I welcome nutrition student Emily Fleming to the floor! Emily is a university student pursuing dietetics, and is a plant-based diet advocate as I am. Here she shares her journey from vegetarian to vegan and back. Thank you Emily for your contribution!
“Hi, my name is Emily! I am currently a third year nutrition student. I have always flip-flopped between being a pescetarian (a vegetarian who eats fish), to vegetarian, to vegan diet since I was around 12 years old. However, I did not have a complete grasp on a nutritionally complete diet until a vegan roommate challenged me to go vegan. Since I was already a vegetarian at the time (and I never back down from a challenge), I decided to go for it. I proceded to cut out all animal products and animal byproducts, including yogurt, milk, eggs, and cheese. Everything I consumed was 100% plant-based. From September 2013 until July 2014, I adhered to a vegan diet completely and whole-heartedly, but what I learned from transitioning from a vegan diet back to a vegetarian diet will guide my food choices forever.
1. Interpreting my food cravings
Like any normal human being, I sometimes crave foods high in sugar and fat that spike my blood sugar. Caving frequently to these cravings left me low in energy and having feelings of guilt for what I had just eaten. If you’re interested in the science behind food cravings listen in… Foods high in sugar and low in fiber, like white bread, sweets, fried foods and potato chips, are digested very quickly. Sugar, or glucose, is released from the food rapidly during digestion, causing the extreme highs and lows in blood sugar levels. As the body tries to adapt to the rapid influx of glucose, blood sugar drops below normal levels and a rapid decline in alertness and energy levels follows. In high school I would binge eat after school on anything in reach. I was starving because I hadn’t eaten properly during the day, and was prone to consuming those high sugar, high fat foods. Since I was so low on energy I was especially vulnerable to food cravings, which are psychological cues that override physiological hunger cues. By becoming [BJ1] vegan, I knew that the only way to succeed was to pre plan all my meals. I was pushed out of my comfort zone of normally packing a lettuce and cheese sandwich for school, ore merely stopping by Tim Horton’s to tide my hunger over till dinner. By becoming vegan I though that my diet was being restricted, but quickly I learned that it was an opportunity to change, opening my eye to a wide of variety of enjoyable whole foods. Since I am a student, I did not find it financially sensible to buy many of the canned vegan soups, or processed vegan snacks. I was able to adopt a more whole foods approach to nutrition by making my own homemade granola bars, soups, and salads that were nutritionally dense and also delicious. As a result I was eating foods high in fiber like whole grain rice, quinoa, and hummus that better controlled by blood sugar and energy levels. By eating consistent meals throughout the day, I never had those blood sugar crashes that caused me to scavenge through my pantry without thinking rationally. Now I only consume those “treat like foods” when I want to and when I plan ahead, leaving less room for guilt, and more time for enjoyment.
2. How to have a healthy lifestyle without sticking to a “diet”
I always found that trying to stick with any fad diet just presented the opportunity to fail at something. For me, these feelings of failure were usually counteracted with a pint of ice cream. We are only human, and we’re emotionally driven. After becoming vegan, I realized that I wasn’t always worrying about what I was putting into my body or the contents of my daily diet because I was making healthier, whole food choices all together. As stated above, I wasn’t having as many cravings. By filling my diet with foods high in fiber and protein like lentils, and chickpeas, I was no longer binge eating, and I was choosing food merely based on hunger cues. Although I was still consuming high sugar and carbohydrate rich foods like dates, bananas, and maple syrup, I was picking natural and less-processed sources. I was letting nature take care of my body by choosing the whole, plant-based foods that nature provides! It’s a relief knowing that your body can take care of itself with a little guidance and a bit of knowledge-based decision-making.
3. Labeling yourself can lead to feelings of failure
Being a vegan wasn’t always 100% beneficial to my self-esteem or psyche. Have you ever heard the joke, “How do you know someone is vegan? They’ll tell you.” Hah. Well, in my pursuit of veganism, I heard this a lot. Although I identified as vegan, I didn’t have a burning passion to save the environment, or advocate for animal rights, like people perceive vegans to have. All I wanted to do was put good, healthy food into my body, and make some pretty cool recipes along the way. During the time I was vegan, I would have days where I wanted to put real cheese on my pita pizza, or maybe have some Greek yogurt with honey. Although these foods have many nutritional benefits, they don’t fit into the outline of veganism. Therefore I returned back to my vegetarian ways because I no longer wanted to justify my food choices to my friends and family. I didn’t want to feel guilty or have to tell someone that I was 90% a vegan. If my pasta happens to have some butter on it, or if I’m at out for brunch with my mom and I want hollandaise sauce on my potatoes, I’m not going to hate myself for what I eat or decline food at social events. After all, I consider myself a foodie, and a social person, and not all restaurants I go to are vegan friendly (and I also really like goat cheese). As a result, I now eat 75% vegan but sometimes I eat cheese for some extra calcium, or on the occasion a hard-boiled egg if that’s what I feel my body wants.
I think many people shy away from a plant-based diet, because they have only seen the extremes, and feel that they will be confined in a lifestyle that they may not feel they are cut out for. Although I still abide by my meat free diet (including seafood), there is nothing wrong with “meat free Mondays” or eating vegetarian most of the time if that is what your body needs to feel nourished and plentiful. What nutrition means to me is having knowledge that guides my food choices, giving me the permission to be the best, and most energized human that I can be. I hope that in my career, I can encourage others to seek out what makes them the best that they can be as well.”