When I was a freshman in college I (very) briefly dated a vegetarian. I remember very few things about him other than his “vegetarian’s do it better” bumper sticker and the fact that he would soon be going home to celebrate Thanksgiving with a plate full of tofurkey. The idea of Thanksgiving without turkey seemed completely immoral to me, not to mention its tofu-based replacement. The relationship ended shortly after Thanksgiving; we both moved on with our lives and our prospective views on meat. Flash forward 12-plus years later and I find myself facing something I never thought I would face: my first Thanksgiving as a vegan.
So, what changed? How did I, a meat-loving girl with two brisket-worshiping Jewish parents, end up giving up any and all animal products?
Six years before dating the vegetarian, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. At the time, the only thing I knew about diabetes was that Stacey from “The Baby-Sitters Club” had it. At 12 years old, the last thing I wanted was to be different. I had no interest in diabetes controlling my life, and instead of facing it head on, I decided to ignore it. I lived for many years with that mentality.
It wasn’t until around two years ago that I decided to finally get my act together. I fell in love with a lovely Jewish carnivore and we got married. Having a family was something I’d always dreamed of, and I knew my diabetes needed to be under control for that to happen. Unfortunately, getting my A1C (average blood sugar) to where it needed to be was a lot harder than expected. My insulin doses were increased, and I was started on a new medication normally meant for Type 2 diabetics. I started to feel awful! My body was adjusting to my blood sugars coming down and it was a terrible feeling, not to mention the 15 pounds I gained within two weeks. My job as a pre-K teacher requires me to be high energy and on my feet all day. There were days I felt so weak I couldn’t even move. I spent countless hours on hold trying to get in touch with my doctors, and each time was told to just wait it out. My A1C was coming down, but incredibly slowly, and I couldn’t lose any of the weight I had gained.
Since medication wasn’t helping, I turned to diet. I had heard about different diets helping lower your A1C, such as Whole 30 or keto, and decided to give them a shot. Although I found a small amount of success, my sugars were still not low enough to make a difference in the amount of insulin I was taking every day (more insulin equals more weight gain). I also felt incredibly unhealthy eating so much red meat.
I started to feel completely out of control. Nothing I was doing seemed to make a difference. I dropped birth control and artificial sweeteners (no more Diet Coke) and made sure to exercise every day. Still, what I came to realize is that EVERYTHING affects your blood sugar, including things you have no control over. Hormones, stress and illness will cause my sugars to spike. I felt completely hopeless.
In a last-ditch effort, I decided to join a diabetic support group on Facebook. I thought maybe if my doctors couldn’t help me, other diabetics could. What I found was both valuable and completely discouraging. I wasn’t alone; we were all facing the same problems and no one’s doctors were helping them, either. Unfortunately, even though we all had the same problems, not many people had answers.
Still the support was helpful. I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one who irrationally screamed at their significant other when their blood sugar was high.
One thing I did notice was how many people recommended a vegan or whole foods plant-based diet. More specifically, they recommended “Mastering Diabetes.” Mastering Diabetes was founded by two (gasp) Type 1 diabetics, one who is a 34-year-old Ph.D. They realized that fat was what caused insulin resistance. Omitting things like eggs, dairy and meat and adding complex carbohydrates like potatoes and legumes could actually increase your insulin sensitivity.
The idea seemed absolutely insane! I’d been told my entire life I couldn’t eat carbohydrates (not that it stopped me) and that I could eat as much protein as possible. It was exactly the opposite of how I had been eating. (I had been trying keto and was literally eating seven eggs a day.) There was also the problem that I had never cooked a day in my life. I may have tried a few recipes here and there, but up until then I had relied heavily on my husband’s cooking and frozen dinners.
Being a vegan seemed impossibly hard. What would I eat? Would I need to prep all of my meals? What about if I was in a rush? WHAT ABOUT MY COFFEE?!
One nice thing about this specific program was it encourages you to take it one meal at a time. The first week I only had to worry about changing my breakfast. And here’s the thing! After three days, my blood sugars were dropping. I could eat four servings of fruit and only needed a quarter of the insulin I would have normally needed. After three weeks, my doctor was able to take my basal rates down and I finally started losing weight. My last A1C reading in June was 6.7.
I’m very grateful I’m taking on this challenge in 2018. I remember having a vegan friend in high school who only ever ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There are SO many more options now. Almost every restaurant has at least one vegan option, and places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have been a godsend when it comes to pre-made meals.
Going full vegan has not been without its difficulties. First, there’s a certain stigma that comes with being a vegan. I found myself apologizing profusely whenever I went anywhere for dinner; I was sure someone would assume I was planning to thrust my veganism upon them. Explaining my new diet to my family also proved to be a challenge. While my mother is a nurse, she is a Jewish mother first, and the “But what about your protein?” conversation came up quite a few times. It also means more cooking than I’ve ever done in my life (i.e. none).
My First Vegan Thanksgiving
Have you ever noticed that almost every social gathering revolves around food? Thanksgiving is no exception. This Thanksgiving will be my first family holiday since I became a vegan, and I am nervous for multiple reasons. I am nervous about the looks I will get when I pass on turkey. I am nervous about having to explain why I am not eating turkey. And I’m nervous about finding something I can eat. Thanksgiving is a notoriously gluttonous holiday. Everything that’s good on Thanksgiving has butter, cream, meat or insane amounts of sugar in it. Did I mention that a whole foods plant-based diet omits pretty much everything delicious you could still eat as a vegan? (Bye, Oreos.)
I am determined to get through this holiday. One thing I’ve found helpful when tackling a social gathering is offering to bring something. Places like Pinterest have TONS of vegan Thanksgiving recipes, and I’m accepting the challenge. I still refuse to be within a five-mile radius of tofurkey and am anxious to see if there’s a vegan recipe that will remotely compare with a Thanksgiving turkey. I challenged myself to try five different vegan Thanksgiving recipes in advance, with a few rules. Rule No. 1: Nothing I made could be something I’ve made before; I wanted to try recipes outside my comfort zone. Rule No. 2: I couldn’t choose anything crazy complicated; I’m still new at this, and as pretty as it is, a seitan roast is probably pushing it a bit. Side note: I ignored this rule for one recipe, and you’ll see how it turned out! I also only chose recipes with one unpronounceable or foreign-sounding ingredient (you’re welcome).
Check out my five recipes below, and let me know what you think in the comments!
So, what did I learn from the process? For starters, cooking an entire Thanksgiving meal is hard. Also, I didn’t have to roast a turkey, and that’s something to be truly thankful for. The good thing about Thanksgiving is it’s mostly about the sides anyways, and there’s a lot of great vegan options out there. I’m ready to take on this Thanksgiving with an open mind and an open belly.
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