It’s no secret that it’s difficult to maintain a healthy diet while traveling. A few months ago, I struggled to eat wholesome, well-balanced meals on a quick trip to Oklahoma. (Their healthy restaurant fare isn’t quite on par with California.) I was ready to jump back on the healthy bandwagon after a day of eating lots of meat, bread, and desserts. As soon as I got to the Dallas airport on my way home, I started making better eating choices. It took me a day and half to realize that I hadn’t eaten an ounce of meat since leaving Oklahoma. I had been accidentally vegetarian for almost two days! I decided to keep a vegetarian diet for the week to see how it made me feel. That week turned into almost two months where I mostly ate a vegetarian or vegan diet. Here are my reflections and observations:
Walking on Air
I felt more energetic and lighter on my feet during my first few weeks on a mostly vegetarian diet. It felt good to know that I was putting only plants into my body. I was no longer contributing to the environmentally damaging meat industry. Finding vegetarian food options was relatively easy, as my workplace cafeteria offers a vegetarian food section. And my favorite restaurants all have tofu and other vegetarian offerings. After two weeks of trying vegetarianism, I decided to step it up and go vegan. That was slightly more challenging. I found myself eating a repeat diet of Indian Dal, Pumpkin Tofu Curry, oatmeal, and avocado toast. I also supplemented with plant-based protein shakes to get enough protein to sustain my workout routine.
I noticed changes in how my body processed food almost as soon as I cut out animal products in my diet. To put it delicately, my digestive system went haywire. So, I started trying different ways to get my digestive system happier. I drank kombucha and introduced sauerkraut and kimchi to improve my GI bacterial health. I started taking shots of Apple Cider Vinegar at meals, and took hydrochloric acid pills with protein shakes. These measures helped some but were unable to alleviate the constant discomfort I felt.
Showing Kindness to Mother Earth
Despite the physical discomfort I experienced, it did feel very good to know that I was not contributing to the massive negative environmental affects of the meat industry. I convinced myself that any intellectually honest person HAD to be vegan when confronted with the horrific and stark realities of the US’s meat consumption habits. And I started to understand where that intense fervor comes from when some vegans talk about their lifestyle to non-vegans. There’s a solid truth that vegans base their dietary choices on. They just want others to get a glimpse of that truth, knowing that confronting it head on is what directed many of them to that lifestyle. One of the most compelling reasons I wanted to continue with the diet was becoming unshackled from the unsustainable meat industry. But my body was still not having it after almost two months as a vegan.
Moment of Truth
I stubbornly persisted with my mostly vegan diet, even as I entered the final stretch in training for AIDSLifeCycle and was burning 3,000-4,000 calories on a single ride. Though I ate a lot of nuts, tofu, quinoa, rice and lentils, I still felt like I had less and less energy to keep up with my strength training.
I started developing muscle tightness and back pain from all the biking I was doing. And I started seeing an acupuncturist to help my muscles relax. She was very zen, in tune with her chakras, and spoke the language of the best yogis and Eastern philosophers. But when she found out that I was trying a vegan diet with my long bike ride from SF to LA coming up, she stopped our session, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Oh honey. You need meat. Your ancestors were hunter-gatherers, and you’re going to really mess up your body if you deprive it of what it needs to survive.”
Her words made an impression, and resonated with how bad my body was taking to my new diet. I tried meat that evening, for the first time in months. And the next day, my digestive side effects were completely gone. My whole body felt better when meat was introduced back into my diet. I knew that, for me, strict veganism was not a viable lifestyle at this stage of my life.
While veganism isn’t for me right now, I still hold on to the many facts and beliefs I picked up when living the vegan lifestyle. I continue to believe that westerners eat way too much meat, and that the meat industry’s affects on nature are incredibly damaging. Additionally, I’ve seen firsthand how cows are genetically modified to produce more meat, and how unhealthy the lives of to-be slaughtered animals are.
I’ve chosen to treat meat like the privilege it is, and primarily use it as a topping for plant-based meals, rather than the main part of a meal. I have also chosen to carefully source my meat from smaller, locally owned farms. I look for meat that is grass-fed and free-range, with no added growth hormones. With carefully sourced meat, and limited consumption, I do believe that one can ethically and sustainably eat meat as a part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
I’m so grateful for my vegetarian experience. It opened my eyes to new lifestyles, and gave me a much greater appreciation for the discipline and choices exhibited by vegetarians and vegans. I also recognize that my reaction to vegetarianism and veganism may have been an anomaly. Perhaps my intense exercise regimen played a role, and I didn’t give my body enough time to adapt. Maybe my macros were off, or perhaps I was missing a critical but unknown part of my diet. I’m very open to trying the lifestyle again once I have more knowledge and education about balanced vegetarian and vegan diets.
I know that diet can be a subject that many feel passionately about. What are your views on vegetarian and vegan diets? What advice would you give me next time I attempt a plant-based lifestyle? How do you make choices about your diet?