If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 28 years on Earth, it’s that the more you think you know, the less you probably do know.
Since I was 18 and first became interested in food and health, the one constant that has characterized my eating habits is that I try to eat for health (at least most of the time—I do believe in the 80/20 rule!). This meant varying things over the years, from skim milk, chicken breast, egg substitute, and Splenda in college (HA!) to a mostly plant-based diet in more recent years. For the longest time, I just followed my body, and by 2008, my body was leading me to eat lots of plant foods and not many animal products. When I first created this blog over 5 years ago, I needed a name to slap on it, so on a whim, I called it “Almost Vegan,” since I thought that pretty well described how I ate, at least that healthy 80% of the time. Little did I know, it would be one of the most controversial decisions I had ever made.
For years, I endured everything from insults to verbal abuse to character assassination to outright death threats (I wish I were exaggerating) for being openly almost, rather than fully, vegan. As a result, after a couple years of blogging, I began posting ONLY plant-based recipes, leaving out the non-plant-based stuff I made and ate, dreading the repercussions of posting anything non-vegan. In this way, I allowed my choice of content to be swayed by “the haters,” which I deeply regret.
The constant criticism was bad enough. But beyond that, I’ve found myself saddled with a number of health challenges—and though I truly do not believe any of them were caused by my mostly-veg diet (I think they go back way further than that), I know now that my stubbornly refusing for so long to try eating any other way was holding back my ability to improve my health. It’s funny—I’ve long said “Every body is different,” but I wasn’t allowing myself to update my assumptions about my own body. Alongside that, I now recognize in hindsight that I’d been suffering from orthorexia – an all-consuming, mental-health-depleting obsession with dietary purity and perfection (based mistakenly on external definitions of those goals!) – for too long, and that absolutely had to end. The saddest part is that beyond a certain point, a big reason I kept insisting to myself that I had to keep eating mostly-plant-based is because I was frightened of the hellish treatment I’d receive if I did anything but. I also worried about losing or alienating the ethical vegans I’ve befriended here in the blogosphere over the years, all of whom I love and care about as friends and people, not as proponents of a particular diet and lifestyle—but I wasn’t sure they felt the same about me, despite my always being insistent that I wasn’t vegan, I was just mostly vegan.
Several months ago, I officially decided to resume the evolution, adaptation, and experimentation that always used to characterize my eating to begin with. It’s been refreshing, healing, and freeing. I think my health is finally back on track in many ways, and I wanted to share that with all of you. Those of you who are longtime readers no doubt recognized the initial shift last year—I rebranded my blog, from Almost Vegan to Chef Amber Shea, and began proudly declaring myself free of labels. I reframed my perceived plant-based stance as simply being passionate about plant foods, which was really the case all along. But that wasn’t enough. I continued posting pretty exclusively plant-based recipes, because I thought it’s what people wanted, and to be honest, I didn’t want to deal with the flack I would receive if I posted anything else. But it has become abundantly clear through this year especially that all this “trying to make everyone else happy” business has made me profoundly UNhappy, not to mention uninspired. I feel like the energy, enthusiasm, and personality with which I used to fill this blog has been zapped. Blogging does not excite me anymore, because I have felt unable to be myself on here. I understand that has largely been my own choice and fault. But if you’ve ever been in my position, you’ll know switching gears in this manner – knowing all about the misunderstanding, judgment, and hatred that are about to be directed your way – can be terrifying. Nonetheless, as of today, I am through letting everyone but me decide what my content will be and how accurately or inaccurately it will reflect my actual diet and beliefs.
So let me just lay it all out here. I’ll let this semi-recent post from my personal Facebook page speak for itself:
I’m not a vegan, because I regularly eat conscientiously-sourced animal-derived foods (and have never been ethically opposed to doing so). The amount has waxed and waned over the years, from none at all, to (lately) some each day, and that is how it should be.
I’m not a vegetarian, because I eat non-vegetarian foods too.
I’m not a whole-foods-ist, because I eat non-whole-foods whenever I want.
I’m not an organic foodist, because not everything I eat is (or can be) organic.
I’m not a raw foodist, because although I love raw food, it doesn’t make up the majority of my diet.
I’m not even a natural/”real” foodist, because I have no problem eating man-made food sometimes.
I’m not an allergen-free foodist, because I eat and enjoy gluten, soy, dairy, etc. (and have experimented more than enough to know my body handles them all perfectly well, thankyouverymuch).
I’m not even a healthy foodist—though this label seems to come closest to defining me, I always reserve the right to treat myself to something delicious and terrible-for-me. It’s good for my sanity.
I follow the Amber Diet. And my physical and mental health is finally on the upswing, after several years in the gutter. If you have a problem with that—it’s been nice knowing you!
Now, obviously that last sentence sounds so flippant only because I was speaking to friends! However, tone aside, I do mean it. I have made great strides in my mental and physical health in recent months by going back to basics, experimenting with my diet, correcting my often strained relationship with food, and re-learning to eat for the only two reasons I’ve ever wanted to eat: health and joy. Although I was never fully vegan, it’s safe to say my diet is less vegan now than it’s been in several years. This has not been an overnight shift, but a long, slow, comfortable, experimental progression. I don’t feel a need to “justify” it in detail, because no matter what I say, people will find (or make up, if they have to) reasons to be angry and hateful. The long and short of it is that I’m focusing on real, natural foods – same as always, just more omnivorous – and opting out of the industrial food system whenever possible (and always in regard to animal products specifically). Like I said, I’ve gone back to basics—my simple, non-stressful goal each day is to eat predominantly unprocessed, organic, conscientiously-produced, TASTY, real foods, with room here and there for a less-healthful or more-processed treat as I see fit.
