I am a recovering vegetarian. At 19 I went vegan because eating dead animals disgusted me – I was an imperfect vegan, though. I didn’t have access to the internet or health books back then so I was fumbling around in the dark much of the time. After 6 years I added eggs into my diet (during my first pregnancy, due to cravings for them) and moved to a more lactovegetarian diet. Fast forward yet another 9 years, following my third pregnancy, and I became pescetarian – or added fish into my diet. Eating fish was challenge enough initially but I never thought I would eat meat again in my life.
But a couple years ago I was struggling.
My dad had just died, I was still trying to recover from a painful hip replacement, and my hormones were imbalanced (I had an autoimmune disease and, thanks to my studies in nutrition and wellness, was recognizing the symptoms but hadn’t yet gone to the doctor for testing). I was eating a super clean diet but was no longer thriving. I’m not sure I ever exactly ‘thrived’ on a vegetarian diet, to be honest.
It was the fact that I started having bad pain in my non-surgical hip that really pushed me to a willingness to try meat. I would have tried anything at that point – the fear of going through another hip replacement was more intimidating than eating a dead animal. I was already preparing homemade bone broths for my family because I was convinced of their health benefits – but I, myself, was not consuming them.
One day I informed my family that I was going to try eating meat. If only I had a picture of the looks on their faces. They thought I was joking… or that I had finally tipped over the edge;)
So I began the process of healing my gut through foods like bone broth and boosting my nutrient stores. I had supplemented my B12 and iron just enough to get the ok for my hip surgery but my ferritin stores were low. My hair was falling out, I was extremely fatigued, and my body was healing slowly. In 11 months of introducing meat to my diet (about 1-2 times per week along with bone broth), I moved my serum ferritin level 23 points (still below optimal levels, however) and felt calmer and grounded than I had in a long time. Years. Around this time, my teenage daughter, raised on a primarily vegetarian diet, had a year where she was extremely lethargic and sucking on things (I knew this could be a symptom of deficiency) – I got her tested and saw that her ferritin was low, too. After introducing a little more meat and bone broths to the family diet she, too, rebounded with new energy and that habit of sucking on things disappeared.
When I work with clients, or just meet people, I have great respect for their varied dietary choices. I mean, you are the expert of your own body, after all. No diet is perfect for every human being on the planet but some do have scientific support for treating different disease states and some diets simply align better with an individual’s ethical or moral belief system. But we can become really committed to dietary labels, angry and dogmatic even, and my concern is that in doing so we might fail to heed the cues our body gives us when our ways of living and eating are no longer serving us.
Pregnancy, walking through an illness or surgery, aging, etc. are examples of when our nutritional needs may change considerably. A few tweaks may be all that is required but in some cases, you may need what feels like an entire overhaul. This can be really painful, even shame-producing (just consider the risk and potential for public backlash for vocal vegan celebrity types who become meat eaters).
But your health matters more than a dietary label, doesn’t it?
This isn’t to say that some people cannot thrive long term on a vegan or vegetarian diet! But chances are, they will need to really watch (and test) for nutrient stores and modify here and there as they go. I liked being vegetarian and actually wanted to return to veganism because in many ways life felt easier inside that box. There can be something nice about a clear set of self-imposed rules to guide you. Besides, I think that consuming less meat might be healthier for the western world, in general. At the very least more people could consider buying meat from smaller local farms and eating the animal ‘nose to tail’ for improved nutrition (eating just muscle meat isn’t that healthy), out of care for the environment, and out of respect for the creature that died to nourish us. I’m still working on the ‘nose to tail’ thing. Furthermore, the world of meat eating can be pretty gross – all that access to fast-food, chemical-laden meaty stuff you naturally avoid as a committed vegetarian because even the rancid oils in the French fries or the Asian food grill probably contain meaty bits.
But the truth is, any dietary label or way of eating can have its pitfalls.
Oreos, Duncan Hines icing, and fake soy hotdogs are vegan but don’t exactly constitute a quality diet. A vegetarian could live off of beans, rice, bagels, and muffins with nary a veggie and call it good. Until their body rebels. A paleo follower could decide to live off of processed meats and cheap butter and develop heart disease or cancer. Someone following a gluten-free diet could mess up their blood sugar and gain a bunch of weight by indulging in all the high-glycemic processed gluten-free foods on the market.
