Musings about health & happiness… oh, and the odd reference to vegetables

In the past couple of weeks my body has enjoyed somewhat of a vernal reawakening. My hibernatory tendencies in Winter are comforting, they allow a period of stability and they ease my path through the relentless dark nights. They are however, certainly not good for my health; my mind needs more adventure, my body needs less chocolate! With the coming of Spring however, the longer brighter days are fuelling mind and body alike. Again, my pursuit of health feels like a viable venture. Clearly the winter is not without health-giving activities and joyful moments, but at this time of year, the idea of health is almost palpable, almost like we wear it like a badge; our eyes, smile, skin, stance, weight, mass, indeed our whole body reflects our health or at least our conception of it. It is then, probably unsurprising, that when thinking about where next to head on my journey de blog, I found myself asking questions about the link between my health status and my choice of diet. It is clearly important for me to believe that my sedulous pursuit of Vegetarianism need not result in negative health implications.

It’s easy to form opinion about the health impact of being veggie. Whether you’re of the ‘you’ll never get enough protein and iron’ persuasion or the ‘eating less fat and avoiding the hormones in animal-feed has to be good’ school of thought, the existence of a link between a vegetarian diet and health status is pretty self-evident. The nature of that link however is rather more up for interpretation… and misinterpretation. There is a wealth of research it seems, and, as is the way, it rather depends on who you are and what you want from your research as to what outcomes you discern. Thankfully, you’ll be pleased to read, I have no intention of trying to present here any kind of scientifically rigorous summation – sadly I’m ill-equipped for such lofty tasks and I’m unsure if this would be particularly informative at any rate. Instead, I intend to look at my feelings about, and experiences of, veggie health – after all, like every other facet of human life, health experience is almost entirely subjective; a personal construct.

When I use the word ‘health’ here, I of course mean it neutrally and don’t intend to imply good or bad health. Health is actually a spectrum and where you find yourself on it depends us much on your outlook as on your body or mind. Let me introduce you to Aaron. He may be familiar to some of you, but for everyone else, Aaron Antonovsky is a health theorist, and a bit of a dude I reckon, as far as you can be in such circles anyway. I introduce him because of how he’s revolutionised how I look at my health. He describes how the convention in our society is to see health as a given, we are, if all goes well, born with health, thus our challenge is to replenish it whenever it is depleted by  a broken leg, a headache, or asthma say. With this way of thinking however, we set ourselves up to fail in our pursuit of health. Nothing is perfect in this world. If we are aiming to maintain 100% health, whatever that may mean, where does that leave those with genetic conditions, those born without limbs, etc? It creates the idea that these people are in some way deficient. But also for the rest of us, we’re on to a loser from the get go as we fumble around our less than perfect world – hence always feeling awful about ourselves; that we didn’t go to the gym 4 times that week but only 3, that we ate that extra doughnut. Our Aaron though, clever as he is, envisages health as a salutogenic concept. In essence, this means that we are born not with 100% health, but with the potential for health. Health then is something we continually build and contribute towards rather than trying to make up for the loss of it.  Thus it’s a positive concept and allows us to feel good that we at least went to the gym those 3 times and that we ate a wonderful balanced meal as well as that doughnut.  In this way, there is space for everyone to work towards their own level of ideal health; the mythical 100% perfection benchmark having been removed.

Ok, that’s the heavy bit over! I really wanted to share this with you, not just ‘cos I love it, but also because it is through a salutogenic lens that I view my own health. Not least in terms of the impact of vegetarianism on my body and mind. It’s very possible that eating meat or fish could benefit me, but not eating them is not a loss to my health, rather eating more vegetables, pulses, grains and other wholefoods is a boon to my health. At this moment in my life, it’s not possible to honestly say that I feel especially healthy but as I say, there is a reawakening taking place, I’m on a path back towards well-being – not some 100% ideal of health, but enough; the point of happiness. On more days than not, I walk taller and smile broader. My eyes brighten, my skin softens, my digestion regulates and my heart lightens. None of this need necessarily be about the longer days of Spring as I suggest at the beginning of this blog, but it is certainly in large part about feeling better in myself, something that is facilitated by the longer days. Ok, so why do I make this point? I mean to illustrate that although the existence of a link between being veggie and an effect on our health status is a given, I believe that there are in fact more fundamental determinants of health over and above our diet, seasonal weather being just one, and as such, we need to put dietary choice in perspective.

