(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe.)
My family likes to joke about my carnivorous nature as a child—the pictures they have of me demolishing drumsticks with sauce all over my cheeks, the fact that when I was in elementary school onward I frequently ordered a half rack of ribs at restaurants, much to the amusement of the servers, other kids, and adults around. Second to my love of meat was my love of dairy. I was never picky, though, and I enjoyed my fair share of fruits, veggies, and grains thrown in the mix. I’ve always gone absolutely bonkers for plain rice, for example. Ribs plus white rice was my completely unhinged childhood favorite.
I was also a huge animal lover as a child, to an obsessive degree (well, I do and love everything to an obsessive degree). I’m the granddaughter of a veterinarian who owns his own practice, and I was always reading anything and everything about the natural world and how to care for it. I collected tiny clams at the beach and begged my parents to let me take them home with us back to Kentucky. I was always on the search for my next pet—from a harem of caterpillars to frogs to praying mantises—much to my mother’s delight. I knew on a very intuitive level that I belonged to nature, a part of something bigger and grander than my own limited understanding, and I was tuned in to the magickal, witchy flow of life before I could even put it into words.
When I was fourteen, I watched the infamous, celebrity-vegan-backed documentary Earthlings. I’d just moved away from the organized religion of my childhood and veered into something more personal, mystical, and spiritually exploratory, so I was full steam ahead on my journey of reevaluating any unexamined beliefs. The thing about me is that I’m very comfortable with changing my mind, sometimes in huge, life-altering ways. We all have our blind spots when it comes to rigid ideals and cognitive dissonance, and believe me when I say I’m not exempt from this fundamental part of the human condition. But given the tools, knowledge, and perfect storm of passion and openness, I seem to be adept at abandoning my current path and leaping onto a different one headfirst.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that my new path is the better, more “correct” one, though. Effective change sometimes requires more wisdom and experience than I’ve previously had at my disposal.
Earthlings, for the uninitiated, is a documentary backed by several vegan celebrities. It was narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, features music by Moby, and its mission is to expose the horrors of the animal agriculture industry, as well as other industries that use animals for research or profit. It features near exclusively footage from large-scale industrial factory farming operations, as well as from laboratories, fur farms, and also zoos, rodeos, and circuses. It’s an indescribably jarring, graphic, and upsetting film that showcases the worst of the worst of animal maltreatment. After watching Earthlings at fourteen years old, I would not eat any meat again until seven years later, when I very slowly began reincorporating animal products over the next two years.
When I first went vegan, I was very passionate about my new lifestyle, to put it mildly. I went down the vegan documentary and book rabbit hole, and I took in all the available information about the plant-based ethos. Much to the irritation of everyone around me, veganism became one of my new identities, and I wanted everyone to come to the exact same groundbreaking realizations that I had just come to. I mean, why would we kill and eat animals when we didn’t have to? Especially when eating animals was bad for the environment, our health, and even the mental health of workers in the meatpacking industry?
Forget about being on a high horse, I was on atop a mountain of transcendent morality—overlooking the abject horrors that everyone else seemed to be willfully ignoring. My heart was in the right place. I didn’t want to be better than everyone else; I wanted everyone else to join me, to make compassionate choices in alignment with animal welfare and environmentalism. Seeing animals brutally suffering and believing it was partly at my hand traumatized me to my very core. And that is the entire point of Earthlings: to emotionally traumatize, to present the most atrocious cases of abuse as industry standard, and then to lead the tender-hearted, open-minded person to the subsequent conclusion that not consuming animal products is an ethical imperative.
Meat causes cancer. Dairy leeches calcium from the bones and causes inflammation. Eating Frankenfood made of soy, highly processed oils, and grains sourced from all corners of the world is more environmentally sound than a pound of beef from Farmer Joe next door. (And healthier, too! Because… plants!) Saturated fat causes diabetes and is also Evil. Dietary cholesterol negatively affects cholesterol in the body… and is also Evil. Animal protein is a boner-killer and causes infertility. Eating plant foods (with several key supplements) is more natural and spiritually aligned. Vegans live longer. Veganism can cure [insert literally any malady here.]
