In preparation for writing a piece for my column at the Washington Times Communities, “Reading Ingredients: Tales from a Health-Conscious Mom,” I realized that I could stand to write a background post on why I eat the way I do when it’s so different from how I used to eat.
I’ve written some about my nutritional beliefs in a piece called “My Kind of Nutrition (Or Healthy Eating 101)” and a similar post here on Crunchy-Chewy Mama. I’ve also written a little about my ideas about health care and my past experiences with doctors on this post at DC Metro Moms.
But let me go back a little to trace my personal food history to talk about the journey to vegetarian and back.
I first lost my interest in eating ham after dissecting a fetal pig in 9th grade biology. Then, when I went to France for three weeks for a cultural exchange in 11th grade, I felt heavy and just plain yucky with all the meat at every meal. Some friends were experimenting with vegetarianism, including my co-leader in the high school student environmental organization.
When I went to college, I joined the environmental group there, and most everyone was vegetarian, as were several of the folks living on my hall in the dorm and friends of theirs. It seemed like vegetarianism made sense in terms of how much energy it took to grow grain versus to feed animals to then feed to people, and lots of folks were on the animal-rights bandwagon, too.
I stopped eating red meat and had zero desire for it. I asked for my college graduation present to be a Sierra Club backpacking trip and chose a vegan trip in the Sierra mountains that included yoga and meditation. It was beautiful and powerful.
I did not go full-on veggie for a few more months, but since I was living as a non-profit intern at at women’s rights organization outside of DC, eating vegetarian became a cost-cutting measure in addition to a way of life I was gravitating toward.
On my birthday in March of 1996, I walked away from a turkey sandwich lunch at a sub shop and decided that was the last time. Soon after I saw a report on factory farmed chickens essentially living in their own feces, and I decided that no one should want to eat meat. I didn’t know there were alternatives to that type of farming.
I also didn’t know much about health to understand that adrenal stress and an imbalance in my digestive enzymes might have caused me to be so averse to red meat — that not wanting to eat it was a symptom of something else rather than just a natural sigh that it wasn’t right for me.
And somehow I failed to see the connection between my new diet — grain-heavy and increasingly dependent on soy products — and my increase in gastro-intestinal problems or deep-cyst acne. Certainly stress also played into my problems, and I’d had some G.I. issues all my life. But things were really bad in 1996-97.
Then I got some kind of food poisoning or flu, and that actually seemed to help clean me out for a while! I moved away from DC and toward graduate school, where I didn’t get hard-core into animal rights issues but generally accepted the basic ideas behind The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. It just seemed like meat was a barbaric way of living, akin to abuse and misogyny. I did okay health-wise while a vegetarian student for the next three years. Well, physically anyway. My mental health — which had always been on the verge of depression — took a downturn.
I should also mention that I was on the Pill this whole time, which did me no favors and I’m sure contributed to my woes. After we moved back to the DC area and I began teaching, I fell into a serious depression that required medication.
I also had a recurrence of G.I. problems much worse than before. I did put together than my issues seemed to get worse after going to Sunflower Vegetarian restaurant, but I couldn’t figure out why that would be. I had yet to learn anything about gluten (the meat substitute used in a lot of their cooking), and this was years before I learned I had celiac disease.
I started seeing some alternative practitioners this first year after grad school, and I cleared my seasonal allergies and my sensitivity to sulfites and some other chemicals and foods. But it still took a bout with serious and long-term constipation and, a year later, with infertility, to get me to change my tune about my diet.
When doctors found nothing wrong during a colonoscopy in 2002, I sought out more alternative healers. Without understanding how poor my health really was, I went off the Pill and off anti-depressants in preparation for trying to conceive. That’s when the real fun started.
It took almost 3 months to get my first period, then 6 weeks, and then nothing. My gut wasn’t happy, and my skin looked terrible. I consulted with a nutritionist who suggested that my adrenals were depleted and that my vegetarian diet was not right for me. She talked about the ideas behind the book Nourishing Traditions, and though I was first insulted that she suggest I resume eating meat, I relented to at least try cutting back on soy and to add in full-fat dairy and eggs to my diet.
After three and a half months of no fertility signs, I ovulated two weeks after changing my diet simply to a lacto-ovo (as opposed to near-vegan) vegetarian diet.
At the same time, I also started the process of being diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, autoimmune hyperthyroidism. This nutritionist suggested a few months later that I might have a gluten sensitivity; sometimes autoimmune conditions go together, she’d read in the book Going Against the Grain.
I tried cutting back on gluten and dairy and found an improvement in my health. I’d already started to feel better eating poultry and fish again. My test showed the genetic marker for celiac disease, marked intestinal malabsorption, and a very high sensitivity to gluten and casein (and a lower sensitivity to egg white and yeast. I never tested soy, but I’m sure that would have come up and don’t need the test to tell me to avoid it).
In addition to my new diet and supplement regimen, I took a lot of alternative methods to support myself while I was on anti-thyroid medication – acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, detox protocols. I became convinced that a lifetime of eating gluten had contributed to my tendency toward depression and that my six years as a whole-grain-heavy (and soy-based) vegetarian really did me in.
I felt better than I ever had, and, six months after I’d gone off anti-thyroid medication, I conceived my son in June 2005. I have not had to treat my thyroid since then, except for adding a little iodine a few months postpartum when my levels started to dip low, toward Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
All the details about my current diet can be found on other posts, but I did want to explain why I came to understand that a vegetarian diet is not right for me. I now buy most of my meat (and eggs, and dairy for my husband and son) directly from local farmers, and I buy as much local produce as possible. I hope to grow more this summer now that we are settled in our new house. I have not yet read The Vegetarian Myth by 20-year vegan Lierre Keith, but I get the sense from reviews (including this one) that the author addresses ecological, philosophical, ethical, political and nutritional arguments for and against vegetarianism in persuasive ways.
I can’t begin to pretend that I know what is right for other people, even if part of me wants to think I know. I for sure don’t want to make blanket statements that sound dismissive of other people’s choices.
I just want to be clear that my choice to be an omnivore is intentional and based on a lot of trial and error; it has not been made without a lot of thought and consideration.