I eat what most people consider a shocking amount of meat – breakfast, lunch, and dinner I have a good hunk of animal protein. Those who knew me three years ago usually comment on how weird this is because three years ago, I didn’t eat meat of any kind.
I was a dun, dun, dun… vegetarian.
I spent almost four years not eating meat, and have been eating it again for almost two years now, and eating it with a vengeance! Here’s how it happened, and what I learned:
The summer after my freshman year, I read the book “Skinny Bitch”. I was a collegiate sorority girl living in Las Vegas. Talk about body-image pressure. The word “skinny” had unavoidable appeal, and I devoured the book. This book is seriously snarky and advocates a vegan lifestyle. It promised that if you do what it says – drop all meat, eggs, dairy, other animal products and refined sugar in favor of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, soy products, and fake cheese – that you will be skinny. It made a pretty compelling case that “how do you expect to get skinny by drinking milk which grows calves at exponential rates?” or “do you think you’ll get skinny by eating the dead carcass of another animal?” It all seemed to make sense.
Skinny Bitch gets a few things right. It has a very scary, gross chapter about the industrial meat industry, how awful commercial meat is, and how horribly the animals are treated. It’s disgusting, and certainly enough to motivate someone who cares about animals or their own health at all to question eating conventional meat. That chapter was true. There’s also an excellent chapter about refined sugar and how it is the “devil” and how aspartame and other artificial sweeteners will basically put you in your grave (and should have never been approved by the FDA).
Everything in the book is portrayed as “Duh, if you eat meat and milk and animal products you’re going to get fat. Don’t eat them and you’ll be skinny. *Insert slew of expletives*.” I bought in, and gave up meat that summer. I attempted to go full-on vegan, but that was just impossible with my deep devotion to cheese and ice cream.
When I started, I wasn’t fat, but I wasn’t skinny. I was on the fuller end of average.
I did not get skinny. Luckily, nor was I a bitch.
In fact, my weight did not change at all when I went vegetarian. For the next two years, I remained fairly stable. I spent immeasurable amounts of time obsessing about my weight and losing pounds. I tried everything: drinking only orange juice for breakfast, doing a Master Cleanse, doing a triathlon. At one point I even attempted Weight Watchers with their multitudinous processed, vegetarian snack bars that are only 2 points. I was only able to lose any amount of weight by severely restricting my calories and going to the gym twice a day. I would eventually gain weight back to where I started. I always figured that I wasn’t becoming a “skinny bitch” because I wasn’t hardcore enough – I was only a vegetarian, not a vegan. If I could give up eggs and cheese, I would be skinny.
In addition to not losing weight, my vegetarian years included a constant struggle with incredible food cravings and overeating. My tendency and ability to binge eat was truly appalling. That Japanese kid who eats hot dogs had nothing on me. I remember calling my mom in complete distress saying, “something is wrong with me. I can’t stop eating. I get into these binges and I can’t stop”. I felt totally powerless and I knew deep down that something was wrong. At the time, I thought something was wrong with me. It certainly couldn’t be my ultra-healthy diet of whole wheat pasta and tofu.
I would argue that most people don’t want to do things that they know are bad for them (even though they sometimes still do). In general, I think we all have a desire to be healthy, and try to do what is best for us. During my vegetarian years, I genuinely believed that how I was eating was the best thing I could do for my body. I wouldn’t have spent four years doing it if I thought it was hurting me. Please keep this in mind if you have vegetarian friends.
In March of 2011, I started Crossfit. As a part of my gym’s on-ramping program, they gave us Robb Wolf’s “Getting Started” guides to paleo eating and grocery shopping. I was interested, but skeptical. Being a vegetarian was part of my identity. The thought of letting go of that part of me was hard to swallow. It soon became apparent that I could not keep up the level of training demanded by Crossfit without more protein. So I tucked into Kashi cereal, eggs, and Greek yogurt for more protein. I did not feel better. My food cravings were just as bad, as was my tendency to binge. I bought and read Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution” cover to cover. Deep down, I was totally convinced, but my pride and identity attachment to being a vegetarian kept me hanging on for a little while longer. Then, one day at Whole Foods with my good friend Neil, I ate my first piece of chicken. Life changed.
I had to learn how to cook again, since my formative culinary years were as a vegetarian (I use the term “culinary” pretty loosely). Overcoming the grossness of raw chicken took time, will power, and many dry heaves. But as I started to embrace and eat meat, I felt much better. I had more stamina and energy at the gym, and could lift heavier weights without getting totally destroyed.
I discovered protein-style burgers at In and Out. Hallelujah!
For a couple of months I was eating meat and feeling better, but just dabbling with paleo. In my new-found paleo awareness, however, I started noticing how my body was feeling throughout the day, and started to acknowledge that maybe it wasn’t normal. I would be exhausted and sagging in front of my computer every day at 2pm. I was bloated and uncomfortable most days, for an unknown reason. I toiled with the idea of doing a Whole30, but decided to wait until after a friend’s wedding to do it. Three weeks before the wedding, I had pizza for lunch and hit a 6pm WOD at the gym. I felt terrible and I was over it. I started my first Whole30 that night, knowing I would break it for the wedding, but not caring because I was so sick of not feeling good.
In the next couple of weeks, a few strange things happened. I had consistent energy throughout the day, and felt as good at 2pm as I did at 9am. I leaned out. My stomach stopped bloating and cramping. I felt great going to the gym, and never wanted to throw up a day’s worth of food during a workout. Most importantly, my desire to binge eat was significantly reduced. It didn’t go away completely at that point, but I started noticing that when I was eating whole, clean, protein-rich foods, I would eat until I was full and stop when I wasn’t.
I have been primarily paleo since then. My journey has included some deviations, some longer than others, and the past two years have been a huge learning process through which I’ve developed and refined my personal flavor of the paleo diet that works best for me. That’s a whole other post. I am happier. I have more energy. I have started prioritizing “strong” over “skinny”. When I eat paleo, I have no digestion discomfort. I eat bacon and butter and feel incredible. Say what!?
I mentioned a few ways where the book “Skinny Bitch” got it right. Here’s where it got it wrong: only conventionally raised meat is covered, as if there aren’t better, more healthy and humane ways to raise animals. There is no mention of grass-fed, wild, and humanely raised meat sources that are not only better for your body, but raised in a way that is respectful to animals. Refined sugar is bastardized, but other carbohydrates (like grains, brown sugar, etc.) are extolled even though they all turn into sugar in your body anyway. The book recommends a crap-ton of refined and processed foods such as soy-cheeses, fake meat products, and vegan-alternative condiments containing processed seed oils. They say “you really don’t need all that protein” and emphasize the sexy but faulty logic that “carbs only have 4 calories per gram, so eat up and you’ll be skinny!” If you believe that statement, I don’t blame you, but I have a book for you – it’s called Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Read it. I am wholly convinced that you cannot spend your life eating pasta and processed fake meat and be healthy, but that is something I only learned by experience through doing it.
I am grateful I spent a few years as a vegetarian. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate how I feel now that I am eating differently. After spending time not eating meat and eating paleo, I can 100% say that my life is better, more complete, healthier, and happier eating concientiously-raised meat, vegetables, healthy fats, and the occasional sweet treat. I’m a big fan of trying things for yourself to see if it works for you, and I am glad that I have spent time on both ends of the nutrition spectrum, and know for sure where I am happiest.