If there is one message I would always like to send in regard to diet, it is to gather your own knowledge to support your own decisions, beliefs and unique bodies, and then do what works for YOU. While I have been mostly vegetarian for the past 12 years, I definitely don't believe that one size fits all. Being vegetarian doesn't mean you just don't eat meat, and I've seen so many people do attempt to do it the wrong way. Sometimes they replace their meat with too much pasta; and others too much soy; and many say they just don't feel good without meat. There are just so many things to consider; so many ways to be "vegetarian," but it all starts with education!
In my own early years, I ate a lot of tofu because I just didn't know any better. Over time, I learned that there can be some adverse effects to eating/drinking too much soy (for starters: stripped magnesium and hormonal changes). And then most recently, I learned that a friend of mine (who chose to stay anonymous) has had her own experience with doing vegetarianism the wrong way. I really felt that her story could be shared in a way to encourage others to be their own health advocates. And I thank you, my friend, for being so generous with your story. :)
Following is my interview with my friend. Please comment below if you have any questions, or if this story has enlightened/inspired you in any way. Thank you for reading! ~Mimi~
People choose not to eat meat for a variety of reasons. What are/were your reasons for being vegetarian?
There were many reasons for becoming a vegetarian. First, let me state that I grew up eating only chicken and turkey, with the occasional pepperoni pizza, so becoming a vegetarian was not a huge stretch.
My main reason for giving up meat completely was because I am a huge animal lover. For some reason it never bothered me to eat chicken and turkey, probably because I had never really thought about it. However, when I really thought about it, it made no sense to me to take another life in order to eat, especially in a day where there are grocery stores on every corner and many other food options.
This decision became even more clear after watching the documentary Forks Over Knives, where they show all of the damage that hormones in our meats and dairy can cause. At this point I gave up meat and dairy completely.
How long have you been vegetarian?
I had been vegetarian for about three years.
What did your diet consist of? Explain what your typical meals looked like.
Unfortunately, when I decided to become a vegetarian, I did it all wrong. I hadn't done enough research on the particular nutrients that vegetarians need to be aware of. I also had no knowledge of portions, etc.
In the beginning I was eating cereal, veggie burgers, burritos, and stir fry. That was about it. Also, I was probably only consuming 500 calories a day. I should note that I am a personal trainer and group instructor who is always on the go. At this point, I was also getting ready for my wedding and working out about 3 hours a day. 500 calories was definitely not enough. However, I wasn't counting my calories. I just thought that eating three meals a day was sufficient, not knowing that a veggie patty and a side salad was such a small amount of food.
I was also taking a multivitamin everyday.
How long were you eating that particular way?
I ate this way for probably about two years.
What symptoms did you begin experiencing?
After a few months of eating this way, I starting experiencing some weird symptoms-vaginal pain that seemed like the beginning of a UTI. My vision was also blurry at some points, which I thought was maybe a sinus infection. In addition, I had awful headaches.
How long were you dealing with the symptoms?
I had these symptoms off and on for about two years.
At what point did you begin to relate your symptoms to your diet, or did you have any idea that what you were dealing with was related to what you were eating?
After about a month of having these symptoms, I went to visit the doctor. I continued to visit the doctor almost monthly and had blood tests, pelvic exams, and urine tests. They were unable to find anything wrong. After awhile they sent me to a specialist.
The specialist was awful! He looked at me like I was crazy and was quick to diagnose me with having an active bladder. This was not the case, and I asked to see another specialist. At this point, I met Rachel.
Rachel was the first person who ever questioned my diet! After finding out that I was vegetarian, she considered that I may have acidosis (where you are eating too much acidic food) and recommended seeing a nutritionist. I went home and called my friend/nutritionist immediately.
