The Vegan Files
My octogenarian mother is appalled at my strange eating habits, which is how she characterizes my vegan diet. More times than I can count she has asked me why I feel I have to “do this.”
“It can’t be for your health,” she’ll offer, a reference to the fact that I am obese and have been so since childhood. The implication is that, if I wanted to improve my health, I’d lose weight, not go vegan.
The truth, however, is that my health has improved since I went vegan a bit over two years ago. You see, like a few million of us out there, I have Type 2 diabetes. While this is an equal opportunity malady, it hits particularly hard on those of us with major weight problems.
It has now been almost exactly 30 years since I was first diagnosed. Initially, I ignored the problem and, surprise, surprise, it did not go away. Eventually, I ended up with a nasty case of cellulitis in one of my gigantic legs. As we’ve nothing better to do, let’s spend some time at the local hospital, shall we?
That’s when I was told “you’re in big trouble, buddy.” I have been on a series of glucose lowering medications ever since, in addition to more pills to try to keep my blood pressure within reason.
My visit with the nutritionist at the hospital was not pretty. If you want to see a grown man cry, just show him the proper portion size of, um, anything.
You mean I can only eat that tiny piece of cheese and that’s a serving of protein??!! I blubbered like an infant. This was truly the end of the world.
“How can this be happening to me?” I thought. After all, my diet is nowhere near as bad as some people’s. True, I have a penchant for ice cream and chocolate, but I don’t chow down on chips and pretzels and Ho-Hos in front of the computer. Not only that, but I had been a pescatarian for the past seven years. That means that I ate fish, but no meat or poultry. So you can imagine how I felt when a doctor tried to make me feel better by telling me “Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you can’t go have a cheeseburger once in a while.” It’s a good thing I’m not a violent person.
I started out counting my starches, my proteins, my fruit, my milk. No more than six starches a day. That was the hardest part of all. Every morning, my first thought when I woke up was “What can I eat today?”
Vegetables were essentially “free” in that I could eat as many as I wanted, within reason. Of course, starchy vegetables (the only kind I really liked) didn’t count. I’d eat a few ounces of tuna and a slice of bread with a salad in the morning (I never cared for cereal and thought it was a waste of my starch allocation). I’d take a sandwich and another salad to work along with a piece of fruit. For a while, I was as good as gold, and I even lost a bit of weight. But I didn’t like to exercise and I figured out creative ways of “cheating” on my prescribed diet and convincing myself that it was okay.
But it wasn’t okay, and my blood sugar got way out of control in just a few years. The doctors started discussing having me inject insulin, but were afraid that I’d only end up gaining more weight. I ended up taking more and more oral medication, felt depressed about it and used the only method I knew of making myself feel better — eating even more.
Then, at the age of ten, one of my nieces may have accidentally saved my life. She asked me why I still ate fish if I truly believed that all animals had the same right to a full life that we humans do. She had called my bluff.
I knew immediately that she was right, and all the more after I read about what the atrocities committed by commercial fishermen. I knew I’d have to go vegan one way or other. But it wasn’t the prospect of giving up my beloved fish that bothered me half as much as the thought of no longer having eggs, cheese and milk. As I already did not eat meat, I indulged in a great deal of dairy products.
First, I tried going vegan for three days just to see what it would be like. It was rough. No cheese sticks. No canned tuna. No fried egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches. When the three days were up, I knew I’d have to think about this some more.
A few months later, I decided to try again. I had been reading about how dairy cows are kept pregnant for as many years as possible so that they continue to produce milk. When they “go dry,” I learned, they are slaughtered. What is wrong with this picture? Such cruelty just for money?
This time, I went from three days all the way to three months. The problem was that my blood sugar levels did not improve at all and I felt like crap much of the time. The problem, I knew, was that without my fish, cheese and milk, I wasn’t getting much protein. Instead, I was eating way, way more starch than I should. As every Type 2 knows, A1C don’t lie.
I told myself that going back to eating fish and dairy was an act of self-preservation. After all, I didn’t want to end up in the hospital or worse, did I?
After a few months, however, I tried being a bit more honest with myself. I knew there are plenty of vegetable based protein sources, if only I’d avail myself of them. I’d tried veggie burgers and soy-based deli slices many times, and found them to be decent. So when I was laid off at work and we ended up moving 600 miles to the opposite end of California, I decided the time was right to do this once and for all.
I haven’t looked back since.
And a funny thing happened. Without even trying, I lost 70 pounds. Could this have something to do with all the milkfat I no longer consumed? Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I rarely ate anything fried anymore. Could be related to the fact that I no longer went out for all-you-can-eat fish dinners on Friday nights and stacks of pancakes at Denny’s on Sunday mornings. It may also have had something to do with the fact that I ate a lot more salads, rediscovered the joy of carrots and broccoli and stayed away from most of my favorite baked products because they contained dairy.
My blood sugar level miraculously went right back down to where it was supposed to be. And I was able to feel good about what I knew was the right thing to save our planet and care for our fellow creatures.
It may not have been my initial intention, but yes, Mom, you would be correct to say that I “do this” for my health.