What you are about to read, is my personal journey in finding true health. It has been a long journey thus far. It’s been a rollercoaster actually. Although, I know that this is only the beginning. I have learned that health cannot be measured, quantified, or even truly defined. Health relates to the mind and spirit, just as much as it relates to the physical body. My hope for sharing this story is that even just one person may learn from my mistakes, and hopefully find encouragement in my successes. This journey has been ongoing for five years, and it continues every single day. And just to clarify: I am in no way certified to tell anyone what to eat or not to eat. My dietary choices of past and present were decided after months/years of research.
THE BEGINNING: Year 1
My personal health journey started at a fairly young age. I was eating a standard American diet until I was about 16, and one day – I decided that I wanted to be healthier. I wanted to be better at sports. Maybe slim down a bit, even though I was not necessarily overweight by any means. Not unlike most normal teenage girls, I suppose. I started researching online, reading books, watching YouTube videos. Trying to find the most credible sources when searching for the healthiest diet for a human being. I started learning about the negative effects that dairy, eggs, and meat have on our bodies. Of course, I had no clue that those were unhealthy things to consume because I grew up in an environment that promoted them to be absolutely necessary for healthy human growth & development. I double checked everything, and decided to slowly cut out these things, starting with dairy. Next came eggs. Giving up meat came last, and that was definitely the hardest thing to give up culturally. At first it was hard to convince my family that this was in fact a healthy thing, that I was doing. They all thought that I would wither away, and they really weren’t completely wrong in thinking that.
STARVING: Year 2
I cut those animal products out of my diet. Dairy, eggs, and meat are all very calorie dense and full of fat and protein (and a lot of terrible things that most people don’t know about such as: cholesterol, carcinogens, growth hormones, etc). So, when I cut these things out and didn’t replace those calories- naturally I did lose weight. I was also starting to exercise every day. Whether it was sprints down my street, at home workout videos, or weight lifting on our patio gym- I was burning loads of calories and not putting enough in. I didn’t realize this though. The excess weight that I had on my body took about a year to come off. I was feeling really great for most of that first year. At first, my energy levels were amazingly high.
A year of eating extremely clean plant-based foods (but not enough of them) did create a problem however. I was starting to develop OCD tendencies around what I ate. Later I found out that there was a term for a branch of an eating disorder that seemed to match all of my symptoms – “orthorexia.” I basically wanted to eat a perfect diet and I would obsess about food for so many hours of the day. I wouldn’t even go out to eat sushi with my family at the local Chinese restaurant because they only had white rice for their rolls. I eventually started feeling very tired and weak. I was starting to get comments from friends and family. They questioned the vegan diet from the very beginning, but my withering away contributed to even more frustration for them. I was getting so many comments and not understanding why. When I looked at myself in the mirror or in photos, I liked what I saw. I never thought that I was getting too tiny. I always saw room for improvements in my appearance, and that didn’t mean losing weight to me. I wanted to be muscular, toned, and fit physically. That’s all that I wanted. But a 5’ 3” me weighing in at 90 pounds dripping wet, was just not completely healthy. I had also lost my period for a whole year at this point, which obviously resulted in and correlated with some hormonal problems. I simply didn’t have enough fat on my body to sustain me for much longer.
CARING WHAT PEOPLE SAID: Year 3
All of the comments eventually pushed me into action. I was sick and tired of people telling me that I was tiny and weak. I wanted to be strong. So, I put conscious effort into eating. I knew that I had to eat more than I was comfortable with. I knew that it would take time for my stomach to expand, but I slowly pushed my caloric intake up. And the funny thing is, when I eventually gained 15-30 pounds people definitely commented on my weight just as much as they did before.
One of the biggest lessons that I have learned from my health journey is that: you can never please everyone, and you should never try to. First, I was too skinny. Now I am “filled out.” Unfortunately, that is how most people in this world think. We are either skinny or fat, black or white. The uniqueness of the human race is all too often- not acknowledged. Here I am, just trying to be “healthy.” The word healthy can mean so many things.
UNCOMFORTABLE: Year 3
My body had been starving for so long, that when it began to feel nourishment – it HELD on. It held on to the food and weight. I would find myself not being able to control myself when it came to food. And I was so terrified of that. Food and my weight was something that I had easily controlled for so long. During this period, I would eat half of a jar of peanut butter at one sitting and wonder why I had just done that. I could have never done that before. I realize now that my body was just trying to recover.
