Monday, February 06, 2006

Adventures Out of Veganism

Okay, so it’s official … as of Sunday, February 5, I ended my six-year stint as a vegan.

It was a decision that I’d been grappling with for several months. Despite subsisting on fruit, veggies, rice, tofu and pasta (with a few chips, cookies and Slurpees thrown in the mix every now and then), I was steadily gaining weight. I had gotten up to 152 pounds, was feeling quite unhealthy, and was craving carbs and sugar like crazy. But the most damning evidence came from a trip to the beauty shop this past Saturday. Upon arriving home and inspecting my ‘do in the mirror, I noticed that my hair was thinner than it’s ever been, and looked decidedly unhealthy. As a black woman, my hair is much more ingrained in my identity than my desire to skip meat and dairy products. Baldness is not my destiny. It was time for a quick trip to the seafood section of Whole Foods market.

Ironically, when I first became a vegan in January 2000, my weight was the impetus for such a drastic lifestyle change. At that time, I was tipping the scales at 171 pounds and struggling with chronic adult-onset asthma. I started following the principles of Fit For Life by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond. That book touted the benefits of vegetarianism/veganism along with proper fruit consumption and food combining. After two months on that diet – or lifestyle change, I should say – I dropped 30 pounds. By the end of 2000, I was down to 125 pounds, and was able to rock size 4 clothes to the clubs and industry parties.

More so than just flaunting a tight new figure, I was proud to embrace a vegan lifestyle because it seemed like I was doing something revolutionary as a black woman. I was rebelling against my community’s love affair with fat-laden, overly processed, unhealthy food: collard greens with fat back, greasy bacon, fried chicken and fish, macaroni with layers of cheese and overcooked vegetables swimming in butter. I enjoyed perusing the shelves of the organic market, on the lookout for marinated seitan, teriyaki tofu and barbecued tempeh. I could even put up with the constant ribbing from well-meaning family members and friends who thought I was trying to "act white" and accused me of appropriating La La Land values.

Given the dearth of organic markets and vegetarian restaurants in our ‘hood, blacks seem reluctant to embrace alternative ways of eating. When I cruise down Crenshaw on my way to Simply Wholesome, the black-owned natural foods restaurant, I am struck by the abundance of rib joints and chicken shacks cropping up along the urban landscape. The line to the $1.00 soul food eatery is usually out the door and down the block, and the smell of catfish popping in hot grease is more overpowering than exhaust fumes. Even though I realize that cardiovascular disease and diabetes disproportionately impact my community – and largely as the result of unhealthy, slave-mentality diets – I also recognize the need for balance. I'm not blaming my thinning tresses on a meatless diet, but just as I explored veganism as a pathway to better health, I am once again on a journey for wellness, which may include some meat products.

So, after months of struggling with losing a part of my identity, I decided to take the plunge. My sweet princess friend, Jeannette, was kind enough to prepare a feast for a king -- or a queen -- last night -- baked salmon with garlic, swiss chard with marinated red peppers, brussels sprouts, yams and salad. For the longest time, I pushed the fish around on my plate – a condemned woman, toying with her last meal. I secretly assumed that my organs would rebel against me for such outrage, but now that I think about it, salmon is hella healthier than a 32 ounce Slurpee or a bag of potato chips, for that matter.

I woke up this morning and guess what? I’m still alive. I went to the gym at 5 in the a.m., then cruised to Whole Foods like I do every morning and got some fruit and a salad for lunch. Is meat going to be a regular part of my diet now? As Whitney so succinctly put it, hell-to-the-no! I will indulge in salmon (preferably farm-raised) maybe once or twice a week, but I’ll still turn my nose up at milk and other dairy products. Gotta maintainin’ for the Movement. Who knows? Maybe I will return to veganism if my hair continues to thin out even after I incorporate fish into my diet. I might end up as a weave-wearing, tofu-eating, soymilk sipping LA diva, but one thing’s for sure. I will never again let my diet define me.