Let me be particularly clear about one thing: my cookbooks, Practically Raw and Practically Raw Desserts, are and always will be 100% vegan. And I love them just the way they are, and wouldn’t change a thing about them! I am monumentally proud of them, and I continue to eat ALL the things they contain. For perspective, both books also happen to be gluten-free, [mostly] soy-free (a few recipes in PR use tamari or miso), and largely Paleo-friendly—but that doesn’t mean my whole diet is GF, soy-free, or Paleo (not even close!). My books contain a total of 240 recipes made up of nutritious ingredients, delicious combinations, and just plain real food. And that’s still what I’m all about. So it’s crucially important to me that no one think I’m “renouncing” any of the work I’ve ever done. I am most certainly not. My books are for everyone, and I adore them (and hope you do too!).
Nor am I turning around and bashing vegan diets or claiming they cause health failure. I’m not. First of all, “vegan food” is just food—and it’s delicious food, at that! More importantly, a vegan (or, as in my former case, an almost-vegan) diet works beautifully for many people, and I support anyone who wants to eat that way—but I also support anyone who wants to eat any other way. I support diet freedom and interdietary respect. I support label-free eating. I support change and growth. And I think anyone who believes they have health, wellness, and diet all figured out at age 20, 30, or 40 has a lot left to learn, and I worry about people cheating themselves out of health because they think there’s a universal ideal they have to stick to. I think that anyone who thinks health or nutrition is just a “simple” formula you can follow is incorrect and short-sighted. Those who think they have it all figured out are the ones who tend to understand the least about how bodies work and needs change—especially when that person tries to tell other people that they should all do the exact same thing to achieve health. There is no one right way. As I said at the beginning of this post, the more you think you know, the less you probably do know. Today I recognize that I know very little in the grand scheme of things—but I have, at last, re-learned to listen to my body and take care of it, even if that means displeasing other people.
For a multitude of reasons, it is vital to my well-being that I stop blogging, at least for now. I need to privately complete my process of rediscovering dietary freedom and joy in food. I am also, if nothing else, wise enough to know that my skin is thinner than I’d like to think it is when it comes to being eviscerated on the internet. So it is in my best interest to step away for awhile. If people are out there portraying me as a soulless villain, or talking gleefully about how I’m bound to die of cancer, I’d rather not hear about it. I have a real life to live. I have a family to hopefully start soon—something that was an impossibility with the state of my health before, but which I am ecstatic to say has now become possible again.
I’m not sure I’ll be gone forever. But two things are certain: one, that I will never return to blogging unless I can do so on my own terms, freely and joyfully, writing and posting and cooking and sharing only what my heart desires. If I were to come back, this site would become a much more open-minded and diverse (and less didactic and “health”-obsessed) place, with all types of eaters openly welcome and all types of food being showcased. And two, I don’t want to return if I’m not wanted. Part of the beauty of blogging, for me, is connecting with like minds, encountering cool people, building friendships, and learning new things. If there is one thing I ask of you, it’s this: let me know if you find my blog and writing valuable, and if you’d like to see me back, even if my content shifts to a more omnivorous, even-more-flexible perspective. And on the flip side of that, if you’re angry or disappointed to read all this, please keep it to yourself if you can stand to. It won’t have any bearing, let alone positive effect, on anything happening here. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it—just unsubscribe, unlike, unfollow, and be on your way. I support and encourage your desire to eat and live according to your ethics and what brings you joy and health. Please lend me the same courtesy.
I didn’t intend this post to be so lengthy! It’s been in the pipeline for a long time, and I still feel like I only touched the tips of many icebergs, but I hope you all understand what I’m saying, and why I’m leaving (for now). To everyone that has always been nothing but kind to me, I appreciate you more than you can know—always have and always will. Thank you so, so much for all your support over the years. And if you do indeed want me back—tell me. I may very well return. I do think that now, more than ever, I have a great deal of experience, ideas, food, and authentic self to share.
Meanwhile: go outside. Hug your family. Laugh with your friends. Work hard and play hard. Get enough sleep. Read. Experience. Keep life in perspective. Avoid negativity and unnecessary stress. Eat yummy food. Don’t define your self-worth by the number on the scale or the supposed “purity” of your diet. Keep your health in mind, but don’t let it become an obsession that rules you. At the end of your life, you won’t look back and dwell on the foods you did or didn’t eat, so don’t dwell on it now. Stop worrying about other people and what they do or say or think or feel or eat. Don’t be afraid to learn, change, grow, evolve. Find your joy, and live it.
To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. —Aristotle
P.S. Because I know this question will pop up: if you want help extricating yourself from the maze/cycle and escaping dietary dogma, nutritional prescriptivism, and/or restrictive eating, here are some rabbit holes I recommend going down:
P.P.P.S. I do have one more post coming up after this, as I don’t want this to be the final entry that remains up at the top of my blog forevermore. So look forward next week to my very favorite recipe from Practically Raw Desserts—you will LOVE it.