When I was fifteen, being the self-conscious teenager with fairly low self-esteem that I was and slowly packing on the pounds, I made the decision to become a pescatarian. Having been a meat eater all my life, I felt that full blown vegetarianism would be too extreme, and honestly I fell for the propaganda that low fat, low meat diets would help me lose the extra weight that was accumulating. I made the announcement to my parents and much to the chagrin of a mother who raised me on home cooked, rich, meaty meals.
Being young, I did not go into pescatarianism with the diligence needed to get enough vitamins and minerals I required and most of my avoidance of meat was substituted with junk food that was technically “vegetarian.” Initially, I wanted to lose weight and made the leap for that reason, but as I researched the conditions of factory farms more and discovered their grotesque practices I began to sympathize more and more with the plight of the abused animals. The videos from PETA and other groups swayed me emotionally, and I began to tell others about the conditions of the animals. I really believed that if enough people really knew how bad it was they would make the same “enlightened” decision I had. I mean, it worked for me, and how could you honestly look at those poor, defenseless animals and not have your heartstrings pulled? After many failed attempts to convert my friends, coworkers, and family I pretty much gave up and resorted to refusing my former favorite foods as politely as I could.
About a year later I met a man who would later become my husband, and while he teased me about my diet he was still very understanding. As we became more serious and eventually moved in together after another year, the cooking situation at home became a bit complicated. I was had become finicky, and refused to eat off of pots and pans that had meat cooked in them. He could pretty much eat whatever he wanted to and remained slim and slender, while I was very careful to avoid that dangerous red meat, tortured chicken, and parasitic pork. It had been about two years by this point, and my weight had only increased though not excessively. I was slightly disappointed, but kept thinking I must be doing something wrong. By then, the mere thought of eating meat was disgusting to me because of my emotional attachment to the mistreated animals. I had even begun to phase out fish due to some criticism of a lack of purity about my “vegetarianism.”
Convinced that I was doing something wrong, I researched even more, and discovered the dangers of farmed fish, and infamous China Study, which everyone knows proves how meat eaters live shorter, more diseased lives and that all we need to do to live forever is stop eating most animal products. I began seriously considering veganism as a solution to my philosophical inconsistency because I reasoned that I was failing because of a lack of purity. I had reverted back to trying to convince my boyfriend to at least cut out some meat from his diet for the animals’ sakes, and thought he had carefully considered it, I had been unsuccessful.
Around this time, I came across a particularly disturbing video that really shocked me and made an extremely emotionally manipulative case for veganism. Shocked by what I had seen, I showed it to my boyfriend and we both cried at the horrors we were witnessing. After the video was over, it was him who suggested that we take the dive into full blown veganism. For me, it seemed like less of a stretch and the logical next step in my diet, but I wondered how he would cope without a transition. He seemed fully on board with the idea and since it was the end of the year (2007), we vowed that for the new year, we would be fully animal and animal by-product free.
I had just started work at a sushi restaurant, and we ended the year at a work party scarfing sushi until we couldn’t move as one last hurrah for our old ways. We were becoming better people, or so we thought, as we sought to do justice to the tortured animals by opting out of buying products from factory farms. In about a month, we had become full blown animal rights activists. We weren’t just vegans—we practiced veganism. It had become our religion, and for a while we were “those people.” Much like the crazed street preachers screaming at people from the sidewalk that we had so much disdain for, we had become preachers in our own right albeit still substituting what we later found out was junk food soy products for junk food meat products.
We doubled down on our efforts to convert people, and preached the good word of abstaining from meats to gain “higher consciousness” and liberate animals from cruelty. Going out with friends became increasingly awkward and complex to the point where we mostly just stopped (unless it was one of the local vegan restaurants), and family outings were very uncomfortable. Though we tried politely refusing food, it always felt uncomfortable and self-righteous. Oftentimes it was refused with a little sermon about how those poor animals were suffering, and blah blah blah. I look back and am appalled by how rude we must have come off, and still feel the need to apologize to people who tried to feed us back then.
When we first started, much of the food was still junk, it just did not contain animal products. We found that some of our favorite junk food (Frito’s, Oreo’s, Lay’s Potato chips) were technically vegan. We had smoothies daily for breakfast (spiking your blood sugar that early in the morning was probably not the best idea), and went hours in between meals to retain our purity. This caused us to annihilate the vegan food we did consume after waiting so long to eat, and little did we know actually put our bodies into a starvation mode. We admittedly felt better at first, and as we researched more eventually cut out the junk and ate all organic. We learned how to cook tofu and tempeh, and would use those to simulate our favorite meat dishes.
About six months into veganism, my boyfriend had lost much of his muscle mass and you could see his ribs clearly. I brushed it off because he had always been slender, and made excuses. On the other hand, I began to gain more weight despite being hungry almost all the time. This weight gain was so utterly frustrating because I was doing everything by the book! We started fighting more during this time, as well. Though I had read so much about how the body stores up vitamins like B-12 that supplements are unnecessary until later on in veganism, and how you have to eat the right kind of soy, and how humans can thrive from veganism if you just do it the right way, it was obvious our physical and mental health was suffering. We even started taking supplements more, but the effect was negligible.
