This week's IIN module talks about plant-based diets...and it got me to thinking about myself and how I used to be a bad vegetarian...
The summer before my senior year of college, I spent ten weeks on Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals as a research intern at the Shoals Marine Laboratory. While living on Appledore, weate all of our meals in a dining hall setting. The majority of the staff on the island were either vegetarian or vegan, so there were always multiple variations of each meal: something I had never encountered before. Before my visit to the island, my only brush with vegetarianism was with my sister, who considered eating an empty hot-dog bun with ketchup a vegetarian meal.
All of the different food offerings opened the door for long dinner conversations about plant-based diets. It seemed as though everyone had a different reason for becoming a vegetarian or vegan, whether it be for morality or for health. I admired the discipline and ingenuity (mostly the discipline) of my new vegan friends and wanted to be a part of their elite group.
After leaving Shoals, I changed the way I ate. My four year fling with a plant-based diet started as an attempt to only eat meat if I knew where it came from. I had no problem doing this at home in Vermont, where I was lucky enough to have access to local chicken and beef. At school, however, the hamburgers didn't even look like hamburgers....so how could I possible know where they had come from? Thus, I cut out meat all together. Eventually, my reasons for becoming a vegetarian became moral reasons rather than health reasons. All in all, I was ill informed and unprepared and my decision to stop eating meat led to years of disordered eating.
To make a long story short, after a three years of eating mainly yogurt, fruit, peanut butter, cereal and fake meat products, my diet was no longer supporting my lifestyle. Even though I wasn't eating meat, I didn't feel healthy: I felt lethargic, heavy and stuck. I had taken my main source of protein out of my diet and I hadn't replaced it with anything: I was eating mainly fruits, complex carbohydrates and dairy products--and not enough dairy to get adequate protein for my lifestyle. I didn't eat nearly enough vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens, and there was no variety to the foods I did eat. I ate the same thing every day for weeks at a time. Something needed to change and I knew what the change should be, I just felt extremely guilty about implementing it.
In November of 2009, I bit the bullet and started eating meat again. M had made some delicious looking Italian Grilled Chicken, and on an impulse I ate a piece...or maybe three. At first I did feel guilty about eating meat again-- it seemed too difficult to explain why I gave up my vegetarian lifestyle...I didn't want to go back on my word or my morals. However, I immediately felt the effects of eating more whole food protein, and those effect far outweighed the integrity of my morals. I felt more energized than when I was eating mainly wheat gluten protein products. I also felt like I could eat less food and be more satisfied.
My diet changed again after starting the Institute for Integrative Nutrition program. Now I'm experimenting with all kinds of vegetables and fruits to add more color and variety to my meals. I'm eating more whole foods and less refined products and I'm modifying my favorite recipes to include healthier ingredients. IIN had drastically changed the way that I look at food-- I actually get excited to go to the grocery store and buy nutritious goodies to fuel my body. This new way of eating has changed the way I look at myself too. After years of disordered eating, I'm finally in a good place in terms of my body image.
I call myself a "bad vegetarian" because I didn't eat many healthy foods. I would eat a bowl of cereal for every meal with a piece of toast with peanut butter and honey. Being a vegetarian wasn't easy for me. I didn't know that eating tons of processed carbohydrates wasn't the best idea(Kashi GoLean is supposed to be good for me, right?). There are so many easy ways to incorporate a variety of vegetables into one's diet. I should have done more research and experimented with foods more often, but I wasn't mentally in a place where I cared that much about myself, and my body suffered as a result. I chose to be a vegetarian with good intentions, but for the wrong reasons.
My hope is that through health counseling, I can educate and support others to make similar changes in their lives. I will be able to give them the tools to figure out what is nutritionally best for them, and the resources to support their dietary choices (something I wish I had had when I was attempting to be a vegetarian). In addition, helping people sort through their issues with the larger aspects of life will, I hope, help them sort out their issues with food and to figure out what is most beneficial for them. Happy people are healthy people, after all.