My journey to a balanced plant-based diet
I’m trying to make this blog less about me and more about how I can help other people, but I do want to share some personal posts from time to time. This is my journey to finding a plant-based lifestyle where I have more energy, sleep better and feel better than I ever have. I even had some unexpected side effects of a plant-based diet.
First, what is plant-based?
For my own purposes and on this blog, I use the term “plant-based” to describe a diet based around plants and preferably whole foods. No, I don’t eat 100% whole foods, but I try to eat whole foods most of the time. I use plant-based and vegan interchangeably for search purposes, but this is debatable in the vegan community. For me, they mean the same thing although some people follow a plant-based diet and still eat small amounts of animal products. I personally do not do this.
Where to begin
It all started when I was fairly young. Although my mom has been dieting on and off my whole life, I never really saw her as an influence on my food decisions. From about the age of 12, I was a vegetarian on and off for quite some time. This decision was partially based on the fact that I loved animals, and partially because I didn’t like meat much anyway. At 17 I went to the doctor for severe stomach issues that had been ongoing for years.
I was told that I had “IBS,” which I believe is something that doctors say when they don’t know, or honestly, just don’t care. All they did was give me a list of foods to avoid which included meat but also included caffeine, chocolate, citrus, spicy foods and others. I did avoid meat for a while. Eventually, I started eating it again (in small amounts) since it didn’t seem to make a major difference in my stomach problems. Not on the list? Gluten and dairy, two things that avoiding could have changed my life completely.
Gluten and Dairy
Unfortunately, my diet was made up almost entirely of gluten and dairy! Even though I was technically vegetarian, I was by no means healthy. I was thin, which I thought meant that I could eat what I wanted with no consequence. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. My parents were really strict when I was growing up, mostly my mom’s ideas. The one thing where my dad did get a say was when it came to food. He said my mom shouldn’t make us eat foods that we didn’t like, so she didn’t. It would have been better for him to have had a say in something else. My sister and I both grew up very picky.
I ate a lot of refined pasta, white bread, ramen noodles, and cheese. I disliked most fruits and vegetables except bananas, potatoes, green beans, and peas. Fortunately, I did like beans and I ate those frequently, but more on that later. I still have texture issues with a lot of fruits and vegetables, but I drink a lot of smoothies!
The “IBS” got worse
After the “IBS” diagnosis, my symptoms kept getting worse no matter what I did. Of course, I didn’t know anything about celiac disease or anything about gluten. I took some college nutrition classes and I worked in some gyms early on but again but I figured I was just fine because I LOOKED healthy.
Iron deficiency anemia was another problem, which of course was blamed on the fact that I didn’t eat much red meat. I tried eating red meat, which didn’t help, and I also tried iron supplements, which made my “IBS” symptoms much worse. I know now that my iron was low due to gluten slowly killing me, but at the time I had no idea.
When things started to change
Fast forward a few years of poor eating habits. I started eating a little healthier when I had my oldest at 21 because I wanted to be a good role model, but my choices were still fairly lacking. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I met another mom-to-be who had Celiac disease. I thought it must be awful to be her because I couldn’t imagine not eating bread!
At the time my stomach problems were much worse and I had also started having major issues with my skin. A few months after my daughter was born this other mom said that she really thought I might have celiac disease and that I should give up gluten and see how I felt.
Gluten free is hard, really hard.
It was hard, really hard. Fortunately, at this point in my life, I was eating more real food. I was eating more fruits and vegetables than ever thanks to smoothies. So, even though it was hard giving up gluten, it wasn’t entirely impossible. I was a terrible cook but I learned very quickly. My skin cleared and my stomach stopped hurting within the first few days.
I thought it was surely a fluke so I had some gluten and felt awful. It took a few months to give it up completely, but the effects of giving up gluten were too amazing to ignore. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had eaten a meal without horrible pain, it was like I was a brand new person.
Yep, it was Celiac disease.
Although I didn’t get an official diagnosis for almost a year, I knew that whether I had celiac disease or not, I would never eat gluten again. You might be wondering how this is even slightly related to being plant-based. Do you have to give up gluten to be plant-based? Absolutely not! It’s just part of my story, and it’s important. If I hadn’t had to give up gluten, I think giving up things like dairy and eggs (but mostly dairy) would have been so much more difficult.
