content warning: disordered eating, relapse, and depression.
let me begin by saying this is a delicate subject, inflammatory for many. and ultimately, my mantra with food (and life) is death to absolutism.
adaptability is the height of evolution. although i do adhere to a functional medicine-based approach to eating, i do not believe there is a universally optimal way of eating for every human. not only that, but i also believe that what is optimal to each of us changes throughout our lives. so it seems obvious to me that we should all learn to listen to our bodies so that we may continue to evaluate and make intuitive, nourishing choices for each new season of our lives.
and from a professional standpoint, my role as a coach is very different to that of a doctor or a nutritionist. while i make some suggestions for my clients in the way of food and supplements, i work mostly on helping individuals heal their relationship to food and eating. so in this sense, what i eat is completely irrelevant to what i teach.
but the journey i took and now embody, i think, is very interconnected. so, “long story short,” here it is.
i’d just finished my third yoga teacher training. it was intense and very challenging in a way that had nothing to do with asana.
the training was, as many are, completely vegetarian. four weeks of french toast, potatoes, noodles, rice, tofu. and eggs. (i hate eggs.)
my stomach was bloated and uncomfortable, but no matter how much i ate, i was always hungry. my skin was reacting. (i’d learned by this point in my recovery that eating grains too often caused me to have eczema on most of my body.) because of ingesting so much soy, my period was agonizing and painful, both physically and emotionally. i was erratic and irritable. plagued by nightmares, i rarely slept. i spent most of my days crying alone in my bungalow, asking myself how i would be able to get through another day, or whether it was worth it at all.
so there i was in paradise. in hell.
and the thing is, this was an all-too familiar experience.
in one way or another, i’d spent most of my life locked in a struggle with food. for me, the inciting trigger had always been anxiety. it acted as an appetite suppressant. and as i got into my teens, as the pressures of performance (i was an actor and dancer) and how i looked began to get to me, i leaned on my old habit of restricting my food intake to give me a sense of control. to give me edges in a jagged and blurry world.
i became vegetarian when i was 14 because my new best friend introduced me to the concept. (i’m from a very small town where chicken and fish were not considered meat.) but since i’d never eaten a lot of meat, once someone explained the concept to me, i was on board pretty quickly. not for any particular reason other than i think i liked feeling special and different.
in my final months at university, i discovered veganism. it was perfect. i could eat mountains of food for the first time in my life. stuffing my face with plate after plate of…vegetables! i lost weight and gained street cred! what more could i ask for?
liberated from the need to restrict and bolstered by a feeling of moral superiority, i moved through the world a new woman. i was proud of my recovery. i was proud of what a good, ahimsic person i’d become. i was proud to stop counting calories. (deliberately, anyway. i knew the calorie count of almost every ingredient on the face of the planet by that point, so i was still doing the math. just in my head instead of on paper. it’s actually a sick and ongoing joke in my life because anyone who knows me knows i’m really good at mental math. i tell people it’s because my dad taught me when i was young. and that’s true. but so is this.)
i can say this, veganism served me to a point. for the first time in my life, i began to ask questions about where my food came from. i began to see the harmful effects of factory farming. and like i said, it really did stop me from portion restriction and calorie counting.
but eventually, it caused me a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.
so the first time i shit my pants…it was actually a skirt.
by this point i’d been vegan for about two or three years. loud and proud. (and by that i mean preachy. and angry. really, really angry. looking back, this may have been from a lack of nutrients.)
it’s worth noting that i’m sure there are other ways of being vegan, and that other people’s bodies respond differently. again, this is my personal story and experience. death to absolutism.
anyway, like i said. i shit myself.
driving down ludlow in cincinnati, flinging poop out of my car window with one hand while i steadied the wheel with the other.
no, no. go ahead and really take the time to visualize that. i drove a silver honda accord. with personalized license plates. you’re welcome.
i got home, scrubbed my car, scrubbed my ass, saved my skirt (and very expensive shoes), and called my friend. (shout out to you, marie, thank you for being literally the only human who suggested i go to the hospital. what the actual fuck is my life.)
so just notice how i said, “the first time i shit myself,” because, as you might have guessed. it wasn’t the last.
a lot changed in my life unrelated to my newfound hobby of abruptly losing control of my bowels. and i moved to korea.
in korea, i shit myself in elevators, while walking, in bed, and of course, many times in bathrooms. i shit myself alone, with friends, and with my new puppy, henry.
i was rushed to the ER many, many times. tests came back inconclusive. doctors’ reasons for my body suddenly rejecting potty training varied and never made very much sense. they talked more than once about potentially altering my intestines with surgery.
i was in my mid 20s and very attached to every bit of intestine i had. so that was a no for me.
one doctor actually did suggest eating meat. i was not only not open to it, i felt judged and ridiculed by him, and i became very angry, storming out of the room, IV stand in hand.
korea was not my forever home, either.
for me, it wasn’t a very easy place to live. the weather is harsh, and the working conditions are often harsher. i put in 60 hour weeks across three jobs and spent my weekends in a blur of side hustles, shopping sprees, and pizza and beer.
of course, every meal was poop roulette.
there were days i’d eat like trash, and i’d feel as good as ever. and other days where i felt i was being very careful only to end up back in the hospital.
it wasn’t until i moved to saigon that things really began to improve for me.
saigon is still my most favorite city on earth. at the time of this writing, i left two years ago, and i have yet to stop missing it.
