As of October 1, I am off meat and dairy for good. Not only that, I am aiming for as close to a whole foods, plant-based diet as possible – so I’ll be avoiding processed foods, added sugars, and oil.
This change has been a long time coming. I’ve talked about it for a while now, even with a chicken wing in my hand. It’s been a long road to this decision, but I’ve known for a while that this was my “ideal” diet. Now it’s time to make it a reality. This is my story.
My Childhood and Animal-based Products
I grew up in a world of vegetarians. I was familiar with soy substitutes, and I enjoyed them regularly. As a Seventh-day Adventist, vegetarianism was part of my culture. But my family chose to eat Leviticus-14-approved meat.
I didn’t question this until Middle School, when I decided that I liked cows too much to eat them. Chickens could go to the slaughter, but not cows. My sister and brother would moo at me over their steak, but my parents didn’t question my decision.
Then I went to an all-vegetarian boarding school. You actually weren’t allowed meat on campus, and kids regularly smuggled in McDonald’s. I didn’t crave meat like them though. I was content to just eat chicken when I went home.
Next it was an all-vegetarian college. I was out to eat with all my friends, when I noticed that I was the only one ordering meat at the table. The talk started about how unhealthy it was and how horrible. I knew the arguments, but I felt a little attacked by my friends. I felt pressured and demeaned, but realized – I was practically vegetarian already. It wouldn’t be hard to go all the way.
So for the next five years, I was a vegetarian – and I was proud of it. Once I stopped eating meat, my brain almost seemed to open up to how silly it was. I went full-throttle on what a good decision it was for your health. It never became “gross” to me as it does for some people, and I tried to defend meat-eating ignorance if I could. But at the end of the day, I felt like a better person for it.
A Vegan Trial Run
During my junior year of college, a group of health majors decided to do a spiritual and scientific study on the Daniel Fast. Taken from Daniel 1, where Daniel asks the Chief Eunuch to test the merits of whole foods against the King’s table, it is meant to be a 10- or 21-day observance of a similar diet – fruits, vegetables, and pulse. Simplified, it was a very staunch vegan diet. No processed foods, no sugar. We even abstained from bread.
I was intrigued. So I participated, and it was one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done. I felt good, but my brain grappled with the cravings. It really dawned on me how sugar has the power to influence us like a drug. I was so jittery the first several days, I could hardly focus. I craved things I hadn’t cared for in years (Donut Sticks – I craved Donut Sticks).
When the fast ended, I ate butter and eggs so quickly. I ate the donut sticks and drank soda. But both of those things were so overpowering to me, I stopped after a bite or two in. My body’s tastes had transformed. But my brain was still locked on food.
My Struggle with Cravings and Metabolism
It was after that fast that everything went downhill. I’d lost 12 pounds in those 21 days, and I felt pretty good. But I went into indulgence mode. I ate foods as though I would never be allowed to eat them again, as if the fast would impose itself on me at any second. I went through a very stressful senior year of college, compounded by my long-distance engagement, and wedding planning. The pounds started to lay on thick.
I tried to exercise. In fact, I showed up three days a week for an hour of interval-running and weight lifting. Even on the days when my friend and trainer didn’t show up, I was there at 6AM working. Still, I lost nothing.
Then I did a metabolic test to find out what my resting burning rate was. The results were shocking. I only burned 1,500 calories a day. To lose weight, I’d have to eat only 1,000 calories, 200 below the standard recommended minimum. With all the working out I was doing, I couldn’t possibly imagine only 1,000 a day. I was heartbroken. It was surely impossible to lose weight.
Falling Off the Wagon
I continued to put on weight – after college, into marriage, until I gained close to 50 pounds. I’d thought being 147 was bad. Try being 180. During the last part of that time period, I started eating burgers. And then I started eating fish. And then I started eating chicken. Despite going to healthy-cooking classes and weight loss groups, and even trying a low-carb, weight-lifting regimen (which was horrible), I snuck Burger King runs on the side. Eventually, I was eating meat again, and regularly. It didn’t take long for the scale to hit 215, and I felt like a mess.
Correction – I feel like a mess. This is where I am now. Tired, miserable, and depressed. Feeling worse than I ever thought possible. And that’s not to mention a litany of weight loss struggles and health problems. That’s a whole other story all together.
Life as the “Curvy” Girl
I had a warped view of my body from the very beginning. I never looked like my sister or my cousins or other girls. My belly stuck straight out – and it stayed that way.
As a self-professed tom-boy, I used my anti-girly convictions to hide myself in sweat pants and baggy shirts. In some ways, I was proud to stand apart from the crowd. But I also recognized that while I should always be myself, myself wanted to dress nice and look good. I wore jeans for the first time in sixth grade, and my crush/friend at the time was so happy for me, his reaction was shocking. And I decided from then on that caring about my looks was okay.
But I just never bought into my own beauty. Puberty and work at summer camp thinned me out, but not to my eyes. I could only see myself in light of other girls, who had much flatter stomachs and could effortlessly figure out style. Things just looked so natural, so authentic on them. I wanted that image, that good-looking authenticity, but I couldn’t see that it was right there for me.
In high school, I swore I would never be as “big” as I was then – 135-140 pounds. But now I look back and cry at how I spoke to myself. I would be so happy to have the body I had then. Sure, I could have been healthier. I could have lost a little bit of weight. But not like now. Now, I’ve realized the fear that fed my insecurity – that I would be so overweight that I wouldn’t recognize myself in the mirror, that I would look back and long for the body I had in high school. Ultimately, I feared that I would never be the person I dreamed I could be.
Now that I’m plus-sized, I have a deep appreciation for the body-positivity movement. I live in a world where clothes are not made for my shape or my size. Say what you like about “just lose the weight then.” I’m going to. But what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Wear a sack?
