I’ve been avoiding speaking with specificity here about the changes that I’ve made in my life over the past few months. I needed time to understand them better for myself first, and, if I’m totally honest, part of me has been nervous about how some of my choices will impact things in this space. My food has changed. It’s still delicious, and in a lot of ways better really, but it has definitely changed along with me.
It was at the end of September when I finally decided I’d had enough of feeling awful. I was tired all the time, I felt uncomfortable in my skin, and, more than feeling heavy, I felt swollen. Inflamed. My fingers were like sausages and my joints resisted when I bent them. It was impossible to take my rings off to do the dishes without first sticking my hand in the freezer to reduce the swelling, and even then it was difficult to force them over my knuckles.
Something told me it was more than just the extra weight. Something in my body felt wrong.
About a year ago, while Chris and I were on our honeymoon, I started experiencing intense aching in my feet and shoulders. I thought it was maybe the hotel bed, or all the walking, or that brutally bumpy mountain jeep tour. By the time the holidays rolled around, though, the pain had moved up into my neck and down into my wrists and hands. I hardly slept at night because every position hurt and I was only able to lie still until I could no longer bear it. By January, my feet would ache more and more intensely as the day went on, to the point where I was hobbling as the sun went down. The evenings also came with another scary impairment: my hands stopped working. They grew too weak to hold anything and I began to have panicked thoughts: What if I can never use a knife again? Or write? Or hold my future children?
Realizing that these were more than run-of-the-mill aches and pains, I paid a visit to my doctor. He wrote me a prescription for prednisone, which made me feel not only better but slightly superhuman, and ran some bloodwork. The results came back and said maybe arthritis?
(One thing we did find was that it wasn’t lupus. It’s never lupus.)
So, I saw a rheumatologist, who didn’t seem convinced that it was arthritis but put me on a heavy cocktail of arthritis meds anyway. I began to feel even more tired than I already was, like I was continually parched despite guzzling tons of water, and I started having strange heart palpitations. At a follow up visit with the doc, he told me it was all in my head. Upon reading the pamphlet full of fine print that the pharmacy is kind enough to provide along with all the pills, I learned that those were actually side effects of my medicinal medley. I made the executive decision to stop taking the meds and stop seeing the rheumatologist.
Luckily, in the days after I stopped the medication, the pain stayed away. It was a bizarre couple of months and I came out on the other side hoping it would prove to be an isolated episode in the grand scheme of my life.
All that to say that, when the stiffness started setting in this fall and I started feeling inflamed, I knew changes needed to be made. I didn’t want to feel like that ever again.
And then something clicked for me.
Preparing a delicious plant-based Christmas dinner. Photo courtesy of my lovely Aunt Cindy.
You know what was different during the period of time that Chris and I were on our honeymoon and also while we were in the Midwest for the holidays that year? I was eating a ton of meat and animal products.
I know that to some of you that may sound like a leap, but the realization really connected for me. During the months after my “arthritic” episode, I continued to eat more meat and especially dairy than I had in the year or so prior, and I felt fat and lethargic and swollen. It made me think back to a time when I remembered feeling really great and energized and healthy.
The month of January, 2010. When I was eating vegan.
I mentioned this plant-based stint in a post I wrote later that year about my struggles with eating meat. Reading the post now, it sounds sort of like I knew what I was saying, like I had a coherent point to make. That is totally surreal to me today, because when I was writing it I felt so scattered and conflicted that I was a tiny bit disgusted with myself after I hit publish. I was saying that eating meat was fine, and I argued several points in its favor, but deep inside I still didn’t really know why (or even if) it was okay for me. I didn’t know how I’d made the leap from lovingly raising a chick back in high school to feeling comfortable cooking and ingesting one. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I’d just said that eating vegan had made me feel amazing and glowing and had improved my cooking, and yet here I was making a case for why I was moving away from it.
You know how sometimes you have an argument with someone and there are things that pop into your mind and bother you about what you said or didn’t say after the fact, sometimes sticking with you years later? That’s how I’ve felt about that post. Something about it has never sat right with me and always made me feel frustrated.
Which of course makes sense now.
So I decided that for the month of October I would eat a plant-based diet to jumpstart my wellness and cleanse my system. Just as before, I started to feel fantastic. The inflammation went down (it was like someone let the air out of a balloon) and I felt clear and had a ton of energy. As the days passed, I began to struggle again with, if I feel so amazing eating this way, why am I not doing this all the time?
There are a few reasons, I think. One is that I already have a pretty major dietary restriction, one that trips up a lot of people and that I know can make me a challenging dinner guest. I don’t have any say in the gluten-free thing. It is what it is. Eating vegan on top of that, however, is absolutely a choice. It has seemed selfish in my mind to add another significant dietary restriction, and one that ultimately eliminates every key element of most American diets. What do you mean no bread, meat, eggs, or dairy?!
I think the biggest issues for me, though, have been based in fear and uncertainty: How will my steak and cheese curd loving family react? Should I call myself vegan? Will other vegans judge me if I’m not vegan enough? Will my omnivorous friends be understanding or think I’m crazy? Can I really commit to never eating cheese again…ever?
When I step out of my head, though, all of those concerns seem silly. The most important thing is how I feel. The longer I eat this way, the more it makes sense to me. I feel inspired by the fact that my diet has a lower impact on the environment and, for all the stress over local/organic/etc today, I feel lighter now that I don’t also have to wonder to what degree another living being suffered for my meal. Every time I prepare a colorful, nutrient-dense, plant-based dish, I feel uplifted knowing that my body will feel energized and nourished after I’ve eaten it. By contrast, the handful of times that I’ve eaten animal products over the past few months have left me feeling weighed down and swollen (a bit of research and the documentary Forks Over Knives confirmed my suspicions about animal products and inflammation). I’ve now lost over twenty pounds without depriving myself, and I continued to lose weight over the holidays while straight-up indulging. My skin is clear, my mind is focused, and my hair, nails, and eyelashes(!) are growing like crazy. I’ve never felt better in my life.
So now you know a little more about what I’ve been doing for my health and why the recipes here may start to look different. Rest assured that they’ll still be every bit as delicious—just a whole lot healthier and made with even more heart.