I’m not one of those women who regularly watches what she eats. In fact, for the majority of my life, I’ve managed to maintain a size 4 figure with a minimum amount of time spent in the gym. I’ve also somehow managed to maintain 36 years of above-average yearly health physical results — with low blood pressure and low cholesterol leading the charge. In fact, in spite of my occasional habit of smoking cigarettes, my regular habit of drinking alcohol and soda, plus regularly eating bacon, fried potatoes, cheeseburgers and steak, I was blissfully unaware that these horrible habits would one day catch up with me.
Oh to be young again
It all came crashing down near my 37th birthday. I was on the receiving side of some family drama, was therefore pretty depressed and wasn’t taking great care of myself. Despite 10 hours of sleep the night before, I was feeling very tired and run down the morning I went in for my physical. I explained to the nurse that I was going through an emotional trauma, but other than that, I had felt great all year. She drew my blood, took some samples, and eventually sent me on my way. Still blissfully unaware, I celebrated the fact that I completed my fast and kept my appointment by visiting a fast-food drive-thru. I chowed down on a bacon cheeseburger, french fries and a medium diet soda right there in the parking lot.
The reality check
About a week later, I received a call from my doctor. She said my cholesterol was high enough that she was considering putting me on medication. She said my thyroid results were wonky (not her words), and that I had a low white blood cell count and a serious lack of vitamin D. She was deeply concerned with my results and wanted to know if I would meet with a nutritionist.
The panic set in the minute I heard the word “thyroid.” I had just met a guy who had had his thyroid removed due to cancer. My father has thyroid issues and cholesterol issues. And see a nutritionist? But I’ve never paid attention to what I’ve eaten in my entire life! Now a nutritionist was going to take over? No. I had a feeling the results were skewed because of what I had just been through and I wanted to try again.
I spoke with my doctor about my mindset at the time of the physical. She urged me to eat a healthy diet, take Vitamin D and exercise regularly over the next month. She said we’d do another physical then and see if the results were any different. I agreed to the plan and for the next month, I really focused on staying healthy. When I received my second set of results 5 weeks later, I was relieved when she said I was back in the regular percentiles for my thyroid, cholesterol, vitamin D and white blood cell counts for a healthy person my age.
Phew! I had dodged a bullet
Though I managed to quit smoking and began to incorporate more salads into my diet, I hadn’t really made a strong decision to change my eating habits. It wasn’t long before I had stopped exercising altogether. In time, my weight began to climb. I didn’t notice it until my “fat” pants had stopped easily sliding over my hips. I was auctioned off as a date for a charity auction and didn’t go for the same amount of money as I had the year before. When I saw photos of myself at the auction, I suddenly understood why; for the first time in my life, I was overweight!
Though I did start going back to the gym, it was a struggle with the horrible New England snow storms and the perpetual darkness that winter brings. I may have lost a few pounds, but it certainly wasn’t coming off easily and I definitely wasn’t motivated enough to review all of my eating habits (though I had made a conscious effort to cut down on fast food).
By Spring, I had begun work on my next book, a conglomeration of expert breakup recovery advice, occasionally peppered with some lifestyle change advice. As part of the research for the book, I consulted therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and other sorts of experts. A nutritionist and a life & style expert were part of the many interviews I conducted and for some reason, their advice really stuck with me. It was a slow process, but I started consciously changing my habits.
I began substituting brown rice for white rice and regular crackers for whole wheat crackers. I stopped visiting drive-thru windows and instead began purchasing Trader Joe’s salads for lunch. I started participating in mind meditation exercises that I found on YouTube. I began working out on a regular basis at the gym across the street from my work. I soon realized that some of my co-workers also attended this gym, so it was almost easier to go, knowing they would be there as well. When I didn’t show up, someone would always find me the next day and say, “I missed you at the gym last night.”
I was motivated
So while I was in the midst of this accidental lifestyle change, I was also working with some new team members at my regular 9-5 job. One of the coworkers I really respect, it turns out, is also vegan. I peppered him with questions, made fun of him occasionally and agreed to try when he eventually challenged me to “go vegan” for 30 days. I don’t believe he thought I could do it. Of course, I was determined to prove him wrong.
It’s not easy
In spite of my love for fast food, I’ve also been discovering my love for cooking over the past few years. I knew that the key to eating vegan would be creating dishes that were so delicious, flavorful and filling, that I wouldn’t miss meat, cheese, sour cream, and fish (a New England staple). I told my work colleague I would start the challenge in a few weeks, after I’d had time to research some recipes. Then I logged some serious internet time looking at vegan recipe websites so I could figure out what to purchase at the store.
