By Jora Enge
Growing up, no one ever expected that one day I would become a vegan. Even with all the health-conscious efforts of my parents, I was a picky, stubborn kid. Both my parents knew their way around the kitchen, and every dinner my sister and I were treated to a full plate, balanced by the quintessential food pyramid. On the regular, I was served plenty of veggies and fruits, paired with a pork chop, chicken breast, or steak. Occasionally, we made a Subway sandwich run, but stayed away from fast food joints such as McDonald’s and the like. But even with a “perfectly balanced plate” put in front of me every night, did I eat a perfectly balanced diet? Not a chance.
My parents had their hands full.
Because I refused to eat my vegetables, I was regularly suffering from stomach pain. My mother was constantly reaching for the ginger teas and homemade kombucha to ease my ailments. Around the age of 8, the climax of my stomach issues was a trip to the hospital experiencing acute pain. The diagnosis? I was constipated from my efforts of avoiding my daily salad serving. Luckily, I wasn’t dealing with any other major health concerns. Needless to say, my mother was less than enthused, which resulted in my forced veggie increase at that time. However, even with my diet being balanced for once, I still was not feeling good. I was tired all the time, my joints were swollen, and my stomach was routinely upset.
The “other” stuff
So when I got to college I thought, if I am not feeling good eating the “healthy” food, why don’t I try the other stuff? I considered it my first taste of freedom: high fructose corn syrup and beer. Did you know you can buy a whole box of Twinkies for $2.99 at the grocery store? And the $19.99 ice cream cake was oh so accessible. I was pulling all-nighters (never thought I would hear that phrase again), while having the erratic diet of a trash panda. I remember those times fondly, mostly because I was still benefiting from a young, fast metabolism. A week of jogging would have me shedding my added on fluff, from my not so great cake and pizza diet.
During this age, food to me was nothing more than a fleeting enjoyment. I didn’t care if certain foods were followed by a terrible bloat and many trips to the bathroom. I only cared about the moment of happiness from tearing through Cici’s pizza buffets; it was a fleeting fancy that turned my digestive tract into a warzone. I didn’t care until my weight became the target for my nutrition decisions.
Around the age of 26, my weight started increasing quickly and I felt like I was living in a fog. (And I couldn’t really blame it all on my long-term relationship with my boyfriend at the time.) I’m not really sure if my aches and stomach pain were worse, or if I was just getting fed up being in some form of pain 24/7, but fajita steak quesadillas were starting to hit me a little differently. My usual favorites were beginning to show their true colors in damage to my body.
I finally came to the decision that the gym needed to become a new part of my daily schedule. Crash diets began to make an appearance, as I struggled shedding the weight for the first month. I was becoming impatient and at my wits end, the weight was holding on as hard as I held onto my obsession with grilled cheese sandwiches and steak.
No amount of sweat and 3 day diets were doing the trick, so I decided to try a vegetarian diet. I was sure I found the culprit to all my weight and pain: meat. Once I dropped the meat, I noticed a change: I was not feeling so heavy. Sure, my physical weight stayed the same, but my head no longer felt foggy and I was getting some energy back.
However, it was not enough. I was sure that without meat the weight would start sliding right off. But it continued to stay put. In replacing meat with more dairy products, my stomach was in a constant state of turmoil, and my joints were inflamed to the point that physical activity became difficult.
One day at work, while complaining of my continuing pains, my coworker suggested, “Try out the vegan diet, just for two weeks, you have nothing to lose.” On the contrary, I had my weight to lose! I never thought I would be someone willing to give up my lovely cheddar, but I was desperate. Little did I know the change in my body, after 10 days, would make cheese a distant memory.
Vegan Food Becoming My Medicine
I went all in. I was checking food labels in the store, adding another hour to my shopping trip, just to make sure dairy and eggs never touched my lips for the full two weeks. It was a test of my self-control, and though it was challenging I found a way. Restaurant trips became slightly more complicated, but the flexibility of some great restaurant staff really assisted in this diet becoming a life change. I got back in the kitchen and started experimenting again. Through online research and the generosity of my vegan coworker, I found great ingredient replacements and millions of recipes.
I learned cooking vegan was as easy as replacing one or two ingredients with a similar-tasting choice. Instead of eggs, I was using flax seeds, pumpkin puree, or coconut oil. Instead of dairy, I grabbed avocado, miso paste, and nutritional yeast for the creamy cheesy taste. Now I even have my own cashew cheese recipe that I love!
The results? The weight finally started sliding off, my joints felt brand new, and my mind regained a very distinct clarity. After just two weeks, I felt like I was placed into a new body. Excitement was an understatement; I felt like I finally got that click that I had been waiting for. I was never officially diagnosed with a food-related illness, but I finally accepted that me and animal products just weren’t supposed to work out. No matter how many times I tried to make that relationship work, we weren’t meant to be.
My newfound health opened my mind to so many possibilities, and instead of mourning my loss of meat, dairy, and eggs, I was celebrating and exploring a new world of food: sushi avocado rolls, Taco Tuesdays, and delicious baked goods. I don’t feel like I’m missing out; the payoff of feeling comfortable in my own body is so much greater than missing a 5-minute mouth-heaven moment. Plus, with so many small food brands emerging with options for diet restrictions, like vegan or gluten free, there are so many options to feed my big foodie heart and soul.
As I’ve grown into my 30s, my eating habits have become more informed and refined. I occasionally deal with stomach issues, but it has become easier to pinpoint and eliminate the issue as I have learned to listen to my body. Contrary to popular belief, adapting a healthy vegan diet only made me love food more.
So from one foodie to another, if you are not careful, food can be a drug. But if you listen to your body and give it what it needs, food can be the most powerful medicine.