We've all heard it before. The vague, often misguided advice to "listen to your body." But, really, if we take this at face value and fulfill our hedonistic physical desires, we would all be in big trouble. We would satisfy every craving, pursue every lust and either push ourselves beyond our limits into the territory of irreversible pain or not work hard at all and become a sloth.
OK, ok, that's a bit extreme, but you get my point: when the body is screaming so loudly that it's difficult to decipher the truth, it's tough to know which direction to choose. Take, for instance, pregnancy cravings. One morning during my first trimester, I woke up craving cheddar cheese. The craving was so real, I had a difficult time focusing on anything else. As one who has been a vegan for two years, this was not good!
Right at that moment of intense craving and confusion is the point when the mind has an opportunity to interject and decipher the body's cues. We are smart enough, and we have more brain power than we know, to understand and analyze physical experiences so that we can detach from them and view situations with more clarity. Did I really need cheese? No! Did I need to satisfy the umami taste, one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweetness, bitterness, sourness and saltiness? Yes!
Umami is a savory taste, one that is derived by naturally occurring glutamates in such foods as meat, cheese, shrimp and shellfish, but it is also present in the following vegan foods: mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, spinach, celery, soy, aged and fermented foods, sea vegetables, toasted nuts and seeds and vegetable and seaweed broths. I knew all of this when the cheese craving hit, but my brain lost the battle.
Coincidentally, when the cheese craving hit in August, it was the same week that I celebrated two years as a vegan. I did not listen to the craving the first time it arrived, but the second time a craving hit, this time for eggs, I did listen.
It happened like this: I was on a brunch meeting with the owner of the yoga studio where I teach. We were at a small restaurant that uses local, farm fresh eggs from loved chickens, and my body was telling me that I needed one. Looking back, my body was just hungry, and with zero vegan options on the menu, it zeroed in on rich, satisfying eggs.
So, without much thought other than "I'm SO hungry," I ordered a scrambled egg between two slices of fresh baked bread with mixed greens. This is how I told the studio owner, my boss, that I was pregnant. "You're eating an egg?" she asked. "Yes. I'm having a baby!" We laughed, and that was that.
For the next 10 days, I dabbled in eating animal products, little by little. I never ate more than the one-inch cube serving of cheese and only ate one or two eggs at a time. I did not eat eggs or cheese every day during these 10 days of vegan rebellion, and I never combined the two or ate them in the same day. Well, except for those two regretful times...
The first time of regret was after eating free-range, organic chicken with feta cheese dressing over a salad for dinner. This is when things began to go downhill. All I could do to not collapse (I became uber lethargic and dizzy) was make my way to the couch and sleep. I slept for two hours, woke up for one, and then slept the rest of the night for eight hours. Sleeping was the avoidance tactic, as I could not face the queasiness and deep belly sickness that resulted from eating chicken and feta dressing. Even during the tumultuous first trimester, nothing made me worse than this day. Until the next time it happened...
I did not learn my lesson and assumed it was just pregnancy symptoms talking. A few days later, I ate homemade beef (or venison, I forget) chili with tacos sprinkled with cheese. The combination of meat and cheese was too much, but this time sleep was not the cure, because it would not come. Instead, I spent all night fighting the spins (something I hadn't experienced since my undergraduate days of late night drinking!). When I got out of bed that morning, I ran to the bathroom to throw up. That is when I decided that meat was not a good choice. Despite feeling pretty bad most days, these are the days I felt the worse, immediately upon eating a combination of animal products.
Soon, I came to conclude that no animal product was a good choice. After eating them, pregnancy symptoms always worsened. The nausea, headaches, lethargy, cravings and combined feeling of sea sickness with hangover spins became exponentially unbearable. Worst, that pre-vomit feeling of watery mouth would linger with me for up to 12 hours immediately after eating just one egg, and I would constantly have to spit and heave, with no result. It was much worse than the times when I did actually vomit, and these feelings were much worse than when I was eating vegan.
Not only were typical pregnancy symptoms at their worse for those 10 days, but other unpleasantries arose. This is what I began to experience after merely two days of eating the very minimal of animal products: bloating, constipation, gas, breakouts (I have not had a breakout since I went vegan two years ago), oily skin, a weird, bumpy, cottage cheese layer upon my thighs that disappeared when I returned to plant-based eating, migraines, stomach cramping, brain fog (feeling very confused and unclear) and a feeling of extreme heaviness and lack of motivation. These feelings completely subsided the day I returned to eating vegan, and I went back to only having to deal with the normal discomforts of the first trimester.
Why did I decide to abandon my much-loved vegan ways? One, I let me body take over (cravings are real, people!). Two, I was not vegan in my first pregnancy and became paranoid that eating vegan would somehow harm my baby. In other words, I lost the faith! But it was quickly restored when I was living, unhappily, mind you, the negative effects of eating eggs, cheese and meat.
Faith was further instilled in five specific ways. First, I connected with my vegan friends, two of whom were at my house for a party I was hosting at the end of August (I cooked all vegan dishes, a sort of celebration of my return to plant eating!). We shared stories and chatted, exchanging stories about nutrition and health.
Second, I emailed a friend with a toddler just a year younger than my son. She had a vegan pregnancy aside from a few occasions in her first trimester when she ate salmon. Her son was, and is, as healthy as can be as a plant-based fetus and newborn.
Third, a young, meat-eating friend male of mine without kids casually said to me, "Do you think you feel so awful because you switched your diet?" Thank you for asking me such an obvious question! Sometimes we need friends to help us sort through the muck.
Fourth, I spoke to my midwife, who is a vegetarian, so she gets it. She assured me that some of the biggest and healthiest babies she's delivered have come from vegan mothers. She explained that her vegan moms are extremely cognizant and mindful of what they put into their mouths, they take extra precautions to eat the proper balance of nutrients and have a deep understanding of wholesome, natural foods while detesting junk (processed, deep fried, sugar-laden, empty calorie foods).
Fifth, upon reading merely one page of Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven - a Guide to Becoming One Hot and Healthy Mother! by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, two vegan nutritionists, one of whom had a healthy vegan pregnancy, I was convinced that being vegan would do no harm. This book, though it does not clearly say so in the title, is about how to have a healthy vegan pregnancy and the horrors of meat, egg, cheese and dairy production.
Here is what Publishers Weekly says about Skinny Bitch on Amazon:
"Vegan Skinny Bitch authors Freedman and Barnouin are back, this time focusing on nutrition and diet during pregnancy. Their commentary will be familiar to Skinny Bitch fans who prefer fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes to meat, fish and dairy. Characteristically feisty and foul-mouthed (e.g., they refer to the reader as dumb-ass), these in-your-face, incisive authors have done their research, exposing a host of health issues related to the use of bovine growth hormone and antibiotics in farm animals. Repeating the mantra you and your baby are what you eat, they explain the effects of pesticides in foods (with links to learning disabilities, developmental delays and behavioral disorders), how a high protein diet in pregnancy can lead to high blood pressure, stress and diabetes in the child, and the connection between mercury in fish and birth defects. Insisting that a vegan diet is healthy for both baby and mom (a claim substantiated by the AMA), the authors also include sample menus and vegan tips to satisfy food cravings. Passionately questioning the status quo, Freedman and Barnouin make a compelling case for a vegan pregnancy."
To sum up, I share with you the above personal account in hopes of connecting to other pregnant and vegan women, pregnant women in general, anyone interested in a vegan lifestyle and friends and family curious about my plant-eating ways! In the future, look for some yummy vegan recipes from me!