EDMONTON, Alberta — An ex-vegan whose hair started falling out in chunks claims that the diet almost killed her — and that eating meat again saved her life. Kai-Lee Worsley, originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, became a vegan after learning about factory farming.
The 25-year-old stopped eating all products derived from animals and started eating protein-rich vegetables instead. She also took supplements to ensure she met nutritional requirements. However, six months into her new diet, Kai-Lee started to feel unwell.
Her hair started to fall out, her fingernails became brittle, and she found it difficult to stand up. She stuck with the diet for a few more months but her symptoms became too intense to ignore. Less than a year after switching to a vegan diet, Kai-Lee started eating meat again and she says that it literally saved her life.
“Now I eat basically the same thing as when I was a vegan except I have steak three times a week,” Worsley says in an online video. “I’ve swapped meat substitutes for meat. It has literally saved my life.”
Learning about animal abuse led to Kai-Lee’s decision
Kai-Lee, an author and entrepreneur, went vegan after moving to Santa Ana, California, in August 2018. When she arrived in Santa Ana, Kai-Lee moved in with a group of vegans who taught her about factory farming and the suffering and abuse faced by animals.
For Kai-Lee, it was a turning point and she decided to go vegan.
“What convinced me is the way animals were treated,” the 25-year-old explains. “I didn’t know how animals were treated in factory farms. I didn’t know factory farms existed.”
Kai-Lee stopped eating all products derived from animals, switching to protein-rich foods including vegetables, beans, and legumes. She also started taking supplements to make up for the lack of meat-based proteins in her body.
Her body reacted to this diet months later
Just six months later, Kai-Lee’s skin started to break out and she suffered a bad bout of acne, something she had never experienced before. Her hair started to fall out and her fingernails were becoming brittle and broke easily. She also felt so dizzy that she found it difficult to stand.
“I was extremely tired all the time. I couldn’t form coherent thoughts,” the young woman recalls. “I would just lie in bed multiple times a week and I would spend all day in bed if I could. My nails were breaking all the time. My hair was falling out. I have thin hair anyway but my hair was just coming out in chunks.”
Kai-Lee stuck to the diet until June 2019 when her symptoms became even more intense. She just moved to Toronto when one day in her kitchen she started to feel so dizzy that she started seeing stars.
“I was sitting in my kitchen feeling so lightheaded that I was seeing stars,” Kai-Lee says. “I remember thinking, if I die right now no one would know.”
By then, Kai-Lee had been a vegan for 10 months, but she felt she had no choice but to abandon her convictions for her own well-being.
“I went to a butcher in Greek Town and bought a single steak and brought it home,” Kai-Lee says in her video. “I didn’t even know how to cook meat anymore, so it was horrible. As soon as I took a couple of bites I felt better. I could feel myself having more energy.”
Kai-Lee still struggles with the decision to eat meat
Despite feeling the benefits of eating meat, Kai-Lee morally struggled to abandon her vegan diet.
“I really thought veganism was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I even saw myself as an activist. After I ate meat, I saw myself as a fraud. I even had a V tattoo in my ear, which stood for vegan,” the former vegan explains.
“I was at that point when I was so indoctrinated that it was really hard to go back. I didn’t tell anyone at the beginning. I was worried what they would think about me. I think when you’re so indoctrinated in something it’s really hard to back away, but I’m glad that I was able to do it in time.”
So, what can go wrong with a vegan diet?
Although there are plenty of different ways to approach a plant-based diet, a recent study found more than half of all vegans consume an unhealthy diet filled with processed meat alternatives, sweets, and snacks.
Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna (MUV) discovered that vegans tend to exercise more than the average person. However, the experts also identified two types of vegan diets: “convenience” and “health-conscious.”
Convenience vegans, who make up 53 percent of the study participants, consumed more processed fish and meat alternatives, vegan savory snacks, sauces, cakes, sweets, convenience foods, fruit juices, and refined grains. In contrast, the health-conscious group, making up 47 percent, ate more fresh vegetables, fruits, potatoes, whole meal products, vegetable oils and fats, and protein and milk alternatives.
Published in the journal Nutrients, the study aimed to provide a snapshot of contemporary veganism during the surge in ultra-processed meat and dairy alternatives. The researchers examined 516 individuals with an average age of 28 who had been vegan for at least three months at the start of the study.
“Being vegan is not inherently synonymous with being ‘healthy.’ The negative effects of industrially processed foods on health have now been clearly proven in studies,” says study director Professor Maria Wakolbinger in a university release.
“With the main consumption of ready-made food, there is a 29 percent higher risk of all-cause mortality, up to a 51 percent higher risk of overweight or obesity, a 29 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and a 74 percent higher risk of Type 2 diabetes mellitus for people who eat a mixed diet.”
Studies still show vegan diets can provide many health benefits
Despite the possibility of choosing the wrong foods, many studies promote the great health benefits a vegan diet can provide.
In 2022, scientists with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that eating a low-fat vegan diet (without any calorie restrictions) can improve joint pain symptoms in patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Even if you aren’t experiencing any arthritis pain, the research found other benefits linked to a vegan diet. Study participants also lost excess weight and saw their cholesterol levels improve.
While Kai-Lee benefitted from a switch back to meat, a recent study found that using vegan protein works just as well to build muscle as animal proteins.
“Our study demonstrates that mycoprotein is comparable to animal proteins in terms of its ability to facilitate increases in muscle mass and strength in young adults who are regularly engaging in resistance training,” says study co-author Alistair Monteyne, a researcher at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, in a media release.
South West News Service writer Leo Black contributed to this report.