Slightly panicked phone calls are my favorite kind. It usually means that something interesting is about to happen and this time was no different. “So!” my friend announced as soon as I said “Hi?” (It always comes out like a question because my phone takes several seconds to connect after I answer and so I never know when someone can hear me.) “I’ve just finished watching this movie and I’m giving up eating animals!” I didn’t even ask her which movie – there are so many of them now and I’ve seen them all. “I need you to teach me how to be a vegan! By tomorrow!”
“Okay…” I answered slowly. “I can give you some tips but in the end I’m going to try to talk you out of it. At least until you’ve thought about it longer than the length of a slickly produced yet admittedly compelling documentary.”
“Yep. I’m going to tell you not to do it.”
The thing is, I am not unsympathetic to her feelings. Indeed I feel them quite strongly myself. There is so much wrong with our current food supply and the factory farming of animals may be the most despicable aspect of it. In fact, if I’m telling the whole truth: For most of my life I really wanted to be a vegetarian. I wanted it like the Beatles want to hold your hand, like The Flying Lizards want money, like Cheap Trick wants you to want me (or maybe they want you to want them or me to want them or something. Aw crap, what they really wanted was a haircut.) Any of you who have seen a PETA video or Alicia Silverstone in a lettuce bikini will need no further explanation of my vegetarian desires. To the rest of you who are smart enough to stay away from that which we will not speak of (Baby chicks in dumpsters! Being crushed to death by the weight of their siblings piling on top of them! Sorry that just popped out.) I will just say that I had many moral, spiritual and health reasons for going veg.
Like many teens, I first experimented with vegetarianism in high school. Vegetarianism quickly became like a religion to me – which in and of itself was a problem as I already belong to an awesome religion - and I was its biggest evangelist. I was annoying and sanctimonious and, heaven help me, a zealot. Pretty soon being vegetarian wasn’t enough for me, I had to go vegan and eschew all animal products. While this upped my street cred in the plant crowd, it also upped the crazy voices in my head. You know those voices – the ones that tell you it’s safer to just not eat anything ever than to risk it being tainted.
Over the next decade and a half I cycled in and out of vegetarian/vegan – ism. If you asked me, I would staunchly tell you that I was absolutely a veg but behind closed doors I occasionally ate meat. It seemed like there was always some reason. In college I became anemic (thank you crimson wave, tsunami edition) and the doctors told me to eat red meat because I needed heme iron. During my second pregnancy, all I could stomach during the first tri was raw pasta, Cheerios and… McDonald’s Big-n-Tasties. All my subsequent pregnancies saw me return to being omnivorous because of low iron and cravings. You may recall that after Jelly Bean was born, there was some concern about her lack of weight gain and again the doctors ordered me to drop my vegan diet because I was exclusively breast-feeding her. (Which makes it sound like a press release. Exclusive: Boobs! Squirting milk! Tonight at 9… and 10 and 11 and 2 and 3 and…)
And while it was never conclusively connected, the fact that my great overtraining-and-suppressing-my-own-thyroid debacle happened during a particularly ardent vegan phase seems suspicious. (I think it had something to do with all the processed-soy imitation meat products I’d been eating.) I also struggled with vitamin B12 deficiency even though I took supplements, had discolored nail beds, hair loss, fatigue, amenorrhea (loss of my period), stress fractures and other small health issues.
Nevertheless, every time after I’d finish whatever the situation was that called for me to eat meat, I’d go right back to my veg ways. In my mind, it was I that was failing vegetarianism. If I could just stop getting pregnant! Or sick! Or working out so hard! Then I could be the perfect vegetarian. Sometimes though, I’d “sneak” meat for no apparent reason at all other than I really wanted it and in those moments the guilt was immense. It didn’t hit me until I began the intuitive eating program that I’d never been able to sustain an extended period of no animal products. (I believe my longest period with no meat at all was 3 years and with no animal products was 9 months.) It wasn’t that my health issues were causing me to fail vegetarianism, is was that vegetarianism was failing my health.
