I thought I made peace with my diet choices this summer. I attended a cancer cooking class, tried being vegan for a week, and watched the documentary Forks Over Knives. After doing all of this, I determined that I wasn’t sure who or what to believe and that it would be impossible for me to sustain a completely vegan diet if I wasn’t completely sold on the idea. So, instead, I stopped eating meat, switched out my milk for homemade almond milk (or any of the other 100 milk substitutes out there if I was feeling lazy) and felt good that I made a decision I was happy with and was doing something.
I thought I was set on being vegetarian, but thoughts on going vegan have been creeping up on me again in recent weeks. I suppose this isn’t new–I’ve been thinking about these things since college–but because I have cancer and now that I am feeling better my diet choices are particularly important to me…in case they have something to do with my having cancer or my treatment process. Just warning my readers now in case you couldn’t tell already: this is going to be a very long and very hippie-liberal post. I try not to get political or voice my opinions on hot-button topics, but with issues of health and diet and health care and insurance and finance, it’s hard not to. And, i’m talking purely about my own thoughts and choices here.
In the last few months I read a lot of food books for a class I took this quarter on food systems, talked about diet with friends, and tried to be vegetarian. Which is easy at home, but sometimes difficult if you go to places (which exist even in LA) that aren’t super veggie-friendly and you’re hungry and hanging out with meat-eaters (which most of my friends and family are). I had to allow chicken broth a couple times, and fish when there wasn’t another option and fish tacos sounded really really delicious (even though reading Four Fish made seafood a lot less palatable than it once was), and another unidentified meat I mistakenly ordered on top of nachos…which may or may not have been a good diet choice anyway. Also, my doctors tell me I need to eat a lot to get my weight back up to what it was before last fall, and I haven’t been very good at that, so sometimes I have to be a little flexible and/or eat what’s in front of me and/or eat high-fat dessert to get in my calories for the day and/or just eat something.
Despite all of this, i’m still thinking that being vegan, or at least being some form of vegan, would make me feel less conflicted about my diet overall. I can look at this from a few different angles: Does being vegan help my cancer get better? Is being vegan good for my health in general? Could my diet choices in the past have caused me to get cancer? And, because i’m an urban planner and I care about the planet, Is being vegan better for the planet (global warming)? And, is being vegan better for the animals? I’m going to tackle the easiest of these first.
Is being vegan better for the planet (global warming)?
Probably. I already go out of my way not to drive a car because I don’t have one and I don’t like driving and because it’s expensive and because there are way too many cars driving around LA already and because it’s wasteful in terms of emissions and just cumbersome to drive a big car around with just my little self in it. Sometimes I have to borrow a car or get rides with my friends, but mostly i’m happy riding my scooter, walking, occasionally biking, and riding the bus. I study transportation in school because I want to make it easier for people to choose not to drive. A lot of this is because I believe transportation choices affect the planet in a big way (in fact, they do). Then I read Food Matters by my favorite food writer ever Mark Bittman, and he says “global livestock production is responsible for about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases—more than transportation.” OK–i’m listening.
Is being vegan better for the animals?
Probably. I’m not really an animal lover, but it does make me uncomfortable to hear about the questionable ethical choices companies have made when they decided how to treat the animals they use for meat or dairy. We can argue that these animals are being raised for meat and dairy anyway, or that they aren’t conscious of their living conditions, or they’re happy enough, or what does it matter if they go through a slaughterhouse conveyor belt while they’re still living because they’re just going to die anyway, or that the world population has just reached 7 billion people and all of them need to eat… we can also argue that if you just read the labels and buy the organic/grass-fed/free-range/farm fresh/growth hormone-free/no GMO/antibiotic-free options, then you’re OK. But labeling isn’t regulated very well so chances are those words don’t mean much.
But then, what can you eat? Packaged greens have high levels of fecal bacteria. E-coli has been found in almost everything at some point. Too much soy is questionable health-wise… and it’s also a big business. Whether or not a product, even a veggie product, is organic or local also contributes to its carbon footprint and its healthiness. Is it really possible financially and with my schedule to buy everything I eat at the farmer’s market? The farmer’s market doesn’t even have that much organic produce. What about packaged foods or processed foods? I feel a bit like i’m opening a can of worms and getting off topic here, so i’m going to stop, admit confusion and that there probably isn’t a perfect diet or lifestyle, and watch this:
Is being vegan good for my health in general?
Probably. On one hand, because i’m generally healthy, I don’t think I will notice any significant changes if I decide to become vegan. However, Mark Bittman reports lower cholesterol, lower weight, more energy, and lower blood sugars since he stopped eating less meat products. My cholesterol is fine, my weight is, if anything, too low, my energy level is fine, and my blood sugars are generally fine. I am technically a type 1 diabetic since my surgery almost a year ago, but i’m now off the insulin I took for about 6 months and when I check my blood sugars, they’re never dangerously high. They’re definitely higher than they could be sometimes… so maybe being vegan and sticking to whole grains and continuing to stay away from high-sugar drinks and smoothies and foods could fix that. I just need to make sure i’m eating enough calories and other vitamins. Also, I really like probiotics found in yogurt because they’ve helped me out before. Where am I going to get my probiotics if I can’t eat yogurt and don’t want to take a supplement?
Does being vegan help my cancer get better?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I have already written about this topic and about finding a cure a lot. It probably won’t hurt–but I don’t believe it will cure me either. There isn’t a magic cure–or a magic cause.
Could my diet choices in the past have caused me to get cancer?
I think not. I have always eaten a reasonably healthy diet and stayed pretty active. I have been vegetarian before, I have stayed away from red meat for most of my life, and I have never been a big soda drinker or fast food or junk food eater or a smoker. I haven’t necessarily entirely stayed away from these things, but I haven’t ever gone overboard. I can’t believe that my reasonably healthy diet caused me to get cancer when so many people around me eat a lot worse–and don’t have cancer. It doesn’t make sense.
I don’t really like to search for an explanation. This is something I notice about my friends with cancer, too. For the most part, we all accept that it’s happening, and move on. It’s pointless to blame ourselves for something we will never know the cause of. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder idly: Was it something I did? Was it something I said? Was it something I ate? Ultimately it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint one thing. It could be genetic. It could be just a random mutation. Who knows.
I read an article in the LAT this morning about study from the Institute of Medicine that said stronger links were found between lifestyle and breast cancer than between certain chemicals and breast cancer. I don’t have breast cancer. But if lifestyle contributes more than anything else to getting breast cancer, maybe it also contributes more than anything else to getting pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. Again, I don’t think my reasonably healthy diet and activity level before I was diagnosed are to blame but… this article made me think twice. Then again, if i’m deciding whether or not to become vegan, perhaps it isn’t really relevant what I did in the past if i’m trying to make things improve going forward.
Should I become vegan?
I don’t think i’m quite ready to take the plunge right this second. Maybe it will be my New Year’s resolution. Or I will try it for a few weeks to see how it goes. Or maybe I will do something similar to what Mark Bittman recommends in Food Matters–eat vegan during the day whatever you wants for dinner at night. In my case, that won’t be a ton of meat, but it will mean I can have pizza and ice cream every now and then. In any case, it helped to lay out my reasoning, so if I do decide to become vegan, I will know exactly why, and I will be confident with that decision.