Wednesday, October 05, 2011

My Escape From Vegetarianism

I've been meaning to write about my transition from vegan/vegetarian to omnivore to Paleo for awhile, it's such an important step that I took for my own health. Yet at the same time, it's a very personal decision and one that for many people approaches a religious or spiritual level. To other vegetarians, I know that any time a former vegetarian speaks about their negative experiences with vegetarianism, it can feel almost like an insult to their own beliefs. Which is why people like Lierre Keith who have spoken out publicly (and in her excellent book, The Vegetarian Myth) have been violently attacked for doing so. So it's not easy finding the right words to describe my own personal experience.

In a way, it was watching the graphic elk hunt scene in the documentary I, Caveman on the Discovery Channel's Curiousity program that sparked me to finally sit down and write about my own experience. Watching that scene would've been impossible for me as a vegetarian. The idea that something beautiful and sentient like that majestic elk would have to die in order for a human to eat was a reality that was too painful for my animal-loving sensitive brain to handle. I was the kid who turned off Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom when the lions started hunting the zebras on the African plains. I didn't know then that any time we eat, we are creating the death of something, whether we know or acknowledge it or not.

Like so many soft-hearted, tree-hugging, animal-loving idealistic young women, my journey into vegetarianism started as a teenager, that age when our emotions and our logical brains are so intertwined as to be inseparable. And herein lies the rub: all of us who have been vegan and vegetarian are doing it for all the right reasons. At least we think we are. We love the planet, we adore animals. We save stray cats, we rescue spiders from our homes and move them carefully outside in glass jars, we pick up snails off the sidewalk for heaven's sake. My running partners in Seattle used to threaten to stop running with me if I didn't stop rescuing worms after a rainstorm.

I was a vegetarian for twenty years. So how, and why, did I stop?

It's not everyone who hears their doctor begging them to eat meat. In this day of cholesterol-fearing frenzy, that's a rare enough thing in itself. But my blood iron levels were "lower than a cancer patient's". My thyroid had gone haywire and my health was in the toilet. You'd think it would be an easy decision, given all of that. Yet leaving vegetarianism behind is anything but simple.

To stop being a vegetarian is very straightforward: all you have to do is start eating meat again. But vegetarianism is as much a part of your soul as it is of your body. It's as much religion as it is nutrition. It's been several years now since I made the difficult decision to reclaim my health and to start eating animals after 20+ years of vegetarianism, but it's something I find that I rarely talk about. In some sense, when you're part of the vegetarian and vegan culture, you're made to feel like you've personally failed some great moral test if you can't make it work for your body. You just haven't tried hard enough. Perhaps you need to eat more raw foods, or juice more, or eat more tofu for protein, take more B12 and supplements. As I struggled with my health, I tried and I tried and I tried, so many different things. And I got sicker and sicker and sicker.

I could not complete my first Ironman because I was so anemic my doctor was considering a blood transfusion. So years later when I decided to try again to become an Ironman for real, I knew what I needed to do. I just didn't know how I could bring myself to do it.

The answer for me, at first, was all-natural humanely raised lunch meat. Thinly sliced stuff that tastes bland, doesn't bleed, doesn't have to be cut or prepared, and looks nothing like an animal. This worked fine at first. I could start healing my body without really facing what I was doing, what I was eating. Very slowly over time, I started branching out: a pound of hamburger, some pre-roasted chicken from the supermarket. And then eventually, a steak on the barbeque.

That was it then, at that point I had to face up to it for real: I was eating an animal. Don't call it pork, Robin. Call it what it is: a pig. It's not beef, it's a cow. Let's really look at what we're doing here. My mind was drawn back to a trip that hubby and I took to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. We spent over a week on a camping safari afterwards, one morning watching hyenas stalking the wildebeest at the watering hole, another day spotting a battle between vultures and wild dogs for the remains of a lion-shredded zebra. This is real life. This is what happens every day. Death happens in order for life to happen. That got me thinking about my previous pristine diet: what had died in order that my "textured vegetable protein" shaped like a hot dog arrived on my plate? Insects, mice, voles, or other creatures that once called those mono-crop soybean fields their homes?

There is no living without death, and therefore there is no eating without death. That truth is a big one. It took me a long time to look it in the eye, and to make my peace with it. I saw that I had never truly been a vegetarian and most especially not a vegan. Even as I saved a spider from my home, I ran over another one when I backed my car out of the driveway. Even as I avoided eating the cow, I ate a mouse's home burrow in my soyburger.

