Friday Q & A
It’s not Friday! But I’m doing my Q & A today anyway because this was an important one. This is a topic that I’ve been avoiding since I’ve been blogging (10+ years on this site). Why have I been avoiding it? Because it’s so emotionally charged and so controversial and I didn’t want to isolate anyone. However, I’ve been getting many, many emails and comments about this topic lately so I realized that it was time for me to tell my story. This email came through the other day and it felt important to answer sooner rather than later.
I have been in recovery for a few months (seeing a therapist). Within that time frame I watched a documentary that turned me vegan overnight. I am now realizing that it is feeling very restrictive and socially affecting my life. From the advice of my therapist, she said that it’s only fueling my fire with my obsession with food and having to prep and to focus on it more than i should be right now, and I agreed. So a couple days ago I decided to incorporate meat and dairy back into my diet. I feel so guilty about eating the animals as I became vegan only for ethical reason. I feeling very conflicted about what I should do. I like the feeling of not worrying about what I’m eating but I now know how the animals were killed so that I can eat them and it’s messing with my head!!! The food almost grosses me out but I eat it anyway, and it does taste good. It’s hard turning a blind eye though and pretending I don’t care. Any advice on this topic or do u know anyone else who’s been through this?
Best Wishes, Kathryn (Minnesota)
My Answer to Kathryn.
Thank you so much for this very important question. Believe it or not, I have extreme personal experience with this one. I was raised vegetarian from age 10 and turned strict vegan on my own at the age of 20. Being vegetarian and vegan were extreme ethical decisions for me. I was a member of LEAP ( league of environmental and animal protection) for my high school’s chapter (LEAP was the late 80’s version of PETA-).
I turned vegetarian the summer of 1984. I had always been extremely sensitive and never liked the idea of meat and where it came from. Due to my family and my upbringing, I was also a child who felt overwhelmed by food and my fear of fat. That summer, in camp, my counselor Betsy was a vegetarian.
I didn’t know any strict vegetarians back then. It seemed exotic and cool and I really admired Betsy. She ate the mashed potatoes off the top of the Shepherd’s Pie, dined on salads and carrot sticks while the rest of us were chowing down on bug juice and Kosher hot dogs, and chewed on apples while the rest of us ate ice cream and brownies.
Betsy was quiet and kind and seemed almost ethereal, like you could see through her. These were all things I admired and wanted to be. I wanted to float through life without necessarily having to solidly be in life. Looking back it was probably a combination of my fear of being noticed coupled with my fear of not being noticed. I thought that if I didn’t eat meat anymore, I could embody Betsy. I would be sweet, kind, sort of float through space and time and I wouldn’t have to worry about choosing what foods to eat because my choices would be inherently limited. It seemed like a win-win situation.
So that August, when I came home from summer camp, I announced to my mother that I wanted to be a vegetarian. As you might know from previous posts, my mother was extremely restrictive with our food, and she was absolutely thrilled by this. She was already in a spiritual lifestyle (back then they called it “new age,”) and this fit perfectly for her. She was able to keep both our diets “clean,” and embody the life that she thought she should have.
When I was 28, my mother was seemingly the “healthiest” person I knew. Her diet was soooooo clean. For the past twenty years, all I’d ever saw her eat was brown rice, tofu, steamed squash, raw vegetables, fruit, mineral water, quinoa, kale (before kale was what kale is now, it was impossible to find back then, we had to travel to a health food store 40 miles away)…. you get my point. She never drank alcohol, never smoked, never did drugs… her apartment was meticulous, she was perfect… neat, clean, meditated daily, did yoga like the Maharishi (She’d been doing it since the 1960’s). In her early 40’s, she was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called PBC (Primary Biliary Cirrhosis) where the bile ducts destroyed her liver. She died super young (54 years old). And when she was dying, she told me that she thought maybe I should try eating meat. She said “what if I was wrong about all this? I want you to try it…”
And then my mother died. And I was left depressed and with this ethical dilemma. I hadn’t touched meat or eggs for almost 20 years and hadn’t touched dairy for more than eight years. I had principals. Being a strict vegan also felt like my identity. I didn’t know what or who I was without my veganism. I know that it might seem strange, but for those of us with eating disorders (and maybe you can relate to this), so much of our identity is tied up in the way we eat or with our eating disorder, or with our body size. But my mother had made a deathbed wish to me (she also asked me to let my hair grow long, but that’s a different story for another post)…
A few months into my Mom’s death, I was sitting out by the river thinking about what she said. At that moment, a fish jumped out of the water. Literally jumped. It felt like a sign. I mean, fish don’t jump out of the Hudson River everyday. I felt like that fish was saying “it’s okay.” Perhaps I was looking for signs. As we know, when you are looking, you will find.
