Of course, I never called it dieting. It was always a “lifestyle change.” Because everyone knows that diets don’t work. You have to pick the one thing and do it forever. And that’s what I thought I was doing, every time. I thought I’d be vegan forever. Then I thought I’d do the “traditional food” thing forever. Then I thought I’d be paleo forever. Why not? I felt so good in the beginning. Not only physically but emotionally, spiritually. I felt so absolutely in control, so pure and empty. Empty?
Here are a few things that I’ve brought into my moderation-based eating habits based on my experience with various restrictive diets.
At the age of 8, I told my parents that I didn’t want to eat meat anymore. I loved animals and had zero skills of compartmentalization. My parents laughed and took the meat off my plate for a week or so, which left behind baked potatoes (which I hated), canned peas or corn (which I hated), and iceberg lettuce (guess what? I hated it). So I ate meat until I moved out at 16. At that point I didn’t know how to cook, and I was completely broke, so I mostly lived on ramen, spaghetti, and macaroni & cheese until a few years later when I got serious about cooking.
Things I learned from being vegetarian…
- One can, but probably should not, live by starch alone.
- Almost everything tastes better with a fried egg on top.
- The world of whole grains is really exciting while still being affordable.
- Dairy products are a lazy fallback for vegetarians who like rich food.
- Only assholes use the term pescetarian.
Lingering thoughts about vegetarianism…
I don’t feel a strong need for meat in my life. Sometimes I think about switching back completely, because I can’t always afford very high-quality, local, pastured meats. I never take the plunge because I’m not sure how much of that impulse is based on my disordered eating history. Also because one of my favorite meals includes a juicy rare grass-fed steak and potatoes roasted in duck fat. But in my daily life I love the flavors of vegetarianism, and I do consider it something of a loss for a plate to be dominated by a piece of meat.
I became vegan six weeks after Isaiah was born, after watching a documentary about factory farming that made every cell in my body weep. I was vegan for four years, and veganism really launched my obsession with correct eating. I was a fundamentalist vegan of the most irritating sort. I loathed meat-eaters, but I loathed vegetarians even more, those half-measure hypocrites. Veganism taught me to cook. I was one of those people who carried a little booklet around listing every animal-derived ingredient on the planet, so restaurants and packaged meals were almost entirely off-limits. If not for being vegan I’m not sure that cooking would have become such a passion for me.
Things I learned from being vegan…
- Tofu is delicious. No, really.
- It’s possible to be so creative with vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds that nobody will miss the meat or dairy. If you think vegan cuisine is bland and boring, you have not explored it fully. Vegan food has come a lo-ooo-ong way since the lentil loaf days.
- Meat and dairy products cost a fuck-ton of money. When my family was vegan, we could live on a monthly food budget of $400, shopping almost exclusively from farmer’s markets and Whole Foods. A food budget can be stretched incredibly far if you focus on plant foods. Plus, no meat = more money for pine nuts.
- Factory farms really are hell on earth. Vegans are passionate because they know the truth and it hurts them on every level and they want to stop it. This is a noble impulse.
Lingering thoughts about veganism…
Plant-based diets are super trendy right now, but veganism, specifically, is really about animal liberation, and if you approach it from a diet perspective, ESPECIALLY a “part-time diet” a la Mark Bittman, vegans will fire-bomb your house. Proceed with caution.
At one time I blamed the vegan diet for causing a huge list of health problems. I had serious digestive pain every time I ate. I had severe deficiencies in B-12 and D despite religious supplementation. I lost over an inch in height. I was so exhausted I fell asleep on the mat at the gym, weights in hand. Now I realize that these problems were probably more closely related to undiagnosed celiac disease, exacerbated by a high intake of whole-wheat products. I’m not sure how much of my ill health was specifically related to being vegan. I ponder this sometimes and wonder if it would have been possible to stay vegan if I’d figured out the gluten thing in time. I loved being vegan, loved being a creative and produce-driven cook, loved the sense of righteous living. I see it now as part of my overall shift toward moderation and pragmatism, but leaving veganism behind was still a difficult and sad process. For a while I felt set adrift in a morality-bereft world, until I realized that I could just obsessively perfect my diet in other ways.
