“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
About two months ago I entered into the final stage of a complete lifestyle make-over that I first began over a decade ago in 2005/06 when I was living in Sackville, New Brunswick.
Back then I was adopting a more healthy active lifestyle in order to raise my quality of living with arthritis. I had quit a 2-pack/day smoking habit that I had picked up at the age of 13 and gained over 100 pounds in the process. Any benefits my joints felt by my not smoking were made obsolete by the huge impact of the extra weight. I’ve written about my battle with arthritis before, so I won’t go into all the details here, I’ll just say that I didn’t know what a pain-free day felt like. But I was determined to do whatever it took, no matter how extreme, to get to a place where I could live comfortably with my arthritis. And I was really starting to see some success living in the small university town, walking nearly everyday to run errands, eating lots of salad, limiting my carbs and calories. I was losing weight and becoming more physically fit.
I felt good, but the more my health improved the more I started to think about taking the next step and addressing what I called my “chicken guilt”. I hadn’t watched many videos or read many articles (in fact I kind of avoided them, because ignorance is bliss) but I was nevertheless aware of some of the terrible conditions that the poultry I ate suffered before it came to my plate. Admittedly I was less concerned about the chickens than I was my over-consumption of antibiotics in the chicken. I couldn’t really afford to buy the local free range chicken at the Farmer’s Market, which I thought at the time was a healthier and more humane alternative. One of my co-workers had been vegan for a few years. He lost a lot of weight and became more active. He didn’t seem to have any difficulties finding food alternatives to eat.
So, as I started to feel better and pay more attention to my chicken guilt, I decided to try being vegetarian. I didn’t really understand what vegan meant, but it seemed at that time to be quite extreme, too big of a change to make all at once. I was concerned with all those things that people who aren’t vegan are concerned about … where would I get my protein? Could I get all my nutrients? Could I be healthy? And what on earth would I eat beside salad?
I remember going to the Save-Easy and looking for a vegetarian section, a place to buy meat alternatives. I found some frozen veggie burgers and hot dogs and not much else. I had no idea what to buy. I discovered I liked veggie burgers but not hot dogs. I tried to cook tofu but it didn’t taste like anything and I didn’t enjoy the texture. I didn’t know how firm I needed it to be in order to make it meat-like. Being a bit of a foodie, buying groceries had always been something I enjoyed. I loved to cook. And now I felt constrained and limited. I was living off yogurt, cheese, greens, fruit and nuts and feeling unsatisfied and cranky. I lasted six weeks before I returned to my normal diet.
I lost quite a bit of weight, became way more active, moved back to Miramichi, lost even more weight, joined a gym, moved to the States, got married, stopped exercising, started drinking a lot of red wine, started smoking again, gained a bit of weight back, adopted a low carb Atkins diet, lost some weight, returned to normal diet, moved back to Miramichi, got divorced and quit smoking again. My life was quite the whirlwind of change in a small space of time!
When I pulled myself somewhat together emotionally after my marriage break-up I decided I could no longer ignore my chicken guilt and I once again adopted a vegetarian diet. This time was much easier. I made tacos using Yves ground crumbles instead of beef. I discovered I liked black beans. I learned how to make a good tofu scramble. I just couldn’t give up eggs, cheese, yogurt, sour cream and ice cream though. Despite learning more about the negative health impact of animal products, somehow I just couldn’t make the leap. I honestly believed the animals in the dairy and egg industries were treated more humanely. And I still bought into the concept that milk did a body good, that eggs had gotten a bad rap but were really good for you in moderation. I was vegetarian for about two and a half years and I gained a ton of weight. I was bigger than I had been the very first time I quit smoking. I blamed peri-menopause, a slowing metabolism … because it couldn’t be my diet! I hadn’t eaten meat in years! Why was I getting so fat?!
The reality was I was growing by leaps and bounds, if I didn’t change something soon I would eat myself into an early grave and not be able to fit into a normal sized casket. I tried Dr. Phil’s 20/20 Diet, which was mostly vegetarian except for cod fish. I didn’t like cod fish. I felt limited by 20 foods for 20 days. And the weight wasn’t dropping off, just slowly shedding. It was pretty easy to follow but the results weren’t enough to keep me motivated. I needed some quick results! I was the size of a house!
I tried juicing after watching Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead. But it was super expensive! And I have never really been a juice person. I choked back the juice but barely managed to get through a five day cleanse. There was no way I could keep it up long-term.
