Why and how did I come to be vegan?
I figure if you know me in real life or read on a semi-reg basis, you know how I eat. Vegan shmegan. I’m not big on labels, and my food preferences are more motivated by how my GI system reacts, not so much my personal feelings on consuming animal products. That said, this answer requires far more extensive background info, so I’ll start from the beginning.
My mom is (was) a vegetarian and raised the family (me and my two younger sisters) on a diet with minimal meat involvement. My dad wasn’t overly carnivorous, and since she did the cooking, she made what she ate. No complaints here. I was a tofu loving baby, the proud product of hippie parents, and I preferred carrots and broccoli to almost everything else – so much so that I have an orange nose in most photos from my infant years. True story.
Eventually chicken and fish found their way into the hippie household, but my poor non-veg dad never got red meat unless he BBQ-ed it himself. To be honest, I was completely unaware that I wasn’t eating real bacon, and to this day I’ve never had an actual beef hot dog. I never felt deprived or anything, though, because you should have seen the meals my mom made! Not just dinners either, I had packed lunches and snacks that all my friends envied. (This is one of the perks of being the first born…as processed crap was virtually absent from my school eats)
Another key aspect of my background was my abnormal GI system and how that played a role in my life. Seeing as how poop wasn’t a common discussion point throughout my childhood years (shocking, I know), I had no idea what was and wasn’t “normal.” However, I do remember one visit to the pediatrician’s office when I was ~13 years old in which I was complaining about frequent cramps and stomach upset and the doctor told me to not eat a few hours before or after I was going to exercise. Excuse me? What kind of advise is that!?! Especially for someone who was playing multiple hours of soccer a day. On weekends when I had several soccer games, what time slots does that leave me exactly? 3 AM and 10 PM? Oh, ok. Perfect. Thanks Doc.
Sarcasm aside, I was really finding it difficult to keep my stomach calm when eating before/after soccer games. And yet not eating wasn’t a realistic option given the energy that weekend long tournaments required. Let’s just say, when eaten days on end, bananas and Gatorade can get real old.
Anyways, after I left home for college, I quit soccer and discovered a whole new world of dorm food. For a while Lucky Charms replaced Raisin Bran and French Fries and Tater Tots were staples when late night munchies hit, but almost immediately after, I recognized how crappy and lethargic I felt. These new and exciting eats were suddenly not as thrilling, and combined with my retirement from competitive soccer, this alteration in my diet started to take a toll on my health. Not surprisingly, it was around this time that I began to notice changes in how my body responded to various foods. I felt bloated and in pain a majority of the time and it got to the point where I was more than uncomfortable. My GI system was actually inhibiting how I was living my life!
Since denial is my coping mechanism of choice, I pretty much ignored it as best I could (a fact I’m not so proud of). “Grin and bear it” …with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
My Aha! moment (as Oprah would say) was when my mom was visiting me near the end of my freshman year of college and she noticed several bottles of my pink chalky side kick in the trash can and proceeded to ask several Qs…cut to a few months of GI appts (endoscopy, colonoscopy, etc.). Long story short I discovered I was not only lactose intolerant, but I had IBS (with extreme colonic inertia). Well. Great.
I can’t even describe the way this affected me at first. As a former poster child for milk consumption, I hardly knew where to begin. Cheese wasn’t as hard to say goodbye to, but milk! Geez. Milk was something I wrestled with for a while before coming to terms with it. Eventually, Lactaid came to my rescue and I slowly but surely worked out how to survive dairy-free.
After a while of living sans lait, it really wasn’t a big deal. Turns out there are tons of lactose free items if you know how/where to shop. Plus, my stomach was far less rebellious once I started to take care of what I put in it. Uh, duh!?
After years of experimenting with my body to see what it could and couldn’t handle, I have worked out a nice little system. As you may have noticed, I occasionally have Greek yogurt (although less so lately), and sometimes I use whey protein powder (again, very sparingly). Since I have now been living without dairy in my life for over a decade (wow, I’m old) I’ve pretty much worked out the kinks and I know when and where I can cut the corners and get away with it, and when I shouldn’t push it.
And then there’s the IBS.
Yes, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a tricky beast that deserves it’s own post entirely, but I will condense it for you. There is no specific definition because the symptoms range with each individual, but for the most part IBS involves a combination of abdominal pain with alternating constipation and diarrhea (for me, it’s mostly just the former). Often times it feels like my gastrointestinal tract is rebelling against food in general. Without rhyme or reason. Seriously.
After learning more about IBS from my GI MD, I began a quest to find the recipe for a less painful existence. As I said before, the presence of GI issues was (unfortunately) fairly constant throughout my childhood, and something I was eager to reduce. To combat these annoying and disruptive symptoms I tried (try) to eat things that are less irritating, which tends to be minimally-processed, wholesome, plant based foods. Since I was never a big meat eater (I only ate chicken and fish), eliminating these components from my diet was surprisingly simple. I’m not trying to dismiss or depreciate this step in my path toward veganism, but in all honesty, it wasn’t difficult for me.
