Four years ago when Linz and I started this blog I never would have guessed how it would look today or the variety of content we would publish here. I love that getting to have our own piece of the interwebs has meant in part that we get to share the stories and ideas of many talented people. Today I am really excited about an interview I did with one of my mentors from Humboldt State. Jen is an amazing person. She has an incredible drive to question everything in the best way possible. Her love of life has pushed her to constantly examine her choices and how she sees the world. I wanted to interview Jen during our series on Food because I knew Jen approached her relationship to what she consumed with the same thought and care she does everything.
You and I have talked a lot about having to adjust your eating habits after going gluten free, but let’s rewind the story and go back to why you made this change in the first place. Can you share a bit about the journey you took to discover that you had celiac disease?
I ran a marathon in 2001 and continued running almost on a daily basis until August 2003 when I woke up one morning and didn’t feel right. I was fatigued, I had brain fog, body aches, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues; these symptoms were new to me as I rarely if ever experienced any one of them, let alone all of them at the same time. These symptoms progressively worsened; I went from running 5 miles a day to not being able to walk around the block. I also started experiencing neurological symptoms, brain fog and lightheadedness to the point of feeling like I was going to pass out about 30 times a day. Doctors had no idea what I had. They thought I had a brain tumor so I received a CT Scan. They thought I had MS because of tingling sensations in my extremities, so I had an MRI. They thought I had Addison’s Disease because of my severely low blood pressure. Over the course of 6 months I had blood tests for every disease/condition imaginable, everything turned out negative. I even went to an ENT because they thought it could be an inner ear problem. I lost weight and was in a constant state of sickness; at this point I just wanted a diagnosis. I had dinner with a friend who’s a teacher and was describing my symptoms to her. She told me that a colleague of hers has a daughter who recently had been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance. I didn’t even know what gluten was. I went home and started researching on the internet and was elated to discover that these people’s stories mirrored my experiences exactly. I immediately eliminated gluten from my diet and within 2 days I was a new person. I felt fantastic! The fog had been lifted, my energy was back, my stomach wasn’t in knots, and I was certain I was cured. Except I started feeling fatigued again, my stomach was upset, and the brain fog would come and go. So I did more research and discovered the many hidden sources of gluten. I had been drinking a 100% juice that had natural flavors as an ingredient. I called the company and discovered that the 100% juice was not gluten-free; they put gluten in the natural flavors as a binding ingredient. After eliminating this juice from my diet, I went back to feeling fantastic. The more I educated myself on the gluten-free diet and how even a miniscule amount of gluten can make me sick, the better I felt. The more control I had over my diet (eating in rather than eating out) the better I felt. I eventually found a holistic doctor a few months after going gluten-free. She diagnosed me with probable Celiac. She said that in order to do a stomach biopsy to test for Celiac, I would have to eat gluten for 3 months. My doctor didn’t think that made sense since I was so sick for so long and told me that many doctors are satisfied with the “gluten challenge” test – eliminate gluten then introduce it back, if you get sick, then don’t eat gluten. She also said that blood tests were often falsely negative. This is my 10th year gluten-free. I’m actually grateful all it took for me to feel better was eliminating gluten from my diet as I’d rather change my diet than take prescription medication.
When did you decide to become a vegan and why was that an important choice for you?
