Why I Stopped Being Vegan After 6 Years and Avoid Diet Labelling
When I first decided to be vegan in 2010 I did so because I didn't enjoy cooking meat, was experimenting with how food affected my mood, and exploring an increased consciousness about how food is produced in our modern world.
I had my copy of Alicia Silverstone's "The Kind Diet" and began trying new ways to prepare food that was nutritionally balanced, kinder to the planet and didn't support factory farming.
My first food blog, Gems in Our Hands, was dedicated to showcasing all the incredible ways you can cook food without using animal products, it was a completely new way of cooking that I loved (and still love) exploring. Like raw vegan desserts. And nut-based creamy sauces. I could go on a riff just about those two things for days, but that's for another post.
When I first went vegan I felt i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e. When I did that switch I also cut out sugar (everything except fruit) for about 3 weeks and I was less bloated, my digestion was markedly improved and besides the initial 4 day detox phase when my body was getting rid of all the crap and transitioning, I had more mental clarity and energy than before.
So I was convinced. I loved being vegan and I loved how it made me feel.
At this time in my life, I was also struggling with my immune system. One alcoholic bevy or late night to bed, and I would get sick. It was a routine, pattern sickness that lasted four days starting with a sore throat, stuffed up nose, sneeze-y snotty mess, then one last day feeling gross before getting better.
Not only was this frustrating because I had to manage what I did so closely to try to not get sick, it was also a huge mystery to me - I ate so well, so why was my immune system so poor?
It's worth telling you what it meant for me to be vegan, so there's nothing let to interpretation. I was eating a whole foods, plant-based diet, that didn't include animal products. I tried not to eat honey, though I'm sure there were some times I did.
I did eat some meat substitutes, like Field Roast products, or those Tofurkey dogs, but mostly got my protein through nuts, beans, lentils, quinoa and the like. I minimized processed foods. I ate a ton of greens, and experimented with many recipes with local foods from the farmers market (and posted them weekly on my food blog, and a few other online publications I wrote for).
Remember, eating vegan (or gluten-free for that matter) is not synonymous with eating healthy.
My health factors
No matter how much spinach and high iron plant based foods that I ate, I was chronically low iron and often anemic (one time even as low as 9 g/dL). I took an iron supplement regularly (bisglycinate is the best form of iron for anyone looking for the most digestible iron that won't wreak havoc on your digestive system) but often still felt the fatigue, dizziness and weakness from low iron.
Iron also plays a critical role in our immune system, and as I delved in to my teachings in holistic health, I realized was one of the reasons that my immune system was so weak.
I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I say diagnosed and it feels weird and not right. I don't see it as something wrong with me, rather one of the ways in which my sensitive and empathic self expresses herself. Society may disagree, and moving beyond the stigma of mental health is one of the things I'm dedicated to, but that's another post.
I've done a lot of personal development and self-inquiry that has led me to have a really good relationship with myself and my fears that lead to anxiety. Over the course of 14 years I've re-invented my relationship to anxiety (and myself) so that triggers that would lead to weeks of anxiety now only last maybe an hour. Food has absolutely been a component of reducing anxiety and was one of the reasons that I started experimenting with what foods I ate.
There are a couple nutrients in particular that support mental health that I found the vegan version of not sufficient: Vitamin D3 and Omega 3.
I was stressed. This topic is so interesting to me now looking back, because I can see with compassion why I was so stressed, and I also now see where I can be responsible for what I was creating myself (the dark side of my perfectionist tendencies, for example). I was a victim to my life for a lot of this time, with everything out of my control, and it really impacted my health. Chronic stress suppresses our immune system (among other health consequences) and there is research to show that stress can cause a decrease in serum iron.
My doctor was also monitoring my thyroid function because of my stress. I was also holding a lot of what I had to say inside of me. I once got a wicked throat infection for a week, the doctors did every test and couldn't diagnose it, and it occurred just after I bit my tongue over something I was really angry about. In eastern medicine, the thyroid (located in our throats) represents self-expression and voice, and I was seeing the physical manifestations of that all the time.
Diet labelling formed part of my identity, instituted rules for my life, and led me to straddle the line of orthorexia (an eating disorder where a person is so focused on healthy eating that it begins to negatively impact their life). I would have an indulgent dessert then immediately think about how I would eat so healthy the next day to somehow 'counteract' the sugar that wasn't good for my body.
Being vegan meant connection and disconnection in my life - stronger bonds with those that enjoyed the same foods that I did, and distance from people who didn't. I used to travel quite a bit for work and bring my own meals, which consequently meant that I didn't eat with the people there (because there weren't vegan options). People get weird with food choices, and it brings out all of our own inner critics and self-judgements we have with our own food choices, health and differences. I never imposed my choices on anyone else, that wasn't my style, but my experience is that when you deny food that is offered to you or don't want to eat at a particular place, it creates disconnection. I still struggle with this.
I 100% believe in the wisdom of the body in craving the foods I need to support my well-being, and it was something that took a lot of consideration for me to shift.
I started craving eggs and meat, and I took that as a sign that I would start experimenting with adding those foods back in and seeing how it felt. There was one time when I was vegan that I accidentally ate a potato that has been used in a roast, and it tasted rancid to me, so I was genuinely curious if I would like it. I did.
I now choose to eat foods that are foraged, locally grown, from local farms and hunted ourselves to the best of my ability, and my goal is to deepen this practice by growing majority of our own food and harvesting it ourselves.
We're starting mushroom totems to grow shiitake and oyster mushrooms.
We're going to keep bees, because more bees are needed, they'll pollenate our garden, and we can produce our own honey.
We'll have a couple chickens for eggs.
I still eat mainly plant-based, because I love vegetables and the tasty meals they make. I also don't eat dairy or gluten, because I find they mess with my hormones and my mood.
A couple times per week I also eat the meat that my partner has hunted or we have foraged: muscles, salmon, halibut, crab, moose, venison, grouse and rabbit. I believe that if I'm going to eat meat, I must have a hand in either raising it or processing it myself.
And with all that said, sometimes I also eat Daiya cheese (what is that stuff even made of?! For processed food, I not so secretly love it), dairy cheese, sugary treats and glutenous things because I'm human and imperfect and have taste buds just like everyone else.
This is how I've chosen to eat that aligns with my beliefs and values about the world, and creates an experience for me that is stress reducing, nourishing and grounding.
And, I may change, because I'm not restricting myself by identifying with a diet label that negatively impacts my health.
I could talk about food for hours, it's something that I'm so passionate about, and I wrote this because there are so many people telling you how to eat, what's the best for your health, and making health claims that it's hard to know which direction to turn to.
What I hope you will take away is this:
- Our health is so much more than what we eat.
- EVERYONE is individual and has unique factors and circumstances in their life that influence their health, and therefore require different foods to support well-being.
- There are no magic bullet solutions to your health. What works for me may not work for you - don't just on the health bandwagon just because someone else did.
- There is no "right" way to eat - the right way to eat is what works for your body, values and beliefs.
- Allow yourself to be human. If you try eating a certain way and then decide to try something new, that's cool too (this actually applies to everything in your life).
If there's one piece of advice I have it would be this: get to know you first. Get to know how you think, what you're afraid of, what brings you joy, what you want, and who you want to be. Food is just one piece of the puzzle.
Feel free to reach out with any questions you have, to share your story, or simply connect.