Why I discontinued my 100% plant-based diet after 35 months

Somi Igbene PhD ANutrMarch 21, 2019

On March 19 2019, I ended my 35 month stint of being completely animal-product free. It was a tough decision, but it was something I had to do for my sanity and my health. When I initially began my plant-exclusive diet, I remember saying that I would never go back to eating animal products because of how good I felt. So, how and when did it go wrong, and why couldn’t I fix it? Let me explain.

Before I do, I want you to know that before changing my diet, I have never had any serious illness or digestive issues. I have only been admitted to the hospital on three occasions. The first time was after an adverse reaction to the flu vaccination when I was sixteen and the other two times were when I was giving birth to both my children. In fact, I didn’t have my children in the labour ward, I had them naturally in the midwife-led birthing centre, without doctors, an epidural or painkillers. In simple words, I have always been a healthy, happy woman.

Let’s go back to April 2016 aka

The Glory Days of my plant-based diet

I started eating a plant-based diet in April 2016 as a last resort to get rid of a persistent itch in my throat which I had developed after having my daughter. Before eating plant-based, my diet was average. I ate lots of vegetables and grains, far too much chicken and dairy, a little fruit and moderate amounts of fish. I ate legumes a few times a week, and I had moderate amounts of processed foods. My diet was not terrible, but there was a lot of room for improvement.

Before I changed my diet, I watched a lot of videos from prominent vegan YouTubers. My favourites were that vegan couple, Chef AJ, Veg Source, High Carb Hannah and Dr McDougall. I loved those channels because they promoted a Whole Foods Plant-Based diet. They encouraged eating lots of whole grains, vegetables, fruits (in moderation), whole fats from avocados, nuts and seeds and legumes.

I never entertained the idea of eating only raw foods, juicing or doing the alkaline diet or the raw till four diets that Freelee promoted. To me, they sounded like decoy weight-loss diets, and I was interested in health, not weight loss. Those diets would also require that I ate a lot of sugar. I don’t have a sweet tooth, I don’t love fruit apart from berries, so any variation of a fruit-based diet was out of the question. In saying that, I didn’t mind if weight loss was a side-effect of eating properly (I was still carrying pregnancy weight), but I primarily wanted to get rid of throat issue, be energetic and feel fabulous. The whole foods plant-based diet sounded like the most balanced way of achieving my goals, so I jumped on board.

Within a few weeks, my throat issue resolved itself. I was feeling very energetic, I no longer needed coffee to power my day and I was eating lots of food. I no longer worried about trying to keep my carbohydrate intake low (for fear of excess weight gain), my bowel movements were regular, my skin was clearing up, and overall I felt the best I’d ever felt in a very long time. I was feeling so great; I couldn’t help but share my experience with anyone that cared to listen. My plant-based Instagram account was born around the same time I changed my diet. It was a godsend because it was an outlet to share everything I was eating and to also connect with other people who were on the same journey.

After a few months on Instagram, the people behind some of the accounts I was following started complaining about digestive issues and eventually gave up their vegan diets. I didn’t understand what they were talking about because I was feeling so good. If I’m honest, their complaints sounded like excuses. I didn’t attack them; I simply unfollowed their accounts because they were no longer serving me. I continued to share recipes and educate my audience on how to thrive on a plant-based diet. My account snowballed. Within six months, I gained 13k followers, and after my first year on Instagram, I had over 40k followers. It was surreal. The more publicity I got, the more inspired I was to share and educate my audience about eating a whole food plant-based diet.

When my plant-based diet started to go wrong

Around March 2018, I began to notice that I was no longer feeling as energetic as I did at the beginning of my journey. I also started experiencing trapped wind, bloating and constipation more frequently. At no point during that time did I think it had anything to do with my diet. I just thought I was eating something that was irritating my gut and I needed to figure out what it was. I knew that I got the most bloating when I ate beans so I figured I’d reduce the quantity of beans I was eating. I usually ate at least 240g of cooked beans (approximately 1.5 cups) daily. Legumes are very satiating for me, and at the time were my primary source of protein, iron and folate. I knew I couldn’t eliminate them from my diet because I’d become deficient in crucial minerals. I cut my beans intake by half, and within a week, I got relief. Perfect, or so I thought!