and while saigon is amazing in her own rite, the choices that i made there made all the difference.
when i arrived to saigon, i made drastic, dramatic, extreme, 180-degreee changes in my life. i mean, really huge. i stopped spending money i didn’t have, and i cut my working hours to under 20 a week. i stopped talking to every single person who upset me, and i maintained a really healthy handful of friendships. i tried new things. i dated new men. i slept sometimes more than 12 hours a night. i moved into an apartment building with a pool and went swimming and laid in the sun every single day.
a few months later, i moved to a little house (that i lived in until i moved five years later) and opened my studio, home yoga saigon.
my entire life was built in accordance to my desires.
eventually a friend of mine, ironically vegan, introduced me to my first ever functional medicine doctor. he said, “look rae, i respect your morals, and if you want to stay vegan while we try to eliminate the foods that might be causing your issue,” (that had, by the way, eventually been informally diagnosed as crohn’s disease) “but this might take a long time and be very stressful for you.”
and after years of seeing the inside of more emergency rooms than i had hotel rooms, i said, “if it’s them or me, doc. i want it to be me. i want to live.”
and the next morning, i had a steak for breakfast.
four days later, my symptoms disappeared completely. and i haven’t seen them since.
my digestion was shot.
the years of not listening to my body’s agony had taken their toll. and though my body was responding so very quickly and healing in miraculous ways, there were very few things i could eat. mostly, i spent the better part of a year eating organic meat, very well cooked green vegetables, and small amounts of tropical fruit.
i meticulously did everything that functional medicine doctor recommended, including taking supplements, going to bed at the same time each night, minimizing stress, and going off of hormonal contraceptives. (i believe this is one of the biggest factors in my healing journey.)
so here i was, the give me vegan or give me death girl who’d actually had to make that choice.
i chose life.
and i lost a lot of friends in the process.
but i’d gained a lot, too. and i’d gained a better understanding, even still, of where my food came from, of how the matrix of privilege and the erasure of indigenous wisdom impacted popular opinion of food, and of the destructive nature of factory agriculture. (everyone wants to talk about factory farming, and i certainly agree that it’s atrocious. but if you’re talking about factory farmed animals and ignoring the violence and harm caused to the environment and our bodies by factory farmed corn, soy, and wheat, you are missing a huge piece of the puzzle.)
and i spent a few great years this way. slowly adding foods back into my diet. white rice. chickpeas. cashews. more vegetables and herbs. salads. caffeine (a huge win). even the occasional alcoholic drink. and my body received it all with grace. it was a miracle.
until i went back to bali.
cue the crying on the floor, where we started this journey.
being in this really intense container, spending my days in stressful social situations, and having no control whatsoever over what i could choose to eat. it was too much. i felt triggered. i felt actually insane. i felt isolated. i felt irate and lost and all the more ashamed, since i’d believed i’d put all of this behind me.
it was an incredibly dark time.
eventually, i realized that, yes, i’d been here before. but i’d also gotten myself out of the darkness before. which meant i could do it again.
i came back to vietnam, and i knew by this point that i’d be leaving asia in the nearish future. but i used all the tools i had, emotionally, mentally, and of course, in the kitchen, so that i could feel like myself again.
and i did.
and i promised to share this story, and to use my own healing journey to help others. i brought a group of yoga practitioners for a retreat in cambodia, and i made sure they all knew meat was on the menu if they wanted it. i rid myself of the incongruent beliefs that, though “we were all one,” the vegan ones were better than everyone else.
while i’ve been helping individuals heal their relationship to food and their bodies for some time now, i have never told this story in public before now. it was still too delicate. i didn’t have any fight in me to defend myself.
but i don’t need to defend myself anymore.
i own my story, and i stand firmly in my decisions.
i’ve expanded my understanding of the intersection of food, the body, human ancestry, agriculture, indigenous traditions, native foods, invasive species, nutrition, carbon footprints, glyphosate, regenerative farming, topsoil. you name it. i’ve poured over case studies, taken courses, and tried every different variation on how-to-eat under the sun.
and somewhere in the midst of all of that, it’s where i am.
a typical day for me goes like this.
i wake up and drink water.
i make organic, free trade coffee in my french press. usually black. sometimes i add coconut milk from a can.
i’m not usually hungry until around noon, and i generally eat organic meat, and a lot of vegetables.
typically i have some fruit for a snack.
sometimes nuts and olives. sometimes dark chocolate.
i take a lot of vitamins and supplements.
i probably have another snack.
for dinner, it could be soup, curry, noodles, and so many vegetables.
there is usually more chocolate. or cut up veggies with nutritional yeast, olive oil, and salt.
i live in mexico, too, though, and when i’m traveling, i eat whatever i like, whatever that region is known for. i love tacos (corn tortillas). i love chilaquiles and enmoladas and tlayudas.
it’s not restrictive in any way anymore. i eat when i’m hungry. i eat, too, though, when i’m tired or stressed sometimes. and i don’t judge myself. i probably eat more before my period. i eat while watching netflix, too, sometimes. i never eat in my bedroom because i think it’s weird. i eat because it’s delicious. i love cooking my meals. i love trying new things, even though i never follow a recipe. i love going to the mercado to buy the freshest ingredients. i love my vegetable man, and my butcher. i have so much respect for every iota of life that becomes my food. i am so grateful for every, healing bite. and i am so grateful for the person i had to become in order to receive my meals like this.
and in this way, i am free.