I’ve always known that my food choices mattered. I’ve never doubted that the fuel I put in my body played a huge role in my health. I’d read a lot about nutrition, and was confident I was making the right choices. So, why was I so sick and getting sicker every day?
For years I’d been a vegetarian. My choice of a plant based diet was based on multiple points. I care about the environment, and I’d read that raising animals for food is more land and waste intensive than raising plants. I think slaughterhouses are horror shows that neither animals nor human employees should ever have to experience. I’d read piles of books by authors like Dr. Neal Barnard, and each volume reinforced the healthfulness of my choice to avoid consuming foods from animal sources.
From my late teens through my early thirties, I’d been very healthy while following a vegetarian diet. Why wasn’t it working anymore?
Earlier this year I started documenting how my brain and body responded to meals. I’d noticed that each morning, fifteen to twenty minutes after breakfast, a flurry of angry thoughts would race through my mind. Breakfast was always one of three menus — steel-cut oatmeal and blueberries, raisin bran with almond milk, or yogurt and toast. My impulse was to sit and counter the angry thoughts with meditation, but the gastrointestinal agony that rose up each day with the anger made sitting for meditation anywhere other than on the toilet impossible. I have no doubt that if I’d gone to a psychiatrist I would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and offered a bottle full of pills.
Two years prior, I’d realized I could no longer eat soy products. After enjoying a plate of tofu with black bean sauce, a spicy favorite from a local restaurant, I’d become so sick with flushing, sweating, and GI upset that I’d had to stay in bed for three days to recover. I experimented and documented for several weeks, and determined that soy was definitely a causative agent for these episodes. I cut it out of my diet.
I asked one of the many immunologists I visited what I should be eating. He told me to read The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor. The doctor explained it was the most evidence-backed book on nutrition in print. I read the book, and despite the multiple references to research it delivered, I remained skeptical. The book returned again and again to the value of high quality animal protein, and the books I’d read previously, as well as my mental attachment to a vegetarian lifestyle, made me resistant to change. When I applied a bit more analysis however, I started to see flaws in the reasoning and conclusions drawn in most of the plant based diet books that had previously influenced my decisions.
Most fundamentally, I was too sick to cling to something that wasn’t working. I bought a brand-new food journal and went to work. I was surprised when the foods I’d believed were beneficial, or at least benign, started to stand out as offenders. Legumes like chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, and lentils always made me sick. Spinach did the same. Grains, including bread (I experimented regular, ancient grain, and gluten free), pasta (also with or without gluten), and rice all left me ill. Flushing, confusion itching, nausea, fatigue, swelling and anxiety onset after eating each one of these foods. Pesticides weren’t a factor. Everything I ate was Certified Naturally Grown or Organic. Cutting out all those items and maintaining a balanced vegetarian diet wasn’t possible.
What did these foods have in common? Most of them are high in histamines or are histamine liberators, and my body does not like histamines. Many of the offending foods quickly turn into simple or complex sugars during the digestive process, and it seemed I could no longer tolerate sugar.
Faced with a stack of experiential evidence, I started eating a Paleo-style diet that I’d once viewed with eyes full of doubt. I started to fill my breakfast plate with eggs and turkey bacon and my dinner plate with organic, free range animals that had never seen a feedlot or a slaughterhouse, lettuce splashed with olive oil and seeds, and heaping piles of roasted beets, onions, and kohlrabi. Since I’ve made that transition, I’ve gotten a lot of relief from confusion and GI upset. Episodes of excessive pressure in my head happen less frequently, and I no longer suffer from flushing or bouts of rage after each meal.
I had to be open to moving away from something I deeply believed in so that I could heal. But my experience shouldn’t be taken as evidence that eating animal protein is the only way to be healthy. There are many other people who have cured their diseases by eating vegetarian or vegan diets. There are vegan competitive bodybuilders and top-notch vegetarian athletes. When I was 32-years-old and running 10k races, I was one of those people. But after exposure to a lot of hurtful medical modalities, my body changed. That diet is no longer right for me. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to return to it—it’s far less expensive and offers a greater variety of flavors—but that day is not today.
For every diet, form of exercise, or medical treatment, there will be groups of people for whom certain advice is ill suited. At a time when research into genetics is pinpointing little distinctions that make big differences in our metabolism and predisposition to certain diseases, one size fits all is a very bad approach to healing sick human beings.
I was never the type of vegetarian who harassed meat eaters. Conversely, I was usually the one being harassed with constant offers of bacon. But now that I’ve life changing transition to a Paleo style of eating, self-righteous vegetarians and vegans seem to be attacking me from all corners. I’d like to ask that people be a bit less rigid in their ideologies and far less judgmental of one another’s choices. It isn’t helpful to ridicule or shame people who have been harmed by things that helped you.
The more all of our voices are heard, the more progress we make towards a practice of healing that looks at us as individuals rather than a monolithic mass of faceless suffering.
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