Vegan & Plant Based Nutrition

Because I’m a civil rights activist, I am also an animal rights activist. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and vicious taking of life.

We shouldn’t be a part of it.

                                           - Dick Gregory

Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Let Medicine Be Thy Food

-Hippocrates

A Liberation Centered Vegan Health Coach

In my training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I was exposed to hundreds of dietary theories and perspectives on nutrition. There is absolute value to a bio-individual approach to health. I do not believe that there is one diet that is optimal for all people. How could that be given we are all so unique? However, my training with T. Colon Campbell, Ph.D at the Center for Nutrition Studies opened my eyes to the health impacts animal products can have on many people. 

If I were just interested in health outcomes, I would highly recommend a vegan diet, but still work with folx interested in eating animal products. However, my goal is much bigger than helping folx change a diet. As a Liberation Centered Vegan Health Coach I am interested in systemic, ethical, moral, and environmental implications of eating animal based food. 

What is your why?

I have had a long journey toward removing animal based food from my diet. I grew up in the midwest in a family that ate everything! Meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, chicken. At our family holidays and celebrations food took center stage. I would look forward to my mom's macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler or my father's beef brisket roast.

I grew up not thinking about any dietary impact of food other than calories and weight. Weight was talked about a lot.  I was often cautioned from gaining weight and was given many compliments when weight came off. I certainly never thought about the suffering of animals, the impact to the environment, or the parallels to systemic oppression of certain groups of humans that my eating these foods reinforced. I was about to have my eyes opened to the impact our dietary choices can have on our health. 

When I was a freshman in college, my mother had a brain aneurysm. She survived the event, but this shook me to my core. In my mid twenties my maternal grandmother passed away from complications related to ovarian cancer and a series of successive strokes. Each of my grandmother's siblings (all 7 of them!) died from some form of cancer- breast, cervical, ovarian, and prostate. Both of my parents have diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  My father had quadruple bypass surgery and eventually lost his battle with heart disease passing away at the young age of 61. 

After my father died, I realized that there was nothing different about the way that I ate and took care of myself from that of my family members who had such devastating health outcomes. I also personally had suffered from severe headaches and migraines since I was 10, experienced joint and back pain for many years, and random chest pain that was sometimes so severe it hurt to take a breath. So, I did lots of reading and research and started adding more fruit and vegetables into my diet. I still was mostly interested in losing weight as at the time, I believed in the myth that thinness=health. So I would be thin! I still ate meat, eggs, dairy, and chicken but I was eating less of these things and having more fruit and vegetables. I increased my exercise and started to see a shift in my weight. I thought I was well on my way! Unfortunately, none of my physical health concerns changed and it became hard to stay motivated.

 

During my psychology internship during graduate school, one of my fellow interns decided to change her diet to a vegetarian way of eating. She made the change for spiritual reasons and shared that she believed in the equality of life in all beings and therefore didn't feel good consuming animals when we don't need to.  Up until this point, I had never met anyone who was a vegetarian and the concept seemed entirely outside anything I had ever considered. Her reasons made a lot of sense and it made me curious. Around the same time, evidence of mad cow disease was widely in the news and people were starting to have fear around eating beef. There was one fateful night when I purchased a rotisserie chicken from a wholesale market thinking I would have a nice healthy dinner. When I got home and cut the chicken open it was green inside. GREEN!! So, it was at that point that I decided I would be a vegetarian.

And it was good. I noticed a decrease in the amount of headaches I experienced, I had more energy, and noticed some relief in my joint pain. I was a vegetarian for nearly 10 years. During those 10 years I had small amounts of time when I ate vegan and even raw vegan. During those weeks or months of entirely no animal products I experienced vibrant health! No headaches at all, no joint pain, so much energy and focus. However it felt very hard to sustain without eggs and dairy so I would just go back to being vegetarian. 

 

And then one day I wanted a hamburger. No, seriously, just one day I was like, "yup I'm gonna have a burger." And that was it. For the next 2 years it was like I was making up for lost time. It was all meat all the time. I even explored ketogenic approaches to eating as I was still very concerned about health and thought keto would be a meat centered way to still meet the outcomes I desired. I would have periods of vegetarian eating and would always feel better in my body during those times. I struggled so much to stick with it and just went right back to eating all the things. Unfortunately, one of the health related fears that I had been trying to avoid was placed directly in my lap when I received a Type II Diabetes diagnosis. 

I was shook and felt unsure how to proceed. I took a step back and evaluated my patterns of eating and motivations for different dietary choices in my life. I was often motivated by fear and avoidance rather than by values or beliefs. I knew that I felt the best in my body when I consumed the least amount of animal products. I did more research to try and understand why. I learned about the impact animal based foods have on our digestion, our blood vessels, the function of our organs, and how the consumption of animal based food directly relates to diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and the promotion of cancer. 

I also was exposed to more information about the suffering of animals on factory farms and the inhumane treatment they endure. Even animals who are allowed to move in a free range way are still terrified at the time of their death like any other animal would be. I stared to grow in my understanding of the negative impact on the environment that comes from raising animals for food including polluting the air, water and deforestation. 

In my psychology practice I work from a liberation centered intersectional feminist perspective always thinking about the systemic impacts of privilege and oppression on mental health. Personally, I am invested in liberation for people of color, queer folx, and other folx traditionally marginalized in our society. It was when I was able to connect the dots between animal liberation and Black liberation that I truly found my why that would sustain me. Reading Aphro-Ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism by Aph Ko and Syl Ko and Sistah Vegan by A. Breeze Harper were catalysts for this connection. Just to be clear, these works are not saying the enslavement of animals for food and the enslavement of Black Folx are the same. They are saying, however, that the same systems of white supremacy, domination, and control allowed for slavery and continue to allow for the enslavement, domination, control, and consumption of non human animals. For me, as a Black, Queer, woman I do not want to participate in a system of consumption that allows for the systemic abuse and control of other sentient beings. Further, given the high rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer etc. in Black communities I am interested in pursuing vibrant health as an act of resistance and liberation. This is how animal liberation and veganism is directly connected to my personal liberation and liberation for people of color. 

This is the why that has sustained me. 

What is your why?

© 2020 by On̄i Saniyah, Ph.D

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