By Jill Chafin
The holiday time is upon us and with that comes meal preparation for a variety of palates, preferences, and specialty diets, such as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, Paleo, Keto, raw, etc. I've always struggled with this time of year due to my own dietary restrictions, both from food allergies and sensitivities, as well as personal dietary choices. I've definitely done my fair share of bouncing between dietary regimes and through this process I've discovered that sticking 100% to one “label” isn't always the way to go. (This is not meant to discourage those who are completely devoted to their diet of choice – if it works for you, then go for it!).
I was a devout vegetarian at age 12, convinced that forgoing meat would save the planet, protect innocent animals, and improve my health. My aversion to eggs and my intolerance to dairy products made me vegan by default. I was not sworn to this label, although I had friends (and several boyfriends) who were religious about their veganism – refusing to wear leather and never consuming honey. There was a time in college when I hid yogurt cups in my backpack, afraid that my hardcore vegan boyfriend would see them and judge me.
“Humans aren't meant to drink milk from a cow. That stuff is meant strictly for their calves.”
Yes, yes, I believed him. Whoever thought to go up to a cow, squeeze its udder and drink whatever came out? However, despite my hesitations with consuming dairy and the fact that my body didn't tolerate it (I could only eat low-lactose stuff, like feta cheese, yogurt, and goat's milk) I loved my daily dose of yogurt. The fresh probiotics made me feel good and helped balance my gut flora. I used the vegan label to avoid being served dishes laden with heavy cream, but continued to consume my few select dairy products.
I look back now and wish I could've gotten 22-year-old Jill to eat a daily egg. At that point in time I was dancing five hours a day at an intensive dance training program, living on tahini sandwiches, brown rice, steamed veggies, kale salad and the occasional package of tempeh. I'd collapse in my bed every night, in a puddle of tears, shaking from exhaustion. Turns out I was severely B12 deficient: normals levels range from 190-900 ng/mL. Mine was 68. The doctor begged me to at least eat eggs, but I hated them. I needed several B12 shots to get my levels back up, then had to take daily B12 supplements, until I finally trained myself to eat gag down eggs sometime in my late 20's. The tricky thing about B12 is that it's not as readily available in plant-based foods (read HERE about the case for and against an all-plant diet). The bottom line is that if you're a vegan, you gotta take those supplements. In the end, I found it easier to eat eggs instead of buying expensive supplements. I've now grown to love eggs and rarely go a day without them.
Fast forward to my mid-30's and the beginning of my transformation away from vegetarianism. I experienced two miscarriages and feared that I'd never be able to carry a baby full term. My fertility acupuncturist was adamant I needed to start eating meat. But I'd been a vegetarian since I was 12, it was all I'd known for 20+ years. She insisted I cut out all carbs and eat nothing but meat and veggies for at least six weeks. I had to do some soul searching on this one and was faced with a true identity crisis at losing the title of “vegetarian.” My husband cooked up some free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free chicken into microscopic pieces and mixed it into a colorful stir-fry so that I could pretend I wasn't really eating meat. And thus began my journey of hypocrisy, all my strong-held, stubborn beliefs fading away as I chowed down on dead animals. Three months later, I was pregnant. And now, 2.5 years after that first chicken stir-fry, I have two thriving, healthy, robust children. I'm not saying that eating meat was the reason I was finally able to have babies, but I feel like it definitely helped. Of course there are plenty of vegetarians who've had healthy babies – my sister-in-law had three adorable children, all while consuming a 100% vegetarian diet. But for me, with my specific health problems, shifting my diet to include animal protein seemed to help balance out my whacky hormones. And it took being flexible enough to let go of a label I'd held for so many years, a process which involved a fair amount of grief and guilt.
One year for Christmas several people were drilling me about my diet. They wanted so much to categorize my eating habits. “You're gluten-free, right? So I can go to the store and buy everything that says gluten-free and you'll eat it?”
“Well, no. Not exactly,” I said. “Most gluten-free breads have yeast and I can't eat yeast. And the sweets usually have tons of refined sugar, and I'm a mess when I eat sugar.” Seriously, I'm all tears, mood-swings, achy joints, and itchy skin. It's insane.
They scratched their chins, they furrowed their brows, they asked more questions.
“Vegan? Vegetarian?” What's your label?
Even after I started eating meat, I was a closet-carnivore, meaning I didn't want the world to know that I'd ditched my vegetarian ways. Part of this was me not accepting the loss of that label, but also being extremely picky about the type of meat I ate. I didn't want to go to a party and have a massive steak slapped in front of me – which happened when my husband told someone I now ate meat. I sat there, nervously cutting up the steak, pushing it around my plate, mixing it with the broccoli, adding some sauce, and trying one little bite (which made me want to throw up). It was pretty obvious at the end of the meal that I didn't eat any of the steak, with everyone else's plates empty with a pile of gnawed on bones. Because of this, I sometimes tell people I'm a vegetarian, sometimes a vegan, just to avoid eating huge hunks of meat drenched in dairy.
“You see,” I tried explaining. “I eat some meat, but not much. And I can eat some dairy, but not regular cheese. I can eat goat's cheese, and cow's feta, and any kind of yogurt, but without sugar, and I can eat butter, but I prefer organic.”
They blinked at me.
“But what's your label?”
“I guess I have many labels,” was all I could say. “Gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free. Maybe Paleo is the best one for now?”
They looked at each other, shrugging, before walking away, giving up.
Then there was the time I tried eating all raw, mostly because it sounded super healthy at the time. I ate a lot of salad, and I mean a lot of salad, and pounds and pounds of expensive almonds – made into crazy creative dishes (like almond burgers, almond cheese, almond pizza crust, almond pate). It was fun but I was always starving. However, I did create a cool raw dessert recipe book during that time, which you can order HERE. People would see me at the store after that, with a cart full of crackers, hummus, and pasta and sheepishly say, “But that's not raw.” As if I was blatantly cheating in broad daylight. But nowhere in my book did it actually say I was a devout raw foodist. I just liked making raw desserts.
All too often we look at people changing their beliefs as being hypocrites or wishy-washy. But the truth is that humans are meant to be flexible eaters (my dad used to refer to himself as a “flexitarian” - eating whatever was available, although now he's a vegan in an effort to reduce his high blood pressure and it's working!). We adapt and flex to what's available to us, what we need, what we crave, what we believe is best for us in that exact moment.
Basically I'm here to say that it's important to accept everyone's diet, whether they are strict or constantly changing. Maybe this year you're a vegan, maybe next year you're doing Keto – maybe for health reasons, or environmental reasons, or just to lose weight (or to follow the latest fad – which is okay too). And the year after that you're trying raw (go ahead and order my recipe book – you won't regret it!). Or maybe this morning you ate meat, but tonight you're craving a vegan meal. The problem with labels is that we think they are rigid, finite, defining a person and their habits forever. No. We're way more flexible than that. So if you call yourself a vegan but you want to eat some chocolate cream pie on Christmas, go ahead. Or if you've always eaten meat but you suddenly want to skip the ham and make tofu turkey this Christmas, then do it (I recommend this tempeh turkey recipe). Either way, just remember that eating can be either strict, flexible, or a combination of both. It's totally up to you.
(For recipe inspiration, check out Jill's Pinterest page. Tons of great gluten-free, low-sugar, Paleo, etc. options)
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist & dancer, food enthusiast, and mama. She was runner-up in the 2012 America's Next Author Competition and holds a BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's currently working on several novels.
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