Don't commit to a vegan diet before reading this!
“C’mon Nadja, have a bite. You have to taste it. It’s really delicious!”
He’s trying to convince me to have some lamb. It’s just one of the select meats carefully arranged on a large platter of assorted foods that make up this fancy tasting menu. It’s our first real date (if you ignore prior ones which had only consisted of our naked bodies wrapped up between the sheets). Today he’s taking me out to a fancy Asian restaurant. We get a private, dimly-lit booth and the waiters treat us like royalty.
I could get used to this.
The food looks incredible, but I’m struggling. Should I really eat meat? Sure, I’ve had some fish and chicken in the past few months, slowly transitioning away from the rigid plant-based regimen I’d strictly adhered to for over fifteen years. But red meat? That was something new altogether.
Despite my determination to be vegan, my body was telling me otherwise
I’d always felt sleepy, wanting to sink my head into my desk as soon as I arrived at work each morning. I also dreamed of falling into bed by 7 pm. I blamed the dark Swedish winter and a lack of Vitamin D, convinced that the rest of the country only made it through by downing at least six cups of coffee a day.
On top of that, I had constant cravings for fatty cheese, meat, and fish, which I brushed off as detox symptoms. Too week to exercise, I only practiced Vinyasa Yoga. Plus, I always felt cold, even in the summers, which had me carry a thermos with hot tea and a wool sweater with me wherever I went.
Hypothyroidism as a result of dietary stress?
The perpetual tiredness, slow metabolism, and constant food cravings were, however, just side-effects of the real problem: hypothyroidism. All symptoms of a bodily malfunction that I didn’t want to think about. I strongly believed that as long as I did everything right diet-wise, I would get better eventually.
The first time I got the news of my endangered thyroid, I was nineteen years old and working for a theatre company. One day, I was sick at work. I got dizzy, felt nauseous, and cold sweat was covering my face, neck, and back. Seeing how pale I looked, the director sent me home.
I never made it home though. I collapsed right outside the playhouse. I was seeing stars, then my vision blurred, and the world went dark. To my later indignation, it took quite a while until one of the passers-by stopped to check in and call an ambulance.
In the hospital, the nurses offered me some strawberry yogurt and a sandwich. I refused vehemently. I would not stray from my strict raw vegan regimen. I had built my whole identity around this lifestyle. Who would I be if I strayed? So I left with their words of warning in my ear: “Your thyroid hormones are a bit low. So is your iron. It’s not so bad that you need medication, but you need to keep an eye on it, okay?”
Deluded gurus and magical thinking
“Ja Ja… Doctors. Whatever.” My stupidly arrogant younger self brushed their concerns off with a whiff of righteousness. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m a raw vegan, I’m going to live until 100. I’m super-human!”
Where I’d gotten these mad ideas from? Self-proclaimed diet experts and “doctors” who claimed to know their shit, charging thousands of dollars for exotic healing programs. “You should only eat fruit. 30 bananas a day is ideal,” insisted one lecturer during a raw food festival in Denmark. But wait, that’s more than 3500 calories. No wonder some women on those forums were complaining about weight gain. I did not, however, understand the concept of calories and macros at the time. I wanted to believe in magic. My skinny friends and I stuffed our faces with the juiciest mangos all weekend, but I never felt satisfied. Terrible bloating and belly-pains were my daily companions though. “You’ve got to be vegan! But don’t eat any sugar,” preached another “expert” during a lecture on superfoods in Stockholm. Apparently, there was rivalry within the raw food scene.
“Yes, you must be vegan!” (Or you’re an awful human being and I’m going to judge you...) That’s how I tried to convert my then-boyfriend (successfully), as well as his mother, brother, father, and my own parents (not so successfully) to veganism. “Look at the poor cows. See how badly we treat them? How can you live with yourself?” I pleaded on and on until someone told me to shut up.
How my decline began
I had first learned the news from a hand-made little pamphlet I’d bought at a hippie-festival outside of Freiberg, Germany. The guy who’d created it had drawn gruesome images of human women being sucked dry in massive factories. Their huge boobs were attached to machines that pumped their breasts before they were killed off for no longer yielding enough milk. Another image depicted a fat Bavarian guy strapping three skinny African children around his massive waist, indicating that the West was responsible for global starvation because of our overt meat consumption.
