When I asked my new family doctor for a routine health check, I expected a sparkly-clean bill of health. I walk (some, sort of). I do yoga. I can prance up the stairs at work with a skip in my step and breath still in my lungs. And I’ve been vegan for almost 12 years. Who could ask for anything more?
The call came, the nurse’s voice faintly frantic. “We got your test results in. The doctor wants you to come in today.”
I rushed there, convinced something was about to fall off or out. Perched on the brown plastic chair, trying to distract myself with meditations on the persistence of 1970s decor in clinic’s examination rooms throughout the western world, all I could think of was what could be wrong, and how I would possibly cope.
Doc entered the room, a concerned expression on his face. Closed the door in preparation for the bad news. “You have extremely low iron. And very low Vitamin B12.”
I should have done a happy dance. No bulging liver. No protruding lung. No sneaky spleen trying to slither out of its place towards the nearest exit.
I was devastated.
Apparently, I’ve been a snob. Overconfident that I know exactly what I’m putting into my body, oversure that my nourishment is 100% taken care of. After all, I’m vegan. I eat greens. Hear me roar.
Thus ensued a mutually patient conversation in which we: 1. established that I am vegan; 2. established that I do not eat meat; 3. ascertained that I do not have fish or eggs; 4. discussed protein combining guidelines (he suggested; I listened politely and appreciated his kind intentions); 5. revisited the fish/egg thing, and; 6. concluded that I was not going to change my diet. I left the room with a kindly pat on the shoulder, the conclusion that my diet was likely the culprit, a copy of my lab results to obsessively pour over, and instructions to enjoy three months of iron and B12 supplements before returning for an update. He assured me that this was entirely manageable. I went home to cry.
I got the supplements. I poured over my still-pristine copy of Becoming Vegan. I felt like a loser. I realized I have been feeling burnt out, low energy, and exhausted. Of course, that could also be thanks to near-demonic encounters at work, a full-time job, an hour’s commute, that burning need to write all the time, three novels waiting in the wings, the constant whir of the voices of characters as yet unwritten, the chorus of unpublished stories calling “give us homes! Let us be read!”, the desire to make everything I eat, drink, and wear from scratch, halfhearted attempts at maintaining a clean-ish house, gardening in four times the space we had last year, and balancing a thousand human interactions, good, bad, horrific, and indifferent. In other words, living, just like everyone else.
What sucked the most? As a 12-year vegan, I doubted, for the very first time in as long, whether I’d made a terrible mistake. Had I made myself unhealthy? Was I making fella sick, too? Was this making me weak? Tired? Unproductive? Infertile? Useless? A hollow husk of all I’ve ever hoped to be?
The I researched. Read. Thought. Researched some more. I assessed my diet.
As a new vegan, I knew my stuff. I rainbowed my diet. Black beans at lunch, tofu stir fry at dinner. Three different types of pulses every week, no less. Two types of veggies every day. A cornucopia of nuts/seeds in the freezer at any given time. Glasses of fortified soymilk every day. Whole wheat bread always. Ghastly blackstrap molasses shooters to boost the nutrient intake.
And then I got busy. Lazy. Distracted. Whatever you call it, I stopped paying attention. I went for what met a broad definition of healthy. Convenient. Tasty. Whatever I could grab in the allotted timeframe, still whole grained, always vegan, but not particularly planned. Skipped and improvised meals. I left behind the sweet, flexible utopia of studenthood, characterized by city living, close access to cheap grocers, and days that varied in work load and schedules. I entered that glorious domain of the suburban 9-5 worker, held captive by regimented days and a teensy selection of stores that know the meaning of the word extortion, and its synonym, monopoly.
Here is the conclusion of the matter:
1. In vegan terms, I’m still a baby, in attitude, if not in years. I’m preadolescent at best. I’m just barely qualifying for my very first vegan training bra. I’m not yet grown, and I have lots to learn, and to revise. Constantly.
2. There’s no shame in returning to basics. Sometimes you know more at the beginning than you do a little bit down the road. As a vegan-virgin, I was fresh-eyed and hopped up on nutrition articles, careful calculations, and constant attention to balance and nourishment, as well as taste.
3. This is not entirely a vegan thing. I never had my nutrient levels tested in my pre-vegan days, so it’s inaccurate to conclude that my low iron, at least, is as a result of my diet. In reality, 9-11% of girls and women in their baby-making years are iron-deficient (JAMA, 1997). Almost 20% of African American and Mexican-American women experience iron deficiency anemia (American Family Physician, 2007). I’m guessing most of them are not vegan. So I’m hardly alone. Vegans are susceptible to Vitamin B12 deficiency; that I’ll chalk up to lack of inclusion of enough fortified foods over the past several years.
Thus begins a new chapter in that glorious book called Learning The Same Old Thing, Again, ‘Cause You Napped Through The Advanced Course. I consider myself fortunate for having learned that there is an issue, and being in a position to rectify the situation. My freezer is stocked with (somewhat overpriced) nuts. The fridge is full of fortified soymilk. Nutritional yeast has once again been making daily appearances in my meals, bringing with its bounty of B-vitamins. I’ve given in to supplements, and am once again planning meals more than half an hour before I want to be sitting down to eat them. I look forward to happier updates in three months time. I look forward to feeling good. I look forward to learning, all over again.