“High-raw” is the apotheosis for many vegans with a specific dietary focus, specifically a very disordered dietary focus, and I was no different. Throughout my four years as a vegan I experimented with raw food with the hopes that it would “click” and I would enter another plane of existence as a purified spirit, never again requiring deodorant or feminine hygiene products. But it never happened.
Things I learned as a high-raw vegan…
- If you think a high-raw diet is all spinach and tomatoes you are in for a rude awakening. The food, equipment, and supplements for this lifestyle are expensive to the point of obscenity.
- It’s very easy to become uncomfortably dependent on imported products, especially “superfoods” and coconuts.
- If I eat too many nuts I feel oily all over. And it’s easy to overdo nuts because they are one of only two or three reliable protein sources in a high-raw diet.
- A dessert made from three cups of raw organic nuts ($18), two cups of agave nectar ($10), a cup of raw organic dates ($7), and a pint of organic berries ($5) is pretty much the stupidest thing you can do to your body and bank account. This is positive to know for both personal health and savings.
- Cold soup is just sad, unless you call it “salsa.” In that case, though, before you eat it, you have to wait three days for your raw “corn” “tortilla” “chips” to come out of the dehydrator.
- Putting all of your food inside quotation marks is also sad.
Lingering thoughts about raw veganism…
Raw vegan communities are some of the most dysfunctional groups of people I’ve ever known. “Cleansing” and “juice-fasting” to remove “toxins” might be a more mainstream practice now, but it originated with the raw food community, which is full of aggressive and charismatic characters. At one time I seriously considered both a wheatgrass colonic (that is, allowing a non-medical professional to insert a plastic tube into the rectum and flush the large intestine with grass juice for nebulous health purposes) and a three-month cessation of all solid food (for weight loss, duh). And I don’t think I’m even the most gullible person. So yeah.
I put that term inside scare quotes because that’s how I hear it in my head. Like “traditional marriage,” “traditional food” is not really a thing. Rather, it’s a bunch of frowning cultural fallacies collected under a nonsensical heading intended to transmit a particular oppositional belief system. My foray into the Weston A. Price Foundation’s dietary guidelines was a recovery of sorts, because I brought in foods that I’d feared for years — first eggs, then goat cheese, then other dairy products, then fish, and finally meats of all sorts, along with grains, beans, and sugar, which I’d learned to distrust from raw veganism. My health improved while eating this way, because I had so many nutrient deficiencies as well as an overall calorie deficit from being vegan, and the probiotic foods promoted by the Foundation helped to heal gut damage that I blamed on a grain-based diet but was probably, as I mentioned, undiagnosed celiac.
Things I learned from “traditional foods”…
- Saturated fat is not the enemy.
- Carbohydrates are not the enemy.
- There are many, many different ways to eat that can still produce good health.
- The quality and the source are both important.
- Bone broth is bad-ass.
- Probiotic foods are something of a “missing link” in the industrial diet.
- Small family farms are worth preserving.
Lingering thoughts about “traditional food”…
I don’t have any particular agenda against the WAPF or ancestral food movement. I think I was less disordered eating this way, and many of their principles are sound. Still, the communities include influences that cast them in a questionable light. White, upper-middle-class, conservative Christian voices are dominant. The folks fighting against GMOs are often the same people fighting against gay marriage or unrestricted access to birth control. Awkward!
Paleo is the natural extension of “traditional food.” I ended up there because my gut just hurt like hell all the time and I thought grains, dairy, and sugar were the problem (nope, just gluten). The paleo community is where the current faddishness of gluten-free originates, so that’s annoying. Paleo was my last dance with disordered eating, and I bottomed out from it magnificently.
Things I learned from eating paleo…
To be honest I learned hardly anything positive from eating paleo. I learned that insufficient calories (a consequence of being afraid to eat 90% of available foods) can really fuck up your body and people who claim to have healed their restrictive eating disorder by developing and marketing a restrictive eating plan are not to be trusted (coughWhole30cough). I also learned that paleo meals are a creative black hole and vegetables do not count as a net carbohydrate source. I really got nothing positive out of this exercise, except that I became righteously fed up with dieting.
Lingering thoughts about the paleo diet…
It’s the pinnacle of first-world eating, which is pretty funny when you think about it.