Friday, February 4, 2011

Deprivation vs. Nourishment

Going vegan is hard, but I've found it can be easier if you keep this in mind: It's not about deprivation, it's about nourishment. Don't make it negative. Never forget that your focus, in diet as well as life, should be on nourishment; how best to nourish your whole self, body and soul.

At first, surviving on plant products may not seem as hearty or filling compared to eating a lot of animal protein. It is a cleaner, lighter sort of nourishment than what meat-eaters are used to, but it is not inferior or worse than that previous way of eating. It's just an adjustment.

Another hard part about making this adjustment is that people often have a tendency to get very emotionally attached to their food, and get sad or crabby about having to give certain things up. This is partly why I fell off the vegetarian bandwagon before. I made it about all the foods I couldn't eat, rather than focusing on what I still could. A vegetarian or vegan diet should ideally be about exploring and celebrating all the new foods and recipes it introduces into your life. It's about learning how to care for and nourish yourself naturally with fruits, veggies, and satisfying meatless and non-dairy alternatives. It's supposed to feel good, and relatively pain-free.

As a teenager, I was sincere in my commitment to not eat meat, but I was also not in a position to be able to think very positively about it. Growing up in an alcoholic home, I struggled with major anxiety and depression. I started out wanting to be vegetarian at thirteen because it just felt more natural to me not to eat meat than to eat it, and I truly wanted to be healthy. Despite my good intentions, I just didn't have the skills to care for myself bodily, spiritually, or emotionally at that point. As a result, my vegetarianism began to represent all the wrong things to me: deprivation, self-punishment, self-hatred. All of my pent-up frustrations, angers and hurts manifested themselves and I descended into the worst kind of asceticism. I started to make a game out of what new 'unhealthy' food I could cut out of my diet, trying all the time to become more perfect, pure, and disciplined. I wanted to differentiate myself from those around me who I perceived as out of control, namely, my parents. 

An eating disorder is not about food so much as it is about control. With so much about my life that I couldn't control, I thought I could at least control my body. Eventually, the way I ate became less about making healthy choices and more about having an excuse to punish myself. I cut more and more from my diet until my vegetarianism bled over into my struggle with anorexia, from the ages of 15-16.

I have had an uneasy relationship with food all my life. Growing up, food and eating were never simple things in my house. My father struggled with substance abuse all his life, and was also bulimic, a fact we all knew but rarely spoke about for most of my childhood. He never ate meals at the table with us, and on the rare occasions that he did, he would load up his plate and eat it as fast as he could, before escaping into the living room with his newspaper and T.V. to eat more by himself. We got used to taking more than we wanted on our first helping just in case, because once my dad got to the food, there wouldn't be anything left for us. There were almost never any leftovers in my house. My dad would usually eat the rest of whatever we were having, and then throw it up an hour or two later.

I noticed that all through his life, he had a problem eating in front of other people. One instance in particular sticks out in my mind because it was so strange. We went out to Applebee's as a family for my brother's birthday dinner, one of the last times we would all go out to eat together. We all ordered our meals, and a sampler platter of appetizers. When the platter came, my dad didn't eat anything except for the Spinach and Artichoke Dip, which for some reason he insisted on only eating with a fork and not dipping anything in. We all thought that was kind of weird, since it was, you know, dip. So he ate all the dip and we didn't get to have any. When our meals came, my dad never touched his plate the whole time we were eating (I think he just ordered a salad of some kind). Then, when we were all done, he got a doggy bag for his untouched meal and took it home with him, where it sat in the refrigerator and rotted until it had to be thrown away. I have no idea why he even ordered a meal at all if he wasn't going to eat it. I think it was just an attempt on his part to be normal and order a meal like all the rest of us, but he obviously wasn't capable of following through with the rest of what a normal meal would entail.

