No Meat, No Dairy, No Eggs--No Food?
Goodbye delicious juicy hamburgers on the grill. Goodbye refreshing sweet ice cream on a hot summer's day. Goodbye ham and cheese omelets that melt in my mouth. Hello...tofu? I've been eating a vegan (plus fish) diet for the last three weeks and I've been pretty diligent about sticking with it, hoping it will help calm down my RA. Amazingly I haven't thrown in the towel yet, especially for cheese (I love cheese so much!), which makes me feel proud of my willpower. However, I am starting to get rather sick of veggie burgers and hummus. I fear I'm going to turn into a chickpea pretty soon.
Integrative medicine for RA
What prompted this major diet change is that I've been seeing an integrative medicine provider since June. I decided to go to this integrative clinic basically out of a kind of desperation I suppose; I'm really frustrated and anxious about the RA flare in my ankles (and sometimes hands) that I've been battling against since April. If I could help calm my RA inflammation and pain by changing my diet, taking certain supplements, exercising, getting more sleep, and trying other "alternative" treatments in addition to my prescription RA medications, I was willing to seriously give those things a try for the first time.
I've been so fed up with this "roller coaster" flare that just won't seem to go away, and being stuck taking various doses of prednisone seemingly forever. I'm sick of the pain and the swelling. I'm sick of the fatigue and weight gain. I'm sick of feeling depressed and anxious and being immobile. If alternative treatments help some people with RA, especially diet changes, then now is the time to make these changes myself, I decided, and see what happens.
Eating whole foods and avoiding gluten
Since the end of April, I've already been trying hard to eat whole foods (no preservatives, no chemicals, no fake ingredients) as well as being gluten-free. This was a difficult change compared to my usual diet that included a lot of bread, mounds of pasta, chips, refined sugary treats, processed junk, and a Diet Coke and coffee addiction. I thought I was doing so great being junk-free and gluten free, however I noticed that my RA wasn't getting any better.
Once I started seeing the integrated provider, she stressed that it would be best for me to eat a vegan diet--no meat, dairy, eggs, or any other animal products--with the exception of fish (for increased omega-3 fatty acids). She also said that being gluten-free right now wasn't that big of a concern and it was more important to eliminate animal products from my diet.
Trying a mostly-vegan diet
I had tried being dairy-free in the past and it wasn't too hard, but I had never given up meat. What will I do for protein? What's going to fill me up? Fruits and vegetables? And the biggest question in my mind was: How am I going to cook vegan food? I'm not a great cook or very knowledgeable about food in the first place. I feared this was going to be a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming endeavor. But! If it noticeably helps my RA, I'll do it!
And I am doing it. I've been getting into the habit of cooking more and trying new foods and recipes--I love zoodles (zucchini noodles)! Instead of milk in my cereal and coffee I've been washing my vegan-friendly food down with almond milk. My favorite brand of almond milk I've discovered is Califia Farms, unsweetened, which has 35 calories per serving. It tastes better than soy milk and the lower calories are great! Sometimes I do drink soy milk though, if I'm out of almond milk or if I'm getting coffee or eating out in public and almond milk isn't available.
Cheese is still very hard to give up right now; I miss those tasty slices of swiss, pepper jack, and cheddar or feta cheese crumbled into Greek or Cobb salads. I was babysitting my twin toddler nieces the other day and while making their lunch--ham, cheese, and veggie wraps--I almost couldn't control myself from popping a piece of colby jack into my mouth. What's the harm in one little piece of cheese, right? Well, I knew deep down that if I wanted to give this diet a real try, then I had to follow it faithfully. And were a few moments of me chomping on a small piece of cheese really worth it? No, I don't think so.
Finding alternatives to meat
Even more difficult than giving up my precious cheese, is giving up all meat except fish. I don't really like fish that much, other than basic sushi rolls, so this doesn't seem like much of a consolation. I've never been a big meat eater, actually. And I suppose I'm one of the few weirdos who doesn't go crazy for steak (I could care less about it). But totally giving up foods like chicken and turkey and sausage and the occasional cheeseburgers I love is a real sacrifice.
So what's the alternative? Soy. Beans. Lentils (I'm still not even sure what these are). VEGGIE BURGERS. I admit, I've been going a little nuts with the veggie burgers during these three weeks, and I think now is the time to find some new foods so I don't have veggie burger burnout and vomit at the mere thought of them. The same thing goes for all of the hummus and guacamole I've been consuming, due to still trying to be as gluten-free as possible.
Are there vegan support groups out there for people eating this way for health reasons? A lot of what I've found online so far are websites geared towards hardcore, almost militant vegans who have fierce moral convictions regarding eating animals. I am not like these people. I have no problem eating animals--well, unless I stop and think about it too much. But otherwise, no, I'm not a crazy food fascist. I am, however, conscious about buying non-GMO, organic, and ethically-raised food. Organic and responsibly harvested eggs? Give 'em to me! Well...not anymore. Sob.
Rather than dwelling on all of the food I can't have now, I'm trying to be positive and find happiness and excitement in discovering new tasty vegan and gluten-free foods. I'm also happy that these diet changes have gotten me to cook more (and hopefully improve my skills). Summer has been a great time to make these diet changes; so many fruits and vegetables being available and in-season makes vegan cooking much easier, I think, and more fun.
Noticing a change in my symptoms
So after three weeks of vegan eating, have I seen any changes in my RA? Yes, I think I have. The main things I've noticed are that both of my ankles are much less swollen than they usually are. I now find myself doing double takes when I look down at my feet and see almost skinny ankles! I think I can even see a bone sticking out from the left one. Amazing! The "bad" right foot and ankle still hurts and is swollen, but thanks to two surgeries with probable scar tissue and other damage, I don't expect that one to shrink back down to pre-RA size and shape. Still, I'm incredulously happy at the change of appearance in my feet and ankles.
Also quite recently, the intermittent pain and swelling in my fingers has gotten a lot better. Whew. Maybe it's the Humira finally kicking in? Or the diet? I'm not sure, but whatever is going on, I'm happy about it. I've started tapering down on my prednisone, too. I had been locked-in at 15 mg for months and now I'm down to 10 mg. I really hope this downward trend continues.
It feels way longer than three weeks that I've been eating a vegan (plus fish) diet, but I'm choosing to remain focused, positive, and hopeful about it. Changing my diet has been very difficult, emotionally and physically, yet empowering at the same time. I finally feel that I have regained some control of my life, and that RA doesn't have the ultimate power to boss me around and run everything. For this, I am willing to give up my precious cheese, burgers on the grill, and Mom's homemade potato salad.
One final thought or plea: If any of you out there are also vegans and/or know of good recipes or websites, please feel free to share them!
Do you have an RA energy vampire in your life?