August 10, 2011

The Best Way To Eat, When Being Vegan Doesn’t Cut It. ~ Lia Menaker

It’s incredible just how savory a thick, juicy slab of chicken tastes after 13 years of abstinence.

On that note, it’s absolutely absurd to me right now that I am writing this article as a meat eater (well, a chicken-turkey-fish-eater, that is). Just typing the words is enough to freak me out. I guess I’d always pictured my next article on healthy living and balanced diet to be a campaign for veganism, or perhaps a health freak’s ode to soymilk. But, things have changed quite a bit for me over this past year.

Now, how can one person go from die-hard vegan to gung-ho meat eater within days? Well, it wasn’t an easy process. But, with all I have been through in the past few years, I’ve realized that the words healthy diet go far beyond who we think we are, what we think is best, and the ability to survive a whole meat-free year. In fact, I’ve learned that, really, there isn’t so much thinking or ability involved in a healthy diet at all.

My understanding of health food in relationship to the body, mind and soul has altered and expanded in ways I never would have imagined. Going from vegetarian, to vegan, to pescetarian, to wheat/dairy-free, to wheat-dairy-soy-free, all within a year, my body (and mind for that matter) has certainly had its fair share of changes.

I have gone through raw food diets, six day juice fasts, detoxes and a range of probiotics. I’ve gone from vibrant and glowing, to chronically fatigued, to constipated. I traveled to Guatemala alone and returned with three new parasite friends. I’ve seen both internist doctors and holistic doctors, been told  ‘x’ from one only to hear ‘y’ from another.

Photo: llsimon53

After feeling the effects of all sorts of foods and diets, and hearing the opinions of all sorts of health and medical specialists, I finally have clarity on the best, most optimal way to eat.

What is this optimal way? It isn’t about veganism, it isn’t about carnivorism, and it isn’t about going gluten-free. And no, whatever specific diet you have in your head right now, it’s not about that either. It’s all of those. Confused? Read on.

I became a vegetarian when I was just a kid, simply following my preference of taste. But, over the years I started to learn the many pluses to this way of eating (which only enhanced my love for it).

Just by cutting out meat, I was reducing health risks such as heart disease and blood pressure, keeping off unwanted weight and saying no to the unethical procedures so commonly used in the meat industry today (please watch Food, Inc., if you haven’t already, to get a backstage tour of this sort of corrupt behavior).

But, even beyond animal rights and health risks, environmental concerns such as pollution, water usage and spending concerns, such as grocery bills, can all be reduced with a vegetarian diet.

So, you can see how for many years I was superbly content following this diet. At the time, there was no reason to change it or to question it. In fact, I felt so good that I switched to vegan about eight years later (and was eating organic and local whenever possible). I felt lighter and more pure than ever before. But that was me then, in that body, with those surroundings, and those circumstances.

For the vegetarians and vegans (and raw foodists) reading this, I applaud you for such dedication to morals, sustainability, and good, healthy eating. But, I invite those who haven’t already to open their minds to the struggles of the vegetarian/vegan path for certain bodies and body types. How can this type of diet possibly work for someone with a laundry list of allergies?

Or, maybe you’ve heard yourself or a friend say, I just feel like something is missing when I don’t eat meat. I hate to burst your hemp-based bubble, vegetarians, but not everyone can replace chicken with tofu and beans and feel complete. If it works for you, than that’s a beautiful thing. But, all I’m saying is no matter what your diet is, it is important to stay open to change.

Photo: Yortw

You never know when your body is going to react differently to soy or nuts or beef or fish or spinach or milk. It may never happen. But, if it does you may have to switch a few things around to feel that wholesome feeling again.

And, when that happens, you may need to let go of ideas you have so lovingly attached yourself to for what may feel like a really long time.

I promise you that I never thought I would ever start eating meat again. And, I latched on to that idea–to the garden green lifestyle. But, as my allergies started piling on, my body started changing, and it needed different things. I couldn’t fight it any longer.

This is me now. I don’t have a full plate of options in front of me, because I am allergic to wheat, dairy, and soy–three of the biggest food groups out there. So for all the food-sensitive/allergy readers: I understand!

I understand having to check every ingredient on a wrapper, I understand cutting out the foods that you used to love, and I understand having to give the server at every restaurant a full explanation of what absolutely cannot be in your food.

And, because of these circumstances, after 13 years of no meat, I have had no choice but to include chicken, turkey, and fish in my diet. But, everyone’s story is different. When you take a look at your own food sensitivities, struggles, diet changes, or even thoughts about diet changes, ask yourself this question: Did you (or have you) been listening to your body to make that change, or your mind? Or perhaps even someone else’s mind? Allow me to share my experience in Guatemala, when some serious diet shifts began to take place for me.

My sole purpose in San Marcos, Guatemala was to further study yoga: the intimate connection between the body, mind and soul. It sounds like the perfect time to bask in vegan heaven, right? Well, it was until I found myself on a wooden bench, keeled over in pain, regurgitating half of the food I was putting in my body.

