Jude Whiley-Morton reflects on his own experiences and interviews others who live with long-term conditions
During lockdown two things happened to me: 1) I caught Covid. 2) I went vegan.
Catching coronavirus and experimenting with veganism were pretty standard in lockdown, along with taking two-hour-long walks, doomscrolling and watching Tiger King. What was unexpected, however, was what happened to me next.
After suffering from a bout of Long Covid in which my previously fit lifestyle disintegrated, I was referred by my GP to undergo blood tests. These tests determined I had developed hypothyroidism, a disease caused when the thyroid – a small, butterfly shaped gland in your neck – fails to produce the hormone thyroxin. Symptoms include weight gain, constipation and depression. Suddenly, I was suffering from a chronic illness: a condition that lasts one year or more and requires ongoing medical attention.
Living with a chronic health condition can be debilitating. For vegans, it can complicate their relationship with their diet. The necessity for those affected by a chronic illness to evaluate what they put in their bodies means every dietary and ethical decision we make must be reframed through the prism of our condition, the medication we take and the lifestyle we lead.
Alternatively, for non-vegans suffering from a chronic illness, vegan diets can sometimes offer a key to living a healthier lifestyle in which symptoms are better managed. What is shared between non-vegans with a chronic illness and healthy vegans is the fact that elements of their lives need to be managed in a way that those of the rest of the world are not. Vegans with chronic illnesses have a particular relationship with diet – which they alter both for health and ethical concerns – that everybody can learn from.
Some consider veganism a ‘cure-all’ diet. Vegan-sceptics, on the other hand, consider veganism a harbinger of ill-health. I remember, upon my diagnosis, my family suggesting my hypothyroidism was a result of my diet. My doctor assured me that this was not the case. In fact, veganism actually helped to ease some symptoms of my illness through allowing me to identify my intolerances and distinguish reactions to food from gastrointestinal symptoms of hypothyroidism.
A revolutionary diet
For some, veganism can be even more freeing. When I spoke to other vegans with chronic illnesses, I was met with intriguing stories of medical recoveries which were attributed to veganism. Despite the lack of strong evidence to support these claims, the below individual experiences make for interesting reading.
Rachel Baker, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, believes a vegan diet revolutionised her life. After struggling from extreme lethargy, blurred vision, and symptoms which affected her ability to care for her children, she watched the documentary Game Changers on Netflix, and went vegan. “Within three months I already started feeling better,” Rachel said. “I upped my intake of nuts, seeds, beans, plant proteins… Now two and a half years on I feel like a different person… I feel engaged with my life and my children and can socialise and enjoy nights out again.”
This experience is corroborated by Stacie Van Cleave, an asthma sufferer: “Veganism eased so many of my symptoms that I was able to reduce my medication intake. Out of the four medications I was on previously, I have eliminated two of them and use the other two as needed… Both of the medications I no longer take (Prednisone and Montelukast) were not good for my long term physical or mental health. Looking back on taking these two prescriptions is frustrating because I suffered a lot of side effects, and my immune system was severely suppressed.”
Vegans with chronic illnesses can find their relationship with the health system complicated. When I was diagnosed, I was assured by my doctor that hypothyroidism was not caused by my diet. One doctor did, however, encourage me to eat eggs – which I reject due to ethical concerns. He said the iodine and selenium in eggs might benefit my thyroid function, and he was right! Luckily for me, these nutrients are available in large quantities through Brazil nuts and supplementation. It was not the egg I needed, but the minerals which they contain. Often, doctors miss this distinction.
Helena Rose Murphy, whose vegan recipes feature on our website (miso, tahini and tofu ramen, walnut, mushroom and black bean tacos and dark chocolate strawberry bark), was vegan for years before discovering she was affected by Crohn’s disease. Vegan for ethical reasons, Helena had similar experiences with doctors, who were concerned by her diet. “When I was first diagnosed with Crohn's there was a degree of alarm when my first Gastroenterologist found out I was vegan… Some of the deficiencies that Crohn's disease patients commonly experience – namely vitamin B12 and iron – are also some of the big ones that people in the vegan community are told to be aware of. However, if a person with Crohn’s’ experiences B12 or iron deficiency, it is not always to do with lack of intake in the diet… Iron deficiency can be caused by malabsorption and/or blood loss in stools, and in my case, I needed a transfusion. That level of depletion was never going to be fixed by having a few more green smoothies!”
Helena has managed to live well on a vegan diet despite her Crohn’s, just like I do with hypothyroidism. This communal experience, of a healthy life facilitated by veganism, is key to having a chronic illness as a vegan. Our lives consist of advising each other so that we can live as healthily and ethically as possible. Encouraging non-vegans to go vegan is part of this. As some chronic illnesses can be induced by overconsumption of meat and dairy, promoting veganism now might save our children from suffering the same health issues as us.
My latest blood tests show that my hormone levels are good. I feel better and am mentally happy. What’s more, my cholesterol is the lowest my doctor has ever seen! You don’t get that through a carnist diet. I – and the people I have interviewed – are evidence not only that you can be vegan with a chronic illness, but that you can be healthy with a chronic illness. For me, and those I spoke to, veganism forms an important part of the puzzle.
This blog is based on personal accounts of individuals following a vegan lifestyle with a chronic illness. This information is not intended to be used for medical purposes and we recommend anyone experiencing problems with their health to seek advice from a health professional.
Visit vegansociety.com/nutrition for more information on well-planned vegan diets.
This article was first published in our membership magazine The Vegan 2023 Issue 2.
Are you enjoying this blog? Then why not join The Vegan Society as a member! From just £2 per month, you will get access to our quarterly magazine, The Vegan, receive over 100 discounts, exclusive competitions and more! To become a member or find out more information, please visit our Join Now page.
The views expressed by our bloggers are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.