I ate a primarily vegetarian diet for about two years in my early to mid-20s, and I loved it.
It was at a time when I was just starting my spiritual practice, and was practicing yoga, meditation and qigong on a daily basis. I was in an incredible cycle of growth, awareness and opening. I was also a recovering suburbanite, having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago on a diet of primarily fast, frozen and fake food. In other words, my body was desperately in need of some deep cleansing and healing.
During this time I also experimented with various forms of fasting—I did several master cleanses, juice fasts, miso broth and jasmine rice fasts. All of these dietary changes and fasts helped me to heal from nearly life-long depression, anxiety and insecurity.
As I continued to cleanse, purify and heal, I felt amazing—until I didn’t.
At about the two-year point, I entered an extremely stressful period in my life—I went through a difficult break-up, I left one grad school program and started another, financially I was barely scraping by and I was driving in traffic every day. I started having heart palpitations and even panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, nightmares that disturbed my sleep, paranoia and irritability. I was a mess. And my meditation practice, which had been a place of grounding and solace, went to sh*t. I couldn’t calm my mind, no matter how much I tried.
I had recently started studying acupuncture and Oriental medicine, and when I went to the practitioner I was seeing for treatment at the time, his answer was simple, “You are blood deficient and need to eat more red meat.” I started eating red meat (even though fish, pork and poultry are said to build blood, I have learned from several teachers—and also witnessed in my 10 years of working with patients—that these and other foods simply don’t have the same ability to build blood or the same energetics as red meat) every day, and within about two to three weeks almost all my symptoms were gone or significantly subsided, after having been consistently present for several months.
Over the next six months I needed to continue to eat red meat somewhat consistently, for if I inadvertently returned to a vegetarian diet for more than a week, the symptoms would start to return. Of course, by then I knew that if I started feeling anxious or ungrounded, all I needed to do was eat a burger or a steak and an incredible sense of calm would descend on me.
Now, 12 years later, I still love eating vegetarian food, but I also know that I need to eat red meat semi-consistently, and even more so during times of stress and change.
Over the last 10 years, I have worked with many patients who have been eating a primarily vegetarian or vegan diet and have had similar issues arise over time. Often it doesn’t happen immediately; in fact, the vast majority of people feel amazing when they switch to a vegetarian diet. However, over time (often two to 10 years, but it varies significantly from person to person) slowly they begin to feel less amazing and have more struggles with anxiety, feeling ungrounded, poor memory/concentration, fatigue and insomnia, and many of them find themselves becoming more reactive and emotionally volatile than they had been previously—even if they have a strong asana and meditation practice. This often occurs gradually, over time, and rarely will they think that it has anything to do with their diet.
When I see patients with such symptoms, I often recommend that they eat red meat consistently (often every day to every other day) for a short period of time to see if they notice a difference. In almost every single one of these cases, across the board, the individuals have noticed a significant difference in all of the struggles they were experiencing. After four to six weeks of eating red meat consistently, most people can then decrease their consumption to once per week or even once per month, depending on their constitution and stress levels.
How is this possible, that the same diet that made a person feel amazing for several years could cause so many problems later on? The answer lies in one word: balance.
Growing up in modern society, after years of breathing polluted air, eating heavily processed foods, drinking alcohol and partaking of various other substances, including prescription drugs, most of us accumulate many excesses and toxins in our bodies. Vegetarian and vegan diets are cleansing and help remove these toxins and make us feel clear, light, youthful and energetic again. It moves us closer to a state of balance. And the closer to a state of balance one is, the better one feels.
However, at some point, after the majority of excesses have been removed, the scales will often tip in the other direction—the detoxifying diet that was exactly what we needed at one point, now becomes too detoxifying and moves us from a place of balance to a place of deficiency. That which was once healing and purifying becomes overly cleansing and draining. In many cases, this shift happens very slowly, over time, and so it is difficult to notice (and often the symptoms will not become apparent until the deficiency is exacerbated by the simultaneous presence of major life stressors).
Over time, as a person becomes more and more deficient, they will start to have issues related to what is called “blood deficiency” in Chinese medicine, or the concept that they are not producing enough blood for their body type and activity/stress level. In this case, they will start to experience anxiety, a sense of groundlessness, mental cloudiness and fatigue, dizziness and, in some cases, heart palpitations, panic attacks, dream-disturbed sleep and insomnia. These issues will be intensified if the person is drinking alcohol or coffee on a regular basis, as these substances tend to burn blood at a higher rate than normal while simultaneously generating more heat in the body.
In other words, there is rarely a “perfect diet” that one can eat for the rest of their lives and feel great and in balance.
We are all dynamic beings that are constantly shifting and changing within ourselves as well as in relation to our environment, and the key to health often lies in understanding what our current imbalances are and what we need to eat to correct the imbalance. As we come to a greater point of balance, at some point the very same food that was once the perfect medicine can become poison, by taking us out of balance. Imbalances tend to change with the seasons as well as with stress levels, lifestyle choices, geographical location, weather patterns, individual constitution and developmental stages.