I had become very serious about fitness in August 2017, and I was consistently performing weight-training and HIIT exercises. I had progressed from being able to curl only 3lbs weights to curling 15lbs in April 2018. I progressed from struggling to do lunges with 5lbs weights in August 2017 to using 20lbs in April 2018. As far as I was concerned, I was flying.

Unfortunately, towards the end of May 2018, I noticed something was very off. I was struggling to perform the exercises I was doing with ease. I couldn’t lift as many weights. My knees were aching, and my muscles felt drained all the time. I took lots of days off exercising thinking that perhaps I was over-training. The rest didn’t help, and in fact, my digestion started playing up again. I became very frustrated because apart from helping me stay fit, exercising was my stress relief. I cannot begin to explain how much it helps me with mental health and how much it relaxes me. During extremely stressful periods, exercise is the one thing that balances me out and helps me reset. Being unable to do any at all was very disturbing, and as soon as I noticed I was slipping into a dark place, I made an appointment with my GP.

I explained the situation, and my GP decided that it was essential to get some bloodwork done. The tests detected that I had a critical vitamin D deficiency and that my white blood cell count was meagre. My levels of other nutrients including iron, vitamin B12 were adequate, so my GP prescribed high-strength vitamin D tablets. Thankfully, my vitamin D levels went back up to standard after a few months. I continued supplementing with high-strength vitamin D to stay on the safe side. I should mention that I’ve never had a vitamin D before eating a plant-based diet despite living in England. I know this because I’ve had blood work done regularly due to pregnancy and also because I am a sickle-cell trait. My levels have always been excellent, so I’m sure my deficiency was diet-related. I was eating lots of vitamin D-rich mushrooms, drinking tonnes of fortified plant-based milk and taking regular multivitamin supplements and still fell short.

Once my vitamin D levels normalised, my knee pain and fatigue reduced and I slowly started to get muscle strength back. While all of this was going on, my digestion was still a mess. I was eating fewer beans, and even though it made a significant difference in the beginning, I went back to having constant pain, gas and literally feeling crap. I did more research and found that I needed to change the way I combined my meals. I also needed to stop drinking a lot of water just before, during and after my meals. I started trying to eat either only grains and vegetables or legumes and vegetables. If I were going to eat fruit, it would have to be the first thing I ate, and I made sure I never had fruit with legumes or ate them after eating a meal with lots of beans or lentils. Once again, this helped for a short period, but the same digestive issues came back with a vengeance.

I was tired of suffering in silence, so I asked my audience on Instagram if anyone was having similar issues. No one responded to my question in public. Instead, I got several private messages from people experiencing the same problems. None of them was willing to say it in public because they had such huge followings, they relied on Instagram for income, and they didn’t want to risk any backlash from militant vegans. That was an eye-opener, to say the least. Even though I wasn’t feeling my best, I was determined to make this plant-based thing work.

My next strategy was to cut beans out for a while and eat just peas, tofu and tempeh. Once again, I got relief for a few months, but soon after they too began to cause the problems. All of a sudden cauliflower, broccoli and kale were causing similar digestive issues. Soon after, I couldn’t eat butternut squash, brown rice and most whole grains without being in severe pain. The last straw was me having severe diarrhoea after eating a bowl of salad leaves with tomatoes, cucumbers and tofu.

I remember collapsing on the floor in the bathroom because I was so weak. I cried for several hours out of frustration, self-pity and because I knew I was fighting a losing battle. My body had had enough, and I didn’t want to accept or believe it. Around that time, my mood swings were ridiculous. I was snapping at my kids and everyone all the time because my stomach was always sore, distended and tender to touch. I frequently had trapped wind whether or not I ate and my colon was congested. I was intermittent fasting for 18-20 hours every day to give my stomach a break and to help push the junk out of my colon. It was helpful, but it wasn’t a solution.

My teeth became sensitive. I couldn’t eat whole nuts; they would have to be crushed or flaked. Granola was also difficult to chew, so I would let it soften in milk or yoghurt before I ate it. Considering I am not a big fruit eater, this was extremely strange. I don’t have a sweet tooth either; I’d much rather eat vegetables than fruit. If you look on my Instagram page, you’d see, that I rarely post sweet breakfast or smoothie bowls, and that’s genuinely because I don’t eat them often. 95% of my meals are savoury, the only times I eat fruit (mostly berries too) are when I have oatmeal, and that’s it. Why my teeth became sensitive despite mainly eating whole, savoury foods was a mystery.