Our bodies crave nourishment. When we are lacking in something, our bodies do a great job of telling us what that thing is. We just have to listen closely enough and follow our instincts. I want to clarify that I did not have a severe case of binge eating, nor was I ever diagnosed with a binging disorder. But the word “binge” is the best word to describe the relationship that I had with food at the time.
GAINING WEIGHT: Year 4
When I started noticing that I was gaining some weight, I panicked. I had grown accustomed to my small and petite figure. The fact that I couldn’t fit into my favorite pair of shorts any more made me want to cry. But at some point – I realized that I wasn’t fat. I was gaining a healthy amount of weight. I was starting to have a monthly period again (which was so encouraging but of course annoying at the same time). No one likes gaining weight. No one likes feeling “fat.” We as humans naturally want to feel comfortable and light in our own skin. But there are unrealistic ideals about how a girl should look in this society. Just because we are not rail thin, does not mean that we can’t be beautiful or feel beautiful. Weight is not the sole dictator of health or beauty.
FAD DIETS: Year 4
After I noticed that I was starting to gain some weight, I immediately felt like it was too much and that I would have to lose some of the weight if I was going to feel good in my body. At the time, I was following a bunch of vegan “YouTubers” who all seemed extremely fit and lean. A large portion of these vegan internet sensations were eating a “high carb, low fat” vegan diet. Which was such a contrast to the ever growing Paleo and Ketogenic diets which were blowing up at the time. Some were even doing “Raw Till 4” which meant that they were eating only raw fruits and veggies throughout the day, and then feasting on a ton of cooked starches at night. Like I said- these people appeared very lean and they all swore by this diet. So, I tried out this new diet. It was one of abundance. Which was a refreshing idea for someone recovering from Orthorexia. The idea that someone could eat almost endlessly all day and not really gain weight because they were eating “clean” foods, sounded great. But this diet only worsened my binging habits. And I definitely didn’t lose any weight on this diet, I only gained more. During this time, I hated my body. I hated being in pictures. I hated looking at myself. Not to say that some people can lose weight following those diets. And not to say that those diets were not healthy for those individuals that I was following. A healthy diet is different for each person. I just had not found my healthy diet yet, and this experience left me feeling so confused.
DEPRESSION & ANXIETY: Year 4
I have already shared a little bit about my depression and anxiety in a post titled “Restoration.” But I haven’t really mentioned the fact that I believe that my diet and lifestyle choices played a significant role in that chapter of my life. After eating a “high carb, low fat” diet for almost a full year, my body was completely starved of vital nutrients. I had believed that fat was the devil and it would only make me more fat. I now know and believe that healthy, plant-based fats are crucial – especially for brain & hormonal health.
Another thing that was contributing to my depression was the fact that I had gained a lot of weight, and because I felt fat – I didn’t exercise. For almost a whole year, I wasn’t exercising regularly. And that whole year, I had never felt so tired. It was really just a terrible cycle. I felt tired, so I didn’t exercise, and then I felt even more tired/lethargic. I seemed to keep on gaining weight, and so I still didn’t want to go to the gym. Of course, I was working 2 jobs, trying to do well in college, and also keep up a long-distance relationship. So, I had very little time even if I had felt like working out. But that break from exercise taught me a whole lot about my body, and how it functions best.
NOW: Year 5
I now eat a well-balanced diet. I eat for my health, not my weight. I am exercising almost every day again, and my energy levels have picked up significantly. Honestly, I am always learning and implementing new things into my diet because the truth is – nutrition is an ever expanding and evolving field. That is what fascinates me about it. That is why I am pursuing a career in it.
I hope that my story can shed light on some facts: You can either gain or lose weight on a vegan diet. You can be healthy or unhealthy on a vegan diet. The choice is up to you. There is no perfect diet for every single human being. We all have different genes, blood types, preferences, gut microbiomes, food availabilities, etc. I will always believe that a mostly whole food, plant-based diet is the optimum diet for any human. There is too much evidence backing that up. But there are exceptions.
I have found my health. My own, personal definition of health. I believe that each of us has our own version of health that we must find. You may have to find it through trial and error (like I did), or maybe it comes to you effortlessly. I encourage you to experiment. And remember that the term health is more than diet. Take care of your mental and emotional health too. Do research. Learn about your body and how it functions. Change your diet up a bit. Eat more plants. Move your body. Get out of your comfort zone. Find what makes you feel amazing. I am learning to love my body, the way that it is, at this moment. It is not always easy, but it is beyond worth it.