Raise Your Hands, Closeted Omnivores

Today’s post is a little different from usual. It’s one I’d considered writing in the past but decided the topic sat in too choppy waters which were perhaps a little too controversial for my liking and not where I wanted my blog of indulgence and love for all things healthy to venture. Up until recently, I’ve been quite timid about my writing and tried to focus on the wholly positive aspects of wellness and this lifestyle. But there’s no denying that there are negatives in the industry and to not address them is to paint a pretty unrealistic picture that would make no headway in implementing a change. Health isn’t always easy and the pressures we face, often amplified by social media, can force us down quite an unhealthy path if we’re not careful.

I’ve talked in the past about the fact that I don’t believe in labels, dietary definitions and subscribing to one particular way of eating (read here: how do we define a health diet and find what works for you), and I mentioned on Instagram how elated I was a few weeks back when Pixie and I held our Fresher’s Feast event and found that almost everyone was quite simply a ‘healthy eater,’ without any restriction, deprivation, guidelines or laws. I suppose what I haven’t so openly discussed is why I feel so strongly about this and why, although my recipes are designed to accommodate as many dietary preferences as possible, I will never advocate the generalised diets/lifestyles often subscribed to within healthy cookbooks, blogs and certain products.

My thoughts within this post were triggered by a moment during the fresher’s event when I was chatting with three lovely girls about foodie offerings in London. With two vegans among us, the conversation strayed over to the joys of eating fully plant-based in the city and the variety of foods available here. Vegan food offerings in London are plentiful and, many of them, pretty delicious, so I was more than happy to chime in about my favourite spots to visit. But, a little while later, the third girl turned to me and asked if I was vegan as well. I responded honestly with a ‘no,’ preparing myself for any one of the usual reactions.

In the past, I’ve had anger over admitting I’m not vegan. Confusion. Disgust. I’ve lost friends over it. I’ve even had someone stop the conversation right then and there, turn around and walk away without another word. But her response was none of those. Instead, she visibly relaxed and that was something that worried me more than any of those other wildly inappropriately responses. Why? Because, if my answer had been yes, would she have remained uncomfortable? Would she have felt wrong and out of place in the conversation? Would she even have been willing to admit that she herself was not a vegan? These are questions that all passed through my mind because it wasn’t that long ago I was the one nervous about admitting my lack of alignment to veganism. I was afraid of the response I would encounter from others. And rightly so because, on the occasions I did own up, the reception was not all that favourable or kind.

If you’ve been with me since my early days of blogging, you might know that this all started with an event called Plant-based Picnic, which I held alongside two fellow bloggers, Plant-based Pixie and Natasha Lipman. As you can gather from the name, these events were based around sampling plant-based dishes and mingling with others of a similar food philosophy. Both Pixie and Natasha were following fully plant-based diets at the time, and me? Well, I was trying… I knew that every article on the internet was affirming that meat, egg and dairy free were the way to go. I’d heard all the statistics that ‘overly acidic’ animal products would be the death of us all. And I saw the looks of disapproval when the people around me came across anything or anyone that wasn’t certified vegan. Strictly plant-based was very much the health trend of the moment and, if you weren’t aboard the bandwagon, you could forget ever being considered a role-model of health. It was difficult to make your mark as a health blogger when everyone was telling you that your penchant for smoked salmon made you the unhealthiest you could be. And so, for the first year of my blog, you could have been forgiven for assuming that I was a vegan because, whilst I never out-rightly said I was, I gave no indication otherwise.

I never did make it to that divine paradise of a wholly plant-based lifestyle. The diet did not suit me one bit and, whether you choose to believe it or not, I think I stand as a case-study for the fact that it doesn’t work for everyone. With previous digestive health issues, the vegan diet just couldn’t satisfy my protein needs. Pulses and legumes are renowned for being pretty tricky on our sensitive ‘flowers’ (alright, they’re anything but that) of digestive tracts and, when consumed in too high a quantity, they left me not so much a glowing goddess and more curled up in a ball and totally incapable of absorbing any nutrients. But these issues were remedied pretty quickly on the occasions when I’d allow myself to guiltily indulge in a bit of chicken or fillet of salmon. But, whilst I could claim that it was solely physiological reasons that led me to abandon my attempts at veganism, if I’m totally honest, I also just didn’t enjoy it. My mind wasn’t in love with that way of eating and , whilst I was being creative with my food, I always felt like it just didn’t have the things I wanted from my meals. Now, I’m not talking about nutritionally empty foods like cheese burgers, fried chicken and a McDonald’s Mcflurry. I’m talking about beautiful fresh seafood full of omega-3s and and vitamin D. An iron-rich grass-fed steak cooked to absolute perfection. Foods that have a promising nutritional profile, yet had been enveloped in this ‘unhealthy’ classification because of the diet movement of the time.

Ironically, neither myself, Natasha or Pixie follow or even advocate a vegan diet any more which is why we’ve long-since abandoned ‘Plant-based Picnics’ for a more inclusive and balanced approach. I’m lucky enough that my initial vagueness due to the fact that I never really was plant-based in the first place means that I bypassed the hate and judgement that others faced when announcing their transition away on social media. But I can empathise with their struggle and fear of come out as omnivorous. To say that out loud is utterly laughable when, quite frankly, there are bigger and more real problems in the world. But then social media is a funny old place where photos of a poached egg warrant death threats and vile treatment that can make us lose all perspective about what really matters

My intention here is not to attack any one diet or to suggest that all vegans would behave in the way I’ve experienced in the past. I respect every individual’s choice and also will not dispute that the benefits of eating more vegetables that comes with a plant-based way of life are so plentiful that of course it is a very healthy approach that works for many. But I also want to make clear that if you’re not vegan, paleo or following any other defined dietary category, you aren’t unhealthy either and you most certainly should not feel ashamed or afraid to admit that that is the approach that works for you.

All I want to see is people leading healthier and happier lives, free from anxiety around their food and also free from judgement about their choices. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. A healthy diet is the one that makes you feel your best and that includes absolutely anything and everything you desire. There is no one out there that can tell you that you are doing it wrong if you are truly feeling great for what you eat. Whether or not it meets the trends or standards of the health industry or social media is totally irrelevant. Don’t ever feel ashamed of the way you eat and don’t ever feel like you need to pretend your lifestyle is something it’s not.

Don’t be a closeted omnivore.

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Maxine Ali