My Journey to a Plant-based Diet

My journey to a plant-based diet, like most journey’s, is not linear. And, like the journey of life, it’s ever growing and evolving. My purpose today is to share a little bit about what a plant-based diet means for me, how I got here, and where I foresee this journey taking me.

The driving force in this story are food intolerances, which I have struggled with for more or less my entire life. My mom told me recently that even as a baby I spit up my food far more often than any of my siblings. While I can’t remember what I was thinking or how I was feeling as a baby when I spit up my food, nor was I diagnosed with any specific intolerances or allergies as a child, let’s call this the starting point for my nutrition evolution. 

Growing up I ate like most kids – I ate everything… except the vegetables. Although, compared to most kids, I was probably pretty good at eating my vegetables. I wasn’t a terribly picky kid. I liked the burgers my dad would make on the grill, my mom’s famous lasagna recipe, and the mocha chip ice cream I’d get every summer from Four Seas Ice Cream on Cape Cod. 

While Four Seas Mocha Chip will forever hold a special place in my heart, Oatly coffee “ice cream” topped with chocolate chips is a pretty delicious dairy-free alternative.

As far as I can remember I didn’t have any terrible reactions to food; nothing that would indicate an allergy or severe intolerance. This was more or less the case up until middle school/high school when I showed signs of lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance generally develops and worsens as you age, and for me the age it hit was thirteen. However, as most good lactose intolerant people do, I kept eating dairy and accepted the consequences of my intolerance. Ice cream is good…it seemed worth it! That was the case up until I started running. 

I hadn’t been much of a runner until I decided to join the cross country team halfway through high school. Running changed my perspective on a lot of things…particularly my food intolerances. While I was struggling through many of my cross country workouts, I found them to be even more challenging and miserable when I ate a lot of dairy or processed foods during the day. I quickly learned that ice cream the night before a race was a bad idea, but I could tolerate some chocolate milk after. It wasn’t long before I began cutting back on dairy, using calcium supplements, and taking a lactaid pill when I decided I needed to indulge in some ice cream. These changes helped, but the system wasn’t perfect. 

As I started taking the whole running thing more seriously I, somewhat subconsciously, began cleaning up my diet more. I cut out a lot of processed foods and if I didn’t feel well after eating something I decided I couldn’t eat that ever again. Dramatic, I know, but I was a teenager who didn’t know any better. Naturally, this limited the things that I would eat. I cut back on a lot of meat as more than a small portion would upset my stomach. I ordered simple salads when I ate out as this was less likely to make me feel ill than a burger or a sandwich. 

However, while I cut out a lot of unhealthy foods, I failed to add in alternatives to fill the gaps. I was running more than I ever head, but severely under-nourishing my body. The change in eating habits, increased physical activity, along with being a growing teenager lead to an unhealthy weight-loss. My bones were weakening, putting myself at risk for a stress fracture, and further, I was putting my heart at risk. In order to get healthy I had to undo some of my changes to my diet, which was easier said than done. I was afraid of eating a lot of things again as I had cut them out for a reason – they didn’t make me feel good. 

Ultimately, all I wanted was for my body to feel good, but not eating enough also wasn’t helping. I began eating more meat and dairy and generally was less restrictive in my diet. At the same time I also began eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less processed snacks and sodas. While at the time I thought I was backpeddling, this was actually building the foundation for my plant based diet. 

The legendary Campus Corner”Fat Cat.” A hoagie with chicken tenders, French fries, mozzarella sticks, and topped with ranch was one of the popular indulgences by students at Villanova University.

While there were often times that I felt unwell eating certain things, I decided I was better off eating than putting my bones and heart at risk again. Plus, I had then gone off to college where all anyone eats is cheese fries and pizza, so I just learned to deal with the consequences. 

After college when my diet naturally became less reliant on cheese, I eventually cut out diary. I also became more focused on running again. I ran my first marathon as a junior in college and my second a year after graduating. I loved the rhythm of training for a long distance race.

