is quite simply that we didn’t stop eating meat because we hated meat. We’re against suffering, not seasoning. But those faux meats can come with negative health outcomes if eaten often enough.
But really, all I’ve talked about above is nutrition, which while an enormous part of our overall health, certainly isn’t everything. Vegans are walking around every day with invisible diseases just like anyone else—from fibromyalgia to Lyme disease to arthritis and on and on. Abstaining from animal products certainly helps us out in lots of ways, but nothing, ultimately, can fully beat back the hands of time or make our bodies impervious to nature’s insidious sense of humor. And yes: what we eat can also stave off many of these kinds of ailments, but not always, and many of us come to veganism with a lifetime of bad habits already trailing us.
Exercise is of course also a huge part of our overall fitness, but a wide array of people from all over the cultural spectrum are vegans. Just as it is in the omnivore world, only a portion of vegans count exercise and working out as part of their daily lives. When someone changes their diet to plant-based foods but doesn’t start moving their body any more than they had before, sometimes the health improvement can be quite minimal, depending on what types of vegan foods that person is eating. Contrary to the myth in the popular imagination, not all vegans are running on treadmills at gyms with yoga mats strapped to our backs. Some of us are, but many are not.
And then, of course, there’s genetics. Many folks are born to be more prone to various health calamities. We can work hard against these things, often with great success; but ultimately, there are few powers in the universe stronger than genetics. Just ask me why I dress like my dad despite my intensely focused campaign to not do so. Sometimes it’s simply unavoidable. And it turns out, not only did I get my father’s fashion and humor sense, I also got his (and his entire family tree’s) cardiac health.
Which brings us to my story. I’ve now been vegan almost four years. The first year and a half, I felt better than I had most of my adult life. I was in my late thirties and, while I wasn’t eating only unprocessed foods, I was eating much better than I had before. I was already no stranger to the gym, but I found my cardio health much-improved by my vegan diet; and for the first time in my life, I started to run seriously. I also started to push the limits of my weightlifting and (believe it or not!) was getting more than enough plant-based protein to pack on more muscle than I had ever had (including during my high school wrestling years). I ran my first 5k—with a pretty good time—and got addicted to it and started running them every-other weekend. I was incredibly fit and happy and I was in love with how I looked; approaching 40, I felt extremely confident that I was, in fact, beating back the hands of time.
Then came the first domino to fall: I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. While it was (and remains) a very small case of the disease, it was enough to slow me down for a short while. Why I got UC is a matter of medical debate, but the best guess is it arose from stress—of which my life has plenty and which veganism cannot shield anyone from. Nonetheless, I avowed to overcome this diagnosis and quickly got back to the gym. I was anxious to stay fit and healthy even with this disease. Then came the second domino.
Less than a year after being diagnosed with UC, I was stricken with a pulmonary embolism. This is a blood clot that breaks off from wherever it formed (usually in the legs) and travels through your body until it lodges in your lung. These can be anywhere from “small” and simply make a person experience difficulty breathing, all the way up to “large,” which is basically instant death. Fortunately, mine was small. Why did this happen to me? Well, the best guess is that it is actually derived from my Ulcerative Colitis—studies show that people with UC are twice as likely to experience blood clots, although as of now, nobody quite knows why. It probably has something to do with general inflammation. Again I was hit with a health issue that was unconnected to being vegan—chances are both these things would have happened to me even if I was still eating animal products—in fact, they very well may have been worse.
I was in the hospital for three days, and when I got out, I vowed once again to stay in shape and overcome these circumstances. I was going to be the guy beating his best 5k times despite a digestive disease and a pulmonary embolism! My hopes were high. Except this time, it didn’t happen.
My recovery from the embolism was slower than I’d have wished. All you can do with a blood clot is wait for it to dissolve, so I stayed mildly out of breath and fatigued for a few months. My attempts at working out ended quickly with much disappointment. In short order, I lost the emotional stamina that my fitness level had provided me. Privately, I became pessimistic, sad, and anxiety-prone. Eventually, I even got diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and started taking antidepressants. With all of this came a much worse diet. Still vegan, of course, but heavy on processed foods high in fat and sugar—and way more of it than I needed. All of this happening at the same time I stopped working out then lead to a very rapid weight gain.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that abrupt change in my lifestyle was raising the cholesterol and triglycerides in my blood. I hear you: there is no cholesterol in a vegan diet! Well, that’s basically true, but that doesn’t mean that if you eat a vegan diet you won’t have any (bad) cholesterol in your body. Things aren’t quite that simple. Certain fats and oils trigger your body to make cholesterol (vegans, you didn’t think your cholesterol number was actually zero, did you?) and triglycerides can also help to clog your arteries and they are basically found in food that has fat—processed vegan foods often have plenty of that. Add to the mix that my family on both sides blessed me with genetics to exaggerate whatever is already going on with my heart and blood and, POW: I have a fully blocked artery.
From being in the best shape of my life to a clogged artery in just about two years. It doesn’t seem fair, but then again, ask a factory farmed pig or cow about fairness. I had a heart attack, although it was a very small one with no lasting heart damage. I’ve just been told that I can start working out again, and this time, I’m really going to. In fact, I have set my sights on running another 5k again by springtime. But lifting myself out of this is not going to be easy, despite the fact that, yes, I am a vegan.
Because of the myth of the “healthy vegan,” as well as vegans ourselves using this myth as a recruitment tool (“Become vegan; you’ll look good/feel great/have great sex/win at basketball/be the next host of Family Feud or whatever.”), there is a stigma attached to the unhealthy vegan—whether it’s because they are heavier than people expect, or they don’t work out at all, or they have the gall to actually get ill or have a disease or even a real heart attack—we suffer from the implied accusation that we are somehow doing it wrong. I’m here to tell you there is no way to do it wrong—as long as you are eliminating animal products from your life in as many ways as practical.
We are mortal, in the end. Like omnivores, we will get sick, and time will catch up to us. It’s the lives we save in the process that matter.