These are just a handful of claims made by vegans in various documentaries, books, and research papers. And many of them sound very, very convincing. I was fourteen when I went vegan, and I did so primarily for animal welfare concerns. I didn’t have the understanding of research methodology and data manipulation that I do now. I didn’t yet know that you could have the Dr. prefix, present yourself as an expert, cite supposedly reputable studies, but actually be a deceptive cherry-picker largely discredited by the broader scientific community. I didn’t have any idea that the health-minded headlines we see all over the media aren’t always derived from solid, causal research. That all the “vegans live longer” and “veganism cures and prevents all diseases” claims are based on the weakest data known to man: self-reported epidemiological studies (aka collecting survey data from the general public, outside of a lab, and coming to conclusions based on the disease and lifestyle data across peoples’ lifespans).
Is it because of veganism that vegans live longer? Or do health-minded people in general live longer?
I’m going to stop myself here, because I could write a separate article debunking each and every common vegan claim I’ve mentioned, one by one, quality sources cited. But that’s not really the point of this article.
Because this article is about changing your mind.
It took me until September of this year to drop the vegan label for good. I’d been eating eggs and fish more frequently, which definitely made me an ex-vegan as far back as two years ago when I first strayed, but I wasn’t ready then to let go completely. I started my health journey to heal my mystery symptoms and hypothyroidism back in May, and as I discussed in a previous article, I saw an integrative doctor in June who ran several blood tests. I was not a “junk food vegan.” I ate primarily whole, plant-based foods, with lots of veggies, legumes, fruits, grains, soy products, nuts and seeds, and meat and dairy substitutes in moderation. I did everything “right.”
And yet, my blood tests showed peculiar markers of malnutrition, likely due to low zinc and B-12 levels. I’d taken B-12 supplements most of the time I was vegan, and I ate plenty of fortified foods. I also had high levels of inflammation (CRP and ESR) and evidence of poor thyroid hormone conversion (which requires adequate zinc, selenium, and several other nutrients that are low in a vegan diet). I couldn’t entirely blame veganism for these problems, as I suspected that hormonal birth control was also negatively impacting my hormonal health (more on that in the next article), but it was clear from all of my research that a plant-based diet was one of the very worst for thyroid issues.
My family and I just couldn’t understand it. We all believed I was one of the healthiest people we knew. I ate all the veggies in the world, drank smoothies, eschewed dairy, limited processed foods… and yet, my body was rebelling and my mental health was taking a toll. My skin was less vibrant, my under-eyes were darker, my hair was beginning to shed, and I just generally didn’t feel or look like I was thriving. My digestion was also less than ideal, even though I was easily consuming well beyond the recommended daily fiber.
I decided I was ready to hear the other side. I went down one of my research rabbit-holes, and when I emerged, I decided there were two changes I was ready to make:
1. Reintroduce all animal products.
2. Ditch the hormonal birth control pill.
This article is about Change #1. If you have experience with Change #2, please reach out by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or finding me on social media so that I can take your experience into account while writing my next article. The number of women I’ve already talked to about their negative experiences with BCP has been far beyond what I expected. If you or anyone you know has a story, hit me up. I’m more than willing to chat with you about it even if you’re just curious.
My first mental hurdle was unlearning all the vegan bias and letting go of years of psychological conditioning against animal products. My second was not to fall into the unbelievably common trap of swinging from a vegan diet to a strict carnivore or keto diet. One look at the ex-vegan Subreddit shows just how many vegans jump from one extreme diet to the other, falling for the exact same black-and-white fringe science that we’re most comfortable with. There are a great many people who think eating only animal products is what’s most natural and carnivorism is the answer to all modern disease. People who go vegan are more likely to be the kind of person that thinks in absolutes in general, and they’re also attracted to magic-pill thinking, restrictiveness, and in some cases, orthorexia or other disordered eating tendencies.
The diet I jumped to after veganism was paleo with an elimination diet protocol. Which meant I cut out a whole bunch of foods in order to add them back in one at a time to figure out if they impacted how I was feeling. In other words, to test myself for food intolerances, which are all the rave in holistic health spaces. Are there real food intolerances? Of course! Do most of us have a laundry list of them?
Most of the books and articles from the holistic side I read about thyroid health told me that gluten was toxic, and most of what I read about female hormone health proclaimed that dairy was highly inflammatory. Pleased to say that my body does not care when I eat bread and pasta, and my body absolutely adores dairy. Seriously y’all, I’ve been eating my weight in cheese for the past three months. I’m having the absolute best time.