I started becoming scared to eat because almost all of the foods I use to enjoy eating without problems were irritating my gut. I knew that if I continued I would not only start to lose weight, I would also become severely malnourished and possibly develop an autoimmune condition. As a medical scientist, it would be foolish and irresponsible of me to allow myself to get to that point.

My audience on Instagram follow me because they believe I thrive on a plant-based diet and because they trust me to provide them with evidence-based nutrition advice.

How could I continue down this path when I knew I was no longer thriving? How could I keep showing off bowls of foods that I knew were causing me so much pain and which half the time I couldn’t eat because I knew if I ate them I would be in agony for days.

I needed to think long and hard about what I was doing and bring this nightmare to an end. It took me a month to decide to end my plant-based journey, and it took me another month to announce it on Instagram. I wasn’t going to start incorporating any meat-based product back into my diet before I announced it, so I suffered for another month after deciding what I was going to do before I did it.

Based on my experience, do I think an entirely plant-based diet is healthy?

In the short-term, I 100% believe it is. I will never forget how good I felt in the first eighteen months so I think you should give it a go if you’re considering it. Some people allegedly thrive on it long-term but, with long-term ex-vegans confessing to cheating more than a few times with eggs and dairy during their vegan journey, it is tough to believe that anyone can do this indefinitely without running into problems.

Most of the influential plant-based doctors and companies cite blue-zone areas as populations that thrive off vegan diets. Unfortunately, these areas are not vegan. Seventh-day Adventists are mostly vegetarian, and there are barely any long-term vegans. You can survive off a vegan diet, but I don’t believe that you can thrive off of it.

If ethics is your primary driver to adopt a plant-based diet, I understand that animal welfare is far more important than your health so fair play to you. I cannot follow you on that journey, and I sincerely hope you won’t force or bully anyone else into doing the same. Remember that your fellow human is also an animal. They are responsible for creating the device you’re reading this off of, and they are responsible for creating all of the technology that we shamelessly enjoy today. Humans are also animals that deserve to live. They cannot all thrive on a plant-exclusive diet, and they should not be ridiculed for it.

If a plant-based diet is about health for you, go for it! However, once you start to experience health issues, don’t be afraid to alter your diet. You don’t have to become a carnivore; you can incorporate the barest amount of animal products back into your diet. Ethics never leaves your mind once you’ve connected with it, but it is not the only way to support animal welfare. You can do it by eating only ethically raised animals, and by buying just cruelty-free cosmetics, toiletries, and household cleaning products.

You can help the environment by avoiding single-use plastics, recycling more often and reducing food waste. If you are an educator, encourage others on how to adopt these same principles. There will be a more significant impact on the planet if everyone does a little bit.

Would I ever eat an entirely plant-based or vegan diet again? In the short-term (perhaps a few days or weeks at a time), sure! I can certainly see myself doing that. But long-term, never again. For my body, it just doesn’t work. I will be of no use to anyone, fatigued, sick and angry.

What do I plan to do next? I’ll cover that in my next post. This one already qualifies as an MSc dissertation. Lol!


Comments (16)

  • Samantha

    March 21, 2019 at 3:48 PM

    It is totally fine if you don’t want to follow a vegan diet, but I think it’s irresponsible to say that it’s not appropriate enough of a diet to thrive on for your full life. There are individuals who are born vegan and continue to thrive now with no issues. Just because it didn’t work for you, you shouldn’t say it is not realistic for people in the long term. Many dietetic associations also agree that BOTH vegetarian and vegan diets are sustainable for the entire lifecycle. There could have been many reasons or triggers for your current situation that you might not have explored. I do not fault you or blame you for going back to animal products especially with how poorly you felt. If anything, it would be fair to say that you tried a number of things and weren’t able to find the solution you needed in a timely manner to help you at this time. Animal products don’t have a magic ingredient that make digestive issues go away. If anything it probably decreased the amount of fiber you were originally getting that you couldn’t tolerate. Again, my comments aren’t to criticize your decision. You can do what makes you feel best, but it’s definitely not fair to conclude based on your opinion or experience that a well planned vegan diet is something you can only just survive on. You absolutely can thrive on it and it’s in the medical literature or again major dietary bodies wouldn’t promote this lifestyle.

