Thanksgiving Day 2016 would most likely mark the day that my mind started to open and ask more questions about a plant-based diet. After a delicious vegan Thanksgiving at my husband’s parent’s home, we all sat down to watch a movie. We settled on a documentary called Food Choices. This wasn’t the first plant-based documentary I had seen, but somehow it was the tipping point for me. A saying sometimes ascribed to the Buddha comes to mind – “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” At that point in time, I was willing to explore a new set of principles and hear a new message.
What was to follow is defined as a paradigm shift. A paradigm is a schematic of sorts for how we approach or receive new information. It allows us to place into context new events and interactions that differ slightly from day to day and it helps us to fill in the gaps when there may be missing information. Generally accepted societal "truths" are sometimes known as scientific paradigms. There are many when it comes to the subject of health and nutrition. All of us view the world from a point of view that we didn’t necessarily form by ourselves; these views are colored by the knowledge and beliefs common to our time, place, family, and culture.
Paradigms are not inherently good or bad. There can be unforeseen consequences, though, for following a paradigm without investigating it ourselves or understanding it fully. We may be unaware of the agreements that we have accepted and they can shape the questions we ask, determine our interests, influence the way we interpret information, and affect the actions we take.
When it comes to food, there are certain truths I had agreed to. They were not all necessarily my own, nor was I fully conscious to what degree they would affect me when I decided to become a whole-food vegan. Explaining the process of change and the loss of my previous paradigm followed the same path as the five stages of grief.
Stage 1: Denial & Isolation
The first reaction to learning about the truth behind animal welfare, factory farms, pesticides, GMOs, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease was to deny the reality of the situation. “There is no way this could be true.” I learned that this is in fact a normal reaction, and it occurs when we are trying to rationalize our overwhelming emotions. And I was indeed overwhelmed. This stage was temporary and gradually subsided.
Stage 2: Anger
As I began to process the facts and realities that I could no longer deny or compartmentalize, I began to get angry. This stage was short-lived, though the intense emotions still crop up every now and again when I encounter certain marketing campaigns and slogans that triggered certain paradigms in my past. I was angry at the government for making deals with big agricultural companies and pharmaceutical companies instead of informing the public about potential health dangers. I was angry at my family for not educating me and not knowing these truths when I was in my developing years. I was angry at myself for staying in denial for so long and refusing to be open minded enough to consider a new idea. Rationally, I knew blaming was not going to solve the problem, but emotionally, I was wrapped up in resentment which led to guilt.
Stage 3: Bargaining
The feelings of vulnerability start to set in. When I start to feel out of control - the “if only” statements start to appear. If only I had known this when I was a child maybe I wouldn’t have struggled with addiction and eating disorders. If only the industry would tell the truth and care more about people than profit. If only the government cared enough about inequality to give up subsidizing cheap corn and soy, making food of lower nutritional quality the cheapest to buy and the most addicting. These attempts to bargain end up being a pretty weak defense against the paradigm shift and as a consequence it can still be painful at times.
Stage 4. Depression
This type of depression regarding a paradigm shift in health and nutrition was subtle, and I was vaguely aware of it from time to time. It mostly came in the form of regret. Worry for those in my family who don’t take care of their health, sadness for those who could have used this knowledge to prevent years of suffering. Worry for those that are starting to show signs of disease and discomfort, and also sadness knowing the damage I have done to my own body over the years.
Stage 5. Acceptance
Reaching this stage was a great gift, because it came with a fire and a desire to do better in the future. In a more traditional grieving process this phase may be associated with a calm withdrawal. I was not calm or withdrawn in this phase. I set out to read and research everything I could get my hands on because I knew there was no going back to my former lifestyle and I needed to know every strategy to prevent myself from returning to stage 1 denial. I did find periods of anxiety while I was building a new lifestyle for myself and my family where I received criticism and isolation. I did gradually learn to ride out these periods and continue on the path of a whole food, plant based journey.
Stage 6. Sharing Your Journey
For our purposes the journey does not stop at stage 5, nor does the resistance and uncertainty. Mainly because with this new knowledge the initial response is to shout the good news from the rooftops and tell all your friends and family how they too can become a whole-food vegan. This is a place that I certainly could have used a little more tact, guidance, and humility.
I have adopted the technique of throwing cotton balls rather than cobblestones. For example, as I boldly shared the new information that I had with those around me, it didn’t occur to me that they would or may not receive it. It didn’t occur to me that they would find my groundbreaking ideas regarding animal products and processed foods downright offensive.
You see, I was so intent on fixing the ‘problems’ around me as they pertained to health and nutrition, that I forgot the very process that I had just gone through - “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Well here I was now a teacher rather than a student, and I was finding all of my students unruly and unmanageable. If only they would get in line and listen to what I have to say. Oh the wreckage. These students were not ‘ready’ to receive any message, and guess what? I was not their teacher or their messenger.
So if you are just starting to peer into the research regarding a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet then I promise I will do no more preaching. My advice for the newly turned WFPBs out there would be to lead by example and share your journey in a very personalized way. Answer questions honestly and with the intent to help where you can and to be gracious when your methods are not well received. The whole food, plant-based movement is still in its infancy, but if we continue to share and create awareness to the public, I believe we will indeed make a difference!