I Had to Start Eating Meat Again for Medical Reasons, and Now I’m Questioning Everything
“White rice and water,” my doctor clarified, after I asked what, exactly, he meant by elimination diet, “nothing else. For three days.”
My reason for seeing Dr. Schwartz that day was the same as it had been the past three visits: constipation and abdominal bloating that left me feeling (and sometimes looking) as if I was in my second trimester of pregnancy. I had long identified with the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which I had Googled no less than two hundred times), but Dr. Schwartz insisted on ruling out other gastrointestinal disorders before corroborating my diagnosis.
If the symptoms persisted while I followed the elimination diet, he would refer me to a specialist; if not, and I began to feel better, we would slowly begin adding food groups back to find out how much of each I could tolerate.
I verbally agreed to the elimination diet but knew in my heart I wasn’t going to follow it. I had been a vegetarian since the age of 13 and had allergies to some fruits and most nuts; my diet was already stripped down. Plus, I was unhappy. It was February in Chicago, and daily news headlines reminded me that temperatures in Illinois had dropped below those of Antarctica that winter. I was single, had a terrible job, and was displeased with the progress I had made as a writer. Food had become my only joy, and I wasn’t going to give it up to please my persnickety physician.
I left Dr. Schwartz’s office and set out to create my own version of an elimination diet. I selected items I was able to eat without issue — cucumber, eggs, tortilla chips — and left out those I had identified as causing pain in the past — anything with dairy or high amounts of sugar. I cut out all sources of caffeine, including chocolate, abstained from alcohol and carbonated drinks, and avoided gluten just because. After three long days of cucumber omelets and herbal tea, my stomach deflated. I could button up my jeans again, and the dull ache of inflammation disappeared.
I called Dr. Schwartz’s office to pass along the news, then marked the achievement with a glass of white wine and cheesy pile of eggplant parmesan, though of course the celebration was cut short after the first few bites. My intestines cramped, then swelled with the reintroduction of the trigger foods, and I abandoned the meal to lay in bed and admonish myself.
A few days after the parmesan disaster, I returned to my dairy-free, gluten-free vegetarian diet, attempting to form nutritious meals from my small list of “safe” foods. I was ravenous almost all the time, often binging on French fries or peanut butter to fill the void. I returned to Google and found a website that rated foods based on their likelihood to cause, or worsen, symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome; to my dismay, many of the protein-rich foods I had been consuming as part of my vegetarian diet (beans, cheese, and soy) were well-known offenders.
Not getting enough protein was one of the pitfalls of vegetarianism, and now, with the complete elimination of meat substitutes (many of them made with either wheat gluten, soy, beans, or a combination of all three), there was little hope for me to achieve a balanced diet. What was I supposed to do? Like Dr. Schwartz’s rice diet, returning to meat felt out of the question. Vegetarianism was, and had been for years, a facet of the counter-culture lifestyle I strongly identified with, just like punk rock music and DIY. It wasn’t just a diet, it was a community, and I expected it would be one I would belong to for the rest of my life.
I spoke to a few vegetarian friends about the issue I was having and found that many of them had made admissions in their diets throughout the years. One friend began eating mollusks, because they didn’t possess central nervous systems and couldn’t feel pain; another indulged her craving for chicken salad sandwiches when she was drunk.
My friends encouraged me to eat a small bit of fish or poultry to remain healthy, but their suggestions felt like affronts to my idealism. To me, eating meat meant condoning cruelty and animal torture, supporting the wretched industry of factory farming I had railed hard against in my teenage years by painting “Meat is Murder” on my t-shirts and petitioning my high school to add Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to the summer reading list.
The hunger persisted. One afternoon, irritable at work and exhausted by the insomnia that had crept in as soon as I eliminated wheat from my diet, I flashbacked to one of my favorite things to eat as a child — sandwiches made of turkey, apple, and brie. I needed one immediately.
Since apples and cheese were high on the list of symptom-causing foods, I purchased a package of turkey cold cuts from the deli next door and ate the whole thing in my office with the door closed. Not my finest moment, but one that temporarily quieted the hunger.
I ate poultry again the next day, this time in the form of gluten-free chicken fingers I purchased from Whole Foods. Then I had a piece of turkey sausage during brunch. Then another package of cold cuts. I was at once repulsed and replenished by my decision — not being able to identify myself a vegetarian anymore crushed me, but I couldn’t deny that feeling full and remaining asymptomatic was a welcome change.
I worried about coming out as a meat eater to my friends who had always known me as a vegetarian, particularly worried about a colleague who had kept (or purported to have kept) a vegan diet since she was 11. I continued to eat salads in front of her for a few weeks until a long day left me famished and craving protein.
“Looks good,” she said, nodding at the salmon filet I was splitting down the middle with my fork.
One by one, I came out to friends, and one by one, they shrugged and told me they didn’t care. No one questioned my values or tried to convince me otherwise. No one jumped out from behind the bookcase to call me a poser, or demanded I return my collection of punk rock records or unstitch the feminist patch from my jean jacket.
I had worried that giving up a long-standing piece of my identity meant that I was abandoning all of it, that I would no longer be entitled to participate in the core tenants of my belief system. I worried that others would shame me for what seemed to me like a selfish decision: eating the meat of animals that had been put through pain so that I could feel less of my own.
Over the years, the self-flagellation has lessened, and I have come to a quiet acceptance of my new diet. My stomach condition has improved, and I am able to once again enjoy food. Though I know I wouldn’t eat animals if I didn’t have to, the change has made a dent in my self-concept: I am no longer a teenager with something to prove. No longer a girl ousted by her conservative peers and needing props — Manic-Panic-colored hair, The Anarchist’s cookbook — to cement her position in the alternative community.
Perhaps this movement away from my teenage self represents not an obliteration of ideals, as I had worried, but creation of a new system of values. Perhaps, in place of the action-driven identity I once fostered, I am moving towards an ethos of authenticity, however uninspired and pragmatic that may feel at times.