John Nicholson spent most of his adult life as a soy-munching vegan and paid for his “healthy lifestyle” with lousy health. His story is similar in many ways to Lierre Keith’s, but their story-telling styles could hardly be more different. Keith’s writing is poetry. Nicholson’s is comedy … that is, if you don’t mind laughing at a guy who suffered for many years.
Nicholson is a British sportswriter, which is probably why his book The Meat Fix is so thoroughly enjoyable. Sportswriters are often the most colorful, witty journalists on newspaper staffs – or perhaps they’re just the ones who are allowed to be colorful and witty. In either case, Nicholson is laugh-out-loud funny as he recounts his life as a vegan, the health problems he developed as a result, and his road back to health. (You can probably guess which road he took from the title.)
As a self-described latter-day hippie, Nicholson gave up meat for the usual reasons: it’s better for your health, better for the planet, and of course it’s the morally superior path – the same beliefs that Lierre Keith sliced and diced so thoroughly in her book. Like Keith, Nicholson was quite proud of his vegan diet … for awhile, anyway.
The thing is, I wasn’t just a non-meat eater, I was Mr. Wholefood: brown rice, healthy vegetable oils, lentils, beans, tofu, nuts, fruits and vegetables. All the stuff doctors now tell you to eat, well, I started hoovering all that up way back in the mid 1980s when it had only just become part of the “healthy” eating advice and when very few outside of the small community of hairy, bearded, dope-smoking, wholefood-eating New Agers had even heard of it.
So for twenty-six years I ate no cholesterol, no animal fats and ate polyunsaturated and wholegrain everything … I really was a walking advert for healthy eating. You couldn’t eat more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff than me. If there was a competition for healthy eating, I’d have won hands down – and I was told as much by doctors and nutritionists year after year.
That was, of course, Nicholson’s mistake: listening to doctors and nutritionists. A lot of us have made the same mistake, but he paid a higher price than most.
All well and good, but there was trouble in paradise. I was ill. Really ill. And I’d been ill for the majority of those twenty-six years.
For years I lived with what would come to be known as IBS: irritable bowel syndrome. Starting back in 1993 as a vague feeling of digestive discomfort, it escalated to the point where every meal would leave me feeling like I had lead weights in my gut, my belly bloated and distended and my digestive tract in revolt in the most dramatic and unpleasant way. If you had a cruel sense of humor, you could say I was a dirty protest waiting to happen.
I’d test the sewage system’s capacity by passing out vast slurries of burning effluent which left me feeling sweaty and exhausted. This would happen seven or eight times a day during the worst periods. It was like this to a greater or lesser degree after every meal, every day, every month, every year, on and on and on for seventeen years. Yeah, how d’ya like me now?
What’s more, slowly but surely, year after year, I kept putting on weight until I was clinically obese.
Toss in sky-high cholesterol (which of course led to a prescription for statins), fatigue, headaches and gastric reflux, and it all adds up to a miserable existence, even though Nicholson invites the reader to laugh at his misery.
In one chapter, he describes strolling down Michigan Avenue in Chicago and feeling a gut spasm he knew signaled an impending explosion. He ran into the nearby Art Institute, only to find a long line of people standing between him and the toilets. He dashed over to a security guard and begged to be allowed in immediately. It was only his best Hugh Grant/charming-Englishman impression that swayed the dubious guard, who at first insisted he had to wait in line like everyone else.
“Yes, yes, quite and rightly so, but this is very, very urgent. If I wait, I will quite assuredly be making an absolutely awful mess of this expensive marble floor, and I’d hate to do that. Could I just run through without queuing?”
The guard relented, and Nicholson sprinted to the men’s room with no time to spare. As he puts it:
I was seconds from deploying that most unwanted of verbs: brown-trousering.
Early in the book, Nicholson describes his working-class childhood and the typical British fare his family consumed. Yes, there was some sugar, bread and other junk, but they also ate meats, organs, eggs, and full-fat diary products. His parents and grandparents, he explains, considered low-fat diets and especially vegan diets as radical and weird.
But of course, that’s part of what made going animal-free so appealing. Nicholson recounts the years he and his longtime girlfriend spent in totally-hip Southern California, where ordering tofu scrambles in restaurants gave the British working-class kid a seat at the cool kids’ table, so to speak. No fuddy-duddy bourgeois diet for him anymore … he was now a full-throttle vegan and smug about it.
Once we had established this as a way of life, we really loved it. As a vegan you are top of the moral food tree – or so you think, anyway. You are a big notch above mere vegetarians and the vegetarians know it. So vegans win … To the more militant vegan, the vegetarian is little better than the meat-eater: someone too weak to give up animal products; too enslaved to the killing machine.
Back in England a few years later, Nicholson began to experience the bloating, gas and diarrhea that would evolve into IBS. Naturally, he sought advice from doctors. After working his way through the National Health Service system, with weeks and sometimes months of waiting to see the next doctor in a chain of referrals, he ended up being examined by a supposed specialist.
This was a bit of joke, really. When you’re told some is a specialist, you expect them to have more knowledge than your average doctor, don’t you? Certainly more than a drunken man on the street. I’m not sure the man I saw could make such a claim. Perhaps he was just a drunken man on the street masquerading as a specialist.
The specialist, of course, prescribed a fiber supplement.
