Every year, for the past 5 years in the UK, there has been a movement known as ‘veganuary’. People pledge to give up meat, dairy and all animal products for the month of January and eat a vegan diet.
Each year increasing numbers of people take up the pledge and there is a lot of media attention on veganism. And each year I think about taking part, but haven’t done so. This year I gave it a go, and this is my experience of being a low histamine vegan . . .
Why did I try to be a low histamine vegan?
As someone who hasn’t eaten meat since childhood, only re-introduced fish in the past two years and is rather lactose intolerant so hasn’t drunk milk for about ten years, the idea of being vegan (or plant-based) has been rather intriguing.
For both health and ethical reasons, I have chosen not to meat from a young age. When I decided, age 11, to stop eating meat my mum was supportive, but presumed it was a phase. A few decades on and I think she has realised that it isn’t!
Despite being vegetarian I continued to eat dairy and eggs (always free-range). But over the past few years I have toyed with taking it one step further and being a vegan. There is so much more provision for a vegan diet in the past few years, with cafes providing vegan options and supermarkets having increasing numbers of vegan ranges and products. It seems easier and easier to be vegan, or plant-based.
MCAS, a low histamine diet and veganism
But there’s a catch to this seemingly easily transition to being vegan for me personally . . .
A few years ago I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome and for the past year or so have been eating a low histamine diet as a means to control the condition and ease my symptoms. MCAS, as it is known, to put it simply means that your mast cells, which all of us have, release too much histamine and other chemicals. It is condition that has an association with the conditions postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and hypermobility Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS), both of which I am diagnosed with.
If you have MCAS you may have been advised to eat a low histamine diet, perhaps alongside taking anti-histamines, mast cell stabilisers and quercetin.* To help me further with my diet, I saw a dietician who specialised in the condition and who recommended that I try a low histamine diet (it was also recommended by my immunologist). She was also very helpful in recommending certain food items, such a protein powder that I have included on my low histamine shopping list page, in case that is helpful.
Just to make things a bit more tricky, however, I also have to avoid some high fodmap foods due to having IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and more recently having been diagnosed with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). For me personally, foods including broccoli, apples and cow's milk are a no-go, or can only be consumed in small amounts.
My attempt at being a low histamine vegan
Despite my already restricted diet I decided this year to give being a low histamine vegan a go. I hadn’t ever intended to make this a permanent shift, but I was curious to see if it had any impact on my health. It was to challenge myself to see if I could have more vegan meals or entire days of eating a vegan diet with a view to potentially decreasing my dairy intake a little in the long-term.
The first few days were easy. I started my day, as I always do, with porridge made with plant-based milk. I either did it with fruit, nuts and seeds, or my carrot cake porridge. Lunch and dinner were based on quinoa as a source of protein with more nuts and seeds, especially hemp seeds and sesame seeds for their protein and calcium content, respectively. I ate even more vegetables than I usually do, which is already a lot, and included things like coconut milk into dishes. Pasta, rice and potatoes were consumed voraciously!
But then it went wrong . . .
After 4-5 days I started to feel two things: hungry and bored. No matter how much food I ate I was still hungry, especially at night. I went to bed with a slight hunger that ultimately meant I wasn’t sleeping as well. Not a great idea with vestibular migraine and other chronic illnesses.
I was also bored of my meals. Usually a vegan or plant-based diet is full of foods that I absolutely love, and which you can make delicious filling meals with. I am one of those people who loves vegetables and would happily eat chickpeas, beans and lentils. This is where the problem lies for me. As a low histamine vegan, a lot of foods are restricted that usually make up a large part of that diet – think tomatoes, spinach, avocados, some herbs and spices.
And not enough protein
More problematically, most vegan sources of protein are also restricted on a low histamine diet – beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, seitan, quorn etc, and I know that I cannot tolerate them. So my protein sources were heavily restricted to quinoa, some seeds and nuts and the more tiny amounts found in vegetables. Basically I wasn’t getting enough protein to satiate me or fuel my body for its needs.
I had foreseen that lack of protein was a potential problem and had planned what I thought would be a good list of meals and snacks to overcome this. So I prioritised having a smoothie with Pulsin brown rice protein powder everyday as my dietician recommended it as a good option for those on a low histamine (and vegan) diet, I ate smoothie bowls making sure to omit honey and high protein quinoa salad bowls. I was eating many, many, energy balls, going through seeds at an alarming rate and buying a packet of quinoa every few days.
But it wasn’t enough. Aside from being repetitive, eating a low histamine vegan diet for all meals, rather than one or two a day, just wasn’t sustainable for me. I was hungry, not sleeping well and didn’t have as much energy. At a time when I am trying to to increase my fitness levels it just wasn’t working. I need to fuel my body to function in the best possible way. To help my muscles propel me around the park when I want to run, and my brain to concentrate when I am working. I need adequate quantities of protein, as well as carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals.
Reluctantly then, I had to admit defeat after about ten days. It frustrated me terribly me to do this, not least because I had made a pledge on the veganuary website and hate giving up on a challenge I have set myself. My health, however, has to come first. I am dealing with enough issues as it is. Adding extra fatigue and hunger into the equation is harmful to me.
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure whether to post this piece at all in case I got a lot of criticism (not from my usual followers who are lovely, but others). If you are reading this and are tempted to criticise and tell me I didn’t try hard enough then please try and put yourself in my shoes first. Chronic illness is tough and has to be managed by each individual in the way that is best for them, and for their body. My needs are different to someone else with the exact same health issues, and probably very different from someone who doesn’t have chronic illness to factor into their diet and lifestyle choices.
In my experience being a low histamine vegan full-time isn't possible, but I may well transition in the future as I come to know better ways to fuel my body on a plant-based diet. I regularly eat vegan meals, often two a day, and love them. I feel healthy and light, and they are always delicious.
I really enjoy putting together low histamine vegan recipes and share many on this blog. You can find them on my low histamine recipes page and I also have a round-up of my favourites on my post low histamine vegan recipes. I will definitely be sharing more, so come back for more plant-based ideas!
If you have MCAS or other mast cell disorder, or histamine intolerance, you may find these resources helpful:
Never Bet Against Occam: Mast Cell Activation Disease by Dr Lawrence Afrin
Mast Cells United by Amber Walker
The 4-phase histamine reset plan by Dr Becky Campbell
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UK Amazon product links
Mast Cells United by Amber Walker
The 4-phase histamine rest plan by Dr Becky Campbell
Never Bet Against Occam by Dr Afrin
*always seek medical advice before trying a new supplement
Please follow the advice of your doctor as to all medical treatments, supplements, and dietary choices, as set out in my disclaimer. I am not a medical professional, and this is simply my story and the resources that are helpful to me.
This post contains affiliate links.