Reading Lierre Keith's book The Vegetarian Myth was like looking in a mirror. Like hearing a beautiful sermon that explained everything. Like being delivered from a heavy mental weight that I didn't know I was still carrying. Like getting a big hug from someone who understands exactly what you've gone through. I could finally stop beating myself for "failing" at vegetarianism, and start celebrating the newer, stronger, healthier body that I now had.

I no longer had a cupboard full of supplements that I had to make sure I took. I no longer had to take so many iron pills every day that my stomach burned and hurt. My thyroid was irreparably damaged (I personally believe it was because of all the soy I ate, soy being a known thyroid and endocrine disruptor) but I would just have to make the best of that. My constant sugar cravings and subsequent battles with candida and yeast infections were gone. I got up in the morning with energy, and could complete even the longest hardest workout without breaking down. My restless leg syndrome and pica were disappearing (both are tied to severe anemia) and my insomnia was on its way out, for good.

Continuing my journey from vegetarian to omnivore, to locavore, to Paleo locavore, I have felt my health, mental health, and energy increase exponentially. It seems funny to me, but I probably eat more vegetables on a paleo diet than I did as a vegetarian (especially in my fat-phobic, Snackwell-munching days). For sure I eat far less sugar. Somewhat counter-intuitively, my cholesterol is down from 220 as a vegetarian to 175 as an omnivore. Probably a side effect of the decreased sugar consumption. Also interestingly, my weight has stayed exactly the same - from vegetarian to vegan to pescavore to omnivore to paleo. From low fat to high fat from high carb to low carb, my scale doesn't budge an inch. But then again, I feel like I'm at a healthy weight, so it doesn't really need to. I just think that's interesting given the hype that the proponents of each diet dish out.

I also eat more locally, and more sustainably, contrary to what most vegetarians believe. My meat, eggs, milk, and vegetables all come from the valley that I live in. Only my luxury items like bananas and coconuts are shipped in from far away. I'd hate to give them up, but I don't depend on them to thrive.

So the other night on the Discovery channel when I saw that beautiful elk heave its last dying breaths while the modern-day caveman hunters who had slain it with an atlatl gathered around for an emotional and teary moment to thank it for giving up its life for them, I was not repulsed. I did not have to avert my eyes, my heart was not sad. There is no living without death, it's something I can fully face now. And therefore I myself can fully live.


De Nueva said...

Not at the Ironman stage of things, but an active triathlete, I really enjoy your blog. My husband and I are all for the locavore/omnivore thing and have been for awhile now. However, my husband recently started reading The China Study and has been convinced that "mostly meatless/almost vegan" is the way to go. I'm curious if you've read it? He has a mountain of studies backing him up. But since we've switched, I haven't felt as good in my workouts and am wondering if that has something to do with it.

Ironmom (Julie) said...

Great post, Robin, thanks. I'm going to save it for when (not if) my teenage kids declare they are vegetarians. :)

cherelli said...

hear hear, great post. I only made the switch this year after years of vegetarianism and have a had great changes with my TSH...and improved hormone response during my cycle (one of the reasons I switched) and some GREAT workout results. No change in weight at all (if anything improved muscle tone). De Nueva - I have read the China Study during my vegetarian years - scary stuff huh? That kept me going for a good year or two alone. But there is plenty or refuting evidence...and also every individual is unique in their response to food, there are cultures who have been vegetarian and done well; there are also those who have been meat and fish eaters too (whole food, organic, clean meat), they just aren't mentioned. Stick to organic, grass fed meats. A good book to read is any nutritional research by Weston A Price. Conducted in the 30s across a whole range of different tribes/climates, it shows the value in eating "whole foods" for longevity and health, even grains in their most basic ground form if that is your thing.... (oops sorry ironmom, that was a long one!)

KovasP said...

Great post Robin. I'm headed in the opposite direction, but better-educated than when I was vegan before.

Robin said...

De Nueva, from the reading I've done, the China study has been pretty thoroughly debunked. Denise Minger's excellent writings on this subject are probably the best thing for you/your husband to read if you are interested:

For myself, I feel its pretty clear that indigenous humans did not survive without eating meat (watching I, Caveman only confirmed that for me) and thus biologically, that's the way our bodies run best. However, that means real, quality, grass-fed meat, not a Mickey D's!