Health columnist Dr. Rhonda M. Coleman on finding the best healthy eating regimen for her
If you’d told me 20 years ago that I’d be living life without consuming any meat or other animal products, I’d probably have laughed. It’s been a long road to my current health perspective and lifestyle. Like many U.S.-raised individuals, I was nourished by a meat and sides approach to diet. For meat to be missing from the plate, there must have been some financial shortage or kitchen mishap — a meal was incomplete without some sort of fleshy component; some form of seafood, egg or farm-raised stock was a staple.
When I was 19, I completely stopped eating pork and have not had it since. Over the years, I’ve attempted many levels of vegetarianism — pescatarian, ovo-pescatarian, ovo-vegetarian and just plain vegetarian. I had difficulty maintaining any of those diets, or rather labels, because I had no real motivation to uphold such a lifestyle. I’ve never been a person to appreciate being labeled, either, as I like to have the freedom of options. I don’t like to feel confined or restricted in any way. When I would make the decision to eat a certain way, I felt I’d trapped myself to a certain behavior. If I slipped at all in my diet, I felt that I’d failed in my attempt and would then abandon the label and return to previous eating habits.
In 2012, I began studying traditional Chinese medicine. The degree program included learning signs and symptoms of various diseases and conditions, studying diagnosis and treatment and classes on both Western and Eastern approaches to dietary nutrition. In my first few weeks of class, my education confirmed for me that I had an intolerance to dairy products (foods derived from cow’s milk, including milk, cream, butter, cheese, sour cream, cream cheese, ice cream, etc.) and to wheat gluten.
I had suspected the same intolerance was present in my then 10-month-old son, who had suffered from digestive disturbances since his first week of life, even though he was exclusively breastfed for his first four months. (For anyone wondering, I nursed him for one year and only stopped because we learned my diet was affecting his health.) He had also developed eczema around this age. I made some huge changes to my diet and to my son’s. I had already been eating all organic and certified non-GMO foods for years, but we also became gluten-free and dairy-free. (I hadn’t had milk for years, either, but was still using butter, cheese, and sour cream quite a bit.)
In the first week, my son’s eczema completely cleared, and both my son and I had flat stomachs after eating, when previously, we’d both been very noticeably bloated. When we brought meat or fish into our kitchen, my husband and I only purchased grass-raised, free-range, free-roaming and any other sure-to-be-raised-clean and guaranteed-to-be-expensive options.
For a long time, I heard a whisper, an insistence to avoid eating meat, so my mind could be clearer. On a physical level, I am very aware of how much more energy I have, how much clearer my skin is and how much more regular I am when I don’t consume meat or animal products. There was no sudden feeling that I needed to protect the lives of animals — I still wear leather and purchase skincare products that might not be labeled “vegan” — and I don’t turn up my nose at people who eat meat. I don’t live the lifestyle of the commercial “vegan,” and frankly, I don’t want to be associated with the modern image of a vegan, especially when the pop version of that image is a person surviving off of processed junk foods like fries and soda. I follow a whole food, plant-based diet with lots of legumes, greens, fresh vegetables and fruit, grains (rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, gluten-free pastas, corn), yams and nuts.
Thinking about trying a new healthy eating plan? Start by introducing #meatlessmondays. A few ideas: basil and avocado toast (pictured left), avocado and beans (pictured middle) or couscous-stuffed bell pepper (pictured right).
This is the lifestyle I’ve chosen for myself based on how my body responds to different foods I’ve eliminated and/or introduced. My advice to others considering changing their diet is to pay attention to your rate of digestion (ingestion to elimination), your skin health (especially facial), your sleep patterns and your energy levels. A couple notes to consider:
- Food should energize you. If you feel tired whenever you eat, your body may be using all your energy reserves to process something incompatible with your system.
- You should be comfortable after you eat. If you sense any discomfort — especially gas and bloating — consider an evaluation of your diet.
If you see me around, or you mention my writing, please don’t call me “vegan.” My name is Dr. Rhonda M. Coleman, DAOM, and I’m just avoiding meat.