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Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Story

What is a vegan, some might ask? "A vegan is someone who, for various reasons, chooses to avoid using or consuming animal products. While vegetarians choose not to use flesh foods, vegans also avoid dairy and eggs, as well as fur, leather, wool, down, and cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals" - per Many vegans are driven by compassion for animals and the planet, others for health reasons, most do so for both reasons. For myself, it began as a health-wise decision that combined with my love for animals, fully blossomed into even more dedication to my new way of eating. I was born and raised in the South and grew up on greasy cheeseburgers and chicken-fried steak. I loved barbecue ribs, the messier the better. I loved cheese, ice cream, big juicy steak, and all of the other thing the typical American diet consists of, but those things were slowly killing me. The oddest part is, I have always loved animals, they are a big part of my family life, but I never made the connection between my pets and the food I ate. Now I thought I was eating healthy, we never ate fast food or even ate out (could not afford to) and we never ate fried foods. However, that way of thinking (or more correctly, not thinking!) and eating led to severe obesity and several serious health problems as a direct result, but kept putting the same things into my body expecting different results. It wasn't until I was middle-aged, fat and growing chronically ill, that I started considering that there may be a connection to what I was putting in my body.

I  was like many people, eating the SAD (Standard American Diet) and never questioning what I put in my mouth. Oh, sure, I knew what 'junk food' was, and for the most part avoided it, but I was a slave to convenience foods, sandwich meats, frozen dinners, box meals, and the like. My health had been steadily declining for the past 20 years, since I had started to put on about 5 pounds a year. (Yes, that means I was 100 pounds overweight.) In 1995 I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At the time I still had three children at home, and my mom had just been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive type of Parkinson's and needed my 24 hour care as well. I had every reason to fight to live, and God granted me a miracle. I decided not to waste it: I threw out the deep fryer and the popcorn maker (not an air popper, the kind you put real butter in) and we made a conscious shift to eat more vegetables and lean meat. I started going for a daily walk, which didn't last long as my mom required more and more of my help. Caring for her was a joy, and she passed away peacefully in 1998, and 4 months after the loss, at 39 years old, I suffered a heart attack. Once again I was granted a "do-over". My husband and I were very compliant with the American Heart Association dietary guidelines of lean white meat and fish, more fruits and veggies, no high fat or high carb foods, limited sugars, etc. We thought we were doing right.But insidiously, the 'heart healthy' diet consuming animal protein (meat, dairy, eggs) was wreaking havoc on my blood vessels. I continued to put on about 5 pounds a year, and didn't even notice really. My energy was low, I had chronic pain in my back from several herniated discs, and my Lupus and IBS would flare frequently making me miserable. Another 12 years would pass, on the same track. Then I began having much more fatigue, migraines were almost daily, and I recall having a lot of mood swings. I would finally go to the doctor, and get a pill for this or that, never a cure for whatever it was, only a treatment of the symptom not the cause. I was taking daily prescriptions for back spasms,  for Lupus, for GERD, for migraines, for joint/back pain, for angina, and probably 1 or 2 other daily medications I can't remember. One particularly troublesome period caused me to suspect I had developed Type 2 Diabetes so I went to the doctor. Not only did I find out I was
T2 Diabetic, but also hypertensive and my cholesterol was over the moon, so I was promptly put on three new medicines. Wow. Only 50 years old and so many pills! I got very serious about managing my Diabetes, and gave up my beloved sweet tea daily and cut most of the carbs from my diet. I thought I ate pretty healthy, but looking back of course I see the problem was meat, cheese, eggs, and gluten.So I didn't feel any better, but I was doing all that western medicine wanted me to do, I was even losing a little weight. But on March 17th, 2010 I suffered another heart attack. The cardiologist found an 80% blockage in one of my coronary arteries, and I had a stint placed. Whew. Another narrow escape, and another chance for a do-over, thank you God! Mother's Day 2010, I had another heart attack. The cardiologist regurgitated everything I already knew: exercise, eat lean meat, blah, blah, blah. "Doc, that isn't working, just fix it!", I thought. That brilliant heart specialist with all of his training and experience stood before me and said, "Go home, be with your family, get your affairs in order because you never know when the big one will come, but come it will". In a daze, I asked if there was something he could do, he assured me they had done everything possible, and it 'was a waiting game'.  Wait to die. So that's what I did for a while. I prayed a lot for healing, but I still believed all of the whitewash of the food industry, and the misinformation even from the American Heart Association  and American Dietetic Association, and that I was putting the right things into my body, yet I felt so sick, so tired, so fat, and so helpless.