I was reading more articles, watching more documentaries and getting more and more confused. What was healthy? Why was I getting so fat? With antibiotics, pesticides, GMOs, Monsanto … was there nothing healthy in the world anymore? What was I supposed to eat? Out of desperation and frustration I decided I couldn’t trust anything to be really healthy, so I might as well return to a diet that I knew would make me lose weight … and fast!
And that’s how I found myself back to Atkins, following a low carb diet. But my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t really embrace it. I certainly didn’t do it long enough to lose any substantial weight. I was so discouraged and depressed. There was a lot going on in my personal life too that was contributing to my mood. I basically threw up my hands and gave up, adopting a junk food diet like I hadn’t eaten since my 20’s before I knew anything about nutrition. For the first time in years I found myself eating at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King. Ordering pizza was a regular weekly occurrence. Chicken fingers were pretty much a daily staple. Burgers, steaks, fish ‘n chips, bacon, Eggs Benedict … I built whole vacations around the food and the wine. And I just kept getting fatter and fatter.
Last year, 2016, was pretty much a right off until late autumn when I finally decided I needed to start trying again. I invested in a Fitbit to help with accountability and decided I would start stepping. I bought some new Wii games, one for walking and one for meditation. I bought into a personal development program to help me become more successful and live a more abundant and prosperous life. I bought a Smart Television and discovered the world of YouTube videos. I started watching documentary after documentary on Netflix. Somewhere in there I discovered the Engine 2 Diet and bought a couple of Rip’s books. I continued eating poorly, but I was being more active with my Fitbit while mentally and emotionally preparing for a return to vegetarianism, with the hope of one day being able to go full vegan. I knew I could stop eating meat. But I just didn’t know if I could give up the dairy. Really, it came down to the cheese. Could I live without cheese?
I kept putting off my Engine 2 Diet start date, even though the recipes looked appealing. I had not only failed to lose weight on a vegetarian diet before, but I had in fact gained a lot of weight while being vegetarian. I didn’t want that to happen again! And given my late 40’s age and all the hormonal stuff that comes with that, how hard would I have to work to keep extra pounds at bay and lose any weight at all? It was daunting. And scary. But I kept reading and watching videos. I was convinced a plant based diet was the healthiest lifestyle. I had been convinced of that for a long time, I just hadn’t been able to make it work for me yet.
In my YouTube explorations I stumbled onto Dr McDougall. I knew of him, of course. I had seen him in many documentary films on Netflix, but now I found his YouTube channel and website. It was there that it all suddenly came together in my head and hit me with a lightning bolt. It was the fat! The fat was making me fat! And animal products are the fattiest of the fatty! Every diet I had ever followed didn’t place any emphasis on fat. It was all about the carbs, and then when I went vegetarian it was all about the protein. I was programmed to ignore the fat. On a low carb diet I was free to eat as much fat as I wanted and told it would just pass through my system and never store. On my vegetarian diet I believed because I wasn’t eating meat, I was already lowering my fat intake and I was more concerned about getting enough protein for which I ate mostly yogurt and cheese … pure fat! I honestly rarely considered fat, other than it was a percentage of my daily calories when I logged my food on SparkPeople. I didn’t worry if I was on the high side of their recommended daily fat intake or even if I went over. I also had the belief that low-fat or fat-free products were terrible because they took out the fat but added in sugar or salt in order to make it more tasty. And everyone knew that sugar made you fat! And salt made you retain water!
I believed that olive oil and coconut oil were healthy choices. The idea of cooking without oil was unimaginable. It was so unimaginable to me that I didn’t even realize a lot of the films I was watching were advocating no oil until I saw a short video on Netflix where Rip made-over two families kitchens and prepared some Engine 2 friendly meals with them. I was gobsmacked when he tossed out the Olive Oil and Earth Balance butter! That made the idea of doing the Engine 2 Seven Day Rescue even more daunting in my opinion.
But then Dr McDougall made it all click when I listened to him speak about starch and I suddenly remembered hearing about The Starch Solution many years ago. A diet where I could eat all the potatoes I wanted was appealing. A diet based on whole foods, very little processed, was also appealing. A low-fat low-sodium whole food plant based diet sounded extreme to nearly everyone I mentioned it to, including my decades long vegan co-worker. But it didn’t seem extreme to me at all. It seemed like the answer! The Holy Grail of Diets that I had been searching for my entire adult life! And it seemed so simple and easy to do. Because I no longer had to worry about calories, carbs, protein, or fat. I no longer had to worry about counting anything. I was free to eat, as much as I want, whenever I’m hungry.
