It was a particularly humbling bout of menstrual cramps that first inspired me to go vegan. It was a couple months after the Presidential election, and despite living a life of physical activity and perceived dietary moderation, I was gaining weight, and was more depressed than I'd ever been. That month, when my period arrived, it was nothing short of horrific. I've had terrible menstrual cramps and a multitude of accompanying symptoms for as long as I've been menstruating. I've been in and out of doctor's offices, and I've tried a number of supposed solutions that just didn't work on me. After jumping on a sustained fitness regimen a couple years ago, my period did begin to improve, which is why I was shocked when, shortly after the election, my period began to get worse. I felt absolutely defeated, like no matter what I tried, I was destined for a life of misery.
Some of you reading can relate to what I'm about to illustrate, but others are skeptical and wondering if this is all hyperbole. I've heard plenty of men and women alike express sentiments that seek to downplay and minimize just how horrible of an experience menstruation can be for some of us. However, it's a serious and costly medical issue that greatly impacts the livelihoods and well-being of women around the globe. This is my personal experience, and I'm being open in hopes of reaching those who have had to endure the same struggle.
Whenever I read a list of common period symptoms I laugh, because I've had them all. Debilitating pain that radiated down into my thighs, pounding headaches, back aches, diarrhea, appetite-zapping nausea, acne, bloating, up to ten lbs of water retention, irritability, anxiety, deep depression that would begin an entire week beforehand, heavy bleeding that made me run through pads like crazy, and clots that would make me beg for mercy. I'd gotten used to the episodes of sitting on the toilet for well over an hour, quite literally wishing for death, because it felt like the only thing that could save me in the moment. After it all finally passed, I would retreat to my bed and stay there for a couple hours until my body led me right back to the bathroom.
I lost count of how many doctors I've visited over the years. The diagnosis was always "dysmenorrhea", but the prescription would vary. Sometimes it was for stronger painkillers, sometimes it was birth control. I attempted birth control on three separate occasions and all three times were nothing short of a hot mess. The first time, after a couple weeks of not feeling quite right, I received a call from my doctor informing me that my blood test results revealed that my liver enzymes were through the roof, and that I should stop the pills until we could figure out what was going on.
By the time I was able to get back on the pills, I had a whole new doctor with a whole new approach. She suggested that I skip the week of placebo pills that come with every pack so that I would only bleed every three months or so. I was elated. No period for three months? Four periods a year? It sounded like heaven, so of course I tried it. Except, when I finally allowed my body to bleed, I bled for about two weeks straight. At that point, I felt so defeated that I gave up altogether, or so I thought.
My period continued to be hell, and a couple years later, I found myself back in the doctor's office, ready to give birth control another try. After a very short and concerning visit where the doctor was rushing out to another engagement (she didn't even look at my medical history, she just wrote a prescription), I was back on the pills. Once again, the pills didn't help my period, and to make matters worse, they made me feel completely numb. I couldn't feel any emotions other than numbness and depression. It was bad enough that I had already struggled with depression, but these pills made me feel like a shell of myself. I was existing, but I wasn't all there. Eventually, I decided to stop them.
Funny enough, the physical pain wasn't the worst thing about my period. Don't get me wrong, the pain was nothing short of breathtaking. I popped OTC pain pills like candy (which made me nervous - what were they doing to my body?), and they often didn't work. Because of this, I developed a tolerance to pain that I began to wear as a badge of honor. It was the impact on my self-esteem, however, that really fucked me up. I felt like a deficient human being. How can I work, how can I be a productive member of society if I can't go a month without being bedridden for several days?
My attendance throughout high school wasn't great. In college, every semester I exceeded my allotted absences for all of my classes, forcing me to go to the doctor just to get a note. Up until I got a job where I could work from home, I would miss days of work, meaning I was losing money. More painful though, was missing countless birthday celebrations for people I loved dearly. Even though they understood, I never shook the feeling of guilt that would overwhelm me whenever I couldn't be there.
