The Hesitant Herbivore

via National Geographic

I am a creature of habit, entrenched in my routines, glacially slow to alter my course. I cling to the familiar with the powerful grip of a 3 toed sloth and move toward any new direction with such incremental velocity that algae grows on my furry metaphorical coat. I don’t like change.

So for me to alter something as fundamental to my life and being as the food I eat took nothing less than years of passive contemplation and a growing a mountain of evidence that grew so high it finally fell on me. And I suddenly realized that becoming a vegan was not only the ethical thing for someone with my beliefs to do but the healthiest choice for my body.

via dummies.com

Six weeks ago, I removed dairy from my diet – a heartbreaking task for me. I believe cheese to be the glorious result of the most inspired bit of culinary resourcefulness the human race has ever displayed, a brilliant example of biotechnology born long before that term was coined. What a delightful variety of food we’ve learned to coax from the curd of sour milk – sharp aged cheddar and smoked gouda and herb infused wonders like Havarti with dill. Cheese is, quite simply, culinary wizardry at its best. And it makes the majority of the humans who consume it poot. Whoopsy.

I read an article about a recent study that found that sixty percent of human beings are lactose intolerant. Yep. Six out of ten. And here I was thinking all this time that the inability to process lactose was abnormal, and that only a few physically delicate nerdy-types can’t manage it (like the loveable but nerdy TV sitcom character, Dr. Leonard Hoffstater of The Big Bang Theory). In reality, the majority of us stop producing lactase, the enzyme necessary for breaking down the sugar, lactose, when we’re somewhere between two and five years old – presumably because we generally stop drinking our mother’s milk after that and don’t need it anymore. So the “abnormal” ones are actually those 40% who retain the ability to break down lactose and so drink milk or eat cheese without worrying about clearing the room later. Scientists call it lactase persistence and it’s the result of a genetic mutation.

Most commercial milk cows don’t get pretty meadows to roam in.

The funny thing is, I have known for a long time that cow’s milk is not a particularly healthy or logical dietary choice for me, but my love of cheese and a few other dairy delights (like ice cream!) clouded my judgment. Okay, so we aren’t designed to eat stuff made from cow’s milk, so what? It’s so good! So it’s high in calories and has a lot of saturated fat. It has protein too! And calcium that the dairy lobby says I must get from milk! And it tastes good! Really good!

But once a person hits a certain point in life (the one I’m apparently at now), digesting foods that our bodies aren’t ideally designed to process finally becomes an issue. I’ve gained weight and am having a hard time losing it. The cholesterol numbers in my blood work say borderline high and are creeping upward. And I feel bad a lot after I eat. I was tired of being tired and feeling crummy.

So I gave up dairy. I got used to drinking my coffee without creamer and actually like it that way, now. I got used to pasta not smothered in butter and cheese and am experimenting with spices and oils. I’ve found a mint dark chocolate with no dairy that I like better than milk chocolate now. And I can live without ice cream. Whoops. No I can’t!

Ice cream is right up there with cheese. I love it too much to ever let it go. And so was born the Friday exception. On Fridays, I get dairy because life is too short to live forever without ice cream and cheese. And the cool thing is that if you go six days a week without these things, small amounts of them are more than satisfying by the time I get to Friday. So my days of stuffing big soup bowls full of frozen dairy goodness are over.

But this was just the first step in my dietary revolution. Come back soon for part two about the conversion of a lifelong carnivore to a plant-based diet and get the answers to questions I know you’ll be dying to ask. How hard is it to give up meat? Is it worth it? What are the benefits? Do you have to start making your own granola, hugging trees, and/or wearing Birkenstocks?

Getting Healthy Hurts like Hell

Coat rack I bought last year.

You know how it is. You want to get fit? You want to firm up your body, become recognizable to yourself again? Great! It will improve the quality of your life. You’ll sleep better, you’ll have more energy. Exercise is the best natural antidepressant there it, so you’ll feel more positive and less anxious. You’ll get all this good stuff in return for just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 to 5 times a week. So why have you put it off for so long? That’s likely because of the brief period (weeks and weeks) of mild discomfort (blinding pain) you may experience (will have to endure) when you begin your new exercise routine.

Let’s face it, you’re not a girl anymore. You’re a middle-aged, pre-menopausal mass of physical wear and tear, still expecting it to be like it was when you were thirty. But thirty was fifteen years ago. Today, your elbow is sore from trying to open a pickle jar – two months ago. Your left knee pops and groans and threatens to give out whenever you walk up the stairs carrying something heavy (like a cell phone).

And your diet! You’ve eaten primarily crap for so long, your body doesn’t know how to process fresh vegetables when it gets them and protests by trying to tie its own duodenum in a knot or sending acid bubbling up your esophagus like one of those volcanoes kids make for the science fair in fourth grade.  Because while you really enjoy a salad (when it’s drowned in Ranch), you mostly enjoy carbs, refined sugar and artificial flavoring. So your doctor sends you for blood work because you have the energy of a wombat (which has a metabolism like molasses), and you are then instructed to immediately begin taking megadoses of vitamins C, D and iron. But even if you’re careful to take these after a meal as instructed, they will likely make you nauseous. Until your body gets used to getting what it needs. Which may be never.