I immediately thought this was an idiotic notion because had he looked at my diet diaries, he would have realized I ate more fiber than a horse. Remember I’m eating brown rice, whole-meal bread and a dozen portions of fruits and veg a day. No human on earth was eating more fiber than me. If my stools were going to be solidified by fiber they would have already been. But he didn’t listen to me and preferred only to hear his own misinformed ignorance.
Against his better judgment, Nicholson took the fiber supplement. You can guess what happened next.
The Fibrogel induced some of the most violent reactions I have ever suffered from. I took it twice and it sent me onto a new level of gross-out symptoms as I passed the entire contents of my body into the toilet in a constant stream of jellified slurry, my guts in spasm and my whole body in a cold sweat.
I know what you’re thinking: why on earth didn’t he just give up the vegan diet? As someone who spent years getting fatter and sicker on a vegetarian diet before wising up, I can tell you why: it’s damned difficult to give up a cherished belief, especially when all the supposed experts insist your diet is a good one. The problem must be with you, not with the oh-so-healthy diet.
It wasn’t even Nicholson who suggested trying what he now calls The Meat Fix. It was Dawn, his significant other. As his health continued to decline (and hers, although to a lesser degree) and doctors proved themselves incapable of providing answers, she finally told him they needed to try eating meat again. After mulling it over, Nicholson agreed.
So the next day they walked into an organic farm shop feeling lost, strange and somewhat guilty.
I half expected an alarm to go off and the woman behind the counter to point to us, shake her head and say, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t serve you. You’re a vegetarian and you don’t believe in animals being killed for food. These are all corpses, you know, they’re not soya meat.”
It really did feel that illegal. It seemed like we must surely stand out in some way, as though we had big green Vs on our foreheads.
They were so unfamiliar with eating meat, they had to go online to learn how to cook it. Nicholson returned to the world of eating animals with a piece of liver, but cooked it nearly to a crisp because he couldn’t bear the sight of blood on his plate.
That changed in a hurry. Once he got over the initial revulsion of being a meat-eater again, he cooked a grass-fed steak and found that eating it was a nearly religious experience.
As I bit into it and the flavor washed over my taste buds, I was amazed. A tingle shot down my spine. The rich meaty juiciness was mind-blowing … This was a raw, basic and quite shocking primal response. It was quite the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt when not on drugs.
… The degree of satisfaction and satiation I experienced wasn’t like any meal I’d had as a vegetarian. This caught me utterly by surprise. Perhaps it’s like having sex for twenty-six years without realizing you haven’t had an orgasm, then one day, woo-hoo, you find out what you’ve been missing for so long.
Over the next several weeks, Nicholson and Dawn consumed foods that once had a face with a vengeance: steaks, liver, pork chops, venison, chicken and fish. They dumped the soy substitutes completely. Doctors couldn’t cure Nicholson’s ailments, but The Meat Fix did.
So how exactly did this new old-fashioned, meaty, fatty, fishy and creamy diet affect me? In short, in every way possible. It’s now been eighteen months since I started eating meat, and so many changes have occurred.
My IBS vanished immediately and has not returned, not even once for old times’ sake. I get no bloating, no upset bowels, no stomach pains. It now all works normally and regularly as I remember it before I stopped eating meat. All those years of suffering are now a thing of the past. Mind blowing. I thought I was stuck with it forever. Even today I am still amazed by this.
I’ve also lost a lot of body fat … Within a couple of months, I had dropped a stone in weight, all of which must have been fat, taking me from 23 percent to 15 percent bodyfat. At the same time, I began to put on muscle from my thrice-weekly gym visits. I became broader of shoulder and more narrow at the waist even though I wasn’t working any harder than previously.
Believe it or not, what I’ve described so far is all from the first half of the book. The second half begins with a chapter titled Everything You Know Is Wrong and goes from there. After putting a supposedly heart-stopping food back into his diet ended years of suffering and ill health, Nicholson of course wanted to know why. So he began digging into the real science of nutrition and health, much as I did when creating Fat Head. In the rest of the book, he writes about what he’s learned: no, animal fat won’t kill you; yes, saturated fats and cholesterol are good for you; no, grains and soybeans aren’t the basis for a healthy diet, etc.
Most of these chapters cover familiar ground for dedicated Fat Heads and paleo types, but Nicholson’s witty writing makes them a pleasure to read even if the information isn’t new to the reader.
The book ends with a discussion of government food policies. Like me, Nicholson doesn’t believe government officials or the medical industry got together and conspired to make entire populations fat and sick, but of course that’s been the result of their recommendations. Also like me, he doesn’t expect government officials to fess up and admit they were wrong anytime soon. It’s up to us to educate our peers. This book is an outstanding resource for anyone who needs educating.
Think of it as a de-programming guide for those who’ve been brainwashed by the dope-smoking, bearded, sandal-wearing, soy-munching New Age crowd. As Nicholson puts it:
Your lesson here is that oldest of adages, get it printed on a t-shirt, hell, I’ll even print it on a t-shirt for you. NEVER TRUST A HIPPY.
p.s. — I’m traveling to Chicago on Friday and returning Sunday. Months ago a work buddy and I made plans to attend a White Sox game on Friday and a Cubs game on Saturday. He’s on a mission to see a game in every major league park. I had hoped to be off the crutches by now, but so it goes. I’ll crutch my way around the stadiums. Anyway, I’ll check comments when I can, but I won’t be near a computer very much until I return home.