I never realized how much I didn't, deep down inside, define myself as a vegan until someone asked me to commit to my status as one. Organic Athlete, a vegan organization, at my behest invited me to be one of their Pro-Activists and this means signing on for the vegan cause, being a representation of veganism and removing the choice to not really define oneself .
I had already been teetering and struggling with my own nutritional choices recently, trying to determine if I have been doing the right thing for myself nutritionally. It is one thing to TELL yourself that you are eating for health and to support your running and its another thing to do it. I realized recently that my head was overly involved in my eating and thus potentially leading me to make choices that were ultimately detrimental. And equally detrimental as potentially bad choices, is the over thinking of the act of eating in the first place. I realize now that I wasn't defining myself as a vegan, I was defining myself by a list of foods that I didn't eat. Yes, there was a great deal of thoughtful educated reasoning behind the initial choices I made, but somewhere along the line I took away my own power to choose according to changing needs because in my head, I had defined myself. I thought by defining myself, I might know myself. I fell down a rabbit hole of my own good intentions and soon found myself in a narrower and narrower space with less and less choices. And then I became afraid to choose otherwise because I subconsciously feared undefining myself and thus having to face that I might not be as known to myself as I would like. I felt like I had internalized some outward expectation of me, I felt like I was disappointing some proverbial audience that expected me to continue to define myself (perhaps I was thinking of you, dear reader?). The choice to do otherwise became a statement instead of just a choice. If that is true, then I guess consider this a statement in BOLD.
When I became accidentally vegan, it was truly accidental. I was in my culinary program and excited about knowing how to eat healthfully and tastefully and knowing what to do with all these great ingredients that were not primarily meat, dairy, fish or eggs. They were there but vaguely and in the background. I eventually lost my taste for meat completely and it was the first thing to go. That is something that even now, I have no desire for. Dairy hung around for a bit, but I was selective. Like many of the choices I started making, I wanted to be putting into my body what I thought I was. I cut out processed foods, I ate slow food, I ate things that I knew what they were and weren't put through some crazy scientific process (like partially hydrogentating etc). I was drinking raw milk on occasion, goats milk yogurt again on occasion, a hit of cheese here and there- organic, local, grass fed, etc.... Eggs and fish were infrequent, but options I could utilize in a pinch. I look back at my training journals from a year ago when I "wasn't" vegan and I mostly was, but when I wanted to I ate these things. In late January, I started eating eggs and fish again because I recognized I wasn't getting enough protein. I discussed it at length here. If I was conflicted about it then, imagine how conflicted I am about it now, having already once decided to go back on that first decision. I stopped eating fish and eggs again because, I told myself, I was just being lazy and could easily get my protein from more conscious food combining. It worked for a bit. But I realize now, that I failed and I haven't been getting enough protein. I know this because I have had muscle loss in my legs and I also can just see based on my food choices that protein was not being included enough at all. Before I went Vegan, I was Paleo for a long time and was very happy being that way. I have for the last few years tended towards fruits and vegetables over grains. I realized today as I ran and stressed over this dilemma that the reason I failed after removing eggs and fish is because frankly, I just don't like eating alot of grains at every meal and definitely not enough to get the protein content I need. Grains aren't my thing, I don't like/crave bread, pasta, rice, etc. Even before my gluten intolerance diagnosis, I would only eat the occasional bagel with egg and cheese or muffin for breakfast. Talking to a dr friend of mine who confirms that the muscle loss is due to not enough cals/protein, he also stated that because I am a female the muscles loss problem is further compounded by the fact that women don't produce testosterone. When it came down to it, I was not focusing on protein enough and my health was suffering for it.
It became clear that I needed to focus on my protein and have begun to try out eating more tofu and have started on a post-run smoothie with non-gmo soy protein powder with success (and no digestive issues!!!). But is it enough, can a girl subsist on tofu alone? Do I want to? Why couldn't I just go back to eating the way I did when I was in culinary school. With variety, excitement and freedom of choice. Somewhere along the line, I internalized every single one of the things that my instructors warned should only be moderately consumed or avoided. I couldn't just be moderate like a normal person and eat fish only a few times a month, I had to avoid it all together. I couldn't just eat peanut butter sparingly, I had to eliminate it all together, the toxins you know. I couldn't drink coffee in moderation, I had to not drink it at all. I couldn't be moderate because I thought, I don't have normal people needs. Things are amplified in my body because I train really hard, so I wanted to keep my diet really clean. I exercised my lack of moderation in my diet, although BECAUSE I am working so hard and burning so many calories, my body is probably more likely to be able to process those things easily and pass them through my system without problem. What I missed was that my diet was squeaky clean and healthy and balanced AND my mind was in the right place about it AND I had the freedom to choose. So I wound myself up nice and tight and stifled myself nutritionally, culinarily and I didn't even see it. I started subconsciously working other things out through the one thing I could control. I became a list of things I didn't eat and everytime I tried to deviate I had anxiety. I summed it up really well in my struggle about peanut butter back in March. But did I learn? Evidently not. I started eating peanut butter though and haven't felt conflicted about it since. Same thing with coffee. I use to be a coffee freak and so I think I was anxious about drinking it again because it is addictive and I put enough stress on my body that I don't need to borrowing energy which will make me more tired later. One day I wanted a cup and I gave in. For a few days there, maybe a week, I wanted coffee every day because I had missed the taste of a GOOD cup of coffee so much. It was about flavor not the boost. I save the boost for ultras. And then, I saw quickly, that my taste mellowed out and I didn't want it every day. Wow, maybe when I trusted myself I was able to be moderate after all.
