Quality of life refers to the standards we individually dictate when it comes to the success of our health, comfort, and happiness. I would argue that most humans would isolate food and drink as an innate source of happiness and comfort, myself included. When I switched to a plant-based diet, however, my quality of life standards took an unexpectedly complicated hit.
Over the past year I have given up a lot of deep-seated, edible pleasures. Gone is anything that comes from an animal (10 months and counting), and most recently, items that are processed, contain gluten, oil, caffeine (when I can stand it), or have an alcohol content above kombucha level. That doesn't leave much.
Except, of course, for whole, plant-based foods, which are the healthiest foods on the face of the earth... I begrudgingly remind myself.
In the beginning, there were a lot of negative things to say about my switch to plant-based eating. It requires a lot of preparatory planning, and I have to make nearly everything from scratch. I would often resent the unending pile of dishes, and struggle to turn a blind eye away from tantalizing commercials and fast food joints along the road. The ghosts of food pleasures past seemed to haunt me from every angle.
“The only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook.”
- Julia Child
I had to reluctantly retire visits to my favorite restaurants, which did not cater to my new dietary specifications. Impromptu nights out for dinner, or a drink, no longer come with the ease of spontaneity. My social life, and ability to enjoy holidays as I knew them, underwent unwanted makeovers.
In a nutshell, nothing about this switch has been easy.
Ironically, though, a whole-foods, plant-based life is, at its core, a fundamentally simple one. But when mixed with the conveniences and sumptuous standards of modern life and food culture, it becomes far more difficult to adapt to. Enter isolation, unhappiness, and a whole bunch of insatiable cravings.
On the flip side, there are a lot of positives I must acknowledge. First and foremost my diet is extremely kind to my body, and to the earth. I have never felt better, slept better, or looked better (said as humbly as possible). I have discovered new, plant-based restaurants that I adore. And most of the time I feel peacefully confident and content, knowing that I am doing the right thing to combat my diagnosis with wellness.
But even with all of those alluring and tangible benefits, my quality of life felt stuck in the gray area between negatives and positives for quite some time. As the health portion of my life was flourishing, my comfort and happiness levels would waiver wildly, especially when I felt disconnected from a life I missed dearly.
I am talking about a life that was built around birthday cake, cocktail hour, and gooey cheeseburgers hot off the grill on a long summer evening. Whipped cream siphoned onto treats, or directly into my mouth with abandon. Ordering a greasy, satisfying pizza when I was too tired to cook, or too hungover to care.
Digging through a pint of Ben & Jerry's until I hit bottom. Squirreling away my favorite Halloween candies into my pockets, because fun-sized just doesn't count. Indulgent breakfasts with eggs and bacon piled high. And long road trips that started with Egg McMuffins and ended with alternating grabs of Cheetos and gummy bears.
I could write an appetizing narrative that encompasses a lifetime, with a memorable highlight for every holiday, celebration, and milestone. Nearly all of my best memories include an element of food or drink, and the joy and revelry that those two areas of life bring. Making new memories absent of those elements felt impossibly devastating.
To sound even more grim, I often felt like a prisoner in my own skin. I had a life-long joy ride through the wide world of edible delights, then felt pressed behind the glass of my self-inflicted choices, watching seemingly everyone continue on as normal. I had opened Pandora's Box of nutritional education, and learned of the detrimental effects of the foods I used to love have on a diseased body like mine. It drove me crazy, no longer existing amongst blissful ignorance, and too often the pitiful refrain of "why me" played on repeat in my mind. Especially as I choked down another salad, or passed on a beautifully flaky croissant.
These distressing bouts of nostalgia, challenges of choice, and broadening awareness all brought to the surface a reality I continually had to face: life is different now, and my standards of quality needed to adapt.
I began to think that maybe the answer to my "why me" refrain was that I am the exact right person to handle a life like this. At the heart of all my self-pity remained my hopelessly optimistic spirit, reminding me to look at this major shift from a positive angle. Perhaps I could share my story and struggles in a way that may help others, thus igniting change for the collective betterment of all health. As I toe the line between flattering my inspirational prowess and just being glib, I say with all sincerity that I was just about the last person on earth who could ever imagine thriving on a whole foods, plant-based diet. But here I am, championing away.
And some days "thriving" feels like a generous word, as my plant powered adventure continues to be perfectly imperfect. The health benefits are undeniable, but you'd be surprised how often I forget my three-time cancer diagnosis when I am hungry and faced with a tough decision. Temptations are quite literally everywhere, but maintaining focus on the why behind my decision helps.
Also helpful was the realization that the idyllic view of my past way of eating was undoubtedly a false perception. I suppose it's like looking back on a former relationship and only focusing on the good times, consciously ignoring the painful parts that sent the whole thing crumbling down. Eating only plants felt like suffering, but true suffering happened back when I was eating the Standard American Diet (SAD - my favorite acronym). My SAD life brought about weight fluctuations, unpredictable skin, moodiness, digestive issues, wobbly self esteem, eating disorders, and more. With greasy pizza came the urge to purge. With sugary binges came rabid attempts to exercise the calories away. These were the parts I was forgetting.
Upon reflection it became quite clear: I was reminiscing about a constructed quality of life that I wasn't even sure that it was in line with my own values. It was just the way things had always been, which I embraced, struggles and all. My false perception had been reinforced by relentless industries and convenience efforts that felt inescapable. Plants don't come with sexy packaging or a million dollar Super Bowl commercial. Back when I bought into the food and drink lifestyle that society has collectively accepted as the pinnacle of idealism and happiness, I was unknowingly trapped in the loop of modern, chaotic life that breeds imbalance.
Through the pursuit of regaining the reigns of my wellness through food choices, I have broken the loop.
And so I am writing a new and empowered quality of life narrative that seeks true balance, and happily embraces the comforts that plant-based eating brings. Comforts like optimal and boisterous energy, healthy weight maintenance, strength and stamina, and undeniably a longer, healthier life to accomplish all my dreams. I am rebuilding fresh ideas of how I can experience joy, as I shift the ways in which I seek pleasure, celebration, and community. Food is now a life-affirming fuel, and life itself is satisfying enough.
To read more, visit my blog Cured Life.