At home, my mother would have to hide food in new places all the time, so my father wouldn't eat the whole package in one sitting and immediately throw it up. We were not financially well-off, and she hated that whenever my dad puked up food she bought for the family, it was money down the drain, literally. This hiding of the food pissed my dad off to no end, and there were many tense afternoons when I would come home from school to him rummaging angrily through the cupboards, grilling me on where my mother hid such-and-such because he knew she told me where she hid this stuff so I would still have access to it for after-school snacks. It was true, I did know where it was, but I also knew I wasn't supposed to tell him. I tried to hold out as long as I could, gripping the kitchen table until my knuckles turned white, but nine times out of ten I broke down and told him where to find the Oreos or the peanut butter. Afterward, I always felt ashamed, guilty, and weak for giving in to him, and perhaps over time I felt like I needed to make up for my father's over-indulgence by consuming less and less.  Growing up in a home where food was treated this way, it's no wonder I developed such unhealthy associations with it.

An eating disorder is one of the saddest, loneliest, and most isolating experiences anyone can go through. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. Luckily, as a teenager, I was only ever diagnosed as "borderline anorexic." It didn't get as bad as it could have. I truly think it began simply as a search for the best way to nourish myself. But again, I made it about deprivation. I took it too far and, after awhile, didn't allow myself any nourishment at all.   

This time, with the vegan diet, I'm taking a different, more positive approach. I'm trying to think of food solely as a source of energy and means of nourishment. Of course, it should still taste good and make me feel good, but it's not healthy to get so emotionally attached to it, whether the emotion is negative or positive. I think the goal should be to approach food as neutrally as possible, and really think about what repercussions eating certain things will have on your body, your health, and the environment.

For instance, when school was canceled the other day, my boyfriend Sean and I decided to spend our unexpected free time by going out to breakfast. I was quite hungry, and my first thought was I wanted a dish called "Cudighi and Eggs" from the Coach Light, a little restaurant just up the street from our apartment. My mom used to eat there too when she was going to NMU. She would walk over for breakfast from her apartment on Sixth Street. Now, I'm going to NMU and I live on Fifth Street, one street over from my mother's college apartment, so whenever I walk up to the Coach Light for breakfast, I feel like I am carrying on a family tradition of sorts.

I honestly didn't crave meat at all during my first two weeks of being vegan, but that morning, I just wanted to walk over to the Coach Light for a cup of coffee and a big ol' plate of cudighi, buttered toast, and eggs sunny-side up. I knew my craving had a lot to do with what that meal represented to me emotionally rather than the food itself. I do like the taste of cudighi, but I am not a fan of the texture. In fact, every time I eat any meat, I'm grossed out by the fact that I'm consuming another animal's flesh. If I want to enjoy eating a hamburger, a hot dog, or any other piece of meat, I need to put the fact that I am eating animal flesh out of my mind, or else I can't enjoy it. (This is one of the indicators to me that perhaps I am not that comfortable eating meat and therefore shouldn't do it.) But who do I know who absolutely LOVES cudighi? My mother. My mother also loves eggs, and coffee, and toast. And the Coach Light. And I love my mother. Perhaps part of why that particular meal makes me feel so good is that it makes me feel connected to that young woman my mother once was, the shy English major over on Sixth Street whom I will never meet.

It makes me wonder: how many of my favorite foods are my favorites because they taste good, or because I have an emotional attachment to them? I bet most of the time it's at least half-and-half. Anyway, once I thought it through, I knew I didn't really want to go to the Coach Light and eat a meal that was positively dripping with animal fat and protein, feel like shit after and waste the whole afternoon sleeping it off. I also didn't want to blow my blog project by eating meat and eggs, of course. So we went to the Sweetwater Cafe on Third Street instead, where I knew they offered tasty vegan meals, and I ended up having one of the best breakfasts of my life. I ordered the Arame Spud Plate, which is described in the menu as follows: "Grilled potatoes tossed with arame sea vegetable, sesame oil, Braggs liquid aminos, green onions, mushrooms, broccoli, and spinach, on a bed of organic mixed baby greens." I also had a side of French sourdough toast and coffee with maple cream (which is vegan and AMAZING). It was completely delicious and satisfying, with the added bonus of being good for me. Also, in The Kind Diet, Alicia Silverstone raves about the many health benefits of arame and recommends having an arame dish at least once a week, so I felt good about that as well.