It is important to learn to recognize and accept that often our diets must change over time, as well as to cultivate a healthy sense of self-compassion for times when what we need is in conflict with our beliefs about how we think we should be.
Often, blood deficiency can develop from not eating a healthy, well-balanced plant-based diet, or from not getting enough calories for one’s constitution and activity/stress level. However, once most people reach a state of true deficiency, it is extraordinarily difficult to regain balance through a vegetarian diet alone, no matter how balanced it is.
If one has the means and ability to take several months off to go on retreat, remove oneself from stress and to eat a completely balanced vegetarian diet that is tailored to their constitution and needs, then it becomes much easier to balance out the deficiency without eating meat. And likewise, if one is blood deficient and one chooses to eat meat for a period of time to balance out the deficiency, it may be possible to return to a vegetarian lifestyle after a period of time and still be in balance.
When I have a patient who is seriously blood deficient and I recommend that they consider eating red meat, often there is resistance. Much of the resistance comes from building aspects of their self-identity around their dietary choices (even the simple statement “I am a vegetarian” demonstrates a deep entanglement between dietary choice and self-identity), and what this means if they change.
As my mentor often says, changing a person’s diet is one of the most intense psychosocial things a practitioner can do, as changing a person’s diet affects all aspects of their life and all of their relationships.
In the U.S., dietary choices have become extremely value laden—people judge others (and themselves) for eating fast food, for eating meat, for eating vegetarian fare, for eating gluten-free foods—just about any dietary choice we make these days, we can be sure there is someone out there who will judge and make assumptions about who we are based on what we eat.
We are often our own worst enemy in this, and most of us carry huge amounts of guilt and judgment throughout the day, centered around every single thing that we choose to (not) eat. Somewhat ironically, such a judgmental mindset seems to be extremely prevalent amongst “healthy” eating communities, where people are engaged in practices such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness. Within such subcultures, there can be an insidious drive to find the “right” way to be, and to adopt more and more dogmatic beliefs and stances about how one is supposed to be. As one starts adopting such rules for oneself, there is an almost natural need to extend this to everyone else—to believe that everyone else should live this way as well.
I have practiced yoga and meditation for the last 15 years, and as such I have had the opportunity to treat and work with a lot of patients in the yoga community across the country, both teachers and students. In many yoga communities, there exists an assumption (either overtly or subconsciously) that true yogis should be vegetarian. Much of this comes from the doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolence, which is a core principle in yoga and Buddhism. There is an element of cultural appropriation that occurs, along with assumptions and conflations about the value systems and cultures that yoga and Buddhism derive from—believing that all of the people who engage in these practices in those cultures are vegetarian. However, one does not have to look far to find examples of high level practitioners native to these cultures who eat meat—I’ve met quite a few Tibetan Rinpoches and lamas who have said that they tried being vegetarian and it just didn’t work for them. Perhaps the most well known example is the Dalai Lama, who eats meat regularly.
Yet how can this be reconciled with the principle of ahimsa/nonviolence? Ahimsa is not a doctrine that is meant to be followed dogmatically—it is a dynamic guideline for living that entails cultivating consciousness, wisdom and virtue towards acting in a compassionate and nonviolent manner, starting with oneself.
If one needs to eat meat at certain times in their life in order to be healthy and balanced, and one refuses to do so based on an attachment to a dogmatic belief, then this is a form of violence towards oneself. Not only that, but if one is extremely blood deficient, one will tend to be much more reactive and less grounded, which causes one to be more violent towards everyone else around oneself. In the end, this is not truly understanding or following the principle of ahimsa, and leads to hypocrisy and greater suffering.
Sometimes eating a little bit of meat on a regular basis can not only help one feel better, but can also allow one to do more good in the world, work harder to help others, have a greater sense of compassion and become less judgmental. In such cases, eating a little bit of meat will likely incur less violence and engender less suffering than not, especially if one approaches the eating of meat as a form of sacred medicine.
It is not uncommon for individuals who are working to develop compassion and selflessness to become more judgmental of themselves and those around them for periods of time.
It reminds me of a story I once heard about a teacher at a naturopathic college. He was someone who all the students looked up to and admired, and who seemed to be the pinnacle of health and awareness. One day he walks into class and starts his lecture with “Sometimes, when I’m standing in line at McDonald’s, it occurs to me that the people around me seem to be much healthier than many of my students here.” The students were all in shock (“He eats at McDonald’s!?”), but the point he went on to make is that often it is the judgments we have about what we eat that do us more harm than the negative effect from just about anything we put in our bodies. This is also mirrored in the wise words of Jesus: “It is not that which goes into your mouth that defiles you, but that which comes out of it.”
The judgments about food, and the guilt such judgments engender, do far more harm and violence than just about anything one eats. After all, the way one acts toward others is often a reflection of how one views oneself, and the more one tends to judge others for what they eat usually indicates how much they judge themselves. And the guilt that comes from such judgments can be extremely violent, as well as destructive to one’s health.
