Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Ex-Vegetarian Part II: Unbecoming

Flickr: Muy Yum
I didn't see any weight loss or great health benefits from becoming a vegetarian. In fact, I gained weight and lost fitness. To understand why, you have to understand that I was a graduate student at the time. Besides the fact that my stipend wasn't huge, I was also in an environment where cheap (often free) and very excellent pastry and bagels were thrown into my path everywhere I looked. I lived within two minutes walking distance of a 1990s era reasonably-priced Starbucks with gigantic maple oat frosted scones and mocha Frappucinos and a Bruggers which had mediocre bagels but fancy cream cheese I could eat with a spoon. Any events involved coffee and muffins the size of a baby's head, and seminars are ideal for people to bring in nibbles like cookies.

Graduate school is also fairly isolating, which meant I could eat whenever, wherever I wanted. Which was often a pint of ice cream for dinner.  Add into the disincentive to move because of the ever-expanding pile of things to read and write and the cold Boston winter which meant that I was constantly bundled up in formless clothing, and you have the ideal prescription for weight gain.

After graduate school, however, as my interest in the arts began to resurface I began to realize the truth that 'my body is my instrument.'  I took up running, and almost immediately I felt better, lost tons of weight, and all of the problems I had assumed were naturally a part of being 'me' like allergies, insomnia, and adult acne disappeared.  I realized that to improve my running I had to change the way I ate and I radically improved my diet and stopped making pastry the cornerstone of my diet. I lived in England for two years and ate lots of cottage cheese, jacket potatoes with cheddar, hummus, ratatouille, Indian food with veggies and vegetarian sushi. I discovered fruit beyond the Red Delicious apple and even made myself vegetable stir-fries for dinner.

Not surprisingly, I associated my improved health with my vegetarianism.  However, it didn't occur to me that I had been a vegetarian before the running and healthy eating and seen no health benefits.  Correlation but not causation in terms of health improvements--I ate healthier when I became a runner and happened to be a vegetarian at the time. But then again, I was never a science grad student.

I was more active than I had ever been in my life, and my friends were more active as well. My activities revolved more around 'doing stuff' than sitting over books and coffee. Much to my frustration, I noticed that I still wasn't as fit as they were, despite all of the exercise I was doing. I was thin, but a very slow runner and pretty weak. But once again, it didn't occur me to try eating meat or even fish.  Vegetarianism had become part of my identity and to sacrifice it would be admitting I was wrong. Plus, given that I didn't have animals as much of a constant presence in my life--I lived in a tiny flat--it was the one connection I still had to my old childhood interest.

I moved back to the US because my mother's health had taken a turn for the worse, and my eating habits began to change once again.  Of course, I was still a vegetarian for ethical and health reasons--and because eating meat would be a triumph for my parents, who were now around me ALL THE TIME and kept telling me how much they disapproved of the fact I didn't eat meat. I still ran every day.

Something I did notice, however, was that I still didn't see any marked improvements in my physical fitness after the initial introduction of running. Other runners gained muscle and strength and speed; I did not. I also knew I wasn't as strong as most people who worked out as much as I did, but I just assumed once again this was a natural lack of athletic talent, and not due to the minimal amount of  unprocessed protein I was eating at the time.

My diet devolved, like most vegetarian diets do, into meat substitutes.  In England, I learned to like ratatouille and various curries, but there are a limited amount of totally vegetarian dishes you can eat without getting sick of them, and I had no idea how to cook, anyway.  My diet began to resemble that of my  five-year-old self, albeit in a slightly healthier incarnation: soy chicken patties, a side of fruit, cheese (often processed 'vegetarian cheese') or sweetened yogurt, potatoes, and protein bars that promised me complete nutrition.

If people asked me about the health benefits of vegetarianism, I would sing its praises and the praises of 'natural, wholesome rice and beans' but no frigging way was I eating that every day. Besides, rice and beans and tofu made me feel horrible and gassy.  I stuck to the Boca burgers and other hunks of highly processed products with little poetic descriptions on the side about how ethical and beneficial the company was for making its symmetrical ovals of soy protein in shrink-wrapped packages.

I did experiment with going back to meat once right after my mother died--I remember thinking 'fuck it, no one is watching me now, I can try it once.'  I walked to the deli counter at Shop Rite and suddenly felt flummoxed, given that for so many years the first thought upon entering any situation regarding eating was 'does this have meat.'  I ordered one of my adolescent favorites--shrimp salad on a croissant.  Unfortunately, this was apparently not a standard order and the teenage girl threw a tantrum.  She had to call her manager to get a special dispensation to put shrimp on the croissant and warned me that if I asked for a special request next time I would likely be charged extra.

Not surprisingly, trying meat one or two times a month had little effect on my health, and I soon dismissed my experiment.

It was going back to riding that was the real physical wake-up call, though.  I had always wanted to ride horses, but a lack of bravery, time, and money kept me back.  In my mid-30s, though, I was keenly aware of the fact that I wasn't getting any younger.  And my first disastrous lesson was a bracing slap in the face that I wasn't very fit at all--despite all the running, I lacked any real physical strength.

The more I thought about it as well, I also realized that I wasn't running very much any more. I kept having to take time off for more and more frequent injuries, which I attributed to just being older. My love of animals? I had a small, naturally well-behaved dog, but I couldn't make most animals respect me because I lacked even a basic level of fitness.

There were other issues, too--my weight fluctuated a great deal, between scrawny and puffy, but I never really felt that I looked 'good.'  So did my blood sugar, and I had constant sugar cravings.

I tried yoga, but I struggled even at that pursuit--while most people of my level of fitness could pop a handstand or headstand within a few classes, I could barely hold down dog.  And once again, I was suffering constant injuries and soreness.

I tried veganism for about a month, wondering if eggs and Greek yogurt were the source of all my ills. I think I doubled my carbohydrate intake, even without increasing my calories, and I felt awful--I gained puffy weight around my waist and arms, had trouble holding yoga poses I had nailed when I started practicing, and felt weak, draggy, and listless--I didn't even look forward to running or riding, which had never been true of me in the past.

Something had to change. I had tried everything. Soy and no soy.  Dairy and no dairy. Eggs and no eggs.  Meat was the only thing I hadn't tried. 

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