Thursday, August 4, 2011

Coming Clean -- Sometimes I Eat Shellfish

My conscience has been bothering me. I've not felt guilty for any of my food choices until now, 18 months into my vegan adventure. Do I feel guilty about what I have eaten? No. I feel guilty that, as it turns out, I am misrepresenting myself on my beloved blog, "A Midlife Vegan". I eat shellfish sometimes.

I have been so blessed in my vegan journey to be inspired by wonderful, talented cyber-friends. Some of these people excel in lifting the vegan palate to another level, some are spiritually advanced, most are passionate about animal rights. It is to honor these folks that I feel the need to "come clean". I know many of them will be disappointed in me. Each of us comes to the vegan world for different reasons and with different motivations and standards. I have never felt the need to judge the way another vegan follows the diet, or doesn't follow the diet. But some do, and some will.

As some of you already know, I have been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis now for over 15 years. I've shared much of the way I deal with my health ad nauseum in previous posts. I have been kept well for about 6 years with a combination of mainstream and alternative therapies. My vegan diet is one of those alternative therapies.

If you've read "My Vegan Story", you already know that for me, it all started with Wilbur, the little pig in Charlotte's Web. At a very young age, I knew from my identification with Wilbur that I didn't want to eat animals. Growing up, I only ate them because I "had" to, or because I felt I "should" from the information available about nutrition from the medical establishment at the time. But we live and we learn, and I was happy in midlife to have learned that an animal-free diet could be healthy -- in fact more healthy -- than a diet with a lot of animal protein. From my childhood inclinations to my grown-up desire for optimal health, the vegan diet fit me like a glove.

I did have concerns about the lack of vitamin B12 in the vegan diet, but I felt protected because of my prescribed supplementation. Predictably, because B12 is stored for some time in our body's tissues, the first year of being vegan passed for me with evidence only of increased health. But I eventually began to notice changes. I fainted for the first time in my life -- two different times. Lightheadedness began to be common. Fatigue and lack of concentration began to plague me from time to time. At first I blamed lack of sleep. Then, at a routine physical, it was determined I have a low red blood cell count. I have plenty of iron in my system from all the dark green leafies -- just not enough B12. My alternative medicine M.D. gave me a B12 injection and tweaked my supplement order. I felt great for about a month after the injection, then the symptoms of the deficiency began to return. My practitioner explained that each of us absorbs the B12 supplements at different rates. I may be one of those who needs more regular B12 injections, at least until I "ramp up" to a normal level. I am due next week for my regular bi-monthly glutathione infusion which keeps the MS quiet, and I am planning to ask for another injection of the B12 at that time. Concurrently, since the bi-monthly injections and the supplements don't currently seem to be enough, I am compelled to open my mind enough to consider listening more closely to the body's signals.

Throughout my vegan journey, one of the things that has made my diet so easy is that the body sends me very direct signals for what it needs in the form of cravings, and in the form of immediate results from what I ingest. I've learned that eating miso soup or collard greens or tofu when I crave them brings strength, focus and a calm sense of well-being. If I ever crave sugar, which is rare, I normally do not give in because, even if it's a vegan sugary recipe, the satisfaction is fleeting and I am left jittery and flighty, ungrounded. Sleep suffers after sugar, which leads to another whole set of problems So sugar is a false craving born of addiction, and needs to be considered carefully because of the predictable results. After detox from dairy, I have never craved it. When I have ingested some by accident, it is even worse than the sugar. My head becomes instantly foggy and confused. My sinuses fill up and I need to go right to bed. Sometimes the dairy-intolerance symptoms last for days, even with the tiniest exposure. I am grateful for the dialogue with my own body -- the unmistakable signals it sends to me for what it needs and what it shouldn't have.

Before becoming vegan and after, when I see shellfish I've always wanted  them. Fried oysters, steamed clams, steamed mussels, even tuna tartare (I know that's not a shellfish, but I do want raw tuna in the same way, though, strangely, no other fish). I don't normally give in to these cravings, since there is usually something animal-free that's available, but I have given in, only a handful of times the first year. I framed these forays into the animal kingdom as "cheats" and considered my standards unsullied, as I really preferred chick peas and quinoa, kale and miso. I just skipped over these incidences, realizing that I was still in the learning stages about what works for me. The surprise for me was that eating the delicious fried oysters did not make me feel bad in the way that sugar or dairy would. Immediately I felt a sense of warmth and strength, of calm and clarity -- of being grounded and centered in a way only little bits of the sea can provide.

