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I went on a plant-based (vegan) diet because I had systemic inflammation that was causing chronic pain. So, my motive in choosing the diet wasn’t to lose weight—although I wouldn’t have minded—it was to ease my pain.
Through research, I learned that a plant based diet was one of the most effective ways of reducing the inflammation that was causing my pain and, because I believe that food is medicine, I made the decision to change from meat (and dairy)-based eating to plant based eating.
I bought a cook book and started on the diet “cold turkey.”
I do not think of vegan eating as a “diet” per se. I think of it more as a way of feeding myself that does not include meat or meat products.
When I started eating vegan I learned right away that there were other flavors and textures that were as satisfying, even more satisfying, than meat. All I had to do was learn what they were.
In other words, a vegan meal isn’t just throwing a bunch of vegetables and grains on the plate and leaving the meat out. It is creating a satisfying, richly nutrient, flavorful, combination of spices, grains and vegetables in a way that eliminates the need or desire for meat as the flavoring element.
This is actually the point that most restaurants miss. They see the need for vegan options on their menus and so they say something like their “home made meatloaf dinner can be made vegan.” What comes to the table if you order it vegan is a lump of flavorless mashed potatoes and overcooked string beans—only more flavorless mashed potatoes and overcooked string beans than you would have had if the meatloaf were on the plate.
This isn’t the way it works.
That very same plate cooked by a real vegan chef would be potatoes mashed with cauliflower and garlic, covered with mushroom gravy and accompanied by string beans roasted in the oven with salt, paprika and sliced almonds with perhaps fresh tomato slices sprinkled with basil on the side. This is an entirely different thing than merely leaving off the meatloaf.
In fact, a vegan plate of food stands up to the palate in its own right—it is not a plate of food that has merely had the meat eliminated from it.
In terms of the delicious flavors and combinations of food I eat, I don’t think of the vegan diet as one in which I am eliminating something. I think of it as one in which I am gaining something: a whole world of spices and flavors that I simply did not know about before. Having been limited to using meat to flavor my dishes—and dairy and eggs to make my dishes creamy or to hold them together—it was more a case of ignorance than a case of meat and dairy being tastier than plants and grains.
Did I have to learn a whole new way to cook? Yes. I did. Did I have to buy a whole bunch of spices I hardly knew the names of? Yes. I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to go this far but for me, it was like an artist who had been given a new set of brushes and a clean canvas to work on. I felt like I was going to cooking school with the big bonus being that I was going to feel better.
And feel better I did.
Within three weeks, I began to notice many changes:
The foggy thinking I had been plagued with for years disappeared!
I could read and comprehend what I was reading like I used to.
I could address complicated instructions and understand them as quick as I used to.
I could follow the plot of a movie like I used to.
It was like a dusty storage box in my mind had been emptied out and was now free to hold new information again.
Who woulda’ thought that changing my diet could affect my brain?
And in turn, my intellect? But, Inflammation is inflammation. If it occurs anywhere in the body, it occurs everywhere.
Second of all, I noticed that the pain I had been feeling in my lower back had disappeared. For two years I had been unable to step up on the curb without aid, get into the car without aid, and get up from my office chair without aid. I couldn’t stand in the kitchen for more than 10 minutes without sitting down to relieve my back. I couldn’t turn over in bed. I mean, I had a lot of pain. It wasn’t sky-high screeching pain—but it was enough to debilitate me and to stop me from moving freely.
My ankle edema also disappeared as did my indigestion and I stopped taking all of the medications I was taking to address these issues.
After about six weeks there was a marked difference in my body tone and shape. While I only lost eight pounds on the scale, I had slimmed down one entire dress size! It was obvious that I was carrying less fat and becoming more lean. Because I had been so trained to use the scale as a measure—and because the numbers on the scale weren’t going down the way I thought they should, I just stopped getting on the scale.
Something else was happening—I could see it with my own eyes and I could see it in the way my clothes hung on me. I wanted to pay attention to that, not to what the scale said.
Third, I have so enjoyed being able to eat all I want without worry about whether it was going to make me fat. I lost my “fear of food” in this sense and that alone was worth the price of admission. To sit down to a plate full of rice biryani and be able to eat and savor the whole thing without worrying about how it was going to show on the scale in the morning lifted a burden off my mind that I didn’t even know I had.
I also feel like my body is actually using the food I am eating rather than just storing it—in my case, on my thighs, the greatest storage closet known to man—er, woman! I actually feel energy rather than lethargy after eating!
What a concept: no more food comas.
And I still drink alcohol and coffee—two things that typically would cause me to either crash or get sleepy, depending on which it was.
Incredibly, my sweet tooth has abated, if not entirely disappeared. I attribute it to the flavorful spiciness of the foods I am eating. (And don’t confuse “spiciness” with “hotness.” Spicy doesn’t necessarily mean hot, like a chile pepper. It can mean flavorful—like, for example, the spiciness of a pumpkin pie). I find eating spices makes my tongue dance until midnight—and it doesn’t need more excitement than that. I have actually found that an orange after dinner can be an absolutely delicious desert. And I am a woman who had no problem eating an entire box of See’s Candy in one sitting, not to mention a hot fudge Sundae whenever I could get my hands on it.
Also, I am not a “vegan perfectionist.”
That is—I eat yoghurt with my granola in the morning and I put half-and-half in my coffee. I do not however, use oil to cook with and “eat” my oils instead (avocados, olives, nuts, etc.). I have found this to be an extremely satisfying way to bring fat into my diet, one that allows me to eat more food, which is a great thing, because I am basically a person who likes to eat a lot of food.
There is however another component to making such a radical change in eating, and that is the emotional component which, having gone through this transition, is what I think is the back story to why people do not change their diets.
I had no idea how many memories and emotions were attached to the act of eating and to the food I ate. I have been on weight loss diets before, but they basically consisted of eating the same things only less. Changing to vegan was much more than that. It had nothing to do with the amount of food I ate. It was a sea change in what I ate and it definitely opened up memories and emotions for me
It brought me back to the orphanage when I was a little girl and what it was like to eat there. It brought me back to my mother and her cooking and not how much I missed it, but how much it actually hurt not to have it. My physical body wasn’t getting the meat, blood, sinew and fats from animals that it had been getting and my emotional body noticed. I cried a lot. For no seeming reason other than I felt different. It wasn’t agonizing crying or depression crying; it was just there and in some cases it even felt cleansing. I also laughed a lot—I felt lighter, less stressed in my gut, more alert, energetic, and—well, happy. I slept better.
So—going vegan definitely has an emotional component.
I ultimately accepted this aspect as part of the ride and even found, strange as it may seem, that the vegan food I was eating was a comfort to my moods. It satisfied my emotional hunger in a way that not eating vegan ever had and that was a glorious feeling.
I guess what I am saying is that going vegan isn’t only going on a diet at all. It is also going on a spiritual journey and in that sense, it changes everything.
In my case, I went on the diet because I was in physical pain—but the truth is, we are all in pain in some way, be it in our bodies, in our hearts or in our minds. Ultimately, eating vegan helped me to heal my pain in all those levels.
Bottom line, the vegan journey is a journey to wholeness and health in every way. I heartily recommend it for anyone—by my lights, it is a journey worth taking.
For another story, click the image below:
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: via the author
Grow your own vegan food. Here’s how: