Why Health and Self-Care Should Matter to Vegans

When I was in my early 20s, I decided to be vegetarian for spiritual reasons. At the time, I was a trim, healthy blonde living in Paris, France. I never imagined myself moving to the United States and I had no idea what my future had in store. Like most twenty something, health was a non issue. I could dance, walk, run or just be plain lazy. I smoke (in France, really?), drank a lot and I was also unconcerned and ignorant about the food on my plate and its link to the suffering to other animals or the consequences to me later on in life. Because I was struggling with depression and later a nervous breakdown, I was mostly an alcoholic from age 16 to about 25. I was not a pretty picture.

Fast forward about 20 years and I am now a 43 year old living in Los Angeles. The major difference is that I am now physically heavier, Vegan and can barely walk 10 yards (or meters) without physical pain. How did I get to this?

Most of us have not been born Vegan. We came to Veganism sometimes late (in my case late 30s). The damage done to our bones or arteries from our previous lifestyle can’t be cured overnight because we suddenly stopped eating other animals or their secretions. Veganism doesn’t equal health if our diet consist of mostly junk Vegan food. We may also, like I have, struggle with other forms of addictions. All of this combined creates a very unhealthy environment in our bodies.

As most Vegans, I also didn’t come to Veganism out of health concerns, I came to it out of ethical reasons by the time I was 36. I didn’t want any part in the suffering of animals, period. And that is really what the meaning of Veganism is in the first place. But we are animals too and we should practice self-care and compassion to ourselves as well.

When my health really started declining, I decided to learn about whole foods nutrition. I also quit smoking and rarely was drinking. At that point, I was the typical Vegan junk-foodist, eating nothing but vegan meat and vegan cheese. I was still thinking like a meat eater and just replacing what I used to eat with healthier versions. Although these foods are great to transition to the lifestyle, they should be mostly stopped after a while because they are still processed foods. They not only damage our body (although extremely less than their animal based counterpart), they also can be damaging to the environment like all processed foods are (packaging, chemicals, GMOs in some cases, etc) and of course they don’t do much to reverse the damage caused by animal foods and other addictions. They just don’t make it worse.

We have to remember that heart disease, for instance, starts in childhood as Dr. John McDougall and others have explained. And now, we have so many diabetic kids that the process of reversal has to start younger and younger. Unlike diabetes which is reversible, once you have damage to your bones, this is a lot more difficult to fix within the mainstream medical system and even with the right diet. As someone who also struggled with other addictions, I had to start learning to care for myself on a psychological and spiritual level, that is love myself (in a non egotistical way).

For a while (with my now former job), I was covered by the terrible American health care (or should I call it disease care) system of HMOs and their only response to my suffering was to lose weight. I tried that. It didn’t make a difference because this was not the root problem. I am at this point where I must have a solution or sooner or later end up in a wheelchair. The more time passed in the last few months particularly, the more pain killers I took. This is a vicious circle because it can really damage the liver and kidneys and it suppresses the immune system’s response. But when you’re in pain…

Taking my health not seriously was a huge mistake I made for many years before and after going Vegan because I felt completely disconnected from the food’s effects to either generate health or disease and I also didn’t care enough for myself to get rid of other addictions earlier.

My lesson is that I pay the price now, not only physically but financially.

As an ethical Vegan, I reject the idea of animals being subjected to pain for supposed benefits to humans. In fact, most drugs are proven dangerous sooner or later even though they have been “tested” on other animals. Animal testing is an issue in and of itself and I have written about it.

However, because of the pain, I was put in the difficult position of taking medications which I knew were tested on animals and, as far as my ethics are concerned, this has been the hardest choice to make. But what do you do when you don’t have a choice? Like a lot of Vegans who have health issues, I struggle with this ethical dilemma but, as my friend Kara once told me, “if you don’t have a choice, why beat yourself over it?”. I can’t turn the clock back, go back in time and tell myself to stop the smoking, stop the alcohol or stop eating crap. I would never have listened then. I was too miserable to care. I look at myself and realize how bad I was and how I could have been so much better. I had this gigantic hole in my soul which couldn’t be healed.

But no point in being mad at my past, I can’t change the decisions I made in the past, I can only change what is.

My health problems are partly physiological (a malformation of my legs after birth which creates a rubbing of bone against bone and wears out the protective cartilage), partly my very unhealthy lifestyle pre-Vegan years.

I have made the difficult choice to discontinue pain medication because it doesn’t solve the problem and in fact prevents the inflammation from being a healing factor. It means being in pain each day. I have also seriously changed my diet and I am fighting my food addictions.

Right now, you may still think that it doesn’t matter what you eat as a Vegan as long as you are Vegan. However, this is far from the truth. I used to think that way in my early Vegan years until I watched Forks Over Knives. Then I took T. Colin Campbell’s course at Cornell and completely changed my diet after that. The older you become Vegan, the more it matters how early you eat the right foods. Cartilage reduction is a direct result of years of eating acidic “products” like animal flesh and mostly cow secretions in the form of either milk or cheese. Being French, you can imagine that I ate a LOT of cheese growing up. It is a staple food back home, unfortunately, and we are total addicts. What Americans experience in terms of cheese consumption is nothing in comparison. We eat more cheese, Americans eat more meat. Both bad, both acidic, both cruel. This had the effect of accelerating my cartilage structure’s degradation.

I can’t count on health coverage in the United States and I am planning on moving back to France where everyone, regardless of citizenship, can seek help if needed. Health care does not replace a healthy whole foods Vegan diet obviously but it allows for exams and tests to find problems, something I can’t do in the US without spending a lot of money. There it is covered.

If you think health is still less important, think about this. How do you help other animals if you can’t physically be there for them? How do you convince other people to go Vegan when you, yourself, don’t look healthy?

Yes, physical appearance shouldn’t matter and I wish it didn’t. However, we live in a very shallow world and, for most non-Vegans, appearance is the first thing that their psyche recognizes when they look at you. It is not the Vegan pamphlet you are holding in your hands, it is you they look at first. You may be the first Vegan they’ve spoken to and you are therefore the ambassador to Veganism. Your attitude, your personality, the way you look can influence someone in either being interested with what you have to say or just turning them off. How many times have you heard from non-Vegans that they “know that Vegan” who looks horrible? I hear that a lot. These may be just excuses or lies but if they look at us and think that, we just reinforce the stereotype.

Veganism should be appealing in every way, from caring for the animals and the Earth to caring for ourselves and our children. It is all connected. We should always appeal to people from an ethical perspective first but we can’t dismiss the impact of how we are perceived by others.

If I had taken better care of myself years ago, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. I would be more out there making a difference for animals. Instead, I am mostly stuck at home and unable to work. Being unhealthy is no fun and it is, as an activist, extremely frustrating.

So, please, take care of yourselves. You will be less likely to burn out as activists if you take care of yourselves. If you don’t have your health, you have nothing. Being healthy is the best service we can do for ourselves and other animals. Being healthy reduces the chances that we will get caught up in the medical industry and inadvertently contribute to animal suffering.

True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it be lost.
― Charles Caleb Colton

By Veronique Perrot


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