Or, someone could follow any of these eating styles with some common sense, adding in loads of veggies and choosing higher quality foods, along with healthy lifestyle habits, and live fit, happy and optimally healthy.
Five Thoughts I Have On Eating Well Whatever Your Eating Label:
Live Like A Qualitarian
I first heard this term from nutritionist Samantha Gladish, and love it. Whether you love beans or believe that from an evolutionary perspective humans are better off without them; whether you follow a ketogenic diet or if grains make up a decent percentage of your menu plan… choose quality. I have previously written about the transformational power of making even small nutritional upgrades.
Listen To Your Body
Be responsive to cues that things aren’t going well in your body anymore. If you are fatigued, constipated, experiencing brain fog, are often bloated or putting on a bunch of weight (as examples only) – be willing to make some changes. Maybe you love rice but your stomach hurts when you eat it. Try soaking and/or sprouting it or cut it out for a time to see how you feel. Perhaps when you eat meat you feel super sleepy or become constipated; try some enzymes or apple cider vinegar before a protein-rich meal, consume less meat and/or boost your fiber intake. I mean there are often little changes we can make but sometimes, as I shared, a little change just isn’t enough. Be curious. Remain flexible. And remember that your whole identity isn’t wrapped up in a dietary label.
I am a fan of getting blood work done on a yearly basis. It provides your primary doctor with a baseline and can help monitor for deficiencies or unusual changes in lab markers. There is, however, a difference between ‘normal’ and ‘optimal’ levels for various labs. Many people, for instance, are told their iron is good but in reality, it is still sub-optimal and their ferritin (iron storage) is super low. They may be experiencing fatigue or depression, even, and addressing this one deficiency might help them feel considerably better. Vegans and vegetarians should really watch their iron and B12. Some women have multiple hypothyroid symptoms but are told their TSH is in the normal range. Yet normal reference ranges can vary quite a bit (generally between 0.4-5.5 mU/L) and many physicians consider an optimal range to be considerably smaller (closer to 1.0-2.0 mU/L.)
Unfortunately, some tests are also hard to come by now – like Vitamin D testing in Canada (unless you pay for independent lab testing), even though research suggests Vitamin D is important to bone health/calcium absorption, immune system health, may play a role in seasonal affective disorder, and may lower the risk of breast and colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease in men, and multiple sclerosis, and about 40% of Canadians are below healthy levels in winter- source. Those with darker skin pigmentation who migrate to regions of higher latitude, or those who are obese, may have increased risk of sub-optimal levels. Therefore, in addition to the routine blood workup by your doctor, you may want to consider additional testing from your natural healthcare team.
Consume A Plant-Based Diet
I don’t mean go vegan although I still do a lot of vegan cooking and baking. Cashew cheesecake, anyone? What I really mean is that all of us would be better off with waaaaay more plants in our diet. Whether you are paleo, vegan, or eschew dietary labels altogether, increasing the amount of plant foods in your diet, mostly vegetables, will lower risk of developing various diseases, nourish your body with nutrients, promote better mood, energy, and weight balance.
Have Fun In Your Kitchen
If you really have a hankering for cheesecake or brownies, get into your kitchen and make them yourself. Chances are your treats will taste better than store-bought, they will be healthier for you, and you will have had some fun in the kitchen. Apart from in Paris, most restaurant type treats disappoint; they are way too sweet, expensive, and rarely if ever meet my expectation. Restaurants and fast food drain your budget and your health. If you eat out a ton, the next time you are tempted consider taking that money and, instead, hit up a local farmers market or ‘splurge’ on wild salmon, goat cheese, luscious greens, and a bottle of wine. It is true that you will have a little cleanup to do but the flavor will be amazing and you will have leftovers!
Make your time in the kitchen pleasurable: light a beeswax candle, listen to a podcast or favorite music, or enjoy a glass of wine on occasion while making supper (one. not three). How shocking it is to me to hear about people with state of the art kitchens – who never actually prepare food in them. My kitchen is old and imperfect, I refuse to buy a ton of gadgets, and yet I manage to make simple, real foods with love.
Eat real food. Listen to your body. Stay curious and open to new ways of eating. And remember that food can be pleasurable AND nourish our bodies well.
Up next on my list of foods to try: cricket flour! Anyone with me?
P.S. If you need help transitioning to a REAL FOOD DIET or another specific method of eating, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire. Or, check out the Nutrition & Lifestyle Services I offer.