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From Vegan to Paleo - A CrossFitter's Journey

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I originally went vegetarian for Lent.  Yes, Lent.  Vegetarianism was something I had dabbled in my entire life, and now I had a justifiable reason to remove meat from my diet for a specified amount of time.

For me - a graduate student at the time - becoming vegetarian was simple (and cheaper!) so I stuck with it. 

I didn’t experience much of a difference in my body composition or my health during my first few months as a vegetarian.  I did, however, began to have a slight overconsumption crisis with dairy. I started to develop major digestion problems (mostly pain and bloating).  I let this go on, along with my diet that consisted of mostly fruit and whole grains, second to eggs and veggies, for around one year.  Then I did the worst thing I’ve ever done to my body or my self-worth.  I did the Master Cleanse.

I was at a point of complete desperation.  I was bloated after every meal to the point of pain.  I’d joke with my friends about my pregnant looking tummy, but it was getting gross.  I would eat a small salad and look like I was in my second trimester (coming from my 120 pound frame, this was a big deal).

The vegetarians of the blogosphere had me convinced my body was full of toxins from meat that I needed to rid.  So, I drank the lemonade concoction for 6 days.  I dropped 10 pounds, my digestion seemed to be regulated, and I felt surprisingly good at the end of it.

After the cleanse, I started to become paranoid.  I was obsessed with the cleanliness of anything I put into my body.  I eliminated all processed foods, dairy, meat, eggs, most grains, sugar, alcohol (besides vegan wine), medications and even skincare products that didn’t suit my standards.  I started to take probiotics and digestive enzymes to ensure my bowel movements would stay regular.  On top of this, I regularly drank a psyllium and apple cider vinegar concoction every morning (to maintain proper alkalinity and keep my bowels clean, of course!).

I vowed never to touch any animal products again.  My diet consisted mostly of vegetables and fruit (usually blended into green smoothies), nuts, dried fruit, legumes and beans.  Like any good vegan, I soon learned of the raw vegan lifestyle, and gripped over the nutrients in my food.  I began only eating raw (nothing cooked above 118 degrees) in an effort to absorb as many nutrients as possible in their purest form.  This turned into a week on/week off cycle as I could not eat ANYWHERE except my own kitchen (can you believe no one wanted to spiralize zucchini for me, or dehydrate some flax bread?).

Around this time I started CrossFit.  I religiously followed the mainsite, read and watched everything I could, and self-taught.  I fell in love with the program and the community.  I committed to becoming my best at CrossFit, as I grew with it emotionally and physically a tremendous amount in the first few weeks.  This was the kind of community I had been searching for. I had convinced myself I was at an optimum place of health in my life.  But, CrossFitter’s weren’t vegan (for good reason, I’d soon discover).  

I was not a junk food vegan at this point.  But I was a sick one.  For almost a year I held onto the belief that I was doing something wrong.  Maybe I was missing a supplement?  Was I not eating enough greens?  Maybe I needed more grains to balance out the fiber I was getting from the veggies I was eating?  Maybe I needed more fat (this one’s funny looking back – I ate around 6 cups of nuts per day)?  I constantly searched forums and blogs, desperate for an answer to my host of symptoms.  I was completely exhausted - mentally, physically and emotionally.  My symptoms included:

I was sleeping 12 hours a night and still needed to nap after my WOD every day.  I could barely get through a WOD in the last few months of being vegan.

Constipation/Digestion Problems
I really struggled with this one.  I tried absolutely everything to help: psylium husk, herbal laxative teas, herbal colon cleanses, salt water flushes, and even enemas.  After every meal my stomach looked like a beach ball.  Most would make me feel better for about a day, but by the end nothing worked.

I found it hard to get out of bed most days, and had lost motivation.  I was really struggling with setting goals and commitment, and I felt completely unable to relax.

My mood swings were horrible.  The slightest bit of disorganization or change in my life felt catastrophic.  I was overwhelmed with the smallest tasks, mostly stemming from extreme exhaustion.

I was constantly hungry.  Each morning I would make a green smoothie that consisted of: 4 cups of spinach or kale, 1 carrot, 2 stalks of celery, 1 cucumber, 1 apple, 1 lemon, 1 lime, 1 grapefruit, 1 pear, 2 inches of ginger, 2 cups of strawberries and 2 scoops of vegan protein powder.  I’d be famished an hour later.

Concentration/Memory Problems
“Brain Fog” is a phrase ex-vegans often use to describe how they feel near the end, and it’s pretty accurate.  I would walk into a room and forget why I was there.  I could no longer concentrate long enough to read a book.   This was terrifying for me.

After thinking about it for months (and stumbling upon, with the support of my friends and coaches (and of course, my doctor who had been urging me to eat animal protein for months) I started to incorporate meat back into my diet, and began to follow a diet based on our palaeolithic ancestry (paleo/primal).  I started off slowly, with just fresh wild fish and free-range eggs, but have moved onto wild game and grass-fed beef.  The changes I have noticed in my health, performance and body are incredible.  The digestion problems I had been suffering with for over a year (and after half a dozen visits to the ER, my doctor, and a gastrointestinal specialist) were completely gone.  My energy levels are consistent throughout the day, and the brain fog is gone!  My strength gains and my WODs have also seen a major improvement.

I felt compelled to share this story for a few reasons.  First – I know I’m not alone.  The amount of guilt I felt as a vegan wanting and craving meat was overwhelming.  I educated myself as a vegan, and the moral consequences of eating meat were still difficult to swallow.  But, I’ve come to realize that I can’t be moralizing about the pain and suffering of animals, when I am suffering myself.  My body desperately needed nutrients and protein that my diet wasn't allowing, and I struggled to come to terms with that (both physically and mentally) for quite a while. 

I also wanted to share this story because I’ve seen both sides.  I know what CrossFit feels like when your diet is in check and when it isn’t.  Personally, within two months of eating the way we evolved to, I accomplished PR’s on four major lifts, and FINALLY mastered the kipping pull-up.  My body was leaner, I gained lean muscle mass, and WODs don’t feel like ACTUAL torture anymore (still like CrossFit torture, of course).

If you have any questions about my journey – or are in the same place I was – feel free to send me a message on Facebook.

And now, the picture.  This took guts to post (I know the quality isn't the greatest, but you can definitely see the difference in body fat and lean muscle mass).


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