I have practiced a balanced vegan lifestyle for over 35 years. Lately, several young vegan influencers (whatever that means to you), are bailing on the lifestyle because they lost their vitality and wellness.
I thought the exact same thing. As I read and viewed their apology tours, my heart broke. Here were these gorgeous young people, who had, by way of hurried study, bad intel or whatever, adopted extreme vegan diets, invested in promoting these extreme approaches to eating and over time, lost their wellness. And now they had to apologize embarrassedly that they might have been wrong. They went on to say that they still promoted their extreme diets, but that it no longer worked for them. Ay, ay, ay…
Rather than examine how this happened, they instead decided to abandon their lifestyle and start eating animal products to regain their wellness.
It got me to thinking…a lot. I became a vegetarian when I was 14 as a result of my father. I need to give you a bit of backstory to my…story.
My Irish father worked as a butcher (with an artist’s soul) to support the family, juggling positions at three different shops to make ends meet. He worked two jobs during the week and one on weekends. I always say that my dad was like a golden retriever. He was always happy in his life with twinkling blue eyes and he was preternaturally happy to see us kids…always. We kids found it so funny. But that was my father.
One day, as we sat noisily having dinner and talking about our day, my father told my mother that he had been offered an amazing opportunity to make an extraordinary amount of money to work in a slaughterhouse for a week. With four kids, it was a chance he couldn’t pass up.
The next day, we saw my dad off to this magical new job with great enthusiasm. I was about 14 at the time and I had already spent all the money my dad would make (in my teenage dreams anyway).
About an hour later, my dad’s truck turned into our driveway. Puzzled, we ran toward him expecting a good story but only after his enthusiastic greeting. To our stunned surprise, my father walked past us as though we did not exist, right into the house, head lowered. We trailed after him to find him at the kitchen table weeping.
Let me set the scene. My dad was six feet of Irish muscle built by playing football for the US Army and by years of hard physical labor. He was tough, smart and jovial. He always saw the good in every person and situation. He loved his life. I saw my dad cry only twice in my life: this day and on the day my mother passed away at the age of 49.
He sat weeping, apologizing to my mother, saying that he knew we needed the money but just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t murder these innocent animals. He just kept shaking his head and could not imagine looking into their eyes and then taking those lives. The months that followed had us living a vegetarian lifestyle, but sadly it didn’t last. Meat and chicken slowly crept back onto our table.
Now, as a kid I was a notoriously picky eater. The story goes that even with a promise of payment, I wouldn’t touch meat, chicken or runny cheeses like ricotta. And eggs? Ugh.
I saw this as my chance…my chance to go vegetarian and not get any fuss from the family. The problem is that once I walked away from meat, something about it resonated like nothing before. I felt complete and content for the first time in my young eating life. There was no going back. I was happily done with meat for good.
Of course, I stepped happily into the world of vegan junk where I planted my flag for several years living on French fries, pizza, cookies, candy and other junk that was labeled “vegan.” I had no idea that I was slowly, slowly destroying my health even though I was a fit, solid athlete with nary a blemish on my skin.
Fast forward to the tender age of 26 and my diagnosis of cancer. Many of you know this story (and if somehow you don’t, it’s on my website). Regaining my wellness was seriously in question until I met my guardian angel (and love of my life), Robert who introduced me to vegan macrobiotic eating and nutrition.
Gone was junk food. In came whole grains, beans, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit, good fats and a word with which I was unfamiliar…balance. I recovered my health and remain cancer-free to this day. But it was not without hiccups along the way. My beloved Robert developed osteoporosis at 48 and I suffered a brain aneurysm.
But wait…we ate the perfect diet. I preached this diet all over the world in classes and seminars…and on national television. What was up?
I will tell you that I really had to reflect on how we fixed this and regained our wellness (which we both did…completely). In all that reflection and research I exhaustedly did, never once did it occur to me to abandon my lifestyle. I just needed to understand what happened so I could fix our health.
After all, there was really nothing wrong with the diet we ate or the lifestyle we embraced. It was our interpretation that was off. We re-thought how we ate and lived still holding to the principles that defined us and continue to define us.
I discovered a lot during my cancer recovery and even more during Robert’s healing and my recovery from my aneurysm. I discovered that it’s us, not Mother Nature who misinterpret. I discovered that a whole unprocessed balanced plant-based diet does work for us, but we now know to focus on getting the fat and protein that our active lives need. We focus on a balanced mix of cooked and raw foods, carbohydrates for fuel and brain clarity, balanced lighter meals in the evening, a big balanced hearty breakfast and a balanced nutrient-dense lunch to fire up our evening workouts.
H-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m…I’m sensing a theme: balance.
No matter your choices in how you nourish yourself, you must understand food and how it works in the body so that you can choose foods that serve the purpose of your life as well as keep you happily satisfied. And when things go awry, as they undoubtedly will, you’ll have the tools you need to fix the problem without abandoning your principles, ethics and lifestyle.
So take a class; do some research; read about healthy eating with real experts in nutrition. Influencers are great for sharing their adventures and maybe even brands they like. But when it comes to nutrition, expertise and experience should win the day, not cute photos on Instagram of huge cakes with colored sprinkles, vegan nachos smothered in fake cheese or vegan burgers dripping with greasy toppings...or even puppies, cows and other adorable animals (as much as we all love them). Junk food is junk food. And use your intuition. If a recommended diet sounds extreme and unsustainable, it probably is…for you.
In the end, the greatest expert on you…is you.