After two esophageal dilations, a trip to the ER because of a blocked esophagus, and a round of nearly every heartburn med on the market, it became clear that there was only one solution to my husband Tim’s debilitating heartburn: extreme changes in diet. For a long time, I was in denial.
Surely, I thought, there must be some technique, some procedure, some medication that would work for him and would allow us to continue eating the foods we loved. Food means a lot to me. What’s a party without corn chips and seven-layer Mexican dip? What’s a birthday without cake covered in creamy frosting? What’s a Friday night without cheesy pepperoni pizza and frothy root beer? What’s a romantic anniversary without braised chicken simmering in a Port wine reduction? What’s a stressful day at work without coming home to a pint of Haagen Dazs (or two or three or four)?
Food, you see, is more than mere sustenance and pleasure to me. It’s my good wife badge. I’m not a great housekeeper. Dust bunnies live long and productive lives under my bed. My husband has been known to leave the house in pants that didn’t make to the ironing board. And although I love having people over, the pleasant details of hospitality–artfully folded napkins, umbrellas and maraschino cherries, remembering to put forks on the table–often escape me. My time to shine is in the kitchen, and even when the floor is not freshly mopped, if I can put a plate of hazelnut-crusted chicken with blue cheese crumbles in front of my husband at night, I feel like Martha Stewart (before she went to jail).
You can imagine my reaction when Tim first said the word “vegan” in a conversation about solutions for his health. Vegan? Us? Vegans were granola-eating hippies who lived in communes and bombed labs that used animals for testing. Vegan food had to be grown entirely in your backyard, took hours to prepare, and frequently tasted like plywood. Vegans were slaves to their kitchens and visited restaurants and dinner parties only in their dreams. For those who don’t know, a vegan is a vegetarian who also doesn’t consume animal by-products. In other words, no meat, no eggs, no dairy. I was in the depths of despair.
Beginning in early June, we embarked on our animal-free diet. And to my surprise…it actually wasn’t all that bad. Instead of giving up the foods I loved, I had the opportunity to get creative with the foods I had. Plain old hamburgers become teriyaki pineapple portobello burgers. Ranch dressing became raspberry balsamic dressing. Apple pie with ice cream became chocolate-dipped strawberries covered with whipped coconut cream. It was a challenge to see how fun and flavorful my dishes could be without the staples on which I’d always relied. It was also surprising to discover that my preconceived notions of vegans were wrong. Vegans are ordinary people with health concerns, like my husband, people who love animals (even if they aren’t card-carrying members of PETA), and people who just want to live long, healthy lives.
I still miss my meat and cheese, and I still relish the opportunity to order up a nice steak dinner now and then. But I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would, and I can’t argue with the fact that this diet makes me feel like a rock star: clear skin, high energy, healthy digestive tract and all. The best part has certainly been watching Tim go from 3-4 major heartburn episodes a day in spite of $160-a-month prescription meds to 3-4 heartburn episodes within the last two months taking only a $20-a-month over-the-counter med every other day.
Seeing Tim’s drastic health improvement makes me wonder if too much meat and dairy is having an adverse effect on all of us. Most people, unlike Tim, can ignore the symptoms by just popping an extra Pepto. But what if overindulgence in rich foods is not only shortening our lives but also substantially reducing our quality of life? Think about it: for most of human history, meat has been something of a luxury item, meant to be enjoyed occasionally and in moderation. Heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure are fairly recent phenomena.
I know, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t care if it cuts ten years off my life and makes me look like an old hag–I am NOT giving up my barbecued ribs!” I wouldn’t suggest that everyone eat vegan; given the chance, I would run back to phyllo-wrapped Brie and honey-baked ham in a minute. What if you just try cooking vegan or vegetarian once a week? It will cut down your grocery bill and it won’t feel like a rock in your stomach. After you’ve found several recipes you like, maybe cook vegan two or three times a week. I think you’ll be pleased with the result.
But if you invite me to dinner, please make sure it’s on a meat night.