    1. Somi Igbene

      March 21, 2019 at 3:58 PM

      Hi Samantha!

      Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your views. “Irresponsible” is a harsh word to use, but you are entitled to your opinion. In theory, dietetic associations agree that both vegetarian and vegan diets are sustainable for the entire life cycle but there is no medical evidence to prove it. The theory is based on being able to get all the micronutrients you need to stay healthy – and for me, that theory was almost 100% accurate.

      I have not said that animal products have a magic ingredient that makes digestive issues go away. As I said in my post, I knew that if I continued eating the way I was, I would eventually develop several micronutrient deficiencies, 1. from undereating and 2. from being unable to extract any nutrients from my food due to gut inflammation.

      No randomised, long-term studies have been done on multi-cultural populations to show that a well-planned vegan diet is suitable for everyone. Like I said, I will never bash a plant-exclusive diet because when it works, it is amazing!

      1. sri

        June 28, 2020 at 7:17 PM

        Hi Somi, I have been following you for a while and I love all your posts. I love reading your little stories, narratives around each of your post including this one. No one should be made to feel embarrassed to live a lifestyle they chose. We should always do what’s good for our body and mind. I do have one thing to say based on your comment regarding 100% vegetarian diets are only theory. In India we have Vegetarians (some religions strictly calls for vegetarian diet) eating plant based diet for 1000s of years now. And I simply don’t agree that it is just a theory. If you explore Indian culture you will find out that a lot of us have been living healthy lives just eating plant based vegetarian diets for many generations. Something I wanted to share with you. Hope you feel better and get well soon. Best wishes!

  • Nell

    March 22, 2019 at 2:48 PM

    How do you feel after having incorporated meat back into your diet? Has it solved your health issues?

    1. Somi Igbene

      March 22, 2019 at 2:53 PM

      I have only added seafood and eggs back into my diet. I only started eating them three days ago, so its too early to say. That said, I haven’t experienced any bloating or abdominal pain. I need a few months at least to assess the impact on my health.

  • MelDee

    April 2, 2019 at 9:36 PM

    Best wishes on your journey and recovery. I do love your account

    1. Somi Igbene

      April 3, 2019 at 11:29 AM

      Thank you so much for stopping by and for your support. I really appreciate it 🙂

  • Kelly

    April 4, 2019 at 12:03 PM

    I love your account Somi, thank you for this well written post. It is extremely refreshing for someone with such a huge following to be honest and bear the backlash. Wishing you all the best on your journey to health and well-being and thank you for taking us along for the ride!

    1. Somi Igbene

      April 8, 2019 at 3:48 PM

      Hi Kelly

      Thank you so much for reading my post and leaving such a supportive comment. It was an incredibly difficult thing to do, but honesty is so important to me and I’m glad I’ve done it.

  • Tola

    April 27, 2019 at 7:41 PM

    Fantastic post Somi! Keep up the good work in educating and sharing your journey. I wish you a speedy recovery X

    1. Somi Igbene

      May 3, 2019 at 12:12 PM

      Thank you so much, Tola!

  • Erica

    May 21, 2019 at 2:15 PM

    So brave and humble of you to tell the truth about your health crisis. Thank you for being true to yourself and for sharing your journey

    1. Somi Igbene

      May 28, 2019 at 1:07 PM

      And thank you too for leaving such a supportive comment! I really appreciate it. Love & Blessings to You 🙂

  • Debbie turner(Sotis)

    June 13, 2019 at 12:44 PM

    Thank you for your insight and honesty.I too struggled and found there are no dietary absolutes and our guts have their own opinions regarding food.Awareness and flexibility …..

    1. Somi Igbene

      June 13, 2019 at 2:48 PM

      Awareness and flexibility is EVERYTHING! You’re welcome and I’m so glad that you found this post useful.

  • Sarah M.

    June 28, 2020 at 7:36 PM

    Thank you for sharing! I have been 100% plant-based for 27 years and have thrived off of my diet. I had 3 pregnancies and raised all 3 of my kids vegan. Having said that, we discovered my son was having inflammation issues from plant proteins when he was 20 years old. He is no longer plant-based, which is what his body needs. We are all different. I’m thankful you feel safe to share your story.

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