 Then came  the tough economy, we found the only way to make our dollar stretch from paycheck to paycheck was to reduce the amount of meat we were buying. I didn't think of it at the time as 'going vegetarian', but I knew that we needed protein so I began studying vegetarianism to learn about it from the nutritional standpoint. Along that journey, I learned much more than I bargained for, I learned how animals farmed for food are raised, how they are treated. I read The China Study, which blew me away, and a month later had the opportunity to see Forks Over Knives. When I learned that farm animals are NOT protected from animal cruelty, and in fact are subject to horrendous acts of cruelty on a daily basis, it kept me from sleeping well at night. However, it was the overwhelming healthful benefits of a plant based diet that caused me to make up my mind; I wanted my life and my health back! When I made the shift to being vegetarian, it was gradual at first as we used up the meat we already had, but it got harder and harder psychologically to eat it. Still struggling in the economy I stopped buying and cooking beef, and before long, I couldn't bring myself to buy any meat anymore because I pictured the once living, breathing, fully furry or feathered creature, and could not keep my blinders on any longer. It had been easy to 'not think about it' in the nice clean grocery store with it's neatly arranged trays of meats lined up, without the blood, guts, and violence of the slaughter. I never took the time to find out about animal farms and the deplorable conditions the animals that are raised for food endured, but once I was aware, I could not perpetuate the cruelty any longer. Sure, I was a little concerned about the 'C' word - CHANGE - like anyone, but it is the best thing I ever did. I found that it was the "convenience foods" that were hardest to give up, the chicken nuggets or fish sticks we used to pop into the microwave. I have to cook from 'scratch' more, and that's o.k., we didn't need all those saturated and hydrogenated fats coating our food anyway, and I was actually spending less time in the kitchen: it was always the meat that took so long to prepare!

As I began to get the hang of a plant-based diet, I started enjoying shopping and cooking which I had not enjoyed before. I discovered a creative outlet in “designing” new dishes. I found so many delicious foods that were actually the same as our favorite meals, but without the meat and fat content. Sometimes I cook meat 'substitutes' that are great for transitioning to vegan because they remind us of how meals used to look, and sometimes it’s beans, legumes, and whole grains. The biggest shift for me in menu planning is that no longer is the meat the star attraction with some veggies tossed in as an afterthought. Now I put together three or four combinations to delight the eye as well as the taste buds, and no one item gets ‘star billing’ because they are all amazing. It feels good inside to know I am eating healthier AND not perpetuating violence and cruelty against animals. After a while as I continued exploring and assimilating vegetarianism, I gained more knowledge and it was a natural evolve-ment to go from vegetarian to vegan, and give up dairy & eggs. I am much, much healthier. All of the health issues that I struggled with before becoming vegan have evaporated – without the use of any medications. Being vegan has inspired me to become more aware of what I put into my body, become a better home cook, and to use high-quality ingredients, nutritionally-speaking.

I consider myself an aware, compassionate, conscious eater, taking in living food instead of death and suffering. I am happy to not be eating my friends, or to perpetuate cruelty on animals, and to use how I spend my dollar to voice my opinion. Most of all, I am happy to be really doing something healthy for my body, mind, and spirit. My energy level is amazing, my blood pressure, cholesterol, and Diabetes all returned to normal, in fact my cholesterol is below the "normal" value! I find that I no longer "expect" to have another heart attack, or fear cancer will come back because for once in my life, I feel I am in control of my health. I have lost 80 pounds so far, and my husband has lost 95 pounds. Yeah, I even exercise, though it is hard! So far a daily walk  is all I can do with regularity, but my husband and I like to play tennis as his knee pain allows, and that will get better for him as the weight comes off. And it does come off, without counting calories, carbs or anything! I went from 11 prescriptions a day to zero! The only thing I take now are vitamin supplements.

In addition to eating whatever we want from the plant kingdom and not counting calories, we do watch our sugar intake, I still consider myself diabetic even though I am off medication now, so if I bake it is with stevia or xylitol. I try to eat foods mostly in their whole state, the way God made them, rather than processed. It is really much easier than I thought it would be, I always thought eating processed food was a bad idea, and we have all known for years how bad they are for us, but so convenient, therefore addictive! I became vegan because I wanted to cheat death, and I remain vegan for life to save hundreds of lives of animals that will not end up on my plate. It feels good to lower the demand for farmed animals and the deforestation required to plant grain to feed those farm animals, to help sustainable industry, namely local farmers, and I dream of the day when no human goes hungry, and no animal suffers for the "diet of affluence" that is killing us!


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~ Shelley