It's all about finding new ways to treat yourself. The day after the Sweetwater breakfast, when lunchtime rolled around, I started craving a McDonald's cheeseburger. I knew my body (or my mind, or both) was just craving the sense of security and enjoyment I get from eating McDonald's. A McDonald's cheeseburger has never been just a simple sandwich to me. My parents used to reward us with Happy Meals as kids for things like staying in bed all night, having to get a shot, etc. I think I still feel the way I did when I was a kid about getting McDonald's, like it's a really special treat, like I'm being taken care of. When I really stop to think about it, a McDonald's cheeseburger is definitely not something I want to put in my body. It doesn't even taste good all the time, and even when it does, it still makes me feel like crap. I just hate the thought that I can't have it even if I wanted to. I feel like this is a maturity thing. I have to remind myself; it's not a matter of can't. There's no person standing above me telling me what I can and cannot have. This is a choice I made for myself, based on how I want to take care of myself and live my life. It's not about deprivation, it's about nourishment.

So instead of a cheeseburger I drove up to Starbucks and got a soy latte. Still treating myself, still not necessarily good for me, being coffee and all, but it satisfied that itch to drive through somewhere and get a treat for myself. I felt much better, and the idea of eating a cheeseburger stopped nagging at me.

I will admit that I did stray from the vegan path a little bit last night, however. I went to Vango's with my boyfriend and although I ordered a vegetarian pizza with no cheese, which is a vegan meal, I also had a few onion rings (even though the batter had milk in it), ranch dipping sauce (even though I didn't know if it was vegan or not), and part of a piece of Death by Chocolate cake (which was definitely not vegan, but which was delectable). It was satisfying in the moment, but after going over two weeks without any meat or dairy in my system, my body rebelled with horrible stomach pains all night and a not so pleasant trip to the bathroom this morning. It served as a good reminder, though. Again, it's not as if I can't have those foods. I proved it to myself last night. I can have them if I want to. But when I do, I discover over and over just how bad they make me feel, and how much happier and more alive I feel when I avoid them, and that's really what it's all about.

I quite like the word "vegan." It sounds light, elegant, earthy, green, willowy. I enjoy thinking of this concept as I journey along the vegan path. When I get stopped up by emotional hang-ups or indulging in 'forbidden' foods, I don't have to feel bad or beat myself up about it. I just remind myself that it's all about treating my body and my mind well. It's about discovering how to properly nourish myself without feeling guilty or deprived. And it truly is a journey, one that I am grateful to be able to take. I want to take this time to cultivate a happy, healthy relationship with food, one that I will continue to work at my whole life. If food is going to arouse any emotion in me, I only want it to be joy at all the wonderful, natural, and healthy ways I can take care of myself. I think I'm on my way.


  1. Good beginning.

    I want to hear more about the specific dishes you have a connection with in the future. How cooking, and ordering them affects you.

    I liked the anecdote about your mother and The Coachlight. It told me about the relationship between you, your mother, and the food you share.

    I'm not sure what your word goal is, but the fatherStory + motherStory was long in total. Now that that's out on the table, though, you have a great base to build on for future writing.

    There is definitely a glimmer of humor-from-wordplay in your writing. I hope it shines through more bright each entry.


  2. You're right, it was awfully long. All those memories came up while I was writing and thinking about food, and I just got them out, but I know they don't necessarily have a connection to the actual veganism I want to write about. I appreciate your feedback. Next entry will be shorter and less personal. :)

  3. No need to get less personal. I thought this post was really touching. I intended to skim through a bunch of blogs, but your post made me slow down and actually read. Loved it.

  4. Thank you, Jen. That means a lot. :)