I tried everything. When the medical establishment didn't come through, I tried all the alternative, natural solutions that I had access to. Nothing seemed to work. So honestly, I wasn't expecting much when I decided to go vegan, but I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was concerned that my monthly pain was a signal that things could only get worse for me. Being a Black woman with a family history of uterine fibroids, breast cancer, and other hormone-related illnesses, I worried that I was destined for the same fate.
I knew my hormones were way out of whack, I knew my body was inflamed, and I knew that something had to give. I was also just so damn tired. I couldn't imagine continuing to live this way for several more decades. Something had to change, so I changed myself. Considering the research regarding PMS and inflammation, research regarding the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and inflammation, as well as research surrounding estrogen consumed from meat and dairy, I decided to try a plant-based diet. After all, what did I have to lose?
Literally two weeks after removing meat from my diet (dairy had removed itself many months before; my body couldn't handle it), I had what was, up until then, the best period of my life. The month before that, I was maxing out on ibuprofen, but a couple weeks after going vegan, I didn't have to take a single pain pill. I was floored. It wasn't completely pain-free, but it was such a drastic improvement on what I'd gotten used to that I was more annoyed than pained. But even more shocking was, every single month since then, my period has gotten better. My flow is now lighter (both in amount & hue - it's brighter!), my period is shorter, and my cramps are damn near non-existent. I would call it a miracle if I didn't know just how much work went into getting to this point.
Understand, I didn't just "go vegan". I was particularly careful to ensure that I was eating a whole foods, plant-based diet. I've also incorporated foods that help to balance my hormones, reduce my overall inflammation, and nourish my body with vital nutrients & minerals. I realize now that the foods I grew up eating had put my body in such an unhealthy state that the only way I could get better was by being vigilant about exactly what I put in body.
I had to take steps that I was honestly unwilling to take before. In addition to removing meat, dairy and eggs from my diet completely, I rarely eat fried food anymore. I eat tons of fruits and vegetables, and I increase my fruit intake right before my period. I keep processed food to a minimum - they're convenient in a pinch, but they tend to be full of additives that aren't good for you. I also recently removed alcohol from my diet, because honestly, it wasn't doing me any good. Consistent physical activity is also important. My current regimen has me working out 5-6 days a week, but even 3 days a week of moderate to vigorous exercise can help.
The short amount of time in which my body responded and the continued improvements in the months after have made me a believer. You can find lots of articles and documentaries about the links between animal-based foods and major illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but a lack of scientific attention to menstrual issues means there aren't very many studies about the connection between diet and feminine health. I'm writing this to add to the growing anecdotal evidence that shows that what you put in your body is directly related to the pain and other horrific symptoms that come every month. My quality of life is the best that it's ever been, and the confidence and self-esteem boost that comes with knowing that I'm in control of my body rather than my body being in control of me is absolutely priceless.
My Personal Go-To Menstruation Staples
Here are some staples that I include in my diet to help with my menstruation issues. I suggest doing your own research before incorporating anything new or unfamiliar into your diet. It took a lot of trial & error to come to a set of staples that work for me.
There are many other foods and herbs that are reported to work that may be more accessible or preferable to you. Keep in mind that your experience may not be the same as mine. Depending on the state of your body, the response might be immediate or it may take a few months. Give yourself time and be patient with your body. It's worth it in the end.
Every time someone tells me "I'm going vegan", my heart swells. This is mainly because they're always coming from a place of wanting better. Better for themselves, better for the environment, and better for humanity. My initial inspiration for going vegan was a deep desire to improve my health. I have been and will continue to be candid about my struggles with my health precisely because I know that I am not alone. Your health struggles may not look like mine, but the desire to stop existing in misery and to start thriving is the same.
That all being said, one of the most crucial things that I've learned during my journey is that food is so much more powerful than we've been taught. We've all grown up in a world where there's a pharmaceutical answer to everything, and while I do believe that modern medicine has the potential to bring healing to many lives in many instances, I think we've collectively forgotten that there are simpler, cheaper, safer solutions for a lot of what ails us. This is mainly because a lot of what ails us stems from the foods that we put in our mouths. Food (and products masquerading as food) is all too often the problem, but food can also be the answer.