My boyfriend at the time and I went to a fish restaurant (he was so excited because he was very NOT vegan) and we ordered fish. I remember my order. It was a tilapia plain with butter and lemon. I remember eating it with no consequence. No stomach aches, no illness, no bad reaction, nothing. I was nervous because I had read so many accounts of long term vegetarians and vegans eating animal products again and getting sick, but that didn’t happen to me.
Well, at this point I just started trying things. Next thing up was pizza. I was ecstatic. Real pizza, with cheese! Not just a cheeseless pizza with sauce and eggplant (there were few options for vegans back then), eggs came next, and then after a few months, chicken, and then red meat. I tried to eat as ethically as I could (grass fed, organic, etc. which I was/am privileged to be able to do. I realize that it’s not an option for everyone,) and it was hard for me emotionally but physically lots of things changed. And they changed quickly:
1. When I was vegan, I walked around dizzy all the time. I didn’t really know any difference, I thought that that was just how people felt. However, when I started eating meat, that stopped.
2. I had more endurance and I was able to exercise with ease and actually enjoy it. When I was vegan I pushed myself through exercise.
3. My anxiety went away.
4. My binge eating urges decreased immensely. Almost completely. In fact, I binged A LOT when I was vegan. A lot a lot a lot. I think it’s partially because my body just wasn’t getting the nutrition that it needed because my diet was so restrictive.
5. My concentration levels sharpened. I was able to sail through grad school in a way that I couldn’t in undergrad. Focus and concentration were just so much easier for me.
6. I felt more content, my mood improved dramatically.
7. And I hesitate to write this, but the truth is that I dropped a significant amount of weight when I stopped being vegan. This won’t necessarily happen for everyone as we all have different body types and needs.
I felt as though my body really needed it, and given how different I felt, it began to make me think that maybe part of science, nature, the food chain, the universe etc, meant for this to be.
I truly believe that we all have different nutritional needs for our bodies. Like animals, some humans do better as herbivores, some do better as omnivores. That’s why it makes me so angry when people make the blanket statement that veganism is the best diet for everyone. For some people it’s fantastic but for some it’s not.
Veganism literally made my body and my mind sick and ineffective. My best advice is to watch your body closely. If you feel that you are not feeling well as a vegan, that your body is not getting what it needs, that you have more urges to binge, that you’re tired more of the time than not, that you’re cold more of the time than not, then try implementing different options. See what a bit of animal products does. If it doesn’t work for you either physically or emotionally, experiment with getting more protein and fat through plant sources. It’s a very difficult line to walk, but you have to find out what is most right for your body.
I know that there is this “vegan glow” that people talk about. I have a hunch that it’s because vegans tend to eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. It’s not so much about what they’re leaving out, but about what they’re taking in. I know for sure that when I was a vegan I had no glow. My skin was dry, my hair was dry, I was tired and hungry and anxious. If I am being perfectly honest with myself, when I look back now, I believe that my vegetarianism and veganism was a “legal” way for me to restrict my food and keep my eating disorder under wraps but still alive. Restricting my food kept me feeling virtuous and honest. Recently someone who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade told me how great I looked and that I had that “vegan glow.” I said, “funny because I eat meat and dairy and chocolate and everything now.”
I hope that you’ve found this helpful and I appreciate the question.