Here’s the deal: I can’t sustain a vegan diet and improve my health at the same time.
In reality, the changes I’ve made are so subtle that they shouldn’t really make a difference to anyone, including myself. But they do make a difference because of the incredibly strong dichotomy of vegan/non-vegan.
I’m here to talk about it. Not to accuse, blame, or even advise anyone. I don’t believe that my choices draw the only reasonable or valid path. I want to open up this discussion because I haven’t seen much talk of this topic specifically and I believe it deserves more light.
I was very strictly vegan for two years before I started to relax my boundaries around food. The decision stemmed from my desire to expand my horizons and travel in a foreign country. I knew that avoiding dairy in India would take away from the richness of my experiences there. Part of experiencing another culture is trying their food. I wanted to be wholly and completely where I was.
Once I had made that choice, I started to eat things that contained animal derivatives, as long as it was in in an unrecognizable form (psychologically, this was easier). That means that I stopped checking labels and just stuck to my regular plant-based diet with some questionable packaged foods. I didn’t worry about consuming trace amounts of animal derivatives because the freedom that came from such a small sacrifice was amazing.
In India, I stripped myself completely of my vegan title. I unintentionally took it as an opportunity to indulge. I started to have chai (tea) with milk in it several times a day, just because I could. I ate ice cream just because I could. I wasn’t vegan anymore! It was like a switch flipped.
I think it says something – about veganism, or at least about myself – that when I removed veganism from my identity I was inclined to overindulge in animal products more than I had intended. I believe it shows a conditioned perception that veganism is either all in, or out.
I’m the type of person to see-saw between two extremes until momentum slows and I reach a balance somewhere in the middle. I believe the stage of overindulgence was necessary to come to the point where I am now. I felt foolish at the time because it was like watching my two-year dedication unravel at the seams. It felt like I was undoing my hard work.
That struck a chord in me that hasn’t stopped ringing. I began to see two options for myself:
- Cycle between two years of strict veganism and six months of free-for-all overeating.
- Commit to an 80% plant-based lifestyle 100% of the time.
Assuming the ethical and environmental impact of both options is comparable, it seems clear which option is better from a health and sanity perspective. And honestly, option #2 is probably an approach that the majority of meat-eaters would be much more inclined to consider than 100% vegan. If 50% of the population started eating 80% plant-based, that would have a much better impact than the current situation – only 1.65% of Americans identified themselves as vegans in a 2016 poll¹.
I believe this alone is reason enough for me to make changes but it isn’t what stopped me from recommitting to veganism when I came back to Canada. That’s where my more personal reasons come in.
If you’ve been reading my weekly blog posts, you know that I have a pretty serious hormonal imbalance. I don’t get a regular period, I have chronic acne, high cortisol levels, adrenal fatigue, and fat sticks to my body like superglue. Of course, these aren’t directly related to being vegan and by no means am I saying that you will develop these problems if you are vegan. My health situation is the product of numerous factors, many of which began long before I quit animal products.
However, I think veganism is limiting the amount of progress I can make in resolving these issues. Maybe for me, these problems are the sacrifice it takes to make a stand against animal exploitation and irresponsible natural resource management. But I can’t help but ask myself, how much more can I contribute if I’m functioning properly?
The reality is that something in my diet is not working. I have gone back to the drawing board and done quite a bit of research into women’s hormonal health, this time not looking through vegan-coloured glasses. I have started to experiment with a higher-fat, higher-protein, lower-carb diet. This is theoretically accomplishable on a vegan diet, but I don’t like to eat soy more than once a week (it’s hormonally active) and I don’t want to be consuming more than one serving of protein powder per day.
This leaves me with the following protein sources: beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. I’m allergic to four kinds of nuts and I don’t digest peanuts well, so I pretty much only consume almonds and cashews. I don’t digest lentils very well so I only eat them occasionally and they have to be soaked and cooked for a long time — possible, but not practical. I don’t digest quinoa well either so I only eat it occasionally. That leaves me with beans, seeds, almonds, and cashews, plus supplementing with protein powder and nutritional yeast and the occasional tofu and lentils.
While these are great nutrient-dense foods, their protein and fat contents are secondary to their carb content. Cashews and beans are starchy. To get enough protein from my whole food options alone would require me to intake around 155g of carbs, which is well over my target amount of 80-90g per day. It would also require my entire caloric intake to be dedicated to nuts, seeds, and beans. Not only is this not my image of a healthy diet, but I would probably develop more allergies to nuts from overconsumption. Then, I wouldn’t be able to use them at all in moderate amounts; in the long term, I would have even less vegan options for protein and fat.
So in order to give this potential solution a real try, I feel it’s the smartest move to incorporate some animal proteins. The only non-vegan food I have tried so far is eggs. I never loved eggs even before I was vegan. But I have eaten eggs twice now, and my sugar cravings are so incredibly reduced for hours later that I can’t ignore the very clear signs that this is what my body needs. I’m also open to the idea of occasionally eating fish, although I haven’t been able to get out of my head enough to actually try it yet. I know I’ll love it because fish was a staple when I was growing up — I was pescetarian until I turned eight.
Since deciding to increase my protein and fat intake, I have been eating tons of nuts and avocados, plant-based protein powder, seeds, beans, and lentils. I love these foods and I eat them multiple times a day. They make up the staples of my diet and will continue to do so. But I think the most responsible choice is to not limit myself to these ones only.
Someone I met on a retreat told me “ahimsa includes you, too.” Ahimsa is a yogic term for non-violence and it forms the basis of the eight branches of Ashtanga yoga. It is why so many dedicated yogis are vegetarian, some vegan. What she was saying was if the way you are living is harming yourself, you aren’t practicing ahimsa. At the time, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as an excuse to harm animals (like people want animals to die so badly that they come up with reasons).
Now I agree. How can I care for the world if I can’t care for myself?
I think that by not being strictly vegan, some people will automatically pool me into the “other” pile with all meat-eaters. I think it’s important to acknowledge a spectrum. By consuming a primarily whole foods plant-based diet that is supplemented with relatively small quantities of egg and fish, I am still reducing the amount of animal cruelty. I know no amount of cruelty is okay for many people, and I respect that stand. But I am trying to take the path that I see as being the most practical, the most sustainable long-term, with the least impact possible.
For all intents and purposes, I’m still so close to being vegan that it’s almost silly to make a blog about this change. I still drink almond milk, I still use flax eggs in baking, I use vegan protein powder and the vast majority of my food comes from the ground. But I acknowledge the reality most of us are living in is that there is a huge, wide, gaping battlefield between vegans and non-vegans.
Some people may have objections — and that’s okay. My goal is not to have everyone agree with me. If it was, what would I be accomplishing? The beauty in humanity is our multitude of perspectives.
I’m not asking for approval either, though support is nice. I hope that you can see that I have not taken this decision lightly and without good reason. This isn’t about my taste buds or bacon. This is about doing what I think is right for myself and the world.
I can only hope to not offend anyone, but I know this is ultimately out of my hands. I just ask that any criticism is given in a constructive and discussion-oriented manner.
I’m not taking veganism out of the picture for me. I might be vegan again one day. But I want it to come from a place of freedom, not guilt. I want it to enrich my life and the lives of those around me.
By Elyse Turpin
Elyse Turpin is a massage therapist and natural health enthusiast living in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. She writes weekly blog posts discussing topics ranging from probiotics to meditation. You can find her on her personal website www.elyseturpin.com.
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page