A couple years ago, after doing some genetic testing, I found out my body has a Vitamin A problem. Or I should say had a problem. But before I get into that, let me tell you a story.
As a kid I was very healthy. My parents helped provide balanced meals and I got lots of exercise. In middle school I started running cross-country. I loved the sport and spent lots of time and energy trying to figure out how to get faster. I decided that I should eat less fat and more carbohydrates. I recently pulled out an old journal from health class in middle school and I had written “I am not going to eat butter on my bread because it is not healthy.” I can remember that I followed this principle quite a bit. In addition, because I had heard of the principle of ‘carb loading’ I began to eat a lot of carbohydrates so I could run faster. I tried to eat mostly carbohydrates and avoid fat. This meant I was consciously eating more grains and less animal foods that contained fat, protein and other important nutrients. At home, meals were generally what would be considered well balanced. If I went to a church potluck or somewhere else where I had the opportunity, I ate A LOT of carbs. It seems there is always plenty of pasta, bread, desserts and other high carbohydrate, low fat foods at a potluck.
As I got older I experienced two very common health problems. Declining vision and acne. These are considered very normal parts of life for many teenagers. My vision started to get worse in elementary school and the acne started around high school. I believe it was somewhere around the 4th grade that I got glasses. And it seemed every year I needed to get a new prescription. My eyes were getting worse. The acne got worse as well. I tried all the normal things to combat acne. I washed my face religiously. I tried many face cleaning products and topical medications. I tried oral medication like antibiotics. I ate a low fat, high carbohydrate diet. Nothing seemed to work. In fact it seemed like a lot of those things had no affect on my acne.
I certainly didn’t eat the best diet in college. Remembering those days, I ate a lot of cereal, bread, ice cream, orange juice, oatmeal, low fat yogurt, pasta, pizza and ice cream. I remember quite a few suppers of ice cream mixed with cereal. What was I thinking? I certainly was eating significantly less meat and animals products than I do today. Soon after college, it seemed the acne improved somewhat. However, my eyesight continued to decline.
Both the declining vision and acne persisted well into my adult years. I had always heard that I would grow out of my acne. However, I remember in the weeks leading up to my wedding (I was 24 years old at that point), hoping that my acne wouldn’t be too bad. I had contacts by that point which was great, but each year at the eye doctor my prescription got worse.
After getting married to my beautiful wife Carmen, things began to change. First of all, I was eating significantly better than I had been in college thanks to her tasty and healthy cooking. Second, Carmen began to share information with me that challenged my beliefs about what a healthy diet was. Two of the first books I remember her reading were Gut and Psychology Syndrome and Nourishing Traditions. I began to question whether a low fat, high carbohydrate diet was really healthy. I also became motivated to start learning more about nutrition. Wow! I quickly learned how wrong my nutritional beliefs were. Over time I realized there were numerous healthy fats and that meat was healthy as well. I learned that consuming a lot of carbohydrates, even whole grains, could cause health problems. I also learned that the way animals are raised dramatically affects the nutrition in our food. I admit it, I became that annoying person that tells all their friends and relatives all about what I learned and how they should change their eating habits. I also became a grass-fed beef farmer. Here’s where things got really interesting.
After becoming a beef farmer and eating a diet more focused around red meat and vegetables, I realized that my acne was almost always gone and my eyesight had stopped getting worse. I’ve now been mostly acne free for about the length of time that I’ve been a beef farmer. I say mostly acne free because I still do get pimples from time to time. Generally this happens soon after eating my old high carbohydrate, low fat, low meat diet. For example I got one or two pimples recently after being at a hotel for breakfast. What did I eat at that hotel’s free breakfast? Something like this: Waffles with butter and syrup (that fake maple syrup), fruit loops with low fat milk, fat free sugar sweetened yogurt, scrambled eggs on an English muffin with a turkey sausage patty. That’s a far cry from my normal breakfasts of steak and/or eggs and a glass of raw milk or occasionally homemade baked oatmeal or granola with whole raw milk.
Now there’s a little secret about the way I eat (OK there’s two secrets but I’ll tell you the other one later), I eat a diet that happens to be very high in preformed Vitamin A also known as retinol. Beef liver, which is incredibly high in retinol, is a common meal at our house. If you calculate what I eat compared to the average American, it would be quite evident that I eat significantly more retinol. We’re getting to how real Vitamin A changed my life.
In 2015 I started my interest in genetics as it relates to nutrition. I mailed out my saliva sample to have my genetics read, got my results back and started to learn how to interpret them. I took the raw genetic data and ran it through some websites which could show what polymorphisms I had in my genetics. A polymorphism is just a word that means “a difference” or a “genetic variation”. As it turns out we’re not all the same! I found out all kinds of things that were interesting, like my slow metabolism of caffeine, which explained why I could drink a cup of tea when I got up in the morning and it would affect my sleep that night. In 2016 I found out something very important about my genetics, that I wished I had known my whole life. My body is significantly impaired at converting beta-carotene from plants into retinol (the form of Vitamin A the body needs). I have learned that real Vitamin A (retinol) is very important for skin health and eye health. It is no longer surprising to me that I struggled with two health issues that retinol is critical for. I don’t believe retinol is the only thing that has helped heal my skin and stopped my eyesight decline. However, I do believe that consuming foods high in pre-formed Vitamin A is a very important part of what brought me healing. I also believe for those of us who have one or more BCMO1 polymorphism (between 40% and 50% of all humans), it is critical for our health to eat a diet that contains foods with plenty of retinol. This polymorphism is one of the main reasons why some people’s health declines so quickly on a Vegan diet. If you do have a polymorphism that inhibits the conversion of beta-carotene into retinol, consider eating more of the foods that contain pre-formed vitamin A: dairy, meat and especially liver. Even if you don’t have a polymorphism that inhibits your conversion of beta-carotene to retinol, you should still consider increasing the amount of retinol in your diet because there are many people who are poor converters due other factors.
Here’s the other secret I promised you and I hope it’s good news to you. I don’t always eat healthy and I don’t think you need to eat perfectly either. I try to eat a higher fat, lower carbohydrate, nutrient dense, diet most of the time. If I’m out with friends or on vacation or on a date with my wife, I don’t worry too much about following this way of eating. Having fun is also part of staying healthy. The way I see it, if you’re eating right most of the time and occasionally eat poorly, your overall health should be very good.
I believe that real Vitamin A has truly changed my life for the better. I wrote this article so that you could understand how important true Vitamin A (retinol) has been in my life and learn how it can help you. I hope that learning this information will help you make changes to live a healthier, happier, and longer life and to help others around you do the same.