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“Please don’t call me ‘vegan’ … I’m just avoiding meat.”

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 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.”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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11 comments

  1. I think this is a really nice way to express your diet without labelling yourself as “vegan.” I too have gone through trial and error with different diets, trying to figure out which one works best for me and my intolerances to various types of food. The terms vegan and vegetarian hold some negative connotations in the U.S. too so I think this is a very interesting and powerful perspective to have on those labels. You don’t have to be labeled a vegan or a vegetarian just because your diet lacks meat or poultry. Thank you Dr. Rhonda M. Coleman, I love this approach!

      1. For the last six months I have cut out all meats and dairy, I sometimes eat fish but I try to stay more on the plant and fruit based side of the spectrum. My body has responded very well to this diet and I feel great!

  2. The way this article has been written gives a newfound perspective on an alternative modern diet. She discusses her diet very specifically, allowing the reader to understand why she has changed her diet multiple times throughout her life for health reasons. I was immediately drawn into this article by the title as I have always been interested in the way different diets affect the body, especially ones that don’t contain meat and/or dairy. Through her writing, Coleman translates her passion for following a whole-food, plant-based diet which encourages positive emotion towards this article. The images used in this article also give the reader more of an idea of what great food can be made without meat or poultry that is not necessarily just vegan options.

  3. This article was so validating to my own eating styles growing up. As someone that struggled the moment a title was put on the eating habits, this was very informative and helpful to know you can still do a great job of helping your body and the earth with your food.

  4. This article was a very interesting read. I don’t keep this in mind a lot, but food does have a positive/negative impact on your skin. The one thing I keep in mind is to avoid oily foods to avoid overly oily skin. A lot of fast food physically weighs down on you with being bloated, and it can be easy to fall into how readily accessible it is.

  5. It is cool to read a story like this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t associate themselves with the labels of different dietary life styles. Growing up, my sisters would always try different diets similar to these, I specifically remember her pescatarian days and not understanding what all these diets meant. Now, similar to this article, she doesn’t label herself any way, she just eats what she wants but tries to avoid meats. I have never given much thought to how people think of it from the inside. This story was a good insight!

  6. I found your take on avoiding meat rather than being labeled as “vegan” a very fresh perspective. Your reasons behind limiting your meat and dairy consumption being largely health-related and talking about how you and your child’s health changed for the better is really refreshing in its honesty. Your take on labels and not wanting to be lumped into the same category as a “pop-version” of a vegan was very interesting and I think that is a part of the conversation a lot of people shy away from talking about and I think it can really start conversations about the perceptions and stereotypes people put onto even something as simple as diet. Thank you for such an interesting article!

  7. A very interesting article that gives a different take on the modern day vegan. I am pretty sure a lot of us have been on Twitter or instagram or some sort of social media platform where we have seen people making fun of vegans for eating the way they do or vegans patronizing and making others feel bad for eating meat. This is a nice touch and it validates the way others eat and adds a unique perspective on how you should feel after you eat. I’ve been trying to change my diet myself and I will definitely be picking up tips from this article myself.

  8. I love the way that you look at food and avoid labeling yourself as vegan, as I am very similar in my dietary choices. It’s so important to fuel yourself with the foods that make you feel good, rather than restricting yourself to a specific diet. Thank you for talking about this and exposing more of the world to this awesome information!

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