And so it comes back to the question of not only protein, but also of calcium and iron. Protein I very obviously am lacking, I can see the muscle loss and I am telling you it ain't pretty. I hadn't been really worrying about calcium, I had a clean DEXA scan in January indicating I had healthy bones, but I had a wake up call recently when a few people I know suffered from stress fractures. I again spotlighted my own inadequacy and it freaked me out, because bone loss is something you can't see until its too late and then its hard to fix. So I perch here on the edge, knowing I have to do something but not knowing what.
After running Vermont, I found it incredibly interesting to witness the things that my body desired. I wanted my usual post race burrito, I wanted Thai food, I wanted potato chips (that one was surprising actually, though completely understandable). But what I wanted really was a bagel with egg and cheese. I didn't have one on Sunday after the race, I didn't have one on Monday even though the craving/desire was still there, I didn't have one on Tuesday because the desire to eat a bagel was gone. I think that the thought of eating a bagel is just too potentially painful, unlike the more minimal amount of gluten in a tortilla. What I did want though was a breakfast burrito with egg, cheese, beans and guacamole. I went on a search to find one and finally located one at Whole Foods (I had to beg for a side of beans from the kitchen). I sat down with my egg, cheese, potato burrito and spooned beans and guacamole over top. It was delicious. And the craving? Gone. Haven't had a desire for one since. Hummm, maybe what I thought was the rushing waters pressing against the gates actually was just a trickle of water. Maybe, after all this time of being afraid that choosing something different meant reverting, I had just been failing to give my body and mind credit for being different. I am a trained holistic natural chef, I should have given myself credit for goodness sake! Its not like I have been fighting off urges for pizza and soda and mars bars (in fact, I haven't had a craving for any of those things for much longer than being vegan or even being in my culinary program). My body truly does desire a clean, alkaline diet and my mind desires to be free of conflict or stress over what is going into it (because stressing over food actually influences your digestive health and not positively).
And so I have spent a good deal of time, trying to decide what to do. What to include, what not to include? I had to stop myself, pull myself up short. I was trying to define again. I thought that if I was going to open up my choices I had to clear denote which things were being removed from the banned list. And that's silly. I have said all along that if I wake up one day and want the wild boar sloppy joes, than I am going to eat them. That day hasn't come, but it may and I want to be free to choose it if it does. I kept trying to define myself because I thought I had to. I thought I HAD to. I either was or wasn't. I couldn't be free to eat fish one day and then decide not to another. That's when I truly pulled myself up short. Yes, yes I could make those choices. I had a right to choose. I can opt to steal a piece of Vermont aged Cheddar from Jonathan's hand (as I did in Vermont) one day and then choose not to eat cheese again for six months. I can do whatever I want, as long as I am doing it for the right reasons. I learned this lesson very early on in my running career but it has taken me much much longer to do so in my own nutrition. Fundamentally, I want to enjoy my food, like I enjoy my running and I want my food to support my training. Thus, I need to have my focus on serving that goal and pull it away from all the neurotic things and bad reasons that it apparently has been serving.
In the end, I feel like it has been a struggle to come to this clarity. I have feel like I have done a bit of battle with myself, yes perhaps in a place where I shouldn't have ever gotten to. But its like an argument over something silly between friends, it starts out as a disagreement and over time miscommunication and assumptions build on each other until there is a massive knock down drag out fight happening. But all is forgiven now, I forgive myself for the struggle. I forgive myself for the mistakes, I forgive myself for doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason and hurting only myself. But the thing is, when the fight is over, you learn something, you can become better. Through this, I have. I have regained my own ability to choose and that feels very triumphant. In the end, I define myself not by the total of what I do and don't eat. I define myself by being an empowered person who is not afraid of her own ability to choose.