That starvation mode I mentioned earlier has peculiar effects on the male and female body, and though we didn’t realize that’s what it was, it was so damaging. We had decreased energy after about six months despite having increased energy at first, and memory problems particularly apparent in my boyfriend. I was having emotional issues of my own, and found out later that increased estrogen in one’s diet can cause those same problems.
I held on to veganism even more so, though. Still convinced I was just doing something wrong, I became more vigilant and took more supplements despite the research I had been coming across showing how damaging my diet could be to my body. Now, I cried not over the animals, but over how hard it was to deny the cravings I began to feel and how lethargic and chubby I felt all the time. Our dedication was neurotic and we even became paranoid that we were accidentally ingesting animal products from some source that were sabotaging our devotion and our health. I simply couldn’t grasp how I was gaining more weight despite being more hungry than ever before, and this caused me to become very depressed.
Before, I had been fairly active and though overweight, still had energy. After we were deep into veganism I had not only lost all my energy and gained weight, but my coworkers would comment on how pale I looked all the time. I worked at a restaurant with a variety of people from cultures who did not find it taboo to make comments about my weight and appearance on a regular basis. That low self-esteem I had prior to veganism? Well, now it was crippling. Though I was fat, pale, tired, and depressed, for some reason I stayed vigilant and kept gloating about how happy and healthy I felt to anyone who asked. I had become delusional due to mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and though I could keep a well put together front, inside I was falling apart.
My relationship suffered during this time as well for other reasons, but it could not have helped that soy and grains were our main source of “nourishment.” We both were in denial, blind to what was happening to us. Ever the diligent researcher, I delved into other philosophies about food and discovered something called metabolic typing. The philosophy basically says were are all individuals with varying food needs, and some of us require much more protein and almost no carbs while others can thrive on carbs with very little animal protein and still others are somewhere in between. It seemed to make sense, and I thought maybe I could modify my vegan diet to fit my metabolic type.
There was a free test offered on a website, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to take it. The issue was that the test assumed you were a meat eater, so the advice was that if you weren’t, you choose the selections that sound best to you. I went in convinced that I would be one of those rare carb types who could thrive on breads and pretty much the diet I was on. I was looking for validation, but when the results came back I realized that I had been unable to hide my love of really fatty meaty dishes from the test. It said I was a “protein” type—pretty much the exact opposite of what I had been forcing myself to be over the last almost four years. I was crushed…did this mean I would have to eat meat again?! I retook the test a few times, but every time the high protein selections just sounded more and more mouth-watering. “No!” I thought and lied, “I can’t possibly eat meat! I don’t even crave it…” But I did crave it. So badly. I was lying to myself every time I smelled bacon or had to shred beef in the kitchen at the Mexican restaurant I now worked at. I thought I was being virtuous denying what my body craved, but in reality I was just being stupid.
I remembered as a child (before I could force myself on a diet plan) absolutely loving meat. Not just a little meat did I love, but really fatty meaty meat to the point where it would gross out my mom. I ate bread, too, but if it came down to a choice, I remember always choosing the protein. This memory surfaced after so many years, and it occurred to me that I never had weight problems until recently in the past few years…possibly around the time I cut out most meats? No…it couldn’t be the grains and the soy. I had researched this and all the mainstream news sources said I was eating one of the healthiest diets a person could be on and by virtue of that I should live into my early 100s. I had even cut out all processed food mostly by this time, and cooked almost every meal.
My now fiancé listened to how his body felt, however, while I let my mind talk me out of my physical feelings. He had started suggesting that we eat raw honey, organic eggs and raw milk, and the more I studied about raw milk the more I realized it could be very beneficial. So, I reasoned, I would just add some animal products back into my diet just to see. We started with raw honey and then raw milk after some very heated, ideological arguments. My cravings won me over to my husband’s sound reasoning and before we knew it were eating and drinking honey and raw milk like it would be the last time we ever would.
I remember the first glass I had of raw milk—it was so creamy and rich that an eight ounce glass actually filled me up. I was surprised that I was so full from one glass, and thought that my deprived vegan belly would have an adverse reaction to the fat content since I had taken in zero saturated fats in over a year. Nope, to my surprise I felt fine. So, I reasoned I would become a virtuous vegetarian and only eat organic, humanely sourced animal products. I came to wonder how I could possibly have gone so long without eating cheese of all things! We both did that for a while, but my fiancé had stronger cravings for meat and since his health was suffering more obviously than mine at the time, he began eating organic chicken at first. During this time, we cooked slightly separate meals, and I contently ate my veggies while he scarfed his chicken.
