Month: August 2012

Mom, I’m vegan.

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Two things happened about a month ago. The first is that I saw what can only be described as a 12 layer meat sandwich topped with cheese. The second is that I watched Forks Over Knives, a vegan documentary doing the rounds that instead of focussing on sanctimonious and militant animal rights activists, looked at two ageing cardiologists and what happened when they put all their heart attack patients on vegan diets.

The first thing gave me a new appreciation for the word nausea. The second got me thinking – what would happened if I went vegan? Would I starve? Would my muscles desiccate before my eyes? Would my bones snap from lack of calcium. Actually Forks Over Knives countered those last two and let’s face it, in this society you are never going to starve unless you work really hard at it.

So I eschewed animal products in favour of a plant based diet (the non-controversial way of saying diet-based vegan but more on that later). I never ate much meat or eggs, and only ever had milk in coffee or on cereal so I didn’t find it too hard, I just swapped out milk for soy (again controversial, again more on that later).

What struck me was that the entire lolly aisle was now more or less off-limits. Want chocolate? Can’t, it has milk solids unless you buy 80% dark which incidentally has health benefits. Want sour gummy worms or party mix or marshmallows? – can’t it has gelatin (processed cow hooves). Ice cream? Milk and eggs. Cookies, a Snickers? Milk solids milk solids milk solids. One exception is Oreos which curiously, are vegan – that’s not a cream based filling in that centre! Goodbye yoghurt and yogo snacks, diet lite desserts, goodbye shortbread.

No wonder those patients in Forks Over Knives reversed their type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol when they followed a vegan diet. And here I am, a couple of weeks in to what is possibly one of the best presents I’ve given to myself. Suddenly I find thousands more ingredients to use that I never considered before. I discover that swathes of Asia are vegan of vegetarian by nature and that ‘mock meat’, non-soy based texturised starches have a long and trusted history. I discover that I like hoisin mock duck better than the real thing. My mind is clearer than its ever been and my skin needs a tenth of the attention I’ve ever given it.

But there is always a downside and much as I’d love to tell you that it’s all just too hard, it’s not the food that’s the hard part of going vegan. It’s the people. To date here are the responses I’ve received.

I could never do that.
I don’t get this response. Why are you saying this to me? I could never do half the things you do, because guess what, I’m not you!

What about protein?
If you never did biology or chemistry then I forgive you because I never had and learned all that later to get into medicine. But come on. Eggs and meat and not the sole sources of protein on the planet. They are high in protein yes, but guess what? To get more protein, I get to eat more!

What about calcium?
Forks Over Knives addressed this pretty well. The US is one of the highest dairy consumers on the planet. They also have the highest rates of osteoporosis. What’s missing here? Milk is not the only source of calcium, and bone density needs calcium, sunlight, and weight bearing exercise to maintain itself. This is scientific fact. Pumping yourself full of calcium and not doing any load bearing and staying inside all day will do nothing for your bones.

It’s so inconvenient when you go out though!
Actually this one is true. Most places are not well set up for vegans. My husband and I set a rule that if we go out and there’s no vegan options, we’d rather not be a drag so agreed to go vegetarian if there were no vegan options. It’s worked well! I’ll pull the cheese off pizza, go for eggs and if there’s no vego options, go for fish. It’s really not hard, it means we occasionally get some nutrient variation and have a good time with our friends.

You won’t get what you need to get fit!
I’m still going to the gym and I have more, not less energy. There’s a lot of food-related anxiety out there which people don’t even know they have, they interpret these anxious beliefs as truths. My advice is that for every belief you have, Google it – you might be surprised!

Soy is evil yada yada oestrogen something something
Apparently the evils of soy rumours were sown by the dairy industry in the eighties but rather than do the legwork of verifying that, I need only to point out that China and Japan have consumed many and varied soy products in their diet for thousands of years, that they have managed to procreate just fine, and that the Japanese enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world.

I can’t resist temptation
Yeah you can. You just have to want this more than you want that.