Not to mention that “just lose the weight” is the most loaded statement in the history of health. If it was that simple, weight loss wouldn’t be a billion-dollar industry. It is a true battle, physically, chemically, and psychologically.
And no matter what size you are, you deserve to choose when you’re satisfied. Is being obese healthy? No. But I’d argue that hating yourself is a far worse crime.
But while this journey does have a lot to do with my confidence and body image, it has all the more to do with my health.
Life as a Sickly Kid
I was always a sickly kid. I saw the doctor regularly for a myriad of things. If there was something going around, I had it first. And then the migraines hit at 11.
Migraines are a special form of hell. It’s like someone takes an ice-pick to your head repeatedly, but without ever managing to kill you. Often, you just wish they’d get on with it already. Light and sound makes you want to collapse. More often than not, you want to throw up (and then do). And you cry. You cry because there is nothing you can do but lie in bed and wait for it to end or to fall asleep. If you’re extremely unlucky, it’ll wake you up out of your sleep instead.
There were times when I went home from school 2-3 times a week. I saw a neurologist and was on all the works. Imitrex, Topamax, even Depakote, a seizure medication that requires regular blood tests. Nothing worked for prevention, but eventually Relpax worked to take them away. My trigger wasn’t in foods but in barometric pressure changes. Drugs can’t control the weather, and I was tired of taking pills.
I was also constantly fatigued, especially in high school and college. Constantly. I could wake up at a normal time, nap for five hours, and go to bed on time. Nowadays, I can be driving home from work and will nearly have to pull over to take a nap, that’s how tired I feel. That’s when my thyroid started to come up.
Testing My Thyroid
While I was on a college break, a dental hygienist asked me if I had had my thyroid checked. It was the weirdest thing, because she was just supposed to be cleaning my teeth, not palpating my throat (on the outside, praise God). But, not one to ignore a concern, I had it checked. Nothing abnormal. Crazy lady.
Then recently, during my first physical in years, the doctor noticed that my thyroid levels looked odd. Knowing that hypothyroid could contribute to weight gain, I was almost excited. Maybe this was the secret! Just get my thyroid in check and the pounds will drop off! Well, not really. Thyroid medication is complicated. You need to be constantly checked and rechecked and your dose changes all the time to match your levels. And according to forums, it wasn’t a magic pill for their weight. They still struggled.
Well, so much for that. And as it turns out, I was at the edge of the normal range – but still normal.
But recently a friend asked me about it again. I wasn’t necessarily listing my health complaints, but just through our casual conversation, she asked if I ever had my thyroid checked. So, I looked up the symptoms again. Here’s what I found:
- Slow metabolism and weight gain – already established that.
- Fragile fingernails and fingernail ridges. I have both. My finger nails tear at a whisper – it’s so annoying.
- Dry skin. I’ve never been able to figure that out, no matter what Lubriderm I used. I might as well be a reptile.
- Chronic fatigue, my biggest adversary. I could sleep a full night, nap five hours, and still go to bed at a reasonable time. This was in college and still happens today. Sometimes, driving home from work, I feel like I need to pull over and take a nap, I’m so tired.
- Depression, something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. While it may be due to some very difficult circumstances in the last five years, as well as my weight, I never considered that this could be contributing to it.
I think an unhealthy thyroid level for me ranks in the “normal” range. But since it’s a range, normal for others may not be not normal for me. But I have no desire to go on any crazy medication schedule. I dealt with all of that at the neurologist, and it’s just not fun.
But I thought back to the Daniel Fast I did when I was still at college. I lost 12 pounds in 21 days, just diet. No exercise. I have never seen that level of success, even with running and lifting weights and low-carb, high-protein misery. Maybe it was time to try it again.
Healing Through Diet
I did some research, and I found other people who cured their hypothyroid through a plant-based diet. And since my health complaints (save migraines) are all seemingly related to my thyroid, then it makes sense that changing my diet permanently is the best means of self-care.
Of course, a plant-based diet could have helped all of the above even if they were separate, unrelated ailments. But so could other healthy alternatives that include some meat and dairy. But I am convinced that if it is an organ issue, then there is no other course of action. I need to be on a whole-foods, plant-based diet. If I need medication after the fact, then so be it. But change starts with me. Not with the doctor.
It won’t be easy, but I can honestly say I have never felt such conviction before. I’m nervous though, because I spent close to five hours yesterday prepping breakfasts and lunches for the week. It didn’t feel very sustainable. But I’m going to learn. I have to believe that.
There are so many merits to whole-foods, plant-based living, and I’ve scarcely touched on the science and evidence of this lifestyle. As I go on this journey, I hope I can share the impact it has on health, spirituality, and on the environment.
But for now, I just want focus on my story and to ask for your encouragement. It’s not going to be easy, especially in social settings or while I travel. I know I’m going to get questioned, sabotaged, and ridiculed. But I can worry about all that later. Right now, I just want to take a deep breath, find my courage, and change my fate.
While I’ll be abstaining from meat and dairy, this does not make me an official “vegan.” I’ll continue to use honey and leather products, which is not a part of a truly vegan lifestyle. You may see the word “vegan” on my blog, but I’m mainly using it as short-hand for whole-foods, plant-based. While I’m environmentally minded, and 100% for animal welfare, I disagree with some of the conclusions made by the vegan community.
Also, I will be getting a second opinion from a doctor about my hypothyroid concerns and follow this lifestyle under medical supervision. I’m confident that I’ll get plenty of protein, and I’m already on Vitamin B12.
If you struggle with an illness, please continue to see your doctor and follow his or her recommendations. But I encourage you to choose plant-based living in tandem with any medications. Many doctors have taken patients off of their medications after a healthy lifestyle does its work.