About two more months went by, and every time he cooked that chicken, my mouth would water involuntarily. I was able to deny this craving everywhere else as the threat had not entered my home, but with my fiancé now cooking it regularly it had invaded my sanctuary. Every time this would happen, I would think of the chickens and how it was wrong to kill another sentient being for nourishment, even if that nourishment was significantly healthier than its factory farmed counter parts. Sitting next to my fiancé listening to him merrily chomping away on that chicken thigh was driving me bonkers, and all I could think about was how as a child I had loved the juicy dark meat and skin of the chicken so much.
One night, I caved.
“Can I have a bite of that?” I asked with trepidation. He gave me a look like I must be crazy, because after all I had been fighting for animals’ rights and denying my cravings for so long. “Really?!” he asked, puzzled. He tore me off a little piece of dark, succulent meat. As I raised the piece of flesh to my mouth, my mind was screaming, “NO! How could you do this?! After so many years?! You are turning your back on those poor animals, you monster!” My stomach had other ideas, and as I placed it gingerly in my mouth, that old familiar feeling from childhood returned. “Mmm…” said my belly. I finished the piece, and he asked me if I wanted a whole thigh (which was really small because they came from Amish raised organic chickens), and I reluctantly agreed.
It was the best chicken of my life.
Though the taste of the chicken was so delicious, I had bought into the lies thrown around in the vegan community that you would get sick because of going so long without meat. I waited, and expected to be ill especially with the stomach problems I had acquired that seemed to get worse every day. So, I waited. And I waited. And, to my shock nothing happened. I didn’t get sick one bit, and it was then I realized how incredible the human body is—it doesn’t just forget how to digest certain foods because you don’t eat them for years.
After getting over the initial guilt and slowly adding chicken and grass fed beef back into my diet, I started feeling sensations I had never felt. I had more energy, even started to lose a little weight. My mental clarity improved along with my memory. Soon after I started eating meat, I discovered hula hooping and fell in love. In about eight months I had lost close to twenty pounds! The more I studied about nutrition, the more I had realized how much I had been lied to. You have to eat fat to metabolize fat, and saturated fats can be very healthy for you. Even the nutrition class I had taken in college told me my vegan diet was perfectly fine, even after I had done three diet studies where it showed I took in 0% cholesterol. Now, conventional nutrition classes paint cholesterol as the devil, something that you should avoid and are safe to go without because your body produces it. They fail to mention how much of it makes up your brain, and that cholesterol lowering drugs are some of the most unnecessary and dangerous ones out on the market.
I became angry that I had been deceived into believing that there is a one size fits all way of eating when it was glaringly obvious that veganism doesn’t work for everybody. Sure, it is great for detoxing your body and some people can thrive on it, but most people can’t. If you eat the amount of bread I was that is recommended, many people can develop gluten intolerances or celiac disease. I am pretty sure that is what happened to be, and I now have to be careful of eating bread because it adversely affects my system. If I eat too much of it, I get drowsy and foggy, and get a really bad stomach ache.
I was also upset by how dogmatic we both had become when we were vegans. It wasn’t just a lifestyle change, it was a religion. We practiced strict asceticism with our diets, judged others for their eating habits, avoided some social gathering because of how “picky” we were, and tried to convert as many people as possible. If we came across former vegans who advised us that veganism was maybe not the best choice, we denounced them as heretics. While we never practiced ostracizing or anything like that, we really though we had “found the light” and needed to get as many people on the only true eating path there was: Veganism.
Even after making the switch, we were still very careful (overly so) about what we ate. Over time, we have mellowed out, and though our health is so very important to us, we have loosened up our standards. It is better to be respectful and unoffensive especially when it comes something as social as food than to retain ultimate purity. I learned it was okay to cheat every now and then, and I believe the lessened mental strain in combination with a moderate diet is far healthier than physical purity conflicted with mental anguish. I am happier, healthier, and am working every day to repair the damage that was done to my body from taking in so much soy and bread.
It occurred to me that I was healthiest as a child when I ate what I naturally craved, and by that I don’t mean lots of sugar and junk food, but traditional, home cooked foods with lots of fat and protein. Our food system has numerous problems from GMOs and factory farms to regulations and subsidies, but the people have the power to make the choices to support local farmers over corporations. When this power is utilized by the people to support their local economies, we can start to make real change. Another lesson I learned was that if you want to fight factory farming effectively, buying your meat from local farmers is much more operative economically than avoiding meat.
You cast a vote against factory farms and government subsidies by supporting real farms not buying soy products (most of which are GMO and therefore subsidized), and there has been a significant change just in my hometown of Pensacola in the years since I started researching food. The local Palafox Market has grown greatly, and more and more farmers are getting into the business. It is a dream of mine to one day have my own farm where I can treat animals lovingly and humanely, but for now buying local is my best option and one that can revolutionize the way we view food. While I think it is the best option, I promise not to sermonize you on the benefits or the harm of either system, though.