I tried a few recipes here and there and within a few weeks, I picked a target date and began eating 100% vegan. My coworker feels he got lucky because I started to bring him treats like vegan chocolate chip cookies and vegan banana bread. I’m lucky I have someone to unload some of the treats on, or else I’d probably end up eating them all myself!
Since starting this challenge, these are the key benefits I’ve noticed while eating vegan:
- I have lost some weight. I haven’t weighed myself (on purpose), but my jeans are fitting more nicely a few weeks in.
- My adult acne has (for the most part) cleared up.
- My stomach seems flatter than it has looked in years, due to a lack of bloat.
- I cook in advance and tend to really consider the calories of each dish I make. I’ve never really taken the time to plan meals before.
- I make sure that I eat my multivitamins daily, including B12 since you can’t really get as much as your body requires on a purely vegan diet. I think I almost always took a multivitamin before I started eating vegan, but never really paid attention.
So while I believe I handled the transition responsibly, it hasn’t necessarily been easy. These are some ugly truths about eating vegan:
Initially your grocery bill will be large, but over time, you’ll save money. I had to replace a lot of kitchen staples with vegan-friendly options. I had to get agave, quinoa, couscous, refined sugar, wheat flour, vegan butter, soy milk, almond milk, coconut oil, vegan chocolate chips, vegan vitamins and on top of that, I had to purchase all my veggies, black beans, chick peas, fruits and nut butter.
You’ll spend a lot of time looking at labels & even more asking about ingredients. Again, I have always thought people were being annoying or pretentious when staring at a label in a grocery store or asking a waiter a ton of questions. Now I see how necessary it is when you’re paying attention to your health.
Your meat-eating friends may not agree or understand your choice to eat vegan. Some have responded to my FB posts with “ewww” or “you’d never see me get suckered into something like that!” The truth is, I don’t generally care what other people think of my life anyway, but if you’re someone who does care about the opinions of those around you, tread carefully.
You may hit a wall. I hit a wall around day ten. I couldn’t get out of bed and I slept until noon that day. My vegan friend told me it’s normal to feel sluggish when starting a new diet, but wow, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in this funk for a few days, but eventually broke out of it.
You’ll be very well acquainted with your commode. To put it delicately, I knew when I had decided to add a lot of fiber to my diet, the results would be obvious, however, I wasn’t prepared to have to go that often. Eliminating is wonderful (hello, Freud!), but I didn’t realize how much my bathroom habits would change. This may level out in time, but weeks in, I’m still going often.
It’s really hard to dine out. Yes, you can call ahead and check out vegan options before you go to a restaurant, but considering I’ve never had to do that before, I still consider it an added chore. Everything seems to contain cheese and butter, and now I’m that annoying person who has to ask detailed questions about everything she orders. If the restaurant doesn’t have chips & salsa or a salad you can modify, you may starve until you get home. Lesson learned: bring snacks with you in your purse or bag!
Some amazing junk foods are actually vegan. Oreos, Fritos, Red Bull, Cracker Jack’s, (unfrosted) Pop Tarts, Ritz Crackers, Sour Patch Kids, Pillsbury Crescent Rolls, Duncan Hines Creamy Homestyle Chocolate Frosting. They aren’t easy to think of off the top of your head, but with some research, you can still eat some junk if you’re craving it.
I’m not entirely sure that I’ll continue to eat vegan for the rest of my life, or if I’ll end up flexatarian or pescatarian (I do love shellfish), but I do know that I feel healthier due to clean eating. The dirty secret here is that while I am eating vegan, I am not VEGAN. I haven’t given away my leather purses, or figured out which of my shoes have been made out of synthetic fibers. That’s an entirely different level, and generally people who have made the choice to be vegan do so out of a combination of ethics and overall health. As stated, I have accidentally fallen into these eating habits, and so far, I like how I’m feeling and I like what I’m seeing.
My next steps, as I explore what “being vegan” means, are to watch some documentaries about animal cruelty, figure out how I feel about my role at the top of the food chain and really think seriously about how I want to conduct the rest of my life. I think that, for me, as I take each step toward a healthier lifestyle, I’ll consider all of these ramifications as I make overall life and style decisions. I’m still learning how to be a healthy adult, how to think about my future and how to make good choices in consideration of my health. In terms of taking care of my body, I am finally growing up.