So here you are – sore, tired and nauseous. Sounds like a good time to join a gym, right? That’s what my partner and I did. In an effort to slow an aging process that appears to have escalated alarmingly the last couple of years, my partner and I have embarked on a new fitness program. We went to our new gym the other day and tried a few of the machines. Nothing too extreme. Twenty minutes on a treadmill. Another twenty on a stair thingy. Two minutes playing with a crunch machine.  Just getting used to the place. Taking it easy. Then we came home and took the dogs on a long(ish) walk. I had to take 4 ibuprofen that night just to make the bed soft enough to sleep on. Because everything hurt – the knee, the elbow, abdominal muscles I didn’t know I had. My toes. My hair. (Yes, my hair. I ran my hand through it and it wimpered.)

It’s not that I’ve never been active. From my twenties to early thirties I jogged pretty regularly and went hiking almost every weekend. And it’s not that I can’t take a little discomfort. I used to go hiking for 8 hours in August in central Texas with nothing but a granola bar and a canteen of blood-warm water to sustain me. And I loved it. Now, if the temperature gets above 60 degrees, I break into a sweat.

I know that when you start working out after laying off for a while (or several years), it takes time to get past the pain, before you get to the good effects of exercise. When I was thirty, it might take a couple of weeks before I could run a couple of miles again. So I know that theoretically, the pain will go away. Even now that I’m not thirty anymore. And it does. As soon as I stop exercising. Or a couple of days after anyway. That’s the problem with a fitness routine, though. A couple of days later, if not sooner, you’re supposed to do all the stuff that caused the pain again. At my age, that seems vaguely masochistic.

My partner has a sister who is almost 10 years older than us and insanely fit. Just standing near her makes me feel like a three-toed sloth with a slow thyroid. She practically vibrates with energy. And the older she gets, it seems, the more she works out. The last time I saw her, she was averaging 3 hours a day riding her bike and lifting weights.  When she has an injury, she wraps it and keeping on trucking. My partner spoke to her last night and mentioned her discomfort after 3 consecutive days at the gym. Big sister offered this comfort:

“Well, you know what the US Marine Corps says. Pain is the sensation of weakness leaving your body.” I’m pretty sure that’s not true for me. The day after my second visit to the gym, I worked in the yard for several hours. That night, a whole legion of muscles that had been quietly trying to atrophy the last few years, protested painfully. Most notably my posterior. But I’m pretty sure the weakness wasn’t leaving my body. Actually, my body seemed quite content to lie motionless on my bed with an ice pack on one part and a heating pad on another for the last 3 or 4 hours of the day while my brain watched stupid TV and tried not to think about how exhausting, nauseating, and painful getting healthy really is.

Aging Sucks

It’s clear to me that my body is not what it used to be. I’m like an abandoned house that people see and think, “Oh what a shame. Look at those sagging eaves, the rotting porch, the loose shingles. It was such a nice house once. Maybe it can be renovated.”  How lovely is that? I need to be renovated.

I like to think I’m still basically structurally sound. I’d just need a bit of work before anyone would want to live here again (and some rigorous maintenance to keep it that way). The problem is, of course, that I never moved out. So some caution is called for. You have to work harder to live in an aging house.

For instance, I can now, apparently, injure myself by just walking, sitting, standing or sleeping. I’ve been upright, bipedal and nocturnally unconscious for most of my life and never had much problem until fairly recently.  My mother says I mastered all of the above quite young, and I’ve practiced every day since. But apparently for all these years, I have not been doing these things in the most ergonomically ideal fashion and now the damage is starting to show.

So I’m just halfway through my fifth decade on the planet, and I have at least a half a dozen parts that no longer work as originally intended. My conversations with my doctors are starting to sound like that old joke. You know the one: A man says to the doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do this.  And the doctor says, Well don’t do that. Seriously, it happens.

TMJ is an acronym for one of my unhappy body parts. It stands for the temporomandibular joint that connects the lower jaw with the skull. My jaw joints are unhappy because I clench my jaw muscles a lot and this causes frequent, annoying headaches and painful jaw popping when I yawn or eat. It gets a little worse every year. The solution? Don’t do that. Really. If you look up treatments, you’ll find things like Keep teeth slightly apart, Avoid extreme jaw movements like yawning and chewing, and Learn relaxation techniques – all just different ways of saying, Don’t do that. Or you can take pain killers and muscle relaxants. That’s about it.

A couple of years ago, I went to the doctor because the bottoms of my feet hurt every time I took a step. It felt like the soles were bruised. The doctor said I had something called plantar fasciitis which as far as I can tell means the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot is unhappy because it is tired of holding your arch up all these years. The solution? Buy good arch supports, stay off your feet as much as possible, and lose weight.

Have you ever tried to lose weight while staying off your feet? I suppose I could swim if we had a pool or could afford to join a gym. Or if I could swim. But my exercise of choice was always jogging which I can’t seem to manage since I quit smoking. I’m serious. Five years ago, I quit smoking. Since then, I have gained 50 pounds which caused me to develop plantar fasciitis which prevents me from jogging which means I can’t lose the weight.

I have tried adjusting my diet, but apparently I have the metabolism of a ground sloth now. I could eat a bowl of lettuce and a carrot stick for every meal and I still wouldn’t lose a pound. It was so much easier when I could eat what I wanted and just jog it off. Aging really sucks.

I could go on and on about the legion of fun new physical challenges late middle age brings, but for now I’m trying to focus on coming up with new ways of living in my old body that don’t hurt or take all the fun out of life. I have a recumbent stationary bike, a yoga cd, and a partner who used to be a chef who can make even healthy food taste good. And in the meantime, I suppose I’ll try to remember that approaching old age isn’t so bad if you consider the alternative.

For further brooding on this subject see my post, Aging Still Sucks.

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