As I’ve said, I’m not denying that human biology is important here, obviously, otherwise malnutrition wouldn’t so effectively decimate populations. However, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a relatively guaranteed food supply, I suggest that the nutritional content of our food is only half the story – (though this is no excuse for gorging on fish finger and tomato ketchup sandwiches!). Of course I wonder whether meat or fish would boost my vitality, or whether a dearth in some random mineral is doing untold damage for the future, but these are ultimately fruitless thoughts unless I intend to do something about it, and current evidence suggests that I’m doing pretty well thank you and so should really get on and enjoy my food rather than overanalysing it. My belief then, is that nutritional balance is essential to health, but no more so than psychological balance for example – not to mention political, financial and social sustainability which are not the subject of this blog. It is the combination of all of which that dictates out health status.

For me, mental well-being is number one: happiness = health. Over the past ten years, I’ve enjoyed opportunities to teach innumerable groups of people about the sociology of health. One of my favourite exercises is a very simple one; to rank determinants of health, first individually and then trying to achieve consensus as a group. Clearly there is no ‘answer’ to such an exercise, but the heightened passions and convictions that are exhibited in the resultant debate are illustrative of the subject’s complexity. If nothing else, what always manifests itself from this exercise is a new and broader definition of health. Poverty, poor housing, family breakdown, workplace stress and innumerable other factors become health issues; though what about happiness and self-esteem? My linking self-esteem and health here assumes as given, that mental and physical well-being are deeply and incomprehensibly linked such that it is rare to enjoy one without the other and vice versa. One of my favourite ever quotes, and one that I used a lot with the young people I taught last year is from author and activist, Gloria Steinem. She says that “self-esteem isn’t everything, it’s just that there’s nothing without it.” The woman rocks! Self-esteem can be pretty elusive for many people. Consequently, a great deal of strain is placed upon our efforts to maintain happiness, and thus also on our pursuit of health.

All of this brings me, somewhat clumsily, back to my health status and the suggestion that although my vegetarianism is a factor in my well-being, it is in fact probably only a minor one and moreover, it is more likely to be a positive factor than a negative one. I have, over the past 17 years, not always been well, but of course not. I’ve had 2 years of life-stifling chronic fatigue, 12 years of peptic angst, 9 months of depression and a range of minor physical gripes. My response to each and every ailment of the past 17 years has always involved an evaluation of whether the lack of meat in my diet has been the root cause; had I brought it on myself? This idea stems from our society’s view of what will be ‘the inevitable consequences’ of being vegetarian. But I know my food, I know how to balance my nutrition and I ensure that, give or take a wobbly moment or two, I do so. More fundamentally, I get ill because I’m human! Of course I get ill, indeed the list of ills I present above is probably most noteworthy for how short it is I would suggest. And of course being vegetarian is only one of a massive range of factors determining my health over the period. So why have I insisted on a religious examination of my diet and how I’m ‘depriving’ myself of vital nutrients? Note to self; eat and enjoy! Within reason of course, I imagine the joy will more than compensate for the odd ‘doughnut moment’.  So yes, there are times when I’m not as healthy as I am able to be and there are ailments that I’d rather be free from, but really, does anyone know anyone for whom this is not true?  I doubt strongly whether meat is the ameliorism I’m looking for. Rather, treating myself well and giving my ‘self’ some care may in fact be a far more worthy challenger to the rigours of my spasmodically enervating life. The personal spring clean continues!