While I've always felt compassion for animals, being vegan for 18 months has increased my compassion for and understanding of them. It's easier to step into the shoes (hooves?) of someone we don't feature on our plates every evening. How wonderful to have really considered the intelligent and affectionate nature of a pig, the calm, loving trust of a beautiful cow, the nervous pride of a turkey, the plight of a farmed chicken. There is no question I will never again put a piece of one of these animals upon my plate. They are just too much like my Emma and my Ellie. The thought of eating these animals makes me feel ill. So why doesn't eating shellfish make me feel this way? Could it be because they don't have faces, because they don't have "mothers" in the way that we understand motherhood to be? I must admit that there is some guilt about the tuna. A fish does have a face, and while it still doesn't really have a mother in the way you and I do, Finding Nemo is one of my favorite movies. I've seen it many times and I cry for Nemo, for Coral, every time. So why does my body want raw tuna? Why does it feel whole, at peace, healthy and grounded from it's consumption? I don't know yet, but living through these changes is sure to help me find some kind of reconciliation.

Yes, it all started with Wilbur for me, but the reason I really embarked upon a vegan journey last year was for my health. the animal rights part of the decision was all vegan gravy. I need to remain mindful of my initial motivation for the vegan lifestyle and open my mind to my body's signals again. My body has never let me down when it speaks to me. Right now it is out of balance and is talking to me. I need to listen. For those wonderful people who I'm disappointing, I am sorry. I must do what is right for my health.

Do I still see myself as a vegan? Yes. Vegan food is still my favorite food. It is what I crave more than anything else. My plant-based diet has done as much to improve my health as has my personal trainer. The vegan diet has stopped the MS progression it it's tracks! Stopped it! For the first time since my diagnosis over 15 years ago the MRI showed no progression! The vegan diet has allowed me a life without allergies, without sinus infections, without antidepressants! The vegan diet allows me to eat whatever quantity of healthy food I want, and to remain at the same happy, healthy body weight effortlessly.

Here is what I have learned from a vegan diet about food and how it affects my body and my disease:
Dairy -- congestion, confusion, exhaustion, sluggish cerebral function -- causes a negative neurological event.
Sugar -- jittery lack of focus, nervousness, flightiness, irritability -- causes a negative neurological event.
Plant-sourced protein -- calm, strong, balance -- causes a positive neurological event.
Veggies of all kinds -- positive. By and large, the veggie kingdom is right for me.

The shellfish craving is once in a blue moon, and I only partake when my body needs it and asks for it. So right now I guess I think of myself as vegan+. This will rankle the nerves of some of you, so you can call me a pescetarian or even something nastier than that if you'd rather. I don't mind. While I hate to judge others, I am putting myself out there for your judgement, so let me have it. Just know the choices I'm making have not been made without much soul-searching and a fair amount of conflict and anguish, mostly because I care what you think of me, you lovely vegans with lofty standards and goals, whose passion for your cause is so admirable. What I realize is that I am at a place in my life where I don't fit neatly into a box. I am learning how to stay healthy, and honoring the tried and true signals of my nearest and dearest healthcare worker -- my own body. Thanks for hearing me out.


  1. thank you for this thoughtful and interesting post. i think your 4th sentence sums it up best. do you feel guilty about what you eat? No. isn't that what's important?

    i am vegetarian and eschew all non-food animal products (wool, leather, beauty products made of or tested on animals, etc). i admire vegans greatly and cook many vegan meals (which is how i came to your site) but have no real intention of becoming one. do i feel guilty about that? i have, but no longer. at 36 i don't feel the need to justify my choices to anybody else, and i don't need to be able to affix a one-word label to describe my complex feelings toward a complicated social issue.

    vegan + is cute. and if you like it, i think you should feel free to call yourself that.

    i like your blog particularly because i find inspiration in the meals you prepare with leftovers or what's on hand in your pantry. i hope you continue to share that. imho, you should celebrate sharing your vegan meals as as a form of animal activism. life's too short to focus on reactions or "labeling" from non-perfect persons (for who is?) who might nitpick your "perfect veganism."

