As I near the one year mark of my decision to go 100% plant-based, I have been reflecting on the last decade of my life with food, which evolved along quite a different trajectory. Any perception that a plant-based lifestyle came to me naturally, or effortlessly, is an illusion. Here is the reality behind my path to plants.
It has been a little over 10 years since I moved into my very first apartment, and subsequently found home in the kitchen. I adopted cooking as a passionate hobby, finding it all very exciting and comforting. As I acquired a wide collection of cookbooks, and dug into the far corners of Martha Stewart’s website, I found my daily devotion and self-regimented culinary education.
The possibilities were endless, and nutrition was certainly not part of the equation. As I became enamored with preparing all sorts of foods my weight fluctuated, along with my self esteem. I felt caught in a war between my love of cooking, and my inability to feed myself in a way that wasn’t detrimental to my health, and the body I wanted.
Pizza always won the battle.
The possibilities are still endless, as long as I stick to the wide array of foods that have recently been plucked from the earth. It’s all perspective.
But I am getting ahead of myself. This isn’t about championing my newfound balance, this is the story of life before all of that.
I have been struggling to put myself back into the mindset of the 20 year old me: new to the kitchen, eager to acquire as many skills as possible, expressive myself creatively, and developing a dangerous relationship with food and eating. I started a blog back then, detailing my burgeoning prowess in the kitchen.
Most of these photos are from that time.
Ironically, it soon became categorized as a “healthy living” blog, which was all the rage back then. I often felt like a fraud, cooking some of the worst foods imaginable, while trying to find my place in a blossoming online community of young women focused on wellness. I strove to strike a harmonious balance between eating and exercising, just like them, but my content felt out of place. I wanted to maintain my ability to cook whatever I wanted, all while learning enough healthy tips and tricks to keep my weight and fitness in check.
I never got it quite right.
I loved food – all of it – and thought it was sacrilegious to eliminate anything from my diet permanently. I found initial success with weight loss through an intense running schedule, and dabbled in the healthiest trends of the moment. I could deal with a green smoothie in the morning, and a run in the afternoon, but tipping the scales to more vegetables than animal products just wasn’t going to jive.
You could say I was not very fond of vegans.
My disdain was a classic case of judging what I did not fully understand, coupled with the jealousy of thinking that I could never have the willpower or skills to pull off such a healthy feat. How could I ever be a vegan, or even vegetarian, when I was immersed in a relationship and lifestyle that was pretty much the exact opposite?
I faltered along the wobbly path of imbalance for a long time. When I couldn’t get a hold of what was happening on the scale, I would take matters into my own hands. Binging and purging became a secret source of self-regulation. A magical fix for my indiscretions and indulgences, which only led to a worsening state of mind.
Throughout my twenties I felt unsure of my relationships and career path, but food was always there. I could get lost within the intricate steps of a complicated recipe, and find the joy of delicious accomplishment on the other side. Not to mention the joy I was able to bring others with my culinary creations.
I learned how to make sauces, gravy, bread, bagels, pizza dough, cakes, cookies, donuts, and pastries. I learned how to roast a whole chicken, poach, fry, or soft-boil eggs, and cook a pork chop to perfection. I tried every technique – steaming, deep frying, grilling, baking in foil or parchment, handmade pasta, taffy pulling, water baths, and more. I hosted entire Thanksgivings, before the age of 25. Every thing I loved I made from scratch, 100%.
You name it, I tried it.
The more confident I got in the kitchen, the looser the connection with my body became. And the novelty of cooking eventually wore off, as did my ability to remain in a life I didn’t want. I moved further through my twenties and eventually got divorced, faltered even more, and retired my beloved hobby. I hung up my apron and searched for a new normal, veering wildly off track. I was eating more poorly, and less homemade, than ever. Somehow, throughout all that, I got closer to the outer image I had been seeking.
By the time I was diagnosed I was happy with the way I looked, but was subsisting on a diet largely comprised of mochas and bagels with lox and cream cheese. Sporadic yoga and calorie restriction had done wonders for my physique, but cancer gave me a reason to reevaluate my relationship with food, yet again. What was happening on the inside was undoubtedly a mess. With a sense of urgency, I began to embrace the nutritional side I had always ignored.
Well, as best as I could.
I dedicated the 6 weeks before my first surgery to cleaning up my diet. I wanted to face treatment as healthily as possible, which I did, but even those changes didn’t stick. After my first year with cancer I struggled to grasp whether it was a one time fluke, or a more permanent part of me.
And then I got divorced again, and became completely lost in even more poor eating and drinking habits.
I had a year of freedom between my first and second diagnoses. Freedom was met with the most detrimental collection of imbalances and missteps imaginable. Fully healed and thrust back into the reality of “normalcy” I treated my body deplorably, positive that cancer would never return. I was uncertain of how to experience life again through anything other than extreme avenues. I ate more meat than ever that year, along with an exorbitant amount of alcohol.
And then it came back.
The second reemergence of cancer felt like the universe giving me another chance. I had to make a choice regarding how I would move through this life with disease. Would I wallow in self-pity and continue to treat my body like a garbage can-esque vessel, merely carrying me through this miserable life?
Or would I finally make a drastic switch that would give me the mind-body connection and peace I always sought, knowing it would usher me through any challenge?
Thankfully yoga had recently given me a new mindset, and I finally felt equipped enough to fully embrace a way of eating that I knew was necessary.
Making the choice to go plant-based was easy.
Making it work has been a different story.
Unlike my initial foray into cooking, there was hardly any initial excitement or comfort in this change. There was a learning curve and a mourning period for all the foods I had abandoned. I was faced with a new set of basics, and fumbled to serve up joy and creativity as effortlessly as I had in the past.
Plus, I didn’t really like vegetables, which was a problem.
I still wanted to make food that would bring others joy, and I wanted that joy for myself too.
But when I switched to plant-based, I focused a lot on what I had to give up. At times joy felt like it would never be delivered on a plate again. There were moments of grief and anger towards cancer for “forcing” me to change so radically, although I knew it was the right decision.
Through my negative and narrow perspective I neglected to realize that I could continue to carry the most important facet of food with me: the flavors.
Sweet, savory, salty, bitter, pungent, astringent, and satisfying…
At the end of all the why me, the restrictions, and the resentment – the flavors and textures could all still be there, even with plants as the vehicle. What a concept!
When you get to the heart of what it is we enjoy about food, it isn’t the ingredients themselves. It is the flavors, the textures, the experiences, and the feelings they give you. But most of us only know those elements through animal derived products, thanks to the evolution of the Standard American Diet over the last 60 years or so.
I had to go back to school. This past year I immersed myself in the unfamiliar world of a plant-based lifestyle, dead set on finding the joy in making it work.
And as I fell in love with cooking again, and gained confidence without the help of butter, cream, and meat, I found a new edge – a fourth corner to my “three square meals,” if you will.
Food is now ingested with the powerful knowledge that I am nourishing my body as optimally as possible. My weight is a non-issue, as well as my state of mind. Cancer can throw it’s challenges my way, and I have new tools to combat them. Food is more beautiful than ever, and presents a creative task that I embrace daily.
The answer was simple, and there all along.
Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to achieve or pull off, and my struggle to thrive as a plant-based eater remains, and always will. But I have often looked for love in all the wrong places, and the only thing I have ever wanted – ten years ago, today, or tomorrow – was joy. I just feel fortunate to have finally found it.