I’d read a book freshman year of college called Finding Ultra where a man named Rich Roll recounts his journey from overweight and unhealthy to a vegan unltramarathon champion. As I was running more, the idea of an ultramarathon appealed to me, so I picked up a similar book called Eat & Run by Scott Jurek. I was instantly inspired. Jurek discusses how as an avid runner, he found that a plant based diet helped him better fuel his body. In the book he includes recipes and recounts the types of this he eats to fuel his runs. I tried a few of his recipes and did some more research on what it really meant to be vegan.

Eat & Run lead me to read several more books on becoming vegan, most notably, The China Study by T. Collin Campbell. The book discusses the health benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet. Maybe more notably, and much more controversially, the book also examines the link between animal products, especially the meats and dairy typical of an American diet, and many chronic illnesses common in the United States. 

The studies and analyses were enough to sway me to never eat meat again. 

I cut out meat immediately, and fish and eggs shortly after. It was surprisingly easy and natural to do. Having educated myself on the health benefits, as well as some of the environmental pros, it seemed like a natural next step. Moreover, it felt very true to me, like plant-based, health and enviromentally-concious living was exactly what I’d been looking for and it had been looking for me. Moreover, the change in diet was exactly what my digestive system had been looking for. 

Yes, I cut had things out, but I had also educated myself on “replacements” and ways to fill the gaps and ensure I was properly nourishing my body. I no longer felt afraid of meals – afraid that if I ate too much my stomach might put me out for the count for the rest of the day. I could eat as many whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as I wanted and feel great. It wasn’t an overnight change, but I did, and still do, feel a difference. I feel alert and well-fed. I am more in-tune with my body and hunger cues than ever before, and I feed my body the things it really wants and needs. 

Friendsgiving spread featuring a traditional charcuterie board along with some more vegan-friendly options.

Naturally, this translates well to running where I need my body to be well fueled for the marathons I want to run. I know my body needs lots of whole grains and plant-based protein, both before and after long workouts. I know that I feel much better when I fuel myself properly, and the plant-based diet has made nourishing my body easier and more natural. 

It’s been almost two years now since I last ate meat or fish. I will admit that I occasionally indulge in a non-vegan treat or two. I have friends and family who are very good bakers and if they send me a box of cookies I have a hard time saying no, even if there is an egg or two in there.

I try to note that I follow a “plant-based” diet and not “vegan” diet. Ocassionally, when people press me on what I do and don’t eat, I’ll just say “vegan” to keep it simple, or “mostly vegan.” Nonetheless, I don’t want to offend anyone who is vegan. I respect and admire those who follow a strictly vegan lifestyle, I’m just at a different point in my journey. 

I think that in the future I may go vegan, both in diet, and lifestyle. However, I need to educate myself more. I will admit that there is a whole other realm of the “lifestyle” aspect of being vegan that I don’t know everything about. I know it means not doing harm to animals or any living being, including and most noteworthy, not purchasing or wearing leather. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of not doing any harm and I want to learn more about vegan fashion and beauty products, and generally about what it means to live a vegan lifestyle.

At this point I’m well aware of the diet aspect. Over time I’ve naturally cut back on the non-vegan sweets and goodies, both because I don’t crave them so much anymore and because I am consciously trying to wean myself off of them. But it is hard to say no to friends and family, especially when they don’t always understand what I eat and why. So, while I am transitioning, I am also transitioning them and hoping they may come understand why I’ve undertaken this journey. 

“We can live as we were meant to live—simply, joyously, of and on the earth. We can live with all our effort and with pure happiness.”

Scott Jurek, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

I hope that by sharing the impact a plant-based diet has had on my life, that I may set an example for others who struggle with food intonerances and/or under-fueling their body. While at one point in my life, I felt as though my body was fighting against me, I now feel much more at peace now with both my body and the world around me, and peace is a beautiful thing. 

I am by no means a doctor or a nutritionist, so consult with your doctor before making changes to your life.

Books and other resources:

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek

Finding Ultra by Rich Roll

The China Study by Thomas M. Campbell II

Main Street Vegan (website, book, podcast & more)