  2. Oh Cheryl...bless you sweetie! I cheat too. I have sushi a couple of times a month. A spicy tuna roll does me good....when my joints ache and I'm tired and cranky a treat of sushi and red wine makes me feel better. There I have confessed too!

  3. You are such a wonderful writer, and an even more impressive person. Cheryl, like you, I find myself often saddled with anxiety about how others may judge/pooh-pooh my professed and self-assessed identity...especially when it comes to faith. MY Christianity is not my mother's or anyone else's, but it is mine and God's. Your veganism is YOURS. It brings you joy and health and happiness. Celebrate it, and let NO ONE cast a stone! :)

    Love you so, and miss you much!

  4. Let's go -- Thanks for the comment. I think you should feel proud of the steps you are taking to make the world a better place. I'm glad you like what I do with leftovers. I mainly just hate to waste food, so that's how it gets started. I'll be putting more of that out there once the kids get back to school.

  5. Joy and Cheryl -- Thanks for the thoughtful comments! Much appreciated ~

  6. I love you Cheryl! Cheryl Lage said it best "Your veganism is YOURS". Make it work for you, and we should all listen to our bodies. That is indeed the most important aspect of any diet or lifestyle. Thanks for your raw honesty dear one!

  7. I am uneasy with all dogmas and pre-cut moral decisions that make one-size-fits-all mantras. I think as humans, identifying with a group is safe, but dangerous in that it leads to an us-against-them mentality. These walls only divide us and serve no good.

    I'm ashamed to say I HAVEN'T strayed from the strict vegan diet since I switched, and it's not only because of the fact that I truly haven't had the desire. It's also a healthy amount of fear that I'd have to explain myself.

    I drove myself (and my husband) insane with our latest vehicle purchase. Four kids and 3 dogs do not fit in a Prius, and my vegan soapbox didn't want the leather seats that came standard in the SUV. In the end, you could become extremist very fast if every bite of food and every purchase had to line up with a party platform.

    My vehicle has leather seats, and I still woke up vegan.

    Thank you for making it a little easier to make complicated decisions. There is not one right answer to every question.

  8. i hope nobody is making you feel judged about this! everyone's body handles food differently and the important thing is that you are listening to YOUR body and adjusting YOUR diet accordingly so you can be as healthy as possible!

  9. Cheryl - I really appreciate your honesty. If I had to identify myself, I'd say that I'm closer along the lines of the animal abolitionists of this world - I will be doing everything I can to live vegan and tread as cruelty-free as possible for the rest of my life. And while friends and family around me have decided to add animal foods here and there back into their diet, I still feel at home living completely vegan (haven't purposely eaten an animal food in almost three years and am loving it). I happen to be in the minority that believes that a vegan diet really is the healthiest for our general population (and the kindest and most economical), but time and time again, I've had readers on the blog share with me that their vegan diet wasn't working, or they cheated, or they're tempted. So, I've found that flexibility and patience has worked best when finding out this information. When my vegetarian sister was having struggles with being tempted by chicken last year (totally because it was a familiar food to her that tasted good), I told her to indulge, but I told her to do so consciously. She did, and a year later, she’s almost entirely vegan now. But it's a day to day journey - it's a delicate balance of doing what feels right, but also honoring a bigger calling to this lifestyle. Personally, I believe that food temptations and urges are very much mind over body, and that of course makes my brain buzz around your situation - is it really your body biologically feeling at peace after eating these sea animals, or is it that you’ve satisfied a taste bud (or even sense memory) craving and your mind is at peace? I feel especially curious since shellfish were the last animals I gave up eating before going vegetarian several years ago. Salmon, shrimp, and scallops were actually the very last animals I ate before I went veg, and I had promised myself that first year that if I ever wanted to have them for my birthday dinner once a year, I would let myself. I never have though - and maybe it's because for me, going vegan initially had everything to do with the animals, and not a single thing to do with my health. Maybe it's just because I'm crazy dedicated (to a fault!) to something once I commit to it. I'm not sure the deep down reason for my ability to never cheat and cave into cravings or urges myself. But as a fellow blogger hearing your story and struggle, I can only stand next to you, never judging, completely embracing your own personal journey for what it is - yours. That, I feel, is the responsibility of the vegan - to remain as compassionate and loving (and patient and open!) to humans as we are to animals. Because no one is perfect. We all make mistakes, learn from them, and then make more mistakes. It's life. What I know for sure though - your passion and enthusiasm for vegan living is the very reason I began following and supporting your beautiful blog. I hope (and I'm sure) that you will continue to live your life as compassionately and kindly as possible - and that includes self-compassion as much as compassion towards other beings. I will still be a huge supporter and love you just as before, and I absolutely am thankful to have you in the ranks of my blogging family. I do secretly hope, however, that those shellfish cravings go away and you can return to full-fledged vegandom. :) Hey - a vegan blogger can dream. xoxo