1. Change Your Mindset
Food is joy. Food is fuel. Food is culture. Food is celebration. Food is communion. Food is so many wonderful things, but first and foremost, food is medicine. The foods that we should be consuming contain vital minerals, nutrients, vitamins, and other substances that all play key roles in the way our bodies function. Our bodies are literally built by the foods we consume. If you want a strong, healthy, vibrant body, then you have to feed it the foods that will allow it to be so, period. Just as there are foods that nourish and build, there are foods that cause damage and deterioration.
We've learned to eat without consciously thinking about what we're putting in our mouths. We've been fooled into thinking that we're eating fairly healthy and in "moderation", but the truth is that the Western diet is extremely immoderate, in more ways than one. When you eat, the main purpose should be to nourish and build. When you're eating consciously, you can better discern how much damage you're actually doing when you do decide to indulge. If your focus is on perpetual indulgence, understand that you are prioritizing fleeting pleasure over your health and well-being. Confront yourself and the reasons why you eat.
2. Embrace Whole Plant Foods
Learn to embrace fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes (beans), and herbs in their truest, most unprocessed forms. Most people are unfamiliar with the wide variety of non-meat foods that are out there, mainly because the diet that we've become accustomed to as a culture largely rejects these foods. Long before I went vegan, as I was seeking out ways to be healthier, I would Google the nutritional benefits of the foods that I ate. There's a certain excitement in knowing that the food I'm enjoying is also going to contribute to bettering my health. It's a win not only for my taste buds, but for my entire body.
The most amazing part is that there are an infinite number of ways to create and combine these categories of foods to create tasty, delicious meals. Some of the most delicious, satisfying meals that I have eaten were created with raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. If you've grown up only experiencing poorly-cooked broccoli or bland salads, then it might be hard for you to imagine that meatless meals can taste good. First, I'd suggest that you take a look at my Instagram (shameless plug), where I love to share photos of the meals I eat. I am being completely honest with you when I say that I enjoy food with a depth that I never did before. I used to eat "tasty" meals that would give a brief rush of sugar, salt, or fat, and then I'd feel like crap afterwards. Plants do not do this to me. Trust me when I say, plants can be both nutritious and delicious. You just need to season them. ;)
3. Learn How To Cook
So I know there are people who are going to see this tip and immediately sigh in frustration. In our fast food, pre-packaged microwaveable world, cooking has been placed somewhat on the back burner. People simply cook less than they used to, and many people enter into adulthood without ever really learning how to cook a meal for themselves.
When you're eating a Standard American Diet, it's much easier to get away with not knowing how to cook, because between quick frozen meals and takeout restaurants, a cooked meal is only a few presses of a button away. Even though more restaurants are adding vegan options to their menu, you will find that it's still not as easy to eat out, especially if you don't live in a major city or don't have access to a nearby vegan restaurant. Cooking for yourself and having fully prepped meals in your fridge will save you from those frustrating moments of not knowing when to eat. You'll also have the comfort of knowing exactly what ingredients were used to make your meal.
4. Seek Inspiration
When learning how to cook, the internet is your friend. Instagram is a great way to see what other vegans are eating, which can help you to avoid the trap of staring longingly into the fridge, wondering what the hell to do with all the plant foods you just bought. Once you've got an idea of the kinds of foods you're ready to experiment with, find recipes.
You can simply search Google, check out Pinterest, watch YouTube videos, or even do it the old-fashioned way by checking out cookbooks from your local library. There are also many vegans online who share their recipes via blogs or free e-books. No matter what kind of meal you want to make, I guarantee there is a recipe for a tasty, veganized version out there. You just have to do a bit of research.
5. Keep The Processed Foods To A Minimum
I call myself a vegan because I am vehemently against the killing of animals, but my diet is deliberately plant-based because I believe that it is important to eat a diet that allows the body to thrive at its most optimal, healthy level. That all being said, you can absolutely go vegan and still eat terribly. There are vegan doughnuts, vegan pizza, vegan burgers, and french fries are almost always vegan (wtf McDonald's?).