Gone was the mindset that I needed to replace the meat protein on my plate and try to replicate my favourite meals from before. I could eat a big bowl of oats for breakfast filled with cinnamon, nutmeg, chia or flax, and a crushed banana, then topped high with another banana, blueberries, kiwi, or whatever fruit I desired. I could eat as much fruit as I wanted. I love Mexican inspired food and I could eat huge burrito bowls full of rice, beans, greens, corn, salsa and avocado every day. At any time I could bake up some potatoes and just eat a plate of them to fill me up and comfort me. Huge bowls of pasta! Tons of fresh, steamed, baked, and stir-fried veggies. So many options! So many recipes! It is a foodie’s diet dream come true! It was incredible to me that I had never realized it before!
On January 30th, 2017 I adopted my new lifestyle. It was the easiest transition I have ever made and continues to be super easy and filled with a lot of great food. I have lost 26 pounds so far. I feel really good. I can see my ankles again and my feet and legs no longer swell up when I’m on my feet all day or spending a lot of time sitting at my desk working for hours on end. I have more energy. My head feels less foggy. My biggest dietary challenge at home is limiting my avocado intake to 1/4 of an avocado per day, just because I am trying to lose weight and it’s a very fatty vegetable, or is it a fruit? Regardless, it’s very fatty, even though it’s healthy.
The dietary challenge of eating out has skyrocketed though. I have only eaten out a few times. I don’t worry about it too much because it happens so rarely that it can’t derail the whole lifestyle change. And I am learning more each time I do it of how to better order food. But I usually forget about at least some of the added oil that I could have asked to be removed. I will notice the oil as soon as I take a bite. It’s like a coating inside my mouth. It’s not pleasant. And then after I eat it my tummy pays the price usually, with some cramps and heaviness during digestion. Luckily I live close to one of the best restaurants I have found in my city to easily get something I can eat that is completely compliant and won’t make me feel ill at all from excess oil.
I have long wanted to follow a vegan diet because I believe it’s healthier and I believe it is the more environmentally friendly choice, that it helps to save the planet more than recycling or conserving water can. But other than a little chicken guilt, the animals never factored into my reasoning. Until recently.
I watch the difficult films now. The ones that show the baby cows being ripped away from their wailing mothers so humans can have that milk instead. The ones where you see the cows boils being lanced and pus running everywhere including into the milk that human children are encouraged to drink. The chickens too fat to stand on their broken legs. The pigs living in a crowded pen with many sick or dead pigs right beside them. I watch them all now. I can no longer look away and pretend these things aren’t happening and that by my supporting those industries it will continue to happen.
My vegan choices are continuing to expand into toiletries, make-up and other things. I am doing more research about companies before I make purchases. I finally feel like I have made the transition that I always envisioned I would and there’s no turning back now! The weight will come off. I continue to lose pounds and drop sizes weekly. I will continue to get healthier, stronger, more fit and active. I will continue to make more cruelty free choices when I choose where to spend my consumer dollars. I will continue to educate myself about the food industry. I can’t wait to witness my transformation and growth over the coming years.
This week when I was enthusiastically going on about some food I was making my boyfriend asked me, “What if you go back to eating meat again? What then?” He got upset when I said that wouldn’t happen. He kept insisting to look at it hypothetically, to never say never, because I did go back to meat before. So finally I said, “If it happens it means I have given up on life. I have fallen into a depression I can’t get out of and I will likely take up smoking again and start drinking myself to death, if not take an overdose or kill myself in some other way. If it happens, you should definitely worry and get me some professional help.” He was like, “Fine! Don’t answer me then!” But honestly, that’s how I feel. I can’t imagine a scenario where I suddenly decide it’s okay to eat meat and I am happy and healthy and in my right mind.
He doesn’t get it, that there is a huge difference between my current lifestyle and the years that I was vegetarian, even though he too is eating this way and having great success at managing his Type 2 Diabetes. I am hopeful if he continues, he can get off all his medications. The fact that he’s been able to do this coming from a life filled with practically nothing but meat, cheese and deep fried food, and with very limited kitchen or cooking skills himself, shows just how easy this way of life is to adopt. And I know he might relapse because his only motivation is Diabetes and it’s his first time ever trying anything like this. Plus he works out west and generally stays in camps with cafeterias that won’t offer many options to fit this lifestyle. So, that will be a challenging obstacle for him. Hopefully he will find a way through it. But if he doesn’t, that won’t effect my choices. He doesn’t get that this time is different for me but I know it is. I have found my answer.
So that’s my journey so far. It’s been a long winding road, but in many ways it feels like it’s just the beginning.