What about chocolate? Carob is gross!
I agree, Carob IS gross and if you thought this was the only chocolate substitute then like me you’re a child of the eighties whose Mum might have given you all carob eggs one year and hoped you wouldn’t notice – but I digress. first of all 80% dark chocolate has no milk solids so is vegan by default. Secondly milk solids are only used to keep the chocolate solid, it’s mainly cocoa butter and sugar so the vegan chocolates now just use a vegetable fat in place of that. It’s not quite the same, but worlds apart from gross carob.

Dietary vegans aren’t ‘real’ vegans
After watching Forks Over Knives I was all set and ready to go, googled a ton of vegan recipes only discover this really interesting argument on the Internet about how ‘real’ vegans didn’t consume palm oil because of rainforest destruction. I found this interesting because to grow anything you’ve kind of gotta chop down something, but efficient farming is all about getting the most nutritional bang for your buck per square metre (another reason why high meat consumption is bad for the planet). Also interesting because by definition, vegans are people who don’t eat animal based products. But apparently not. According to my more militant colleagues, veganism is a ‘way of life’ and not a nutritional choice. So unless you’re wearing hemp and using solar electricity only and basically not participating in the human race then you’re not a real vegan. Then I saw someone call themselves a weekday vegan which was great.
These are just words. You are who you are. How you eat is a personal choice and really definable by no one. People who call themselves ‘ethical vegans’ are by definition calling the rest of us ‘unethical’ which isn’t true. And if they don’t eat palm oil but do eat any farmed food does that make them semi-ethical? Again words, semantics, this is all meaningless. I’m here for health reasons and a dramatic reduction in animal based food with a massive increase in plant based food is good enough for me.

So how do I tackle all this overwhelming opinion that launches my way whenever I say the v word? I tell them that there is so much heart disease, obesity, and cancer in my family that it is the right thing to do for me, based on what I’ve learned about plant based nutrition and health. That I’ve seen the consequences of poor diet in the hospital too many times to count, that I know what I need to do. There is evidence appearing now relating high animal fat diets to types of cancer. I don’t want that for myself. And after I explain that, it’s all okay.

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Conversations in strange places

It’s 7pm. I’ve hung around at work well past finishing because I have a dinner date nearby and I’ve just finished up in critical care. My friend whose on until 11pm and I are sitting at the nurses station talking about life and science fiction, future plans. In the background monitors are alarming, sounds I hear as I fall asleep at night now, ringing in my ears, reminding me that medicine never sleeps.

My friend is brilliant. So keen is he to become an ICU specialist, that he has taken responsibilities far beyond the rest of us, and been rewarded with skills and knowledge that far outstrip my own. He’s waxing lyrical about laterally thinking your way through a nosebleed in a bleeder (a sick patient prone to bleeding too much), I’m having one my regular crises of confidence, the uncomfortable result of being part of a specific minority in med school that all too slowly is disappearing Right in the middle of my crisis of future failures he lands it on me.

‘Make your worst performance the best on the day’. My fugue is broken – and he explains that as the result of being forced to do high-level music for his entire life (that he says is specific to his cultural heritage), he had to take nerve racking performance exams yearly. For his whole life. That he met with prospective failure, and sometimes the reality, so often that he learned this valuable lesson. His father explained that the more you practice, the more our bring up your own worst performance, that if on the day you choke, you drown in anxiety, that even if you give your worst performance, it will be the best performance for the day.

It was one of those moments in life where you feel your mind undergo a massive correction, that ‘aha! I understand what I need to do now!’ moment. Where self doubt evaporates and is replaced with motivation and interest. Your baggage can cloud a lot for you.

In the background, a new patient is wheeled in, intubated, an unfortunate survivor of a horrific accident. More alarms. One of the nurses asks another if they want Chinese takeaway for dinner. One of the seniors wanders past and reminds my friend that a new patient has arrived, does he want to put in some lines?

We say our goodbyes, I thank him, and as he walks away he says, ‘us good people have to stick together you know’.

I swell up with pride to be counted among his own.