There are LOTS of tasty vegan meals out there that aren't at all healthy, and I do love to partake, but only occasionally. If you're going vegan because of health concerns, don't make the mistake of assuming that vegan automatically equals healthy. It does not. If you're concerned about health, processed and junk food should never make up the bulk of your diet. Seek out whole plant foods that are as close to their natural form as possible.
6. Experiment With Flavor
Personally, I like to take an intuitive approach to cooking, and I draw a lot of inspiration from my Jamaican roots and the foods that I grew up eating. I'll often use other peoples' recipes as a foundation and put my own spin on it. I think about the flavors that I love, and being of Jamaican descent, I really appreciate flavorful, spicy, savory foods with lots of depth, so I make sure to keep certain things on hand at all times, like a variety of different seasonings, and ready-made spice blends. Garlic, onion, scallion, thyme, tomato, scotch bonnet pepper, curry powder, and jerk seasoning are the foundation of a lot of the meals I make. Going back to your roots or learning the flavor profiles of cuisines that you enjoy is a great way to learn how to work with a variety of flavors.
7. Give Your Taste Buds Time To Adapt
Most of us have spent our lives eating foods that are unnaturally high in salt, sugar, and fat, and our taste buds have gotten used to this. This is why many people think that fruits and vegetables taste disgusting; nature hasn't spent time in a lab formulating foods that are so flavorful that they cause use to become uncontrolled addicts. (Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss is a great accounting of how the food industry has formulated our "food" to keep us coming back).
Indeed, most of us are addicted to the junk and fast foods that we've grown up eating, so when we eat a meal that doesn't give that same kind of flavorful high, we don't think of it as tasty. When transitioning to a plant-based diet, it's going to take a while for your taste buds to adapt to foods in their natural state. Be patient with yourself. Eventually, you'll learn how to enjoy real food again.
8. Find Support
You're going to encounter negative feedback. You may have conflicts or awkward moments with family or friends. Depending on who you are and where you are, going vegan or plant-based can be a lonely journey. The good news is that there are plenty of people who have already adapted this lifestyle, and most of them are willing to be there for you.
Social media is an amazing way to connect with like-minded people who can support you and give you guidance. There are also lots of vegan meetup groups, with a variety of purposes and focuses. Feeling alone should never be a reason why you abandon your journey, the community is here and we're all willing to help.
9. Release Old Paradigms
Success in maintaining a vegan or plant-based diet requires you to reject old ways of thinking and broaden your perspective. Here are a few things to ponder, research and sit with for a bit:
10. Define Your Purpose
Why exactly did you decide to go vegan or plant-based? It's easy to say "for the animals" or "for the environment" or "for my health", but what does that truly mean? You're making this change because you believe that there will be a certain positive consequence that will follow. You want to eat better not just because you think it will help your debilitating migraines or your arthritis or your depression. You want to eat better because you're tired of the life you're experiencing. You want a better quality of life. You want happiness, you want joy, you want better relationships. You want better.
Or, it could be that you watched a horrible insider video of a factory farm and you're angry about the ways animals are treated. Your desire is fairness, justice, and equality for all sentient beings, because you honestly believe that that is the key to making the world a better place. Or you're concerned about the environmental effects of animal agriculture. You're concerned about the future of your children and their children. You want them to have happy, healthy lives. You're concerned about the future of the world that you call home.
I say all this because, you have to know what it is you're holding on to, particularly if you're struggling to let go of old habits. Defining and truly understanding the why can help give greater purpose to your actions, allowing you to seamlessly adapt to this new lifestyle.
I remember my very first McDonald's cheeseburger. Vividly. I was around seven or eight years old, in the back of my babysitter's car. I have no clue where we were off to but I do remember driving through the drive through and picking up a happy meal. Up until this point, I didn't care much for food. To say I was a picky eater is an understatement. My mother constantly struggled to get me to eat. I was the kid who was always forced to sit at the table until I ate my dinner, and whether by tears or by making my meal inedible by dousing it in too much ketchup, I'd eventually find a way to free myself without ever really touching my food. So when I bit into that cheesy, salty, fatty flavor bomb of a cheeseburger, I felt something that I had never felt before while eating: pleasure.
