Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Define to undefine to define myself

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.

12 comments:

  1. Get your own damn Vermont Cheddar next time, dammit! Leave mine alone!

    Thanks for getting this down on paper...

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  2. I find the second I try to define my eating habits I want to eat stuff I don't normally want and focus on what I'm missing instead of what I'm gaining. I have much more on the topic and I'll talk to you soonly. I'm glad you wrote this post.

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  3. Great piece here Devon. Recently, I guess a month leading up to VT, I have had more cooked food cravings than I ever had since going raw vegan 2 years ago. Particially worried that I wouldn't get enough food in me for VT I kept with my high fruit low fat diet. Cravings came in stronger and stronger.
    I ran VT, soley on fruit, but after the race, hunger took control and A peanut butter sandwich filled the void. well 2 of them did.

    It is an interesting point to look at things we do for the good of the world and not always for the good of ourselves. What it comes down to, which I think you tapped into, is listening to our bodies.

    where did you go to culinary school. I graduated from New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier VT!!

    Good On Ya!!

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  4. Interesting thoughts. Another friend of mine who is a vegan does go through some of the same challenges being a competitive triathlete. Although who knows what would happen to her eating if she switched from tris to ultras.

    BTW, you list yourself as Gluten-Free, yes? If you are and you want to try some good organic, gluten-free deserts, check out my friend's site http://www.sunshinesbest.com. Even for a non-vegan/non-vegitarian like me, her pastries are awesome!

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  5. So much to think about, between food choices to identity itself. Thanks. I'll be pounding it now in my head:)

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  6. Nice piece, Devon. Donn's 80 yr old uncle (whom we stayed with in S. Lk. Tahoe) asked us "Now you're vegetarians, right? So that means you DO eat chicken, right?" Oy. ;) Your body knows what it needs, your brain just hasta listen!

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  7. Your account of the Vermont race was great and very motivational for me...Do you have any books or articles on what an alkaline diet is? I know that I love the wheat grass at my local Green Market and they say it has something to do with acid/alkaline? Thanks Jeannie

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  8. What a great post Devon. Sounds like you are extremely type A such as myself (how's that for defining) and with that comes a ton lists, definitions, goals and lines in the sand. Traveling through our own defintions, making changes, being rigid is all good stuff in the end. I think it's just part of the process to find our way in a very organized steadfast fashion. :) It seems like you are doing that with your nutrition. It's all really cool at the end of the road when you have come to a decision and can give yourself grace here and there.

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  9. seriously, though... great post. It's been a great learning experience for a guy like me to travel through this with you - and to support you as we talk about food phylosophies on our verious runs.

    You know that I'm a very hardcore vegan, who only eats chicken, pork, beef, and fish on occasion (oh yeah, and cheese) - so I'm a great sounding board for your endeavors....

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  10. Excellent post. It does seem that Paleo and vegan are not good bedmates.

    One aspect of this whole thing is the fact that defining your dietary "ways" makes eating in the world easier. I know this is weird, but the only meat I ever seem to crave is chicken. I haven't had even a bite of chicken since I stopped eating landmeats, but I feel like having a bite of chicken would somehow redefine me as someone who eats chicken thus requiring that I eat chicken every time it's served to me. I couldn't say "I don't eat chicken." It would seem to be "I sometimes eat chicken but today am not and am a royal PITA to hang out with because of my eating." That's what I worry about personally and why I find it necessary to have rules about what I eat and what I don't eat.

    I guess I'm pretty neurotic about this issue. But I do have moderately different reasons for my food choices than you do -- if I were eating purely for health I would eat pretty differently I think. I would eat organic chicken -- maybe purchased from the heutterites. Maybe I should just do that anyhow :p

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  11. Very good post, Devon. Thank you. I have been struggling with making the right food choices for years and years. I struggle more now because I'm running more. It's nice to know that it's okay to give in to cravings every once in a while. I have a long way to go as far as TRULY using food as fuel. A lot of what I eat is just plain junk. But by reading posts like this one, I learn more and more each day.

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  12. fantastic post! It was great to read some of the same thoughts and struggles I've had, coming from someone else. I've been a strict raw vegan for a year and 1/2, but as my running mileage goes up so does my craving for things like brown rice and peanut butter and I've been struggling with the idea that if I "give in" to some cooked food then I'm no longer a raw foodist... but do I really need to define myself like that? Or do I just listen to my body and give it what it obviously needs and wants? Such a struggle for what should be so easy!

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