Earlier this year I embarked on a journey. A journey towards a new, plant-based diet, a journey towards veganism, a journey towards health.
Whole health. Body, mind, soul.
It took me a while to get the hang of it, but in the last four weeks I’ve seen drastic and rapid improvements:
- I’ve lost 18lbs.
- My feet – previously so swollen they were incredibly painful – have returned to normal.
- My skin is clearer, smoother, and much less pallid.
- I’m sleeping more soundly and naturally than I have in years.
- I have a MASSIVE amount of extra energy.
- HUGE confidence boost!
- I finally felt able to go to a yoga class for the first time in years!
- I also finally felt able to join a new gym and get back on a treadmill!
You’re probably thinking, “All that, in four weeks? How did you do it?”
Don’t worry, I’ll tell you, but first you need to understand why I embarked on this wellness odyssey. Let me tell you a story…
Once upon a time, there was a girl. She was young and vibrant. She loved to run, dance, and ramble through the hills. She was a gym bunny, a yoga addict. She cared about the environment, about animals, and was a proud vegetarian. She studied hard, laughed often, and was well on track for a bright, shining career.
She was also…flawed.
Like a fine china cup she developed chips. Not in her body, but in her mind. Over time those chips became cracks, until finally the cup shattered, and the girl was lost.
All that remained were pieces of a life, pieces of a girl…
The Japanese have an ancient tradition, Kintsugi – the art of embracing damage, of repairing broken pottery using gold, making it stronger and more beautiful than the original. For five years I’ve been tirelessly working at repairing that shattered girl. Part of this process has been attempting to tackle my diet.
I’ve never had a healthy relationship with food but in my early twenties my (then-undiagnosed) bipolar disorder suddenly, and quite spectacularly, destroyed everything in my life.
Including my body.
I gained eight stone in less than a year. Since then my weight has continued to increase. At the start of 2016 I was a size 26, weighing almost twenty-three stone.
My journey to recovery was going well from a mental perspective, but my physical health was in dire straits. Aside from the weight I had acne, severe acid reflux that caused nausea and vomiting, extreme food cravings, trouble with hair loss, terrible water retention, bloating, massively swollen feet, and difficulty walking. I no longer had periods, and was seriously concerned about my fertility.
Much of this was a result of my medication and weight gain but a LOT of it was simply due to the fact I wasn’t taking care of myself.
I’d been fighting for my mental health so hard I’d completely abandoned my body.
Gone was the runner, the dancer, the wild girl wandering hills, content in the arms of nature.
Overcoming a mental illness as serious as bipolar disorder is a monumental task. It takes Herculean effort. Even thinking about doing anything else is exhausting. Everyday tasks like healthy eating and exercising fall by the wayside.
They’re basics, but I’d lost them. And I was beginning to realise that when it came to food, I’d never really had them to begin with.
I had a feast or famine mentality that was alarmingly hard to shake.
“To lose weight, I must stop eating.”
That was all I thought, every day.
And every day I would eat.
And every day I would hate myself for it.
I wanted to reclaim my body, a means of getting permanently healthy, with the focus on wellbeing, not weight loss.
Then I watched a video by a health coach, Rachel Collins, and something just clicked.
Rachel’s focus was nourishment.
Something about this word enthralled me. I examined my brittle nails and hair, my scarred and spotty skin, my swollen feet.
I didn’t need a diet. I needed nourishment.
The problem wasn’t my weight but my entire relationship with food.
So I bit the bullet, hired Rachel as my health coach, and began looking into a plant based diet.
The hardest part was convincing myself I’m worth it, investing in myself and investing in my health.
I’d been vegetarian for years before I got ill and the more I read, the more I felt something stirring in me. When I initially stopped eating meat it was for humanitarian reasons. This is one of the many parts of myself that got lost: a bit of broken cup I never picked up because other pieces seemed more important.
I’d begun to feel that loss of self.
I used to care.
Not just about animals and the environment, but about myself, about life.
The more I learned about plant based diets the more I felt it was…me. The old me, the new me, the real me.
With the wild success of Deliciously Ella and others, plant-based nutrition is a growing trend. I felt a strong pull towards this lifestyle, and a vegan lifestyle. I’ve read countless memoirs on bipolar, mental health, and depression and many of them advocate a vegan lifestyle as a valid alternative to medication.
That was the dream.
No more meds.
Giving up meat has never been an issue, but dairy? It seemed impossible.
A plant based diet gave me a manageable way in. Weight loss was a concern, but my main focus was on learning about nutrition. Rachel and I had already discovered gluten didn’t agree with me. That was the first thing to go, swiftly followed by meat, then wheat.
I honestly never thought I could give up dairy.
Between tea, coffee, cereal, yogurt, cheese, and an almost daily latte from Costa, it was simply absurd to think I could stop.
Then I discovered the myriad of plant based milks available and suddenly it all slid into place.
I’ve never been happy about drinking cow’s milk. I know what has to be done to a cow to keep it producing milk, and it doesn’t sit well with me. Even so, when Rachel suggested almond milk as an alternative I was sceptical. I thought it would be something I ‘endured’ for the sake of losing weight, and for the sake of the cows.
But I love it!
I tried soya, (also delicious!) and suddenly trips to Costa weren’t so guilt-ridden.
The sticking point for me was cheese. I never felt like a meal was truly a meal without cheese. I decided to keep cheese, and it’s a good thing I did! It allowed me to acclimatise myself to plant based recipes slowly. I didn’t feel I was being deprived of ‘real’ food. Gradually I felt things shift – I started to appreciate how delicious and filling entirely plant based (and vegan) meals could be.
It’s important to differentiate between vegans, and those on a plant based diet. It’s entirely possible to adopt a plant based diet for health reasons – and there are many benefits – and still have the occasional meal containing cheese or meat. This is not veganism: the meals are often vegan, but the person is not.
Veganism is not a diet, but a complete rejection of using animals for any means and it extends far beyond the plate. It’s astonishingly difficult to live a truly vegan life and it’s something you become.
Much as my studies in Buddhism and meditation are an ongoing process, so too is my health, diet, and journey to veganism. I hope I’ll eventually achieve full veganism, but for now I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and how far I’ve come.
I am finally on the right path.
And so I shall continue slouching towards the zen state I wish to achieve and the girl I used to be, but a stronger, healthier version.
I will become the mended cup, glittering with gold and eternally brimming with possibility.
Rachel’s advice on plant based nutrition (in a nutshell)
High in plant nutrients, boosting energy and immunity.
Naturally low in unhealthy fats, protecting your heart, and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.
Naturally low in toxins like antibiotics and growth hormones (often found in meat and milk).
Most people will find that this way of eating will help them maintain a healthy weight.
B12 is only found in animal products. Your gut bacteria do create B12, so it’s possible to be entirely animal product free if your gut health is in check. If not, be sure to supplement with B12.
Some people will always crave meat – there are theories suggesting men and women, and different blood types require different amounts of animal products, but these are unproven. The best way to know what’s right for you is to give it a go.