I would spend the next decade and a half constantly seeking that same feeling, and I would always find it. Bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, gigantic, greasy slices of pizza, french fries covered in mysterious cheese-like substances, sweet & spicy general tso's chicken - I spent my adolescent and young adult years indulging and overindulging in all the junk food that New York City had to offer. By my sophomore year of college, I'd eaten myself up to 242 pounds, and despite all the pleasure I was deriving from food, I was more depressed and anxious than ever.
It would take a couple more years for me to realize that I had quite a destructive relationship with food. I constantly sought pleasure from food because it was the only way I knew to soothe myself. Since that fateful day during my childhood, food had been the answer to the worst of my emotions. Rather than dealing with them directly, I would stuff them further and further down until I no longer had to contend with them. I would binge on food until I was stuffed and uncomfortable, and though it was a fleeting moment of pleasure that would subside all too soon, I was glad to feel even the slightest bit better. I was a junkie, and food was my drug.
A week after graduating from college, I ended up in the hospital with what would turn out to be a panic attack. I had spent years pushing my feelings to the side and covering them up with food so that I could cope long enough to get shit done. But I eventually learned that it's impossible to avoid these feelings forever. I realized that I needed to focus on my health and well-being, and I eventually embarked on a journey of health and wellness.
Within a few years, I'd lost 60 pounds, I was powerlifting to deal with my mental health, I was fitter than ever, and I'd even become a certified personal trainer. Everything was going great, until a series of triggers plunged me into a deep depression. Of course, my instinctual response was to seek comfort in food, and the more indulgent the better. My weight was steadily creeping back up, old ailments were starting to rear their nasty head, and new ones were beginning to appear. I was terribly unhappy, caught in a web of despair that seemed to have no end. My unhealthy relationship with food was a symptom of problems that were much bigger than I wanted to admit. At the urging of my husband, I sought therapy.
I don't know if I would have adopted a vegan diet were it not for therapy. Months of working through my problems allowed me to settle into a more rational head space. Rather than running from my problems, I was tackling them head on. One of these problems was my health. I didn't feel healthy and I had to take a deep, honest look at myself. Despite all my book knowledge, despite all my knowledge of health, nutrition, and fitness, I wasn't taking care of myself. Because honestly, I just didn't give a fuck.
In an attempt to clean up my diet and improve my health, I did tons of research that eventually led me to a vegan diet. I'd tried it briefly many years before, but I did not have the nutritional or culinary knowledge that I do now, so I fell off that wagon all too quickly. This time, however, there was much conviction behind my decision to adopt a plant-based diet. I was tired of feeling like shit, and I was tired of treating myself like shit.
I did not expect, however, that going vegan would drastically change my relationship with food. I no longer seek pleasure from food because honestly, I don't feel the desire to. Nourishing myself with nutrient-rich foods has done wonders for my mental health. I now know what it's like to experience sadness and anger without being entirely consumed by it. I couldn't believe that it was possible until I read the same testimony from others. My depression, which has been with me since childhood, has totally disappeared. Further research into the relationship between mental health and nutrition has confirmed for me that yes, plant-based diets can greatly improve depression. I now realize that food is not only fuel, it is medicine.
Now that I no longer eat my feelings, I am able to look at my food in a more objective and rational way. Most of the time, I am eating to nourish myself. I'm now in tune with what my body needs to thrive, not what my mind needs to feel better for a brief moment in time. I eat to fuel my newfound love of running, I eat for boundless amounts of energy, I eat to look good, feel good, and most importantly, I eat to thrive. With all this as a foundation, the occasional plant-based indulgence becomes all the more decadent, and best of all, I no longer feel guilty about what I'm putting into my mouth.
Even greater than all of this is that I've also been able to take a good honest look at myself and realize that the food I eat has an effect on so much more than just me. From the sentient beings whose lives are lost, to factory workers toiling in unsafe conditions, to poor communities that are being sickened by living near unhygienic factory farms, there are countless lives that are affected by the food I put into my mouth. The notion that I can contribute to suffering by helping to create a market for "food" that I don't actually need no longer sits well with me. Not to mention the environmental impacts of carbon & methane emissions, deforestation and overfishing.
