It’s here! This is my first time participating in VeganMofo (Vegan Month of Food) and I’m looking forward to giving you a window into how the combination of compassion for animals, Ulcerative Colitis (and a few other autoimmune disorders) and my work as a clinical herbalist shape the way that I cook, eat, and think about food. My plan is to weave recipes, stories, and even some Chinese Medicine Theory into my posts this month, and I hope you’ll come away with not just recipes and techniques, but some new ways of thinking about food and healing. But before I tell you anything about Chinese Medicine’s approach to healing with food or share any herb-infused recipes, I want to start with the story behind all of this.
It was May of 2008 and I was sicker than I’d ever been.
Nightly autoimmune fevers that climbed to 104 degrees and pinned me to my sweat-soaked sheets until morning left me exhausted, drawn, and quite frankly, afraid. I had to run to the bathroom 15-25 times per day and all that would come out of me was bright red blood. A lot of blood.
My applications to buy health insurance had all been rejected due to my pre-existing conditions, and I was waiting on the State of Maryland to grant me access through their high-risk pool for “uninsurable” people like myself. Meanwhile, I was getting sicker and sicker.
This is when I saw an acupuncturist for the very first time. As she listened to my story, looked at my tongue, and pressed the pads of her fingertips to my radial arteries to listen to my pulse points, I felt something let go in my chest. After feeling shut out of the healthcare system when I needed it most, the relief of being cared for was profound.
Then she asked me about my diet.
“Well, right now I can’t really eat much of anything,” I told her. “Anything with bulk or fiber makes my stomach hurt for hours and just triggers more diarrhea. Plus, I have no appetite. I’m basically living on orange juice and spoonfuls of peanut butter.”
“What about before this flare-up started?” she asked
“I’ve been vegan for a few years and eat pretty healthfully. At some point, soy protein started triggering my digestive symptoms, so I avoid it now. I used to have PCOS symptoms and those went away when I changed my diet.”
Without another word, she launched into a speech about how dangerous it was for me to be vegan. Her words were insistent and her conviction strong, but there was compassion in her face. I was caught between wanting, needing, to receive supportive care like this from someone, and wanting to defend my ethics.
“I know you care about the animals,” she said, “and I’m not suggesting that you eat a lot of meat, or that you eat meat from factory farms. There’s a group around here that does great work connecting people to local farms so that you can get raw milk, pastured butter, bones to make broth… I’ll give you some pamphlets and you can think about it. Even just some really good butter would be so soothing and so helpful to your body right now.”
The idea of butter as a therapeutic food sounded downright crazy. Yet, the feeling I had as I heard the word “soothing” and saw the look on her face went deeper than my intellectual doubts. She was so caring and sure of herself. She brought her dietary advice to a close by saying, “It’s important to be compassionate, but you’re suffering right now. You have to be compassionate to yourself, too.”
Plenty of vegans would have walked out the door at that moment, but I think that there are a lot more who would do as I did if they were in a similarly vulnerable state. I stayed. And a seed of doubt nestled into the pit my belly.
Maybe she knows something that I don’t… After all, a few months before, I had tried a raw foods diet as an approach to healing and it only made me worse. Everyone on the raw foods message boards told me that I was just experiencing “detox” and to keep going. (This is very dangerous advice!) On some level, I knew that they were wrong…but I didn’t know what else to do. (Note: now I understand that a raw vegan diet is the worst style of vegan eating for someone with active Inflammatory Bowel Disease — but there are plenty of ways to be vegan that support the body during both flare-ups and remission.) Maybe the fact that I had gotten this sick was evidence that there is something wrong with a vegan diet after all…
After the dietary counseling, she needled some acupuncture points and let me rest. I felt a series of pleasant, swirling sensations that are hard to describe. It felt like heat was pouring from the points in fleshy spot between my thumb and first finger.
That night, for the first time in months, I didn’t run a fever. It was like a miracle. The efficacy of her treatment seemed to lend validity to her dietary advice. The seed of doubt sunk its roots into me.
My first acupuncturist made a profound difference in my life, the full extent of which I’ll never know. It took about six more weeks before my health insurance went into effect, and with three treatments per week, I was fever-free most nights. I still couldn’t eat. My liquid insides were still pouring out of me at an alarming rate, but avoiding the massive fluid loss and calorie expenditure of being up all night shivering violently and sweating through two layers of clothing probably saved me from landing in the Emergency Room — or worse.
My first acupuncturist also uprooted the foundation of my ethics — for a time, at least. Her influence led me to harm countless creatures and violate my moral code.
I don’t say this to blame her. My lapse into omnivorous eating was my responsibility, not hers. Still, the imbalance of power between my extreme vulnerability and her role as a health care provider set up a condition in which her ill-informed opinions and Weston A. Price pamphlets exerted undue influence.
I’ve studied storytelling in one form or another for most of my life. I’m not an expert, but I’m experienced enough to recognize a pattern in the stories of ex-vegans, enough to see that the deeply personal story of how my Ulcerative Colitis affected the trajectory of my career and my ethics is also a manifestation of a Big Story. This Big Story props up the meat, dairy, and egg industries. It keeps people stuck in a cycle of behavior that violates their internal sense of right and wrong. And it’s so powerful that even after someone wakes up to the truth, it can seduce her back into a state of denial.
Among all of the junctures at which the Big Story rears its head to challenge your commitment to veganism, encounters with “natural” medicine practitioners (including Chinese Medicine practitioners, herbalists, naturopaths, chiropractors, and even some “functional medicine” physicians) are particularly challenging.
The same experience that temporarily undid my commitment to veganism also led me to study herbal medicine and, ultimately, Chinese Herbal Medicine. From inside the tradition, I came to understand the assumptions that went into my first acupuncturist’s insistence on the importance of animal products in a healthy diet. I saw the ways that traditional knowledge applied in a vastly different cultural context could mislead just as easily as it could enlighten. And I started to develop some intuitive hunches about why the healthy living cohort, including natural medicine practitioners, had taken a sharp turn away from the widespread vegetarianism of previous decades to become evangelists for “ethical” animal products, saturated fats, and bone broth.
As both a practitioner and as a patient, I’ve found very little evidence to support the widespread belief that veganism necessarily leads to depletion and deficiency.
While I concede that it’s possible that under the rarest of circumstances, there could be a case in which someone with a long list of true food allergies cannot meet all of their nutritional needs through a plant-based diet, I have NEVER had a single vegan client who failed to recover her health through herbal medicine and lifestyle changes that were fully aligned with her values. Let me repeat: none of my vegan clients have ever needed to eat animal products in order to recover. I cannot help but conclude that the vast majority of ex-vegans who tell stories like mine could have recovered and maintained their health without animal products.
My hopes in writing this series are: to teach practitioners strategies that can help their vegan patients and clients get better and to help more vegans come to share my deep conviction that healing doesn’t require the sacrifice of their morality AND teach them how to speak the language of their practitioners so they can better advocate for themselves. Most of all, I want to show you how beautiful it is to cook for yourself and others with the deep connection to Self and Nature afforded by Chinese Medicine. I can’t help but feel that this feeling of connection is even more beautiful for those of us who are committed to veganism as a way of honoring the inherent value of all sentient creatures. And I hope that if I’m even moderately successful in this, we might hear fewer stories of ex-vegans who wish they could eat compassionately… but just “can’t be healthy” without meat.