But, when I first left veganism and was extremely determined to regain my health, I was incredibly strict for the first month. I didn’t eat any grains, sugar, processed food, soy, caffeine, any oils other than coconut, avocado, and olive oil, dairy or corn. I dove right in to eating meat again without any issue, prioritizing red meat for its superior nutritional profile—including higher zinc content—and paired meats with lots of eggs, veggies, fruits, starches, and healthy fats. I fell into the aforementioned trap of creating a brand-new restrictive diet supposedly free from all “bad” foods. Was this diet healthy? Sure. I wasn’t starving myself, and I was consuming far more nutrient-dense foods than I had been during my seven years of veganism.
Was it sustainable?
Eating this way was mentally exhausting, just as socially-restrictive as veganism, and took up way too much time and effort. Meal prepping took hours, grocery bills became steep, and overall I was still not learning how to eat in a way that was not only healthy, but also balanced and joyful.
Though I had slashed my inflammation and improved my markers of malnutrition, bloodwork during this time revealed slowed thyroid improvement and wacky liver enzyme numbers. Cue the horrible mental breakdown that had me questioning everything.
I was doing everything right! I wasn’t eating any “bad” foods! I was taking alllll the supplements! I was drinking bone broth and eating beef liver weekly! Why wasn’t I a shining beacon of health yet?
I’d reached a breaking point. I realized what I truly wanted was an end to all these food rules completely. I wanted, and needed, balance. I wanted to eat nutrient-dense, whole foods, 80% of the time, but only because those were the foods that made me feel my best. I wanted to listen to my body fully and completely, as well as to honor the social, communal side of food enjoyment. I wanted to enjoy birthdays and holidays, to indulge without guilt, and to build healthy habits that had nothing to do with consumption.
Because here’s the thing: If your version of holistic, integrative health ends up becoming the exact same reductive, prescriptive offshoot of biomedicine but with different tools and methods, then you’re just right back where you started.
Food is not medicine. Food is food. It can be healing, connective, indulgent, artful, explorative, spiritual, and fun; it can both soothe our bodies, but also soothe our minds. “Bad” food eaten with joy and during celebration is often infinitely better for the body than “good” food eaten under stressful, restrictive conditions.
At the end of the day, I promise the stress is killing us faster than just about anything else. This is supported over and over again in the literature. Detoxing the body is a fruitless endeavor in the face of a toxic mind.
In late October, I ate dairy for the first time since I was fourteen. It was my mom’s birthday, and we’d created a beautiful charcuterie board filled with smoked salmon, fruits, cheeses, jams, and crackers. I dove right in, and when I tell you that first bite of goat cheese with apricot jam was life-changing, I mean it!
Cheese plates and plain Greek yogurt with fruits became my new favorite post-dinner snack. I was terrified that dairy was going to break me out, upset my stomach, or otherwise affect me negatively after both the paleo and vegan communities warned of its toxicity. But it didn’t. Just like meat, dairy felt deeply satisfying both physically and mentally, with no ill effects.
At my mid-November writing conference in Vegas, for the first time since I was a young teenager, I suddenly had no more food restrictions. I was still trying to eat majority unprocessed, because that’s what I enjoy eating and what’s best for us the majority of the time. But this was the first time traveling as a non-vegan, and I was beyond excited to experience food in a way I hadn’t been able to before. No longer did I have to starve during flights or at non-vegan-friendly connecting airports. No longer did I have to say no to birthday cake, be the difficult one at restaurants, to have to do most of my eating alone or eat something completely different to everyone else. When a server asked me how I wanted my burger cooked, I had no idea what to say. I had to relearn what foods I actually enjoyed, and I got to enjoy many delightful ex-vegan firsts surrounded by amazing fellow writers and friends.
I can only imagine what it will feel like when I return to Europe this June. One of my stops is Italy… yeah, I’m already going insane just thinking about it! I will be eating all of the meats and cheeses, thank you.
During the past couple months, I also dropped most of my supplements. I only kept what was necessary, which for me includes magnesium, zinc, Vitamin D, and a DHA-EPA Omega-3 complex. I might be able to slash this list again in the coming months. I still eat a few Brazil nuts for that crucial, thyroid-nurturing selenium. And lastly, once a week, I eat a serving of the superfood that no one wants to hear about: beef liver. I’ve officially nailed the proper prep and recipe to make it edible, so hit me up if you’re interested. (But I don’t blame you if you aren’t… It’s just so good for you!)
