Editors Note: At Gnarly we don’t advocate a particular diet and this article isn’t intended to be a statement ‘for’ or ‘against’ veganism. We are sharing this article as we believe it provides an interesting take on some of the many complicated variables that lead us to make decisions about our diet.
It had just begun to snow heavily when I stepped into a grocery store in South Lake Tahoe to warm up.
“What do I even need in here?” I thought to myself.
It hit me as suddenly as the snow had begun to fall.
Cottage cheese — I really wanted cottage cheese.
I am no expert, but consensus is that cottage cheese sits firmly at the bottom of the barrel in the cheese world, perhaps not even rising to the level of a real cheese. A vegan for nearly seven years, I had fantasized about what I would eat if I were to return to my former diet. I imagined juicy steaks, cheeseburgers and brie, not eating a tub of cottage cheese alone in my van.
But, I had never before felt such a perceptible, specific craving. It felt like I needed that cheese.
I hesitatingly ate a spoonful. If the past was any indicator, a few hours later I would suffer some unfortunate digestive problems.
“It’s so good” I murmured as I downed the entire tub.
To my surprise, I slept soundly that night without any stomach issues.
In late 2013, I adopted a plant-based diet because I felt passionately that the environmental impacts of animal derived products were unjustifiable. I never preached this to others, only responding honestly if someone asked why I was a vegan. My transition was a slow process; I began by cutting out dairy due to digestive issues, but eventually stopped eating meat. Being a vegetarian who didn’t eat meat or fish quickly led to veganism, as I only needed to eliminate eggs. However, when I shifted to a vegan diet, I told myself that no cause was worth compromising my health over.
The honest truth is, I always felt great as a vegan; this helped me stick to the diet for nearly seven years. While eating vegan, I maintained high energy, almost never became sick and my digestive issues disappeared. At the time I was seriously running and did not notice a change in my performance, I simply had to eat more frequently. I would like to think I was thoughtful with my diet, ensuring it was varied and provided me with enough macronutrients. For example, I always made sure I took a vegan protein powder immediately after training, and was conscientious about natural protein sources, such as soy.
Despite my good energy and health I began considering changing my diet years before I found myself in South Lake Tahoe. When I began to become more serious about climbing, It crossed my mind that although I was steadily improving, perhaps my diet was holding me back. Since I was a vegan for the entirety of my climbing career, I had no control with which to compare my experience. Was I really giving myself every advantage to gain strength and power? Was being a vegan- which felt great in 2013 when I was a serious runner and occasional climber, still an appropriate diet in 2017, when I shifted to being an occasional runner and a serious climber?
This line of reasoning only grew in intensity when I was diagnosed with RED-S. The experience showed me that while I could feel great and improve in my sport, it didn’t necessarily mean I was healthy. Could this apply to veganism as well? Could I feel great on the diet, but not know that it may not be the best choice for me? Or, more frighteningly, was RED-S a result of my veganism?
As I considered changing my diet, I wrestled with my ethics — why was it suddenly okay for me to change my behavior, especially if I felt well? How could I successfully resolve the conflict between what I intuitively felt , that my body might perform better with animal products, and what I knew was a more environmentally friendly diet? When I made the pact to myself to prioritize health, did the pursuit of gaining even the smallest of edges in my climbing, without real proof that my diet was affecting my performance, qualify as a justifiable reason to abandon veganism?
When I tried to look at this conflict pragmatically, I always landed on the side of continuing my veganism. I was healthy , enjoyed a plant-based diet and felt good about my choices. I was not convinced I should switch my diet.
My whispers of doubt had grown larger a few months before I walked into that grocery store. At that time,I was training hard for a hard climbing goal. When I felt a twinge in my finger, I ignored it, driven by the feeling that I was reaching a pinnacle in my career, a culmination of years of dedication and hard-work. I was walking the razor edge line between injury and peaking and I stumbled hard, sustaining a serious finger injury.
Although it is clear to me that this was brought on primarily by my own stubbornness, I wondered if I could have made it further along that razor thin line with a different diet. These thoughts unfurled and grew over the course of my recovery time.
So, when I felt such a specific craving for dairy, I listened. It made me feel good, scratching an itch I was not aware that I had. The floodgates opened; beef tacos, ice cream and pizza came rushing through. My years of logical reasoning – that I had no hard data indicating that veganism was holding me back – were thrown out the door by one moment.
As I navigated through my choices, I found myself at a crossroads between two lines of thinking – data-driven, logical reasoning versus emotional and intuitive understanding. While I’ve always believed that science does and should inform performance, health and pain management I also appreciate that no one athlete is the same and therefore the outcome of a diet or a training plan will always be garbled by noisy variables, unexplained differences in a population. Some will thrive on a vegan diet, others will not.
However, the advice “listen to your body” seems to be one of those few universal rules we all try our best to follow. Every good diet or training plan is always prefaced by one iteration or another of this fundamental rule- “do this, unless it doesn’t feel right. Listen to your body”
Because I’ve always found my own signals to be noisy and difficult to decipher, I try to err on the side of choices that are based mostly on logic, following through with diets or exercises I felt were founded in good science or reasoning.
That evening in the grocery store the signal was crisp and clean, the kind of unignorable message I very seldom get in life. As I changed my diet it prompted me to examine other aspects of my lifestyle.
When I started on the path of veganism, I recognized that my individual actions would likely never make a dent in the global climate and environmental crisis. Fundamental shifts simply won’t happen without systematic policy changes. I became vegan for personal reasons- it made me feel good to align my choices with what I felt was ethical, even if one could argue it was pointless.
As I looked at my diet, I reminded myself that I have never believed nor advocated that being vegan is the only way to exist in a somewhat sustainable manner. One’s own carbon footprint is not made up of one singular choice, but rather is an amalgamation of many habits. When I examined my way of living seven years ago, it felt like the simplest and most effective way to reduce my impact was to change my diet. Now the story is more complicated. I hope to make my own approach multifaceted, reducing my consumption of meat and dairy rather than eliminating it, and taking measures to reduce my footprint in other areas, by traveling less, for example.
Still, all I really know is that I was told to change—
this time, I chose to listen, with an ear atune and a flexible mindset, ready for the next message.
Jasna Hodžić is an avid rock-climber, runner and researcher. When she began to climb, she became fascinated by the processes that shaped the ecosystems around her. Following this muse, she began graduate school at the University of Washington to study plant ecology. Prior to this, she worked as an accomplished and award-winning photojournalist.
You can find more of her writing and photography at www.jasnahodzic.blog.
Jasna Hodžić photos by Chris Weidner, @christopherweidner and M. Humphrey, @noskinleft