A Personal Spring Clean

I met someone new the other day. We talked, rather, we chatted, garrulously; about the weather, about  Ljubljana, about travel, our work, our music collections and a ream of other stock items that people turn to in those initial exploratory first meetings.  As is the way in plutonic conversations such as these, our menu of topics very much scraped the top soil of emotion, staying well away from any roots.  It is this emotional safety that enabled me to speak freely. Before long however, the topic of my purportedly grass-like diet surfaced and immediately I clammed up; reluctant to expound in a single conversation, what it has taken me half of my life to explore. At this moment I realised for the first time just how much of a disjunction exists between the view that Vegetarianism with a capital ‘v’ is only about what someone eats on a daily basis, and the notion that it is in fact an essential facet of who that person is. The problem is of course, that no one could reasonably be expected to know whether I write Vegetarianism with a capital letter or not when I first meet them! Note to self; lay off the disapproving attitude when randoms ask about veggiedom.  I was being asked about what I ate, but the question I heard was, who are you? what makes you tick? My reluctance to answer such a well-meant question, and one which was intended to be simple, does little to ingratiate me I’m sure. Equally however, having responded with a suitably neutral, ‘because it just feels like a good thing to do’ or ‘yes, I eat eggs, everyone has to draw a line somewhere’, the stream of flummery that follows in reply about a long established curiosity with vegetarianism, the best friend they once had who was Vegetarian, or the fact that they rarely eat meat and ‘might as well be vegetarian’, is, I must say, also far from ingratiating. Asking someone about their Vegetarianism then, can be personal, extremely personal; a conversation about being Vegetarian requires much more willingness to be open and to reveal oneself than would normally be expected when meeting someone for the first time. It might be akin to asking how someone feels about being Gay? Or what their Black skin means to them? It’s about Identity. Clearly I’m not suggesting that responding to questions about being a veggie is quite as challenging as the afore-mentioned, not remotely; Vegetarianism is not generally stigmatised, pitied, feared or subject to extremes of oppression or aggression, rather, I just want to make the parallel for myself to illustrate why I find the question ‘why are you Vegetarian?’ so hard to answer.

So, if I’m talking about Identity and questioning my vegetarianism, then ultimately I’m talking about changing my identity to some extent – sounds dramatic, but it’s not. Identity is fluid, our identities are ever-changing. Recently I finally acknowledged for myself that being single and flighty are also oh-too-dearly held identity markers for me. If I intend to move on, and I do, I need to really work on, not just the practicalities of changing these situations, but possibly more importantly, how I use these labels to identify myself. Along with being single and travelling round the world, choosing Vegetarianism belongs to 17 years ago. At 37 (near as damn it), I remain single and I still flit around the world like a 20 year old. Though just because I’m finally allowing myself to let these go, should not mean that being Vegetarian must necessarily go with it. My vice-like grip on the label however, I believe could beneficially be released?

Vegetarianism has become a marker of me as a young, idealistic liberal, but am I still that person? Answering ‘yes’ to this question is problematic as I’m clearly a very different person to the me of 17 years ago, however answering ‘no’ is also unsatisfactory as this would bring an abrupt end to my formative years. As I have just remarked, we are, of course, dynamic creatures and so aside the black and white, a little grey is needed here. I want to suggest that although I am still young, idealistic and liberal at heart, I no longer have anything to prove to anyone but myself. It is this which means that I no longer have need for an external method of demonstrating these traits – which crudely, is what Vegetarianism can be, and as I suggested in my last blog, is probably exactly what it was for me at 19. If this is true, it gives me ‘permission’ to stop being veggie, but it also certainly doesn’t oblige me to. Why should being veggie necessarily continue to be anything to do with identity? I have no intention to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the process of spring cleaning my life continues, and potentially washes away some of the hooks and labels that I’ve unquestioningly held dear for the last 17 years, I wonder whether my Vegetarianism will prove to be one of the most indelible?

It strikes me that identity is not just about how I see myself however, but also how I project myself to the world and how the world therefore sees me. I have to admit to loving my ‘Vegetarian’ label. Clearly when people first realise you are veggie they want to know more – it’s a subject that interests people, it’s a choice that most people can empathise with if not quite understand fully. It brings with it assumptions that I am healthy, principled, a passivist even. Regardless of the truth of these assumptions, I enjoy them; it’s what I want to be.  It’s also a hook for others to identify me with; to remember me, and don’t we all want that? Maybe I do still feel the need to ‘prove’ myself to others? For me, the most fascinating manifestation of these assumptions is when I tell someone about my dietary choices and they respond by saying ‘oh yes, you look vegetarian!’ – really? I do? Well, I guess to some extent there’s some sense to this; maybe I look like the stereotype of a Vegetarian. I’m thin, unshaven and generally I dress casually, it’s not much, but if you’re looking for a connection between me and the wider phalanx of Vegetarians, maybe it’s enough to assume we’re all emaciated pseudo-hippies? Can’t say as that idea bothers me too much, though I imagine if you’re a smart, buff, rugby-playing vegan, being lumped in to such assumptions will probably grate quite sorely. Anyway, this feels important. Not being able to tell someone I’m veggie; being yet another meat-eater, somehow feels disappointing. As much as stereotyping is dangerous, it also provides us with a sense of belonging, should we choose to accept it, and I want; I need it.