Seeing this made me gasp. My gullible, caring seventeen-year-old self could no longer accept the idea of consuming any eggs or dairy. In that instant, I decided to go vegan.
It was the same impulse for wanting to be good that had made me become a vegetarian three years prior. A rich, elderly uncle had bought me a teen magazine on the way home from our family’s summer holiday by the Baltic Sea, in which the editor was writing about the meat industry, concluding that we should all be vegetarians. Without second thoughts, I decided to go for it. I transitioned from omnivore meat-enthusiast to pudding-vegetarian in a heartbeat. My mom still complains about the magazine to this day. She was still supportive though.
Her support faltered, however, when I returned home from said hippie-festival, declaring that I was now becoming a vegan. She freaked out and ranted about protein and mineral deficiencies. I wasn’t having any of it. I was relentless. She eventually gave in and started buying tofu. (Thanks, mom!) I stocked up on soy and peanut butter (the worst!) and watched my weight go up. Much to my dismay, I went from a skinny, healthy kid to a curvy young woman.
I scoured the internet looking for a solution and stumbled upon the raw vegan diet. I intuited this as my next natural step. Within a week, I was raw. Now I’d only consume fruits, nuts, and raw vegetables. It worked - the weight came off again and I felt great. I had a lot of energy, which made me feel superior over others once again. I idolized my new lifestyle as the solution to all my problems and rigorously adhered to its strict principles. But pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Of course, this dream couldn’t last
One day, my mom noticed that I looked a bit ill. She sent me to the doctor for blood tests, who confirmed what she’d already anticipated: my thyroid had gone haywire. I’d contracted Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that makes this gland self-destruct. Now I had 1/12th left of it. I’d have to take medications for the rest of my life.
I couldn’t believe that my awesome diet had anything to do with this affliction until my boyfriend (now husband, Daniel), one of the smartest and most skeptical people I know, conducted some research online. He found studies that concluded that autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s were often caused by diet-related stress in the body.
I was not the only one
He later showed me countless stories of young women who had been vegan for the same reasons as myself and were now confessing that they were no longer vegan because the resulting malnutrition had wrecked their bodies’ hormones. We try to be decent human beings and what we get in return is an autoimmune disease. Thanks, man. Life’s not always fair, good girls don’t go to heaven, and no special diet can offer true salvation.
I got the memo. Thanks, universe.
Today, I eat whatever my body desires
I’ve become quite attuned to her signals over the years, and I no longer rationalize them away with my intellect. I’ve also become more scientific when it comes to nutrition and diet, educating myself about health and fitness from a neutral, open-minded place. Thankfully, I feel much better now. I’m still on medication, and I still have occasional thyroidy days when I feel week and sluggish despite the drugs. But overall, I feel strong, stable, and resilient. I’m not constantly cold and tired anymore, my body has leaned out, and my bloated belly has made way for abs. I know it’s not about that, but it’s a pleasant side effect of being happy and having found #foodfreedom.
I don’t feel bad about eating meat anymore, no matter what militant vegans and other environmentalists are saying. I still care about the animals and the planet though, eating around 80% plant-based and buying organic whenever I can. I’m not a monster. But I pick my battles. Because nobody gains anything from me slowly destroying my body.
If you’re a vegan, great
I admire you for your idealism and your kind intentions. I hope you’re doing well and you won’t send me offended hate-mails. This is just my story. I don’t want to preach, I’m done with that. All I’m saying is, listen to your body and your instincts. Get your bloodwork done regularly. And most important, never stop learning and asking critical questions. You are the authority in your own life. No health expert, diet guru, or MD/nutritionist can take that away from you.
But first, cucumber
That night at the restaurant, I relented and took a bite of the lamb. It was delicious. I helped myself to all the meat and seafood I could get my hands, much to the delight of my new lover. I didn’t realize how starved I was until I’d tried the meat. But my first instinct when the food was served (or was it from habit?) was to reach for the cucumber. It made him laugh out loud and would forever brand me with the nickname “Gurka”, Swedish for cucumber.