The nutritionist explained a few things to me. First, she thought that I was eating way too little (I hung up the phone with her and started eating EVERYTHING I could find!! To my amazement, my blurry vision cleared up). She also thought that because I was eating so little, the multivitamin was sitting in my bladder and causing pain. She also gave me a sample menu to try, eating more alkaline foods and more food in general. The sample menu included whole grain toast, tofu, brown rice, oatmeal, veggies, and many more wonderful ingredients. I was extremely grateful that she was able to help and I followed this meal plan for a few months.
After getting bored with eating the same meals, I started to stray from my meal plan. The one thing I did know was that you needed to have protein with every meal, and this is where more problems arose (I should mention that my vaginal symptoms were still persisting). To me protein without eating meat meant Tofu, veggie patties, and edamame. I started eating these protein sources with every meal: organic hash browns and tofu for breakfast, veggie burgers and salad for lunch, edamame as a snack, tofu as a snack and stir fry with tofu for dinner. When I like a meal, I tend to just eat it over and over. (I did have slight variations, but still ate a lot of tofu)
Well after months of still having pain, I started to go back to Rachel for more pelvic exams and urine tests....still nothing found. Rachel thought that maybe I had Interstitial Cystitis, where you develop cysts in your bladder and certain foods can irritate them). For this test, she put a catheter in my bladder and poured a solution in to see if there was a reaction... nope, no reaction! So I was sent to have an ultrasound...
The ultrasound was the one of scariest experiences of my life. The technician who was doing my ultrasound kept making ominous faces and at the end of the session told me that my doctor and I would have to "come up with a plan". However, she wouldn't tell me what was wrong. I went home crying and thinking the worst thoughts possible.
Five days later, I was able to meet with my doctor to find out the ultrasound results. She said that they didn't find anything abnormal, except that my uterine wall was abnormally thick. At this time, she wanted to do a biopsy to rule out endometrial cancer. This was the worst pain I have experienced in my life! She cut out two samples from my uterus and I had to wait another week for the results.
Needless to say that was a long week! The doctor called with the results that following week, and they were NEGATIVE....thank goodness!! However, she thought that the soy in my diet (from the tofu, edamame and veggie burgers) had caused the increase in my uterine wall. She said that the estrogen in soy could be causing all of my problems.
Soy was out!!
What changes have you made since finding the problem?
It has been about four months since my biopsy scare and I haven't had a piece of tofu since. I have eliminated soy from my diet.
What improvements have you seen/felt?
I still have a day or two with pain, but for the most part I feel great!
What have you learned from the experience? About yourself? About your diet/lifestyle?
I have learned a lot from this experience. I have learned that foods need to be eaten in moderation. I tend to find one thing that works for me, and eat that same ingredient over and over. I definitely have eating ruts!
I have also learned the importance of not eating GMO foods, which include tofu.
How is your diet now and how do you feel?
My diet now consists of a ton of organic veggies, brown rice, quinoa, quinoa pasta, fruits, nuts, sprouted tortillas, and beans. I try to eat foods that have come out of the ground with little to no hormones or modifications.
I have also started eating chicken and eggs again. I still don't believe that eating animals is morally the right thing for me to do. However, it was becoming so difficult to eat out or plan meals with protein, so I added it back in. I only allow myself one meat source, and I am hoping to eliminate it from my diet, the proper way, in the future.
I probably eat about 6 times a day...breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack. I stay away from breads and tend to eat my fruits in the morning. I feel great now and look forward to eating :)
Also, this experience has made me realize how passionate I am about nutrition. It is amazing how food can affect every part of your body and the way you feel. I would love to be able to help others feel better, and am hoping to become a Nutrition Coach in the next few months. This experience changed my life and the way I will always look at food. I cannot wait to spread my message to people!
I also want to thank Rachel, the one doctor who thought that nutrition can make a difference in your health. I cannot believe that it took two years for a doctor to ask me about my food intake....the most important thing that goes into your body?!
Thank you to every person who reads and shares my story. Although my symptoms were fairly embarrassing, I hope that I can help even one person through my experience. That makes it all worth it :)