I was never a “good” vegetarian. I would break for special occasions, when traveling, or just to make sure I got the chance to try something special. My ethos was and still is:
Do your best to minimize your contribution to climate change and/or the suffering of animals, but not to the extent that you feel you’re constantly missing out.
Once, while I was following this mostly-veggie mantra, I ate a traditional tamale stuffed with meat. The mother of the guy who I was dating at the time had made them, and they were one of his favorite dishes. Before warming up the tamale for me, this ex-boyfriend made a judgmental remark along the lines of, “You’re going to just forget your morals like that?”
…So I judo-chopped that prick in the neck and yelled, “You never took the time to truly know my moral beliefs!!!”
Ok, that last sentence was tangential and also a complete fabrication. Setting aside my latent fury for terrible exes, the point I’d like to make is that diet and lifestyle commitments are onions of difficulty. You find yourself defending your choices from those ignorant to the reasoning that serves as your core motivation on top of the work you are already doing. In order to adapt your actions surrounding your diet, you have to adapt the way you think. All of this is hard work.
Our dietary habits can’t all happen in isolation at home; we will eventually find ourselves explaining not just our food choices, but our underlying health issues or morals. There will be questions, eye-rolls, and baseless judgments tossed at you while you’re just struggling to find something on the menu. I’ve had to defend my dietary choices against meat-eating boyfriends and vegetarian friends alike.
I defined myself as vegetarian for about 7 years. For the last 6 months of those 7 years, I finally committed to being vegan. I had always clung to the idea that dairy was an important source of protein, calcium, and blah, blah, blah …Cheese! Yogurt! Ice cream! New York pizza with legit mozzarella! I also loved dairy products. What finally tipped my scales to vegan? A coworker told me how her acne cleared after only 3 months of eliminating dairy.
SOLD. My skin problems have plagued me for what is now more than half of my life. Since the time I hit puberty, I’ve had every form of acne, on nearly every part of my body, and I’ve tried almost everything to get rid of it. If giving up dairy would finally get rid of the disease writ large on my skin, then goodbye dairy.
And it worked! Oh my goodness, it worked so well… for about 4 months.
In the midst of my newfound veganism, I began working on a major motion picture in post production. For those who don’t understand what this means, I was stuck in an air conditioned nightmare for 12+ hours a day, 6-7 days a week, for about 10 months straight; one of the better gigs I’ve ever had!
I began to break out again. The most recent and troubling form my acne took was hive-like, cystic zits on my chin, jawline, neck and chest. Sexy, huh? Acne around the chin, jaw, and neck has a strong correlation to a hormonal imbalance. As much as I was loving my righteous veganism, I felt backed into a corner. I thought all my issues had been solved. I wanted to believe that doing my part in saving the planet was simultaneously the solution to my health issues.
I have an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (I call it Hashi’s for short). This disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism, or an under-active thyroid. It’s extremely, unnervingly common. You likely know someone who has this disease, or may have it yourself. About 14 million people in the U.S. have it, and most of them are women. It can cause intense bouts of fatigue, physical weakness, brain fog, weight gain, or the inability to lose weight, and is linked to depression. Yes, I have bouts of all of these.
What’s more, if you have an autoimmune disease, you almost definitely have leaky gut. And leaky gut can be a cause of hormonal imbalance. A hormonal imbalance can cause acne. Two things that I’ve had since puberty are (drum roll) Hashi’s and acne.
The treatment of Hashi’s has always perplexed me. Mostly because there IS NO treatment for autoimmune disease. Western medicine treats hypothyroidism with hormone therapy: a small pill of synthetic or natural thyroid hormone once a day, meant to supplement what your thyroid is not producing. But we with Hashimoto’s know our hypothyroidism is but a symptom our immune system attacking our own viable cells.
The closest thing I have been able to find to a treatment for autoimmune disease itself is the Auto-Immune Protocol (AIP). I had been hearing about the AIP diet for a while. But just like going vegan, I was dragging my heels. Fun twist: AIP is, in many ways, the opposite of veganism. Just when I had leveled up in my Veg lifestyle, I learned I might be able to regulate my Hashi’s symptoms and re-balance my hormones through following AIP.
A simple way to think of the Auto-Immune Protocol is an even more intense version of Paleo. AIP calls for remaining grain-free (this includes gluten products, of course), dairy-free, soy-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free, nut-free, seed-free, seed oil-free and nightshade-free (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, & potatoes). For a vegan, that means some hefty eliminations. No more seitan, no breads, no pastas, and no cereals (gluten). No more tofu, edamame, or half the pre-packaged products on the shelves (soy). No seed oils means the other half of the pre-packaged products. No hummus, lentils, beans (legumes). No. Almond. Butter. This diet knocks out all vegan sources of protein.
I was outraged.
“You’re telling me I can’t be vegan anymore and I STILL can’t have cheese?!?”
But my skin was becoming unbearable. I had painful, itchy, irritated pimples. I’m over 30. I had dealt with this disease long enough.
I jumped into the deep end of the AIP diet. Well, I tried, but my vigilance didn’t last long. Again, these transitions are very hard.
I had several mini-nervous breakdowns in the hippy-dippiest of health food markets. Even in allergy-free diet heaven, I would walk past whole aisles mind-shouting, “I CAN’T EAT ANY OF THIS!” Not only did I have to give up all my vegan favorites, I had to begin eating meat again. I had to eat animal flesh to fix my own flesh. Tortured, dead, animal flesh that is ruining the planet. You should have seen me gagging in front of the deli counter. I felt so much anxiety over this diet my acne was getting acne.
After a month or so, I decided to relax on how strict I would hold myself to AIP. I allowed myself nuts, nut butters, seeds, and some gluten-free products like pasta and crackers. I was so relieved.
This diet, along with the help of a functional medicine practitioner, has helped somewhat. My acne is reduced, but not gone. My overall skin irritation disappeared almost immediately (the really itchy & painful zits). The fatigue and brain fog I sometimes feel from the Hashi’s is less intense. I haven’t had any serious bouts of depression.
I know I have a long way to go. I recently re-committed myself to more strictly adhering to AIP. I realized I spent 16+ years not eating according to AIP. I have to give it some time. I have to cut myself some slack. Just like eating one tamale wasn’t going to ruin my overall environmentalist score, having some mashed potatoes (fuck yes, with butter) isn’t going to effect whether I wake up with more zits and brain fog tomorrow.
Healing is a slow process, yet we live in a fast-paced, immediate satisfaction culture. If I want to make progress, I need to continue to practice balancing between the two.
Claire Truman is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles. She’s passionate about the environment, social justice, and animal rights causes. You can follow her on instagram @elseetee.
This is a contributor post for the Diet Series. Read about other diets and stories here.