I’ve also reconnected with old friends, found a healthier work-life balance, written my next book, started dating again, spent time with family, and generally have brought as much of my life into balance as possible. These are all powerful acts of healing, and they have nothing to do with food.
And, remarkably, my latest blood results showed zero issues. Even with all the splurging and indulging of the holiday season, where every last food rule went out the window. For the first time in over a year, I had no results out of the normal testing ranges. My thyroid levels were good, my nutrient stores had been repleted, and my liver enzymes were normal again. My doctor congratulated me, and she told me I didn’t have to come back in again for another six months.
I have never been happier. It feels as though these past two years of inner work, great leaps, creative endeavors, shadow integration, and spiritual seeking have culminated in this total, holistic attainment of spiritual, physical, and mental health. Physically, I’ve recomped a bit, which means I’ve put on muscle without any change in weight, my skin looks healthier and has more of a natural glow and renewed vibrancy, my hair stopped falling out, and I’m full of energy and excitement.
Mentally and spiritually, it feels as though my 2022 tarot card of the year, The World, was right all along. An excerpt from an article I wrote this time last year:
“The World is widely considered to be the best card in the deck. It’s the card of ultimate harmony between our inner and outer worlds, our subconscious and our conscious minds, our intentions and our manifestations… It’s the last card in the Major Arcana, representing the completion of grand cycles and the mark of ultimate success after the journey of the soul through all the major lessons and archetypes on our journey. So, no biggie. Just the card of cosmic destiny and perfect balance or whatever.”
When I saw some sober pals a couple weeks ago for the first time in months, one of them remarked the moment I started talking that I seemed like a completely different person.
I’ve finally found my voice. In early sobriety, even the smallest of tasks can feel terrifyingly daunting. You’re an adult baby who has to learn what it means to be a part of the world again, in all its beautiful, confusing, messy splendor. It’s one step after the other, day by day. But the more you allow yourself to do the things that scare you, the more you allow yourself to feel and experience, the greater the metamorphosis.
Addicts in recovery will never be who they used to be before addiction.
They’ll be better.
In the face of sustained inner work, our complex neural pathways do not revert backward, they only go forward—they grow stronger, more adaptable—and they branch off into new, varied directions.
I will always have new areas for growth, lessons to learn, and hurdles to overcome, but in reflecting on not only 2022, but also 2021 and 2020, I can say with all the gratitude in the world that I feel as though I’ve reached this mountain’s peak.
I have all the love and understanding in the world for vegans, who are often motivated by nothing but the purest, most compassionate of intentions. I understand that some parts of this article might have seemed rigid and hardened against the plant-based ethos, but at the end of the day, I don’t have all of the answers. I can call upon strong research to back my positions, but ultimately, what I care most about is how I feel in my own body and mind. (And of course, what blood tests have to say about it all.) Since I left veganism behind, I’ve not only felt more physically and mentally restored, but I’ve also felt a deep, spiritual groundedness that’s hard to put into words.
I source my meat, eggs, and dairy from quality sources, locally whenever possible. I do the best I can in an exploitative, profit-driven world, and that’s the most any of us can do. By eating animal products, I’ve reintegrated myself into the cycle of life and death, birth and rebirth, killing and thriving. I feel a greater bond to my ancestors, distant and ancient, and a renewed connection to the people I break bread with, the places I visit, the passage of history and the beautiful multiplicity of culture, art, and cuisine. My food choices do not make me better than anyone else, but I do hope I can use these experiences to help others on their own journeys.
Life is a gift. Happy 2023, everyone.
So sorry for the prolonged absence! As you all have read, I’ve had a lot going on, including finishing Book 6 of 7 of The Lost Witches of Aradia series. (Yayyy!!!) But I’ve committed to publishing two articles a month in 2023, with the potential for more during non-writing months. I stressed myself out too bad trying to write an article a week last year, especially considering how long and in-depth my articles are becoming.
I am insanely grateful for the support you all have given me in 2022. I am honored beyond measure that you have decided to join me on this journey. There are big ideas and even bigger dreams brewing, and I have a feeling this Substack is only the beginning.
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(This post first appeared on Substack: Writing Magick with Maggie Sunseri. Click to subscribe, like, or leave a comment.)