I am not at all deprived, I eat lots of delicious food, and I'm a bigger foodie than ever. I now take pleasure in knowing that my actions match up with my values and convictions. I no longer eat out of emptiness, but from a place of love. Love for myself, love for animals, love for my people, and love for my environment. Veganism has helped instill in me a sense of responsibility for the Earth that I live on and all the beings that I share it with. And that is the most pleasurable thing of all.
It happens almost cyclically. Every few months or so there's another tragic story about a poor young soul who loses their life due to the ignorance of their parents. These parents are almost always vegan, and their lifestyles are almost always, even by vegan standards, quite extreme. The headlines are alarming and incendiary, and the implication is always that veganism is to blame for the child's death. The comment sections explode with derogatory remarks about "crazy vegans" who starve their children to death. One particularly memorable and contradictory comment even likened vegans to climate change deniers. Point is, the sensitive nature of these stories and the tragedy of a young life lost always gets people riled up, and unfortunately, the real problem gets lost in all the clamor.
Understand, the term "vegan" tells you much more about what a person doesn't eat than what they do eat. Vegans do not eat meat or any animal byproducts, including eggs and dairy. While many people assume that all vegans subsist on twigs, leaves and berries (-_-), there are junk food vegans who eat nothing but unhealthy packaged and processed foods. Likewise, there are those whose meat-based diets are chock full of protective fruits and vegetables while others subsist on nothing but fried, greasy or sugary food. That being said, there are vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike who are uneducated about nutrition, especially the particular nutritional needs of a young, growing child. This is not something that is exclusive to vegans, the increasing incidences of diet-related diseases in children is proof of that.
So, is a vegan diet healthy for children? Many people feel that vegan diets are unhealthy because of supposed missing nutrients, but this notion is also rooted in nutritional ignorance. First, it presupposes that children and adults alike are getting all the vitamins and nutrients that they need from their meat-based diets (they aren't). Second, there is nothing that can be obtained from meat that cannot be obtained in adequate amounts from a plant-based food or, in the special case of vitamin B12, supplementation. Indeed, the American Dietetic Association came out with this position back in 2009:
"It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. " (emphasis mine)
The key term here is "appropriately planned", because as I mentioned previously, a vegan diet that is not rich in nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds and legumes can be harmful. However, the same also holds true for a meat-based diet that doesn't include these health-promoting foods. The common thread here is nutritional ignorance. Of course, nutrition is not a standard subject taught in American schools, and the media is awash in ever-changing misinformation regarding what is truly healthy and what isn't, so it's no surprise that Americans are confused about how to properly eat. But to point to veganism, or a plant-based diet in particular, as somehow unhealthy or dangerous, is ludicrous.
This demonization of veganism also stems from a sort of Western-centric ignorance that discounts the dietary knowledge that other cultures have cultivated over many centuries. Countless societies have sustained themselves (raising perfectly healthy children, no less) on vegan, vegetarian, or near meat-free diets.
A vegan or vegetarian who has grown up in a meat-heavy dietary culture may become confused when it comes to feeding their children. Fear, paranoia, and misinformation can all contribute to a lifestyle that is actually devoid of nutrition, and while grown adults may be able to survive in such a state, growing children cannot. For example, in spite of the low-fat fads that are common in the dietary world, it is imperative that babies and infants receive adequate fat from their diets. During these critical years, brain development is rapid, so feeding the brain the nutrients that it needs is crucial. Educating yourself and consulting the appropriate authorities on infant development is absolutely important, even if you eat meat.
It is very easy to point to vegan diets as extreme, but this is frankly an ignorant and lazy thought process. Eliminating recess and cutting back on gym classes is extreme. Children being forced to subsist on junk food because they live in food deserts is extreme. Denying children their lunch because a parent can't afford to pay is extreme and should damn well be considered criminal. Allowing corporate interests to dictate the food being sold and served in schools is extreme. But wanting to feed a child the most nourishing foods that this Earth has to offer is anything but extreme. It just has to be done right.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. I'm an independent Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness Coach hailing from the Bronx, NY.