I decided to become vegan in the fall of 2011 and made the change in the new year, January 2012. I had been thinking about veganism for years. When I moved back to the States from Korea in the summer of 2000, I temporarily lived with a college friend of mine who’s vegan and a bunch of his vegan friends. Back then I thought veganism was too radical for me, but I admired their lifestyle choice. When I moved to Ithaca in 2007, a friend of mine invited me to attend Friday Dinner (an Ithaca tradition) with her. Every Friday for the past 18+ years, Priscilla and Lewis host dinner in their home for their friends and community members. They cook a homemade 3-course dinner: soup, main platter, and dessert. Everything is macro, vegan, gluten-free, local, organic, whole foods, plant based. Friday Dinner is the best “restaurant” in Ithaca and I started going on a regular basis. But then my life changed dramatically and I stopped going to Friday Dinners for a year+ until the summer of 2011 when I decided to take my partner Eric for the first time. A serious omnivore/carnivore, Eric actually loved the food. Around this time, I reconnected with a high school friend of mine, Steve Glover a.k.a. Steve-O. Steve called to ask me to be interviewed for an MTV show featuring him. We caught up with each other and I learned not only had he been sober for a number of years, but he’s also adapted a vegan lifestyle for the past few years. (Check out Steve-O’s short video produced by Farm Sanctuary: “What Came Before.”) Steve and I and some of our high school friends all met up for a weekend in D.C. in early December 2011. By this time I had already made the decision to go vegan in the new year and Steve further inspired me. Eric and I went to AZ for the holidays and spent time with a college friend of mine who had been vegan for a year and learned from her many ideas for recipes. She had gone vegan for health reasons. My primary reason for going vegan was to try to live a more compassionate lifestyle and be more congruent with my social justice values. Also I had been in denial that I was lactose intolerant because I loved cheese. I hadn’t eaten meat in years, but I was addicted to cheese. Eric and I read “The 30 Day Vegan Challenge” and were ready to go when we got back home from our holiday visit to AZ. Eric decided to make the 30 day vegan challenge a bet to see how long we could last. He thought I would break by eating cheese. What he failed to realize was that I was fully committed, mind-body-spirit, to being vegan for life. The transition was very easy for me. I don’t miss cheese at all. For Eric, it was tougher. Despite all the health benefits (losing 25 lbs, his cholesterol levels dropped dramatically, his blood pressure is perfect, he feels great), it took Eric a good 6 months to be fully committed to veganism, and a good year to develop his own personal narrative for why veganism is his chosen lifestyle and to then share his story with others in an inspirational way. I admire Eric’s commitment to being vegan because he literally went from eating anything he wanted to veganism overnight. When making a dramatic dietary and lifestyle change, it’s really important to have the support of those closest to you.
You realized you had celiac disease because of your health problems and of course noticed an immediate change in your health for the better when you stopped eating gluten. Did you notice a change in your health once you became a vegan?
My stomach is definitely happier to not have to try to process dairy. Other than eliminating cheese and the occasional eggs, my diet is pretty much the same as it was, except I’ve developed a penchant for kale. I especially love raw kale salads, but I also purchased a dehydrator and make raw kale chips. I eat more beans, nuts, seeds, and tofu. I feel healthier overall. But it is easy to be a junk food vegan.
Has your relationship with animals changed after becoming a vegan?
I read this recently and believe it at its core: “It may be possible to practice ethical behaviors without real compassion, but it is not possible to really feel compassion and not act ethically… It is because the grossest examples of cruelty take place behind closed doors that the public can stand to be economically complicit. The public’s participation in institutionalized systems of oppression is contingent upon their willingness to be kept in a state of denial about the details. People tell themselves the incidents of cruelty are somehow nonexistent, inconsequential, or worse yet, justified, and in doing so they are allowed to continue their lifestyles unaltered.” By eating dairy and eggs, I actively chose to ignore the horrific conditions animals endure in factory farms. I chose to ignore the cruel and bloody byproduct of the meat industry by wearing leather. I chose to love my cat and dog, while simultaneously disrespecting in the harshest of ways animals we violently use and consume and torture and mutilate, all because there’s a demand for cheese and meat and eggs. We live in a postindustrial society where it is not necessary for our health, and even detrimental, to eat flesh or consume the byproducts of animals or use their skin for fashion. Ours is a society based on systems of oppression and we continually oppress sentient beings despite being “civilized”. The more people choose to adapt a vegan lifestyle, the greater possibility of raising healthy generations that are not dependent on a broken health care system and the pharmaceutical industry. The greater possibility of saving our planet from environmental degradation and natural habitat destruction. The greater the possibility that we may feed the world’s hungry by growing plant based whole food rather than destroying rain forests for cattle grazing so we can have our burgers and steaks. Yes, my relationship with animals has changed by becoming vegan, but more profoundly, my understanding of the true interconnectedness of life has been most salient and life-altering for me. Check out NonViolenceUnited.org and watch their positive short video, “A Life Connected.”
Have you found a sense of community in being gluten free and vegan? Do you consider the gluten free and vegan communities two separate entities, or is there some cross-over?
I talked about Friday Dinner earlier – Eric and I go every Friday if we’re in town. Also my vegan friends and I have monthly gluten-free vegan potlucks; we rotate houses/hosts and have themes. A vegan friend of mine hosts an Ithaca Vegan Drinks night once a month; she chooses a local pub, bar, lounge, and all the vegans come out to socialize together. Another gluten-free vegan friend of mine hosts a vegan film series for the Ithaca community, and has a food justice based educational non-profit. I’ve found the vegan community to be very accommodating to the GF diet and vice versa.