  10. I'm so happy you posted about this! After reading this article I've been thinking about this subject A LOT! While in my (almost) two years as a vegan I had never (intentionally) eaten an animal product or purchased and any new animal products (ie clothes shoes etc) recently, while watching my family devour a huge sea-food tower in front of me while we were out for fam dinner and my veggie sushi roll just wasn't cutting it, I started to actually crave sea food (really the only thing that was hard for my to give up as a vegan)
    To my surprise- the two raw oysters I slurped down tasted AMAZING! Like nothing I had tasted in so long and I felt completely fulfilled by them. It was like I needed that fishy taste all along, and sea weeds just weren't cutting it.
    The article- which points out that oysters don't have as central nervous system or brain, made me feel a bit better about the situation. What mostly helped me rationalize my choice to eat oysters is that they aren't raised for food like most animals used in the meat/ dairy industry and farmed fish are- which leads me to believe that there is minimal cruelty and environmental damage caused by my eating oysters (which only happened that once, but there is a new oyster bar that just opened up near me :) As long as it makes me feel good physically and emotionally, I'm down to eat it!!

    I also wanted to say thanks again for your support on my blog! You really inspire me to keep at it:)

  11. Sara -- Thanks! No, everyone has been really sweet. Just my own guilt.

  12. Colleen -- Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  13. Lindsay -- You are such a sweetheart! Thanks for the thoughtful words. I do admire your focus and activism for such an important cause. The cause is also important to me, and will continue to be. I, too, am grateful for the healthful benefits of the vegan diet, so plant-based foods will continue to be what I eat most of the time. I am just going through an adjustment period as I figure out how to get the right level of B12 consistently. I guess I'm not absorbing the oral supplements very well. With the shellfish, it's not so much the craving as it is the physical well-being that comes afterward. I have a crazy-strong willpower which is one reason it was so easy to go vegan. I do crave sugar from time to time, and it is so easy to resist, since I know I will feel rotten afterward. It's different with the shellfish -- feels like fuel. Anyway, its all in a state of flux right now, so I'm sure an equilibrium will be reached. But I love veggies the best! Thanks again for your inspiration!

  14. Thanks Kim -- It's interesting for me to hear your experience. Do keep up the good work on your blog!

  15. I too am stuck in the seafood phase. I try to eat only oysters and scallops and still eat sardines. I try to eat wild caught and divers scallops so try to eat the least invasive versions of each.
    One day at a time, I say. Each vegan day helps save animals.

  16. Anon: Eat whatever works for you. Each of us is different. By choosing wild-caught or organic we are choosing for health, but also compassion.

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    1. Anonymous -- My sincerest apologies for being two years late! I found this comment in my spam folder, for whatever reason. Thank you for your kind words. as to your question about writing: with blogposts I find I am inspired by the photos I take. Responding to a pretty photo is like responding to any other writing prompt. The content is there and the rest is extrapolation. As far as other writing goes: the process is completely different. Creating something out of nothing does, indeed, require head-clearing. I find that daily journaling is a helpful exercise as the first half hour or so can be daunting otherwise. It doesn't matter the content of the journal. The benefits come from the process. Good luck!