In addition, I also realized that I’d been using veg as a way to further restrict my food, a subversive eating disorder if you will. There’s no easier way to get out of dessert than to say you’re a vegan. I’m not saying that every veg has an eating disorder but it was certainly disordered eating behavior for me. I learned in my therapy that this is quite common in eating disordered patients.
Unlike when I went veg, I did not proclaim my new-found revelation to the world. Honestly I was embarrassed. I still thought that eschewing (hee!) all animals products was the most moral choice. I have very close family members and friends that are strict vegetarians or vegans. Many of you first found me because you were looking for a kindred veggie spirit. And I didn’t want to disappoint all these people that I so love. Heck, I even love Alicia Silverstone! Not only was she a genius in Clueless but I even liked her in that weird movie where she pretends to kidnap herself for attention but it turns into a real kidnapping but then she falls in love with her super-hot kidnapper and I can’t remember what it’s called but it was actually really cute and she was adorable in it! For the love of little green apples, I wanted to please a celebrity who doesn’t even know I exist! See, important reasons.
When I failed the Primal Blueprint Experiment (three times now, holla!), a lot of readers wrote to me saying some iteration of “See, I told you vegan is best!” But the thing is this: while neither way of eating is bad and both work very well for many people, both the Primal Blueprint/Paleo and vegetarianism/veganism don’t work for me. It makes a lot of people in both camps angry when I say this. They say things like, “Well you just didn’t try hard enough!” (I tried as hard as I could with the resources that I had.) or “You didn’t do it the right way!” (You’re right, I couldn’t do it perfectly. But I still can’t so nothing’s changed there.) or “If you’d just try it again, this time it will be successful!” (Perhaps, but how many times do I need to try?) or “If you understood the science better, you’d see why [insert diet/lifestyle] is the only way to eat!” (So much compelling science on both sides. Truly.) and even “If you’d just let me run your life and tell you everything to eat and when to eat it and how to eat it, I could make you into the lean goddess of your dreams!” (Tempting but are you planning to stay with me for the rest of my life?)
Frankly I think that I don’t do well with extremely restrictive/elimination diets (or, depending on your perspective, I do too well – thereby landing myself back in eating disorder therapy). Intuitive eating has shown me that banning nothing and eating what my body needs gives me a level of peace and acceptance and safety that I have never before had around food. (It’s true: for most of my life I’ve felt horribly unsafe around food. I couldn’t trust it. I couldn’t trust myself around it. If it sounds crazy it’s because it was.) But now the crazy voices in my head have gone from screams to mere whispers. There isn’t a diet on the planet that would make want to give up that trust I’ve earned in my body.
I know that this will upset some of you but I wish that it wouldn’t. Everyone needs to find the pathway to health that works best for them. I think it’s awesome that so many of you have gotten miraculous results from The Primal Blueprint. Mark Sisson is a genius and really knows his stuff. I think his plan is fantastic. I also love those of you who are vegetarian/vegan. You have such great big hearts and you are changing things for the better. Let me be clear: I am not knocking either way of eating. But in the end I’ve found what works for me - and that is eating a little meat, lots of fat and vegetables and also some fruits, legumes, whole grains and goat dairy – and I think I can stick with that for the rest of my life. The one concession I make to my still-nagging conscience is that I only buy my meat from a local farmer who treats his animals as humanely as one can when you’re raising them to be food.
Thanks for hearing me out. I love you guys! Please don’t send me death threats ! (You think I’m kidding? I once had a man at a party bite me – as in chomped down on my arm with his teeth – because I told him I was downgrading from vegan to vegetarian. Food is a hugely polarizing topic, I’ve learned.) And to my beautiful friend with the big heart – I love you and that’s why I’m saying this. If you decide to be vegan I’ll support you whole-heartedly.
What is your eating philosophy? Has that changed over the years? Have you ever tried to talk anyone out of a diet?