In the end, there is no “right” way that everyone is supposed to be, all the time. We are all dynamic beings, and what is important is learning to know when, and why, we are out of balance. The more in balance we are, the easier it is to be in balance with others and the world around us, and to manifest the qualities of love, compassion and wisdom. With greater balance, we are able to do more to help others. Being out of balance can negatively affect not only one’s physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, but also relationships with everyone that one comes into contact with. If someone is truly grounded, they have no need to tell others how they should live their lives; such words and actions would not manifest if they were acting from a place of deep compassion and nonviolence.
At this point, I would also like to say that I don’t encourage everyone to eat meat, and in fact, I have counseled a number of patients to cut back on red meat or to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for periods of time. In fact, I am only writing this article at the behest of a number of my patients who are teachers in the yoga community, who have found extraordinary benefit from transitioning to a diet that incorporates red meat. From the perspective of Oriental medicine (and to a certain extent Daoist and Buddhist perspectives), what matters is whether the dietary choices are bringing an individual closer to or further away from a state of balance.
I have a dear friend who is vegetarian, and has been for many years. And he is one of the healthiest, calmest and most grounded individuals that I know, and I have the deepest respect for him. He is also extraordinarily fortunate to be able to live a relatively calm and stress-free life up in the mountains, with ample time for hours of daily yoga, meditation and spiritual practice. If someone is eating a vegetarian diet and is healthy and balanced, it is a wonderful thing and I have deep respect for that. However, for many people this will not be sustainable over the long-term, even if it is perfectly healthy for a number of years—what matters is recognizing when the balance shifts.
This is the crux of it—for many people, it becomes unsustainable to eat a primarily vegetarian diet over long periods of time and to also live a typical modern life raising a family, working, driving in traffic, and dealing with the incredibly heightened and sustained level of stress without eventually getting out of balance and developing health issues.
Eating red meat helps to provide a form of buffer for the nervous system, to keep one grounded within oneself. The culmination of such stressors tends to burn blood at a faster rate than one can generate blood when eating a vegetarian diet over a long period of time. To elaborate, the blood in the body can be thought of as similar to oil in the engine of a car. As one pushes the engine more (i.e. the body is under greater stress), oil (blood) is burned up at a much faster rate than normal. If we were living in a monastery tucked away in the mountains, away from modern stressors and pollution, spending hours a day meditating and in spiritual practice, it would be far easier for many of us to subsist on a purely vegetarian or vegan diet and be perfectly in balance indefinitely. Similarly, when I go on retreat for periods of time, I prefer a vegan diet as it allows access to more subtle levels of awareness and heightens sensitivity in ways that are extraordinarily beneficial in spiritual practice, but perhaps not as helpful when dealing with the day-to-day stress of living in modern society.
It will vary over time, and it is an ongoing process to learn to listen to our bodies.
For instance, some of my patients feel repulsion when they first think of eating meat. This has more to do with the mental judgments and less with what their body actually needs. Soon after, however, they might realise they need more red meat. For example, many women will find it beneficial to eat more red meat when they are on their menses or right after they finish bleeding. People who are blood deficient will also benefit and feel better if they eat more red meat around the time of the new moon, and can easily get away with eating less around the time of the full moon. This is because deficiencies tend to be exacerbated at the new moon, and lessened at the full moon, whereas excesses will be exacerbated at the full moon, and lessened at the new moon. (This is also where the term “lunatic” comes from—many people with psychological imbalances have excess disorders, which then will be exacerbated at the full moon, causing their mental imbalances to overtly manifest.)
When someone is first transitioning from a vegetarian diet to incorporating red meat, it is important to do so with knowledge and awareness.
There are several herbs and formulas that one can take with red meat—rosemary, bay leaves and hawthorn, to name a few—that greatly assist in the digestion and absorption of meat and fat, and take much of the burden off of the digestive system. It is also important to seek out sustainably and consciously raised sources of meat, where the animals were afforded healthier and fuller lives and negative impact on the environment is minimalized. Also, it should be noted that if someone feels guilt while eating anything, their body will not digest it as well. In cases where someone feels repulsion or guilt around eating meat, it may also be easier to start with having beef broth for a little while, without any solid meat, until they can shift their perspective enough to eat meat without engendering guilt concomitantly.
If one chooses to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, that is wonderful, and it is something that I hope everyone tries at some point in their life. And if it truly works for the long term and a person feels great and full of life and grounded, even better. I envy those people and am grateful that they are able to live that way.
Personally, I look forward to a time in the future when I can return to eating a primarily plant-based diet and engage in meditative practice for hours every day in a mountain retreat. But until that time, it is more important to eat the foods that keep me balanced so that I can be my best self, help others and do the work that I am here to do.
Perhaps the ideal is for all of us to eventually become vegetarians, and in many ways I hope that is the case. Yet, like so many aspects of life, if we try to make ourselves conform to an ideal without acknowledging where we are and what our needs are in this moment, in the end we only create greater separation within ourselves and with the world around us.
Author: Thomas Richardson
Image: Whatshername?/Flickr; Lauren Jong/Flickr
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
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