It turned out I had three parasites that my body was clearly not responding well too. Parasites feed on wheat and dairy, so I had to virtually eliminate that from my diet (being vegan at the time, the dairy part wasn’t an issue). For the first time in my life, my mind and personal values had little say in the matter of food choice.

Fast forward to six months later (and back in the States). After the parasites came and went, and then came again and finally went for good, my body needed to be built back up digestively.

Even though the parasites were gone, my body was extremely sensitive to wheat and dairy. It couldn’t quite process things like it used to because it wasn’t the same body it used to be. The flora inside my body had completely changed.

I began a long process of healing and strengthening. I was feeling better slowly but surely. And then, almost a year later, the doctor I was seeing told me I was allergic to soy. That was when everything changed.

Adding chicken to a 13 year long meat-free diet felt nearly impossible. But, when we hold on to an idea of ourselves without staying mindful to our bodies and situations, it can be dangerous. Any attachments I had to the word vegetarian had to be let go of. Any negative feelings I had towards the idea of being a meat eater had to be let go of.

I needed to stop resisting my body and start listening to its pleas. And it was crying for more meat. Not just more protein substitutes like hemp or avocado. But more meat. And beyond my body’s requests, I also wanted to be able to celebrate food with the people I love. That tradition of sitting down with friends and family and enjoying a delicious meal had nearly vanished from my life. I was too focused on how my body was going to react to anything I couldn’t read the label of. By not eating meat, I was no longer contributing to a positive lifestyle, but rather causing my own suffering.

To this day, it amazes me. For over 20 years, I wasn’t remotely sensitive to any foods. And then, all of a sudden, I was taking out food groups from my diet faster than I can keep up with. This was really hard to deal with, especially at first. There were times I left the doctor’s office in tears, being told I was overreacting or told to try things that didn’t work or feel right.

But, I soon learned that while it’s always wise to turn to outside sources, I was in charge of my own body and I knew it better than anyone else. So in the end, I had no choice but to switch my perspective. Instead of reaching out for someone else to heal my body and decide what was best for it, it was time to ask the professionals the questions (and only the ones I fully believed and trusted in), take in what felt right and to listen to my own body for the answers.

Photo: Beth Rankin

Yes, I did need that guidance from books and doctors, but make no mistake about it—my body always, always, always had the final say. And every time I honored my body’s responses and reactions, without fail, that’s when I felt the best.

As Americans, we want concrete answers to everything. But, not everything in this world has an answer, and it’s time we learned to be okay with that.

When it comes to bodies and health, even with all the science and research in front of us, we don’t always have the solution. But, when we tune in to ourselves and stay mindful, we can feel what does and does not work for us.

Eating chicken was, and still is, an extremely hard transition. But, it only took a week to feel the difference. I felt more alive. And, after more visits to the doctor, I learned that my body was by far the strongest it had been since my first visit.

My enzymes were looking better than ever and I was digesting food well. My body started craving chicken all the time. And that’s when the realizations started coming.

Perhaps I was right to not have had chicken in my diet for so long. After all, I was living a fulfilled, energetic, happy life without it. But right now, adding that source of meat was, and still is, making all the difference in my life.

Right now, it keeps me motivated, alive, and most of all, free from suffering.

I can enjoy sitting down and eating a meal with people again. And who knows—maybe one day my allergies will go away, and I’ll shift my diet again. But, one thing I know for sure is that my diet changed when my body changed. And there isn’t a single human in the entire world whose body does not continue changing throughout their lives.

Some of us are lucky and don’t need to alter our diet at all. It keeps on working for us. But, others need a diet shift here and there to feel complete. And how do we know what works for us unless we listen to—well—us?

When you speak to a vegan, a meat eater, a doctor, a farmer, etc. you will get a different answer on the best way to eat. And the best part is that none of them are wrong. But, the bottom line is, when it comes to diet, it doesn’t matter what issues are going on in the world, or how your favorite celeb is detoxing, or how your spouse eats, or how you ate five years ago when you were 10 pounds thinner.

And, it doesn’t matter because you can’t possibly contribute the best of you and make the difference you are meant to make unless you feel the best you can feel! And this is different for everyone. So we listen to the trusted outside sources that we are so grateful to have. But when it comes to making the final decision, it’s time we trusted our bodies more.

From there, we can allow space to change perspective. It’s okay if it’s hard. It’s okay if it’s new or strange or if it overlaps with three different kinds of lifestyles. But one thing is for sure: when we lay down our assumptions and put our minds at rest, tune into our bodies, and open our hearts, we will find exactly what foods and lifestyles bring us to full alignment and complete joy.


Lia Menaker is a singer/songwriter and actress, holding a BFA in Musical Theatre from Penn State University. Since graduating, she has traveled the country singing,  performing, and studying yoga. Aside from being both a Joni Mitchell worshiper and yoga geek, she enjoys traveling, writing, travel writing, hiking, and exploring the world of spirituality and healthy living. Her original music can be heard at www.myspace.com/liamenaker, and she welcomes emails at [email protected].

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