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.