The vegan minefield

It’s been a strange ride since I became a vegan a couple months ago, because of health reasons. It’s amazing how a change in your diet can have such a domino effect on the rest of your life! And it’s even more amazing how saying the word “vegan” can cause such a wide range of (sometimes dramatic) reactions!

The decision to go vegan wasn’t really one I made on my own. My body made the decision for me. As I have shared, I was having severe digestive issues and even had to go to the hospital. Every time I ate meat, dairy or eggs, I would get violently and painfully ill. I would get sick on other foods, too, but nothing was ever as bad as when I ate meat, dairy or eggs. I even tried the all-natural, additive and antibiotics-free turkey and wild Alaska salmon from a natural food store. Nothing made a difference! And after I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, I learned that meat, dairy and eggs are major triggers for IBS (other triggers include fatty foods, coconut, chocolate and nuts). And since I am allergic to honey, I just sort of happened into being a vegan by way of giving up foods that triggered sickness. I mean, if you have a choice between spending hours in the bathroom, incapacitated by pain and sickness, wouldn’t you make a dietary change that could help control that?

As it turns out, I think a lot of people have a higher opinion of diarrhea and vomit than of veganism!

There’s the I Hate Vegans. I’d Rather Hang out with Cannibals facebook page, Nine Reasons to Hate Vegans and Vegetarians, and Hold the Meat: Vegans which starts, “Dude. I hate vegans.” The irony? I sort of agree with them. Well, not the Nine Reasons to Hate Vegans post. But that’s because it talks about how we’re disrupting the food chain if we don’t eat meat. And that’s bullshit. Whenever anyone talks to me about cavemen, humans being at the top of the food chain or our incisors, my eyes glaze over. But…that’s kind of the mentality about veganism, right? It was for me until I got, mmm let’s say forced into it by way of desperate need to be able to keep what I eat inside me and not erupting violently from me for hours on end and intermittently laying in a heap in agony on my bathroom floor. (Grossed out? Yeah, digestive disorders are shitty like that.)

Yes, the universe or karma or fate or whatever thing that inflicts irony upon our puny lives has a very twisted sense of humor because I have pretty much always made fun of vegans. I have openly mocked vegans to their faces. Even when I was a vegetarian, I was always cognizant of keeping my reasons to myself. Nothing is worse than a preachy vegetarian! Well, nothing that is but a preachy vegan. In fact, I think the Hold the Meat: Vegans post by Kona Gallagher is pretty funny and not too far off how I used to feel about vegans.

So, I totally get the vegan disdain. Smugness sucks. Nobody likes to be around someone who is openly judging how you live your life!

And there is nothing more primal about who we are than what we eat. We humans don’t just eat food to live, we love food! We worship certain foods (chocoholics, wine snobs, etc.)! We embrace rituals about food from the big (Thanksgiving, Christmas, et al) to the small (must have popcorn at the movies!). Believe me, I get it. Hell, I miss it.

But all this makes it that much trickier for me to navigate this new mantle of veganism. I sort of cringe every time I tell someone. I feel the need to make an excuse — it’s because of a health issue — so that people won’t immediately hate me. And I talk readily about how I’m not one of those kinds of vegans because I still totally wear leather (you will pry my magenta Marc Jacobs bag from my cold, dead hands) and would eat a piece of bacon right now if I didn’t think I would vomit. It’s hard to make a whole dietary change and feeling a sense of anxiety about it in social situations isn’t helping. (Plus, you get judged by not just non-vegans but vegans, too! Lame!)

Look, I’m human. I still crave chocolate. But every time I eat it I get really sick. And that just makes chocolate less and less appealing. There’s a part of me that is heartbroken, in a way. I really, really love chocolate. It is my ultimate comfort food! When I was a kid growing up in Wasilla, I used to walk a mile to a little convenience store to buy the biggest bag of chocolates I could get with my allowance. And then I’d walk a mile back home. And when I’d get there, I’d go to my bedroom, pour the bag out on my bed and count all the shiny pieces. It was like Halloween, whenever I wanted! And I would ration that candy out as long as I could until I had more money to go buy more. And even as an adult, I just always have liked chocolate. If I was on deadline and had to choose between candy and lunch, I’m afraid I chose chocolate more times than not. Celebrating? Let’s get some chocolate cake! Bad day? Let’s drown our sorrows in a pint of ice cream! As I dealt with different food allergies over the years, I’ve sometimes had to be creative to still get my choco-fix.

But what has that stubbornness to keep certain foods in my life really gotten me? What has an allegiance to my comfort foods done for me? In truth, it contributed more to my health problems than helped. Before I got pregnant I was about 30 pounds over weight (based on a healthy BMI for my height). And that was after I had lost 45 pounds and took up running! I gained about 70 pounds when I was pregnant. (Yowza!) Now, part of that was the baby. So, if you take away 9 pounds for the baby and then the associated embryonic fluids and such, I probably gained somewhere around 50-55 pounds. (I did not step on a scale for about a month after I had my baby, so I don’t know exactly what I weighed afterwards. Nobody wants to know that!) I actually got back down to my pre-pregnancy weight rather quickly (about two months), mostly because I was breastfeeding. However, now I weigh 20 pounds less than that! To put it another way, I am now about 10 pounds away from what I weighed when I got married (in college). I am certainly not saying that if you become a vegan you will lose weight. All I am saying is that it has helped me lose weight and that probably has more to do with the fact that I was eating pretty badly before and now I eat pretty healthy food almost all the time. And the fact is, I am healthier now that I weigh less.

So, there is another side to this vegan journey that is emerging. (Ugh, did I just say “vegan journey”?) The longer I go as a vegan and the better my health gets, the more I embrace the vegan thing. Not so much that I’m going to try and convert people to it. But enough that maybe, in time, I can just be at peace with the food lifestyle that works for me. After more than a decade dealing with food allergies, digestive problems and a host of other health issues, the one thing I’ve learned is that fighting what works is a lose-lose proposition. Do I miss my favorite foods? Hell yeah! But the other day I took my daughter to the park and it was so much fun! And the joy on her little cherubic face and the memories I’ll have of that time wouldn’t have happened if I was stuck in the bathroom again, sick for hours. That is so much better than any chocolate, coffee, bacon, ice cream … any food in the world!

All of this reminds me of the Buddhist principle that our attachment to things is what causes suffering. And in many ways, I have had unhealthy attachments to food over the years. When I was surviving abuse as a child, I connected with food as a coping mechanism. I would binge food to fill the emptiness inside. (I was never a purger.) I would walk a mile to get a bag of candy (and yes, sometimes it was in the snow). In my 20s I became a vegetarian for political reasons and it became a big part of my personal identity. When I had to give it up — you guessed it, for health reasons — I was heartbroken. And now that I am forced to give up meat and dairy, I am heartbroken. The recurring theme seems to be that I place too high an attachment to food and what my diet says about me. But now that I am a mother and I am experiencing the world through my daughter’s excitement and curiosity, I find it less and less difficult to detach from foods that hurt me. And maybe that’s the bigger picture. And if that picture includes being a vegan, well, maybe that’s a label I can learn to love.

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