Reader Question: Becoming Un-Vegan?

>> Friday, September 17, 2010


Sarah writes:

I've noted that you have gone from eating a mostly vegan diet to eating mostly vegetarian. I seem to recall you saying this was -- at least in part -- due to your activity level and feeling like you could more easily get what you needed by adding more eggs/dairy. I've also noted that Stephen used to eat vegan but now eats fish.

At any rate, I have sort of an odd question for you. I have been vegetarian for 16 years, the last 5 of which have been vegan. I live in Australia, where everywhere has vegetarian options, but veganism is a much rarer treat. I have to constantly plan (and thus obsess) about what I will do when I go out, and my diet drives the things that I do with my friends and has pretty much become the focal point of my social life (hence having so many vegan friends). It leads to a lot of stress, and frankly WAY too much focus on food. So, I am thinking essentially about loosening up and eating vegetarian every once in a while.

I'd like to know how you felt when you started to eat more vegetarian (or, as in Stephen's case, pesco) than vegan. Did it mess with your sense of identity at all? Were people shocked? Did you have vegan friends that gave you a hard time?



Sarah asks such a great and difficult-to-answer question. I've been out of the vegan loop for nearly two years now, so it's hard for me to recall my exact feelings and struggles with my switch. In addition, diets are very personal. Specifically in the case of a vegan diet, there are more than just health considerations to keep in mind. So, I'll try my best to answer!

Back up for a moment, let's start with an extremely abridged history of my own eating:

I decided to eat a vegetarian diet at the age of 12 because for as long as I can remember, I have never liked the taste or texture of meat. There wasn't much of an ethical or environmental slant to my decision -- it was purely a dietary preference. In college, I was no ifs-ands-or-buts vegan for several years. Why? At first -- admittedly -- it was because it seemed everyone around me was vegan. Eventually, it's because I learned to love substituting and got a great feeling of health from it all. Then, when I moved to my hometown briefly after college, people didn't even know what vegan was -- they'd pronounce it "VAYgan" and say things like: "But you can't eat cheese? There's no meat in cheese!" -- and my choices were, needless to say, slim. I ate a 90% vegan diet and, after that, stuck with "primarily" vegan for several years.


DISCLAIMER: Keep in mind that even though I regularly offer nutritional advice (often passionately so), I am not a registered dietitian -- nor do I try to play one on the internet. Everything I write comes from my own experience. If you have specific health conditions or other issues, please consult your physician before making drastic changes in your routine.

Of course, I understand and appreciate the environmental and ethical considerations associated with a vegan diet. (If you aren't familiar with why, here's a crib sheet as well as info on the Ethics of Eating Meat for those of you new to the topic.) It's not that these two items haven't factored into my decision at all, but -- at least for me -- my diet has always impacted not only my health but also my mood. Selfishly, maybe, I can't sacrifice my physical or mental health for situations and practices outside myself. I come first, because unless I'm a fit and happy member of this world, I cannot full participate in advocating and working toward better practices.


While we're on this topic, it's important to point out that you need not choose an exclusively vegan diet to eat ethically. Here's some more information, if you're interested:
OK. Back to my own switch. I was eating primarily vegan -- with the occasional slice or two of pizza. Then, after my years of steering clear of dairy, eggs, specifically, etc., I decided to eat a forkful of Stephen's omelet on a trip to Boston in 2008. Wow. That makes it all sound so incredibly dramatic, doesn't it? Thing is, the world didn't stop turning. I didn't get sick. And it tasted . . . good! A week later, for the first time in 8 years, I bought a carton of brown eggs at the store. I made myself an omelet for dinner.

It was such a momentous occasion, I had Stephen snap a photo. (Please excuse the awful short hairstyle.)


After that, I started to slowly incorporate more dairy into my routine. I did indeed struggle with a feeling that I wasn't being the healthiest I could be. That somehow the dairy was tainting my system. Clogging my arteries. Fattening me up. What I've learned in the past two years is that no specific diet means healthy. In fact, vegan and vegetarians can actually be extremely UN-healthy, depending on how they eat. For example, THIS bowl of cookies is vegan. But would you eat it for breakfast? I don't think so . . .


See: It's all about WHAT FOODS you eat now WHAT DIET you follow. For me, eating a vegetarian diet -- complete with eggs and cheese -- gives me new opportunities and variety in my eating. Variety, at least in my mind, is what means health.

(And for those of you who are curious, I haven't gained any weight. Not even a pound.)


What's cool about my switch is that not only did I change my diet. I also changed my way of thinking. Yes, I'm a vegetarian. But I don't let that label define me. There are weeks when I seriously do eat 100% vegan. There are weeks when I eat mostly cheese. You read that correctly: Mostly CHEESE. There are even weeks, like when we went to Maine earlier in the summer, when I sample Stephen's seafood. Yes. I ate a bite of lobstah at a lobster pound a stone's throw from the ocean. And it was great.

Do I now eat seafood regularly? No. It was just a curiosity.
Do I eat eggs every day? No. In fact, I can't even remember the last time I had any.
Do I keep track? Also no.
Do I still eat vegan foods? ALL THE TIME! And we've got the recipes to prove it.


I still prefer almond milk over regular milk. I still bake almost entirely without using eggs and butter -- mostly out of habit, but also because I like to substitute and play around with recipes. I eat pizza weekly. I like when we're out to eat not having to ask if there's milk or cream in vegetarian soups. Or having to ask for everything without cheese. It just makes my life much easier.

My life. Not yours. Is the switch from vegan to vegetarian (or vegetarian to pescatarian, pescatarian to meat-eater, etc.) right for you? I can't tell you that. Only you can make the decision for what's a right fit. But you don't have to follow any specific "rules" unless you want to.

Make up your own diet, if you have to -- one that's totally on your own terms.


Again: I introduced the cheese, eggs, and other items back into my diet slowly. It didn't happen overnight. I'd suggest starting small. Maybe some Parmesan cheese on pasta. Try frying up an egg and having it with some toast. Don't worry if at first you have weird thoughts about what you're doing. I mean, it's a CHANGE. Change is always scary, even when it's with food. (OK. ESPECIALLY if it's with food for some of us.)

Pay attention to the foods that make you feel well. The ones that make you feel full and full of life. I learned that I most like to eat eggs, for example, after long runs. I feel like the extra protein gives me a boost. So, I tend to eat eggs on Sundays. Your situation is unique. Find what works for you.

For a long while, I was following what I described as a "Work Week Vegan" diet. I wrote a guest post on Ashley's blog all about it, if you're interested. When marathon training ramped up during the summer, I found myself reaching for more and more non-vegan foods.

So, I went with it.


Did my vegan friends give me a hard time? The answer to this question is a resounding NO. In fact, the majority of my vegan friends are also no longer vegan. Many of them even eat -- GASP -- fish AND meat now. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. I very much appreciated all the support my friends gave me through the switch. Most of them didn't care because, as I mentioned above, it's my diet. I need to eat what makes me feel happy and healthy. Even if my friends had given me a hard time, I don't think it would have mattered to me.

After all (and this definitely sounds like mom advice here): If they are truly my friends . . . what I eat for dinner shouldn't matter so much to them anyway.


RELATED POSTS:
Do you have any experience switching diets? Specifically from vegan to vegetarian or something else? We'd love to get your opinion on this issue! (And I'm sure Sarah would appreciate the extra advice!). Just leave a comment or email us at neverhomemaker [at] gmail [dot] com.

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