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How I Learned a Vegetarian Diet Wasn't for Me

Last week in yoga class, I kicked up into my first handstand ever. No big deal for some, but for me it was huge. This time six years ago, I didn't know if I'd ever get back to yoga at all, much less be able to do a handstand by myself.

A lot of people seem to assume dietitians are magical #CleanEating creatures who came out of the womb with an innate knowledge of how to thrive. The truth is that a lot of us found our way into this field because of personal experiences that taught us about nutrition's role in overall health. I've certainly had my struggles and learned some things the hard way, but these challenges have helped me become stronger and better at what I do. My experience with vegetarianism is a great example—it's helped me more effectively counsel clients following or transitioning to plant-based diets based on first-hand knowledge of factors to pay extra attention to.

Though a meatless diet can be healthy, my approach was a crash-course in "Doing It Wrong." My first mistake was starting for the wrong reasons. At 22, I thought adopting my vegetarian boyfriend's diet would make him love me more and stop lecturing me at the dinner table. Without him actually saying, "go vegetarian, or else," it was clear he disapproved of my omnivorous ways.

Second mistake: Thinking I could simply give up meat and swap in beans, nuts, tofu, cheese, and the occasional fake meat product for meat, fish, and eggs. I neglected to consider some other key nutrients beside protein, such as:

Iron: This mineral is needed for red blood cell formation and transportation plus the formation of numerous proteins and enzymes. It's especially important for women, who lose iron in the blood during menstruation. Iron is found in red meat as well as in foods like beans, lentils, leafy greens, nuts, and some grains, though these plant-based sources are not as readily utilized by the body. Eating iron with vitamin C-rich foods enhances absorption. (See more about how to eat more iron.)

Vitamin D: Found in fatty fish, eggs, mushrooms, and fortified dairy products, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium to support strong and healthy bones. It plays a role in nerve, muscle, and immune system function and has been studied for its role in mental health and cognitive function.

Vitamin B12: This vitamin is found almost exclusively in animal proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. A key factor in many metabolic processes, it aids in the formation of red blood cells and maintenance of central nervous system function. In short: all the things.

I felt like a different person during that time. My body and mind felt brittle, shaky, and subdued—not conducive to stability. No one was forcing me, but I thought if I could just make this vegetarian thing work, things would be okay at home. They weren't, though. I'd been crying almost daily since my boyfriend and I moved in together, but I figured that was just because relationships were hard and I should toughen up.

The summer of 2010, when I was 24, brought a big wake-up call. I wound up with what my doctor called a "stress reaction" in each arm, essentially one step below a stress fracture. The bone-deep pain made it hard to sleep, and I could barely hold a pen, which, as a writer, was almost unbearable. A bone injury is no joke. Would I ever do yoga again? When would my wrist stop hurting enough for me to get back to journaling?

Healing takes time, patience, and modifications to daily activities you usually take for granted. It also takes adequate nutrition. Logically, I knew that protein, calcium, and vitamin D are especially important (I was a year into a nutrition program—wasn't I supposed to know better?), but it was so hard to put into practice. I wish my younger self had felt confident enough to stand up for herself and her needs instead of continuing to follow the meat-free house rules. I could have at least purchased, say, protein powder or higher-protein Greek yogurt instead of the regular one we bought because it was cheaper.

That September, I finally saw my doctor about the dull ache pulsing through my whole body, which came complete with headaches, lightheadedness, and a general sense of fogginess. My boyfriend told me I'd "better not come home with a diagnosis of, like, fibromyalgia." Turned out it was just low vitamin B-12 and vitamin D—common deficiencies with plant-based diets that had likely contributed to my injury. Supplements helped, but they didn't address the underlying issue: this relationship wasn't healthy.

I joke that the eggs were the beginning of the end. The timid half-dozen—a sort-of 25th birthday present to myself—took up little space in the fridge, but I couldn't help rushing to reassure him it was for health reasons, that technically, eggs were still vegetarian-friendly. Nothing would change. Of course, things did change. The year brought many shifts—we grew apart. A few days shy of my 26th birthday, he moved out. It took time to feel comfortable cooking meat again. For months, his voice stayed in my head when I scanned labels and menus, but the overthinking gradually dissolved.

Now I enjoy a balanced diet that includes meat, fish, eggs, and dairy as well as plenty of delicious meat-free meals. I eventually returned to yoga and strength training, but my relationship with those activities has completely shifted from a "workout" mindset to a "self-care" one. These days, I feel energetic, calm, and strong.

Of course, plenty of people follow a vegetarian diet for much better reasons than to please a significant other, and they can certainly make nutritonally healthy choices too. In the end, though, neither the relationship nor the diet was for me.

 

Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN

Jessica Cording is a registered dietitian and wellness writer with a passion for helping others experience a happier, calmer life through drama-free healthy eating.  More →

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