Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Beyond the Kale

For the first 21 years of my life I didn't think much about how I treated my body. I ate what was easy, comforting, and delicious. I played sports and danced throughout my life, but never took any of it too seriously. I used to think I was unlucky that my living this way led to my being over 300lbs by age 21, but now I am thankful for it because it inspired me to start taking control of my health and well-being. Over the last eight years I've spent quite a bit of time learning and modifying my behavior to get where I am today.

The first three years of the journey were spent changing from a standard American diet to the standard “healthy” American diet – a focus on lean animal protein, vegetables, and calorie counting. The research I did to start my weight loss journey opened my eyes to the realities of our food industry. I began to focus on where my food came from and tried to buy only local meat and produce. By 2011 I was happy with my weight but knew I could feel better and that my body could be healthier.

This is when I embarked on couch to 5k for the first time, and started working toward consistently moving my body. Although my focus shifted to exercise, I continued to educate myself about food. When we moved to North Carolina in late 2011 I had trouble finding access to locally raised meat that I was comfortable eating, especially in restaurants. I started researching plant based diets in order to make sure I could meet my dietary needs as an active person. It took a few months to embrace the idea, but in February 2012 I was eating a sausage breakfast sandwich and decided that it would be the last meat I ate.

As I delved deeper into the world of plant based eating, it didn't take long for me to ask myself why I chose to continue eating animal products of any kind. I watched “Forks Over Knives” and read “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safron Foer, and those two experiences helped me to make the decision to go fully plant based five months after becoming vegetarian. The decision to embrace a fully plant based lifestyle opened my eyes to a new subculture and inspirational set of athletes, chefs, and dietitians like Brendan Brazier and Rich Roll.

I started, like many plant based eaters do, by eating similarly to my former diet and consuming a lot of plant based substitutes for meat/dairy. My diet has evolved to where it currently is, one that focuses on eating almost no processed food, added sugars, gluten or alcohol. I try to eat as many raw and cooked vegetables as possible each day, and have found that my taste buds have evolved to appreciate the natural sweetness in fruits and vegetables. I eat kale daily, a green that was almost unpalatable the first few times I ate it.

I've listened to all the Rich Roll podcasts, and on one his wife Julie was on and they joked with a guest about going “beyond the kale” – essentially making the point that diet is like a pipe cleaner that lets in other experiences. Now that I’m closing in on two years without meat, I realize how much that change affected my entire life. It was hard to transition to a plant based diet only because I had to plan ahead, ask more questions, and spend more time at the grocery store. This focus on taking care of myself through food made it easier to be consistent in my exercise because I know how important that is for my body’s well-being.

Many of the people I've met or found online in the plant based community are dedicated to practices of meditation, yoga, or other expressions of spirituality. I have started working on a meditation practice and am now journaling daily. I have been studying mindfulness in my every day experience, and have seen an enormous change in the way I feel as a result. I've had issues with anger and aggression my whole life (literally, in elementary school I had to go to counseling for my aggression!). Being mindful and living in each moment has helped me feel less angry, and be less apt to act on my aggressive feelings when they arise. I honestly don’t think I’d be in this place with my spiritual/mental health if not for the plant based diet.
In conclusion, I don’t advocate that everyone eat a plant based diet.

I do think that adding kale and other nutritious vegetables is something everyone should do. I also think eating meatless once a week or for most of the day is a wise choice. Being aware of how you treat your body is the key to making positive changes in your life. It may start with food or exercise or spirituality or therapy. Wherever you begin your journey, know that each positive change you make will only lead to more positive experiences. There will be setbacks, detours, u-turns, and mistakes, but you will eventually get to the next stage as long as you embrace the totality of your experience. Namaste.

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