I guess it all started with the discovery of Whole Foods towards the end of my time at UCLA. The prepared foods section exposed me to a smorgasbord of meat/dairy free items. Initially this consisted of soy alternatives, but gradually I learned how to prepare a few things (like tofu) on my own and reduced the amount of processed non-meats I was consuming. When I moved to Philly for nursing school, I found that my life was more of a time crunch than I ever expected, but I still managed to use my full kitchen to my advantage. I cooked 90% of my meals, packed all my lunches, and still fit in the time to get a nursing degree on the side. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC that I got more adventurous with my kitchen trials. Having tofu mastered, I began to attempt tempeh and seitan dishes, as well as various new grains. Through it all fruit and vegetables remained a constant. I can’t recall the last day I went without an apple.
Then I found the food blog community.
At this point I was eating both meat free and dairy free (with the occasional aforementioned exceptions) but still hadn’t made the full transition to veganism. How often did I eat eggs? Rarely. But my stomach had no issues digesting eggs or egg products, so why eliminate them from my diet?
I don’t really care about labels, so identifying myself as “vegan” was never my intention in changing my diet. My goal was (is) to eat in a healthy way that satisfies my taste buds while not angering the rest of my gastrointestinal tract. I’d like to think that I have gotten pretty good at that. Thanks to the food blog world, I am MUCH more mindful about what I put in my mouth, I am more open to try new things, and I am inspired by others who share similar goals in the way they eat.
Admittedly, I’m closer to being vegan now than I was when I first started this blog (and first wrote that “about me”), so if you read on a regular basis, you may think I am 100% vegan. It’s rare that I eat eggs now, and even Greek yogurt has slipped off the radar, but it’s too confusing to go into all the specifics of my diet without writing an essay (see above). If my stomach is ok with what goes in, I’m ok with it. And that’s all it comes down to. Sure, I still have flair ups (IBS is far from black & white), and I still eat crap when I crave it (are Balance bars vegan?), but for the most part, I try to keep my eats clean and my stomach is all the happier because of that.
As far as my vegan-ness outside the blog world, well, I’d rather tell a coworker straight up that I’m 100% vegan, than launch into all the loop holes. Can you imagine trying to explain to a complete stranger exactly why I’m ok with a chocolate chip Clif bar, but don’t want a chocolate chip cookie?
Now, I will say, there is one other factor aside from IBS that has me sticking to my semi-vegan lifestyle and that is the “green” aspect of eating a plant based diet. I grew up in the Bay Area, surrounded by people who were (are) proactive in spreading earth friendly practices. On top of that, my wonderful hippie parents have always taught me about how my personal actions affect the environment. All of this has helped instill in me a sense of responsibility for how my own behavior affects the future of the planet. And if all it takes for me to decrease my carbon footprint is a few small changes (and if one of them – veganism – happens to be better for my health at the same time, so be it), it seems like a pretty obvious choice, right?
Anyways, I hope this was insightful. I love learning about how others arrived at veganism, so there you have it. My so called (vegan) life.
How do your family/friends react to your lifestyle? Any snide remarks? Or are you unceasingly praised? Both?
As you can see from my ode to my in-laws post, Kyle’s family is VERY accommodating – and they do give me way more credit than I deserve for inspiring them (so sweet!). My family is equally supportive, since they know how I’ve struggled with my GI issues in the past. My friends are also great about working with my vegan lifestyle, not that it’s a huge obstacle or anything, but still, they are fabulous.
If anything, it’s my coworkers that are less accepting. For the most part this is due to a lack of education regarding veganism. And for others, it’s a manifestation of their own personal insecurities. Yes, there are exceptions – I have a few coworkers who I’m closer with, who know about how/why I am vegan. But the rest aren’t very receptive to learning, so I try to avoid even bringing it up at work. What’s the point. I will gladly share with anyone who will listen (clearly…I have a blog about being vegan for crying out loud), but I hate defending my choices, and that’s generally where it ends up going (with a certain few). When you act defensive, people assume there’s a reason for you to be. So I refuse to go there. I brought home-made hummus to our holiday pot-luck last year, and it was a big success, so I think I’m making progress, but there are definitely snide remarks every once in a while that I just have to ignore. Some of my favorite comments: “how’s you coffee and lettuce diet going?”, or “we don’t have to live on nuts and berries to be green, Elise” (after I asked the doctor to save his clamps for me to use after he removed a chest tube). Oh brother. It takes ALL self control to not tell them to just check out the blog. Knowledge may be power, but if people aren’t open to it, it’s just obnoxious.
What question do you hate to be asked?
Ok, I try to be as respectful of others’ opinions as possible. So if a person asks me about my diet in a polite (non-confrontational way), I am more than willing to overlook whatever annoying or inaccurate assumptions they made in the actual content of the question. It’s all about the WAY people inquire, ask opposed to the WHAT. Plus, if they are asking, it means they are genuinely interested in educating themselves, right? As I said before, “how do you get your protein?” and “so you eat JUST vegetables?” are some of the most frequent (and frustrating) questions…but I try to go into detail about all the other foods aside from fruits and vegetables (nuts, grains, seeds, beans, etc.) that have sufficient vitamins and nutrients to help me live a healthy, wholesome, nutritious, balanced life.