The Path to Becoming a Chunky Vegan

How exactly does one become a chunky vegan? Well, it's easier than you might think.

I suppose the tale of young Tracie sneaking cookies into naptime via her kneesocks is cute, but it also foreshadows a lifetime of loving, and obsessing over, food. And usually the wrong foods.

Which diet plan did I not try?
Some of them worked.
Some of them worked really well.
Ultimately, they all failed. Because here I am -- overweight (technically morbidly obese, but "chunky" is so much gentler) with chronic pains. Skin that looks dull. Gray hair. (Okay, that last one is a coincidence at this point, but it's not adding to my self-esteem, let me tell you.)

And speaking of self-esteem, I don't like to shop for clothes. At all. As long as it fits, well, that's pretty much all it takes to make the sale these days. Even my shoe shopping (the one thing typically any girl can count on for a pick-me-up) has been affected because I'm too heavy to wear shoes that aren't comfort shoes. I've basically got the body, and fashion forwardness, of a 90-year old.

Back to our timeline . . . the Diet Cherry 7-Up and Apples diet brought success in high school. College was pretty much just a chubby era, thanks to beer nuggets (little pillows of heaven!) and stress. Then, after college, I happened upon John Robbins' Diet for a New America.

At the time, I decided to start eating as a vegetarian primarily for ethical/humane reasons. I was stunned by the evidence Robbins presented about the treatment of farm animals. However, this period was also probably the height of my food obsessions, and I'll admit that vegetarianism sounded like a good way to wipe all sorts of food offenders off my map in one fell swoop. I mean, having grown up in a rural, Midwestern home that had half a cow in the deep freeze at all times meant that vegetarianism was about the only diet I hadn't tried by my early 20's.

So for the next 10 years, I vacillated between vegetarianism, veganism, and eating meat (is there an -ism for that?). I laugh, though, when I think about my stints as a vegan before -- my diet usually consisted of rice cakes and diet soda. And through the course of these dietary changes, my weight continued to change, too. Up and down. The proverbial roller coaster. Finally, in 2001, I decided to switch to a vegetarian diet, and I stuck with it for 8 years. I'd feel kind of funny sometimes when my vegetarianism would make its way into conversation. I mean, the term really conjures up an image of someone slender and fit, doesn't it? But you can also be a vegetarian and subsist on baked potatoes loaded with butter, sour cream, and cheese. (Which I may or may not have done for a time. Ahem.)

In 2009, I read a bunch of stuff in the Michael Pollan vein, including two of Pollan's books. His down-to-earth, common-sense approach to food and eating made an impression on me, and that, combined with an overall feeling of . . . blah, started me thinking about eating meat again. I finally did actually return to eating meat at the end of 2009, much to my husband's delight, but with the intention of only eating grass-fed, pastured animals.

What's that saying about the road to hell? Paved with good intentions? Well, that may be a little extreme here, but the point is that I wasn't able to stick with my scrupulous plan. By February 2010, I found myself eating at In-N-Out Burger while on vacation. More than once. And I wasn't feeling any better physically. All the nutrients that I thought I might be missing as a vegetarian, that I thought might be the keys to improving my overall health and well-being? If they were in the meat I was eating, they didn't help. Maybe meat wasn't the answer to my prayers.

During this same vacation, I happened upon a blog that led me to another blog that led me to a blog where the author talked about the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I ended up reading the book, and it's worth a read by everyone. No matter where you fall in the meat/veggie spectrum, you will benefit from the valuable information Foer shares. For me, it was an important reminder as to why I became a vegetarian in the first place all those years ago. And it helped me take it a step further -- I need to finally figure out how to eat like I care.

Like I care about my body.
Like I care about my emotional well-being.
Like I care about having energy to play with my kids.
Like I care about the earth my grandkids will play on.

I'm not a young mom, and the stats showing that vegetarians live longer than meat eaters aren't lost on me. Although Foer doesn't imply that avoiding all animal products is preferable, it's the route I've chosen because I want to get down to the nitty-gritty. I feel a little bit like I'm learning how to eat and how to cook for the first time (well, let's face it, I never learned how to cook!).

But the fact is, as much as I've always claimed to love food, I've actually avoided it for years. No matter what I've been eating, it has always been the most convenient version of that food. Microwave popcorn? Oh, that was dinner for years. For someone who thought about food as much as I did, it was rather amazing that I put zero thought into my food.

After just two weeks of trying to eat consciously, I learned that vegan eating means planning, preparing, and yes, even cooking. We can't just run out and get something to eat at a fast-food joint. I've also learned that (surprise!) I really like feeding my family well! I just need a lot more practice.

The timing worked out that I started this Great Vegan Experiment on my youngest daughter's 8-month birthday. So I arbitrarily decided to just stick it out until she turns one. No real compelling reason why. It just sounded like a time frame that would be manageable, yet long enough to really see if any solid difference could be seen and felt in my health.

For now, I'm the lone vegan in the house. I'd like to get the whole family on board, but I don't feel experienced enough yet. I have a 2.5-year old who sometimes turns her nose up at mac & cheese. What kid doesn't love that stuff?!? So, I'm slowly introducing everyone to vegan meals, but I won't lie, there is still string cheese in the fridge.

Finally, what would a Great Vegan Experiment be without some goals?
1. Incorporate more fruits and veggies into every meal.
2. Lose weight. (PLEASE, dear veggie gods, show me the way.)
3. Try new foods. Hello, tempeh and seitan!
4. Cut back on sugar. (Purposely vague. I haven't figured this one out yet.)
5. Minimize use of soy substitutes. (Woman can't live on veggie dogs alone.)
6. Make what we eat.
7. Lose weight. (This one bears repeating.)

I'll be talking about it all, well, most of it, here. Let's veg out together.