When Paleo started making sense
Here is where it gets tricky. Gluten=bad, so… are all grains bad? According to the Paleo diet, yes. I found my way to the Paleo diet after doing a lot of research about gluten. It made sense to me, and honestly, the Paleo diet was a lot healthier than the way that I was eating. Especially since I didn’t eat much meat. I tried quite a few versions of “Paleo-ish” diets over the next few years.
This included several failed Whole 30s, a poor attempt at the “Auto-immune protocol diet” (which, by the way, if you think being vegan is hard, try AIP!) I also gave up dairy just to eat it again more times than I can count. I also tried Keto for a little bit which I ended up quitting because I didn’t think it could possibly be healthy. Spoiler alert, it isn’t. When I was eating Paleo-ish, I felt better, but I didn’t feel great.
So at this point in my life, I was certainly more interested in my health. I was eating more fruits and vegetables, although I was avoiding the dreaded beans because Paleo says beans=bad. I didn’t start this blog to get into arguments with anyone. This blog is to share my story and hopefully help others. If you want more info on beans/lectins, NutritionFacts has tons of great information on beans! The beans=bad thing never, ever made sense to me but I still avoided them most of the time. Lectins sound like scary things.
Here is the funny thing, I used to listen to the “Fat Burning Man” podcast with Abel James. He had Rich Roll as a guest on his show, where they spoke about how their diets weren’t really that different. Sure, Abel eats meats but both of their diets centered around plants. I thought Rich seemed like a really cool guy, and I started listening to his podcast. By the way, no matter who you are I highly recommend reading “Finding Ultra.” It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Around the same time, I found Dr. Michael Gregor and NutritionFacts.org. I had watched many health documentaries, but I started watching more to compare and see what the healthiest diet truly was. Then, I read How Not To Die. I decided to give this “plant-based” things a shot, why not? I knew that B12 supplementation was important. Eggs didn’t do me any favors. I knew that dairy made me feel like crap, and I didn’t care about meat either way. Plus, beans. I love beans. Dr. Gregor has a video about the Paleo diet, which you can watch here.
What people don’t tell you about going vegan
The first thing that happened when I started a plant-based diet was that I had massive bloating and gas. This is what most people don’t tell you. It was uncomfortable for a couple of days but nothing terrible. If you’ve ever tried fad diets (Keto, etc) the transition to something like that is much worse. Adding plant foods slowly while decreasing animal products would be even easier and more doable for most people.
After this initial period, I felt amazing. I had two unexpected benefits when I started a plant-based diet. You can read more about in on the post, but I had unexplained hip pain (inflammation if I had to guess) and very painful periods, both went away immediately after I stopped eating animal products.
Then I went back
I’d like to tell you that I’ve been plant-based since then, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I went back to eating dairy a little meat for a while, but it smaller quantities. I felt like I was hit by a truck every time I ate dairy and I knew I had to quit. It could still be considered plant-based, but I wasn’t avoiding all animal products and I wasn’t making the healthiest choices. I was eating far too much sugar, and I don’t mean sugar from fruits. This all changed after a small health scare.
My health scare
After going to the doctor for an entirely unrelated issue, I was told that my AIC level was high. Pre-diabetic high. My doctor told me that she was very surprised to see this in someone my size. That’s when I truly realized that eating “whatever I wanted” in whatever quantities that I wanted actually did have consequences. I had watched my grandma give herself insulin shots (while continuing to eat crap) for my entire life. I definitely did not want that to be me.
So I made a decision, I was going to stick to this plant-based thing and do it the right way. Yes, I do care about animal welfare. Yes, I do care about the environmental devastation that is caused by animal agriculture. I also care very much about my health. It eventually all came together and I haven’t looked back.
I’ve never felt better than I do right now. I am thankful for things like Follow your Heart cheese and So Delicious ice cream but I try to base the majority of my diet on plant-based whole foods. I always laugh when someone asks me “but what do you eat?!?!?” because I eat a larger variety of foods now than I ever have!
You have nothing to lose
If you’ve been considering starting a plant-based diet, I highly suggest that you try it! I try not to push my beliefs onto other people. I do want to share how far I’ve come and how much better I feel. If you are plant-based/vegan, I’d love to hear your story! Please share it in the comments below.