Does everyone in your household also eat a vegan, gluten free diet? If not, how has it worked to have multiple types of diets in one home?
Eric and I are gluten-free vegans. Eric’s teenage daughter lives with us part-time. She is not vegan or gluten-free, but our house is. She’s happy to eat vegan and gluten-free when she’s with us. My dog, Kimchi, is vegan at home. When we’re not at home, she eats whatever she wants. Sadly my cat, Soju, passed away. Soju was a carnivore and loved tuna (cats are carnivores, dogs are omnivores, so dogs can easily adapt to a vegan diet).
How has your connection to food changed since making your dietary changes?
I am much more knowledgeable about food justice, where my food is coming from, and the benefits of a whole foods plant based diet.
I think a lot of people would feel at a loss to understand what kinds of meals a gluten-free, vegan diet would include. Walk us through a sample menu for a typical day.
For this, I’m going to refer to a few websites:
By Any Greens Necessary
Vegan Soul Food Chef, Bryant Terry
The Great Life Cookbook (authored by Priscilla & Lewis who host Friday Dinner)
You can basically eat whatever you usually would eat. So for example, for breakfast you might have cereal (vegan cereal with vegan milk) or a bagel (with vegan cream cheese) or scrambled eggs (tofu scramble with veggies) or pancakes or waffles, all of which can be made vegan. I think a green smoothie or fruit smoothie is an excellent breakfast, or GF oatmeal. I even have quinoa for breakfast sometimes. For lunch, you could have a salad, rice or noodle dish, veggie burger, veggie sandwich, etc. For dinner, you could have BBQ tofu, veggies, salad, whole grain dish, etc. Anything that you eat now, you can eat vegan/GF. Lasagna, mac n cheese, there’s a ton of new vegan fake meat products out there for those who must eat “meat”. But besides all the stuff you’re used to eating, there’s a whole lot of new creative culinary treats you can eat – definitely check out those websites above.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Being a lover of sweets, I’m also interested to hear what a favorite dessert might be for you.
I love pasta. Tinkyada makes a delish gluten-free brown rice pasta. I also love pizza. There’s a local bakery that’s developed a delicious GF/V pizza crust. I eat ho fun noodles at least once a week, stir fried with veggies and tofu. I bake all the time. My favorite cookbook (and bakery) is BabyCakes NYC. I really like chocolate chip cookies and make them often. I also like apple crisp. And a friend of mine makes a delish GF/V cheesecake. I also make cupcakes a lot. And I’ve made donuts too.
How often do you eat out? Do you feel limited in your opportunities to dine out?
I actually eat out often. I have a favorite Korean restaurant I go to to eat soon dubu jee gae (spicy soft tofu soup). We also eat Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian food. There are a number of restaurants in Ithaca that have gluten-free menus. There’s a pizza place that has a GF/V pizza crust. There are some limitations to eating out, but for the most part it’s just a matter of knowing which restaurants are safe to eat at. When we go to NYC, there’s so many choices we end up eating our way through the city.
What about eating over at friend’s houses, do you tend to bring your own food or are your friend’s able to whip up some yummy gluten-free, vegan dishes for you?
My friends all know I’m gluten-free vegan, so they are prepared. But also I will almost always bring a dish.
You are a world traveler. When I travel, I often have to make concessions with my own dietary preferences in order to experience the culture, or simply to get by and eat. How has your diet affected the way you travel?
Unfortunately, I haven’t traveled internationally since becoming vegan. But there are many resources out there to ensure I can eat GF/V. VegNews magazine regularly features travel destinations and reviews of restaurants in many cities.
What has surprised you most about making your dietary changes?
Being GF/V is not restrictive, it actually is an opportunity to expand my creativity in the kitchen. Food is such an integral part of community, tradition, and cultural heritage. I’ve learned a lot about food in our postindustrial neocolonial society and how we can decolonize our bodies through choosing a diet of life rather than death. I’ve made a lot of new friends and have helped educate my old friends. I’m very interested in exploring the intersections of veganism and social justice. Check out these websites:
The Sistah Vegan Project
The Dreaded Comparison