Yesterday, a well-known health coach and chef, Alexandra Jamieson, (you may know her as the girlfriend from the documentary Super Size Me who nursed Morgan Spurlock back to health with her whole foods vegan diet) came out on her blog and revealed that she is no longer vegan. As you might imagine, there are a lot of comments on the blog post from vegans and omnivores alike – the reactions range from supportive and laudatory to nasty and vilifying.
It got me thinking about my own journey with veganism and a plant-based diet over the last three and a half years. My friends and family know that in the fall of 2009, I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and decided to go vegan for 30 days. I was initially compelled by the environmental impacts that he writes about. Fast forward 30 days, I felt amazing without dairy in my diet (I hadn’t been eating a lot of fish, poultry or meat prior to that, but I did eat lots of dairy) and decided that I wanted to remain a plant-based eater. I also committed to being as conscious as possible in all my consumption: meaning that, in addition to my food choices, I stopped buying leather or animal products to wear or use as personal care or cleaning products. I read all labels and smartened up on some of the more obscure things – like which wines are considered vegan (some wineries used fish parts as a fining agent).
My culinary skills sharpened. I made all kinds of delicious vegan food. I bought cookbooks, read vegan blogs, and probably about a dozen other animal welfare and vegan-themed books. All of this reinforced my decision and I physically felt great. Even though I had decided to adopt this lifestyle initially because of environmental reasons, I quickly developed a deeper spiritual connection to animals.
Then, a little over a year ago, I was thrown a health curveball. I started feeling pretty awful: very fatigued, moody, and gaining weight, even though nothing had changed about my exercise routine or my whole foods vegan diet. I visited and consulted several naturopathic doctors, nutrition specialists, vegan dieticians, and other experts. I got blood tests and had my urine, stool and saliva analyzed. Most of these experts recommended I incorporate some animal protein in my diet and get completely off gluten and soy. I eliminated gluten and soy first. I tried a number of other things in tweaking my diet. I continued to gain weight and felt a lot less energy than I knew I was supposed to. Almost a year later, after research and getting lots of recommendations to try animal protein, I did start to eat eggs. Long story short, I have incorporated some animal protein into my current diet: eggs and fish.
Physically, I do feel like I’m healing (and I can’t say for sure it’s because of the animal foods), but I don’t love eating animal foods. Not because of how they taste, but simply because I feel out of alignment when I eat animal foods. I don’t care about the label vegan – frankly, I have always felt even before I was eating animal foods that there are some people in the vegan community that could/would probably find fault with my level of veganism – I’ve heard these people referred to as the vegan police, vegan mafia or even the vegan taliban. I don’t care about these opinions, so I’ve always preferred the term “plant-based,” even though the truth is, I did pay attention to more than just my diet.
So, I don’t have a sense of loss over the label vegan because I never really completely owned it for myself. What I do feel a loss about is that right now I am ingesting something (in the form of animal protein) that I wish I wasn’t ingesting. I am still searching for answers, and I’m not yet quite over the hump of my health journey, but my sincere and honest hope is that I can go back to a 100% plant-based diet that keeps me vitally healthy. At the same time, I am still avoiding animals in the other choices I make (not food-related).
Why am I writing this? What I want to express is this: When it comes to one’s diet, I find it so puzzling that there is very little room or discussion of the idea that I feel in my heart is true – no one diet is right for everyone AND one diet may not be right for the SAME person for their entire lifespan. I know that some vegans may argue this point – and say that if you are vegan, you make a lifelong commitment to that, no ifs, ands or buts because you are doing it to avoid animal suffering. These people may also say that if you suffer health issues on a vegan diet that you’re not doing it right. I don’t want to get into this debate here, but suffice to say, I tried several iterations of 100% plant based (lower fat, the higher fat, higher protein, whole foods only, soy/no soy, etc). So have many others. It’s possible that 100% vegan isn’t going to work for me ever (I hope this isn’t true) and it’s possible that I will thrive on it in a matter of time.
But why is it that as a society, we don’t give people the space to figure out what is right for them at a particular point in time? That if you decide to “go vegan,” that’s what you need to do for the rest of your life? That there isn’t a middle ground where you still care about animal suffering and avoid it as best you can, but yeah, perhaps you also eat a small amount of animal products on occasion? Jonathan Safran Foer underscores this point so well in Eating Animals when he writes about how we label people as environmentalists when they do things to protect the environment, whether it’s recycling or driving a hybrid but there may be a bunch of things that person may not do – and yet they can still be an environmentalist. When talking about vegans, the expectation is that they can never touch a speck of animal food or we take away their label. He also says in an interview from a few years ago, “I would say don’t think about it as becoming a vegetarian. Think about it as a process of eating less meat. And maybe the process will end with eating no meat. But if Americans lose one serving of meat a week from their diet it would be like taking about 5 million cars off the road. That’s a really impressive statistic that I think might motivate a lot of people who feel they can’t become vegetarians to remove one serving of meat. So, we need to move away from this kind of dichotomous, absolutist language and towards something that just reflects where people are in this country. Once people start caring they care about more, not less.” Tal Ronnen, a well-known vegan chef has also said “So many people tell me, ‘I could be a vegan if it weren’t for bacon,’ and I tell them, ‘Be a “vegan” who eats bacon,’ Ronnen says with a shrug… Wha? Isn’t that sacrilegious? Ronnen sighs. “Real militant vegans hate when I say that. But if you are cutting back on the amount of meat that you eat, you’re still doing something great for your health, for the planet and for the animal.”
One thing I truly believe – as is written in a lot in the books and blogs I read – once you know (the horrors of the factory farm system and even facts of the seemingly more humane animal agriculture system) you can’t “unknow.”
I can’t unknow. For that reason, I’m going to do my best to use animals as little as possible in my life. The last year has taught me that these decisions aren’t dichotomous, but about being conscious and staying connected to yourself and each other – no matter what diet works for your physiology right this second.