Being back in Argentina is reminding me that diet fluctuates.
When I travel I eat like the locals…almost.
For me food is an extremely important part of any culture. As both a lover of food and travel I want to immerse myself in the cuisine of each place I visit as fully as possible. However, as a long time vegetarian and a woman recovered from anorexia I find myself asking, how do I find a balance between staying true to my morals, staying healthy, and feeling the culture through food?
Before flying south almost a month ago I was “mostly vegan” and loving it. You’re probably asking, what the heck is “mostly vegan”?
For me becoming vegan was a gradual process. I jumped into the life of vegetarianism at the age of eight when I learned what was in a corndog and subsequently became a small outraged animal-rights activist. I have not looked back since. As I grew up, the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet added motivation to continue with my veggie lifestyle. Now, at 23, I’m a vegetarian for a mixture of those reasons as well as a grounded knowledge that I could never kill an animal and a belief that I should therefore not eat one.
I toyed with the idea of being a vegan for years. However, while living on my family’s farm with fresh eggs and goat cheese it just didn’t make sense and in college I worried about other things. Plus, I pride myself on being a good baker and vegan baking did not treat me well. It is so disappointing to have mushy muffins, let me repeat soooo disappointing. Then last year for lent I decided to experiment with being vegan, found a good vegan cookbook, and fell in love with vegan baking (when it’s done right, its amazing!). Still, I couldn’t give up my daily dose of Greek yogurt long term; the veganism didn’t stick.
Another important aspect of my relationship with food is my past with anorexia nervosa. I went through a period in late high school and early college when guilt, labels, and mental illness tainted my love of food. I felt awful about eating, I categorized whole food groups as “good” or “bad,” and as the eating disorder took over my being food became my enemy. I’ve worked hard through recovery to trust my body’s nutritional needs and become enamored with food again. Therefore, my past was another reason I did not become a hardcore vegan because I will never let myself be on a strict diet. It simply isn’t healthy for me. As my Mom says, “any diet that you don’t break 10% of the time isn’t healthy.”
Thus, the “mostly vegan.” Over the past six months I’ve felt a natural shift toward veganism. My body suddenly felt disgusted by the thought of eating eggs or cheese and I craved soymilk instead of my every-morning-for-four-years Greek yogurt breakfast. I’ve learned to listen to and respect what my body wants. That—along with my new passion for vegan baking and eating gobs of nuts—led me to eat fewer and fewer animal products. Thus, I naturally slipped into and embraced the vegan life.
But…and that’s a big but…there is still the “mostly.” I entirely trust my body and my self, however I do not trust that persnickety little voice of the last remnants of the eating disorder that lurk in the back of my head. I know that a change in my diet may trigger old habits of restriction and guilt, and therefore I’m careful. My veganism is different because black and white “can eat this” and “cannot eat that” are not allowed in my life. I need the nuance of gray and the safety of choice. Consequently, for all intents and purposes I am vegan…except for that healthy 10% when a friend makes enchiladas with cheese or I suddenly crave ice-cream or that ugly voice of the past says I shouldn’t eating something and I do eat it anyway, or I eat inordinate amounts of chocolate because I wouldn’t be Zoe without dark chocolate. Thus, I was “mostly vegan.”
And now I’m not. I am living in Argentina for three months and I want to experience the culture as deeply as possible. I speak in Spanish, I drink mate, I greet people with a kiss on the cheek, and I eat like the locals…mostly. Again, it’s a balance of listening to my heart, my mind, and my body. If I really wanted to be Argentinian then I would need to give into the pressure to eat the asado, blood sausage, chorizo, and meat meat meat. But I can’t; that would tip me too far off balance with the morals side of my equilibrium. Vegetarian I stay.
Vegan I do not. Although I can feel a difference physically, I’ve started eating dairy and eggs again. Partly this choice was forced as El Chalten (the small mountain town in Southern Argentina where I’ve been for the past month) has limited food options for someone on a travel budget. Some days the super market shelves are empty—especially in the fresh produce section—and you simply have to wait until the truck comes with the boxes of food from out of town. Additionally, I have yet to find a vegetarian dish in El Chalten that does not contain cheese. There seems to be the mentality of “You don’t eat meat? Ok, we’ll add more cheese.” Plus, the empanadas, pizza, and pasta that are so typical of Argentina just wouldn’t be the same without the cheese. Also, let’s be honest, good blue cheese or freshly grated parmesan are hard to beat! So, while I’m looking forward to being a vegan once I’m back in the states, for the time being I’m more than content to find a new balance.
Diet fluctuates for each of us. I believe there are seasons—of the year or of life—when our bodies and beings need different things. When traveling or when at home my goal is to listen to and respect those needs to find that every-changing balance that works for me. I hope you will do the same!
Photo: Taken by Mica Peker, La Tapera’s Semola Gnocchi with lots of cheese and cream and cheese!