Today, food is a concept that is fraught with controversy. It is also a deadly concept. The food we eat literally has the ability to kill us, whether it’s from infection-causing bacteria like E. Coli 0157:H7 or a chemical concoction that produced fatal obesity and diabetes.
Today, food is a concept that is fraught with controversy. It is also a deadly concept. The food we eat literally has the ability to kill us, whether it’s from infection-causing bacteria like E. Coli 0157:H7 or a chemical concoction that produced fatal obesity and diabetes. I don’t know many people with a relaxed relationship with food. This is my story.
In 2011, I woke my boyfriend up one wintry Saturday night, near panic. I doubled over in stomach pain, a burning sensation darting down my esophagus into my upper abdomen. My breath quickened and every inhale felt like a knife wound. We had only dated for a short time, and in addition to the churning and burning I felt in my gut, I also felt acutely self-conscious.
“Something’s not right,” I told him, frantic and tearful. “I don’t know what’s going on with my stomach.” We both mentally catalogued our evening. “Holy shit,” he said, “could it be the food?”
Yes, it actually could. I would learn years later that up to 80 percent of food related sickness traces back to bad meat. That Saturday night, however, we decided on the Emergency Room when hot showers and time didn’t alleviate the mounting pain. My poor boyfriend, helpless and afraid, barked at our cab driver to go faster. The driver took one look at my white face and labored breathing and raced towards Beth Israel.
When we arrived at the hospital, the triage nurse heard my symptoms and pushed me past waiting patients. After numerous tests, the doctors found an excess of bile produced in my system but not much else. They gave me morphine to make the pain go away. They ran through my medical history. Then they asked what I had for dinner. “Spaghetti Bolognese. From a restaurant.” My boyfriend interrupted. “It’s definitely food poisoning, don’t you think?” The doctor looked down at his clipboard and shrugged. “She’s not vomiting or anything.”
They released me the next morning with instructions to eat lightly and visit a gastroenterologist. I did. The Saturday Night Bolognese Incident was not isolated. I suffered from various vague stomach ailments for years, cramping and bloating and acid reflux that everyone I spoke to, professionals and family alike, attributed to different causes.
“It’s from India,” my dad offered. “All the spicy food.” Maybe that was it. I had spent two six-month stints in India, and it’s certainly not a favorable environment for Western stomachs. I never contracted anything as obvious as a parasite, but I definitely upped my spice intake. “Stay away from acidic foods,” a nutritionist advised. “That means tomatoes, red sauce, citrus fruits, especially at night.” Sure. There was a Thanksgiving when I had to cut the evening short because of agonizing stomach pain. Maybe it was sauce from the shrimp cocktail appetizer.
And finally, the gastroenterologist called with my diagnosis. He had my blood work and my endoscopy results in front of him. “What is it?” I asked. Pause. “Nothing obvious. We’re just not sure. Have you spoken to a nutritionist?” I hung up, exasperated and defeated.
The idea that food could seemingly make me sick was such a complicated and overwhelming idea. I didn’t understand why medical experts were so stumped. I gave up on the doctors and the nutritionist and the invasive testing. I finally decided I “just had a sensitive stomach” and stayed away from spaghetti Bolognese, cocktail sauce, and citrus fruits for the next four years. The symptoms never really dissipated, and sometimes I couldn’t sleep from acid reflux, feeling drained and groggy when the alarm went off.
And yet, I’ve always eaten very carefully. I come from a family that buys organic, and I learned from an early age what eating well means: whole foods, non-processed, and no fast food or soda. I saw “Forks Over Knives” when it came out and paid more attention to ingredient lists and tried to buy locally when I could afford to. I considered vegetarianism or veganism extremist, strange, and unnecessary if I shopped consciously. Nothing helped my symptoms.
Fast forward to January 2016. I had more time to cook. And, like the rest of the nation, I made a resolution to eat better. More fruits and more veggies, I reasoned. I started research on YouTube for vegetable-heavy recipes and stumbled onto the YouTube vegan community. Channels like The Vegan Activist, Freelee the Banana Girl, and Lauren Toyota piqued my interest. All of the testimonials I heard and saw described cases like mine: General stomach issues, general lethargy, and a desire to get better. All prescribed a vegan or plant-based diet as the solution. I revisited documentaries like “Fat Sick and Nearly Dead” and “Food Inc.”
In late January, I stopped consuming milk and eggs. I phased out meat and fish during the next few days. I literally felt better overnight. I no longer have morning fogginess and I sleep better. My energy skyrocketed. I’m in a better mood. Daily chores like cleaning dishes and putting away clothes lost their annoying edge. My acid reflux and stomach pains lessened and then eventually vanished after three weeks. I’m able to consume red sauce, citrus fruits, and vegan cocktail sauce. I lost 8 pounds without trying.
Many people ask if I’m fully vegan. The short answer is no. I still own leather goods and eat certain dairy products. I’m leaning towards veganism for the simple fact that I no longer trust supermarkets. For all my good intentions, I learned that words like “organic” and “free range” don’t mean much. I downloaded the “Is it Vegan” app and was in shock after discovering a popular brand uses animal byproducts in its granola bar ingredients. I feel my best without meat, fish, eggs, or milk. And if I can help the environment and the animals, so much the better.
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