Last night, I sat alone in my Subaru Outback in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and wolfed down a CHOMPS Turkey Jerky stick before starting the engine and driving home to my family. That is only remarkable because I have been a vegetarian for 17 of the last 19 years.
I have also been hungry most of every day of the eight years since I cut gluten out of my diet. I’ve been hungry while I have steadily gained weight. I was fairly content in my meat free life so long as I could tuck into a steaming bowl of pasta or tear my incisors through a crusty hunk of sourdough. I gave myself a two year break from vegetarianism while my mom was sick and I did a lot of eating in my car on my drives back and forth to her house and took up long distance running to keep myself on the rails. I got back on the plant-centric bandwagon when I met my husband, who was eating vegan when we met. We agreed to meet in the middle and keep a vegetarian household when we got married. Even the dog we adopted ate vet-approved home-cooked vegetarian dog food made from quinoa, egg, peas, cheese, and doggie vitamin powder.
Then eight years ago I found myself on a cold gurney counting backwards from 10 as the anesthesiologist knocked me out for my first colonoscopy. My guts were very, very angry, and given the aggressive colon cancer attack my mom fought unsuccessfully in her 50s, the gastroenterologist insisted on a full scope of my large intestines. He discovered that my colon was kinked like a hose in two places, which was clearly causing the alternating constipation/diarrhea I had lived with for years. I had literally tied myself in knots.
The colonoscopy procedure itself unkinked my struggling plumbing and I felt better immediately. And then a few weeks later, the cramping and bloating and gas returned. I decided to try the elimination diet my PCP had urged me to consider before my colonoscopy and discovered a clear connection between eating wheat and my lingering embarrassing digestive trouble. The longer I abstained from gluten, the better I felt. My cystic acne disappeared, and I stopped having the spontaneous nose bleeds I had chalked up to seasonal allergies. My belly pooch flattened out, and I didn’t need to duck into the bathroom at work multiple times a day to privately relieve the gas ballooning inside me. I felt great, except for the fact that the texture of most gluten free baked goods closely resembles that of a damp kitchen sponge, and are just as filling.
I eliminated meat from my diet out of a sense of duty to my worldview. I wanted to withdraw my financial support of the hellscape of factory farming. I relieved the cognitive dissonance of crying over news stories about boat-maimed manatees while noshing on a turkey panini. The decision to be vegetarian felt great, even if I really longed to be vegan and really “go all in”. I was too lazy to commit to that, and too addicted to cheese. Vegetarianism felt sustainable. I believed it was something I could maintain for the rest of my life. I allowed myself a couple of passes per year to try a bite of something meaty when offered or to order a fish dish when at a restaurant or wedding whenever the only vegetarian option was eggplant parmesan. I realized quickly that the Vegetarian Police were not going to roll up in their squad cars and publicly humiliate me for a bite of animal flesh.
Which brings us back to the turkey jerky.
Intuitive eating is all about learning to recognize our hunger and satiety cues and respond thoughtfully. I have grown so accustomed to living with gnawing hunger, I barely even register the sensation anymore. I’m hungry right now as I type this, despite a hearty portion of gluten free pasta with goat cheese, tomato, and arugula for lunch. I was hungry last night when I shopped for the ingredients for said pasta dish, and I sheepishly grabbed a turkey jerky strip and threw it in the cart. I don’t think there is anything magical about meat protein versus vegetable protein. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are doing just fine on plant based diets. I just don’t love meal planning or cooking enough to be as diligent as I am finding I need to be to feel full on plants. Most of my meals are rice or corn-based starch plus vegetable plus cheese. Sometimes beans or lentils. Sometimes soy or tofu. Occasionally vegetarian meat substitute. I fear that if I really eat every time I am hungry, I will expand to an unacceptable size. For the past eight years, I’ve decided to limit myself to working with the current fandeck of vegetarian, gluten free ingredients, and so I have just accepted the fact that I will almost never feel full.
Here’s the thing about committing to a food restriction as part of your identity: It is really really complicated to change. Even acquaintances at work know I am vegetarian. Some of my relationships were forged around a shared commitment to a meat free life. My daughter is aghast that anyone would kill and eat an animal, and regularly interrogates people about whether they eat meat, and if so, why they think it is OK to eat animals. She has known that “we don’t eat animals in our family” since she was old enough to inquire about what other people were eating, or why we always steered the shopping cart in a wide arc away from the butcher counter at the grocery store. She has seen her relatives carve slabs of prime rib and pull wishbones out of turkey carcasses and has voluntarily opted out, even when offered a taste of salmon or grilled chicken at grandma’s. She knows that we have to repeat our speciality order at the McDonald’s drive through multiple times to make sure she doesn’t end up with beef: “Cheeseburger Happy Meal, no meat. Just bun and cheese – like a grilled cheese”. “WE DON’T EAT ANIMALS!” she screams from the carseat.
We don’t. Not often, anyway. But here I am, wondering if a weekly wild-caught salmon dinner or so-called “humanely raised” turkey slices would quiet my roaring stomach. If it’s worth the karmic guilt. If I could really just get my act together and cook all the beans and lentils and tofu. There are turkey slices hanging out in the fridge, daring me to eat with abandon for a little while and see what happens.