I have friends living vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, and I admire their ethical and health reasons. In fact, when I got diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, the "heal thy" allure of plant-based diet, their flexible cousin, won me over.
Since 2018, my diet has looked a lot less traditional. I fell into a rabbit hole called Google that overwhelmed PCOS sufferers with a list of foods they can and cannot eat. The change in my diet started with me quitting rice to lose weight, much to my Filipino family’s chagrin. Then I avoided instant coffee, deep-fried snacks, dairy, and every food I enjoyed.
In my obsession, I was able to convince myself that a smoothie was enough for lunch and didn't let nausea stop me from eating two, sometimes one, boiled eggs for dinner. One time, I passed out on a Friday night with friends after two shots of tequila. What they didn't know was that I overexercised prior, desperate to burn the tiny bowl of salad I just ate.
I was embarrassed to admit that I was unhealthy physically, mentally, and emotionally. I already hit normal on the BMI scale and yet my waist size kept whittling down. I remember looking in the gym mirror and seeing my rib cage horrifyingly pronounced that I bounced before the Zumba class could even start. The days following that, I ate a lot and stuffed myself with ramen and pizzas on weekends. Still, my friends and fitness instructors thought I was trying to lose weight—fast.
Nobody could understand me because I never bothered confronting PCOS for what it is. PCOS is a hormonal imbalance of reproductive hormones, which causes messed-up menstrual cycles and infertility, if not treated. And while that doesn't worry me (at least not yet), the metabolism problems related to it caused my acne, thinning hair, and unexplained weight gain. I was told that if I could maintain a healthy weight and stress less, my hormones would calm down. In short, I needed to find balance.
When I shifted my mindset from avoiding all foods to eating more of the right ones, I gradually became healthier and happier. I replaced chips and chocolate bars with fruits and nuts and consumed more vegetables. I took rest days and relished every endorphin on the days I worked out. I ate to nourish, not stuff or starve, myself. Eventually, I formed a compassionate relationship with food and myself.
Fast forward to mid-2020 when I, like many, became a quarantine cook. I harnessed the healing power of food into cooking what makes me feel energetic, light, and inspired. So inspired, in fact, that I created a #plantbasedforpcos series on Instagram and told myself there was no going back.
Towards the end of the year, I spiraled into a dark place, quit my job, and came home. It had been eight years since I left my parents' house for college and stayed longer than a holiday break.
I was just getting comfortable in the kitchen and basking in my newfound love for plant-based food when I had to face the fact that my rules no longer applied. Who cooks and what foods to cook here have long been determined. I was happy to be fed and even appreciated the little adjustments my meat-loving family made: veggie sides every meal and brown rice instead of white. They're also sweet-toothed but diabetic, so I eventually found myself back in the kitchen baking sugar- and gluten-free desserts.
Despite the diet shift, and possibly because I had more hours of sleep, my ovary normalized and I was cleared of PCOS. Yet, those positives weren't enough to dismiss the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing. I tried introducing my parents to foods I dearly enjoyed, from okra chips to vegetarian pad thai. And every time I did, they would always eat them in silence and my mom would only speak to ask how much I spent.
Here's why: mama was born into a simple family where food is a mother's—both literal and the Earth's—way of nourishing. It didn't matter if it was canned or organic. My mom and her siblings ate the food that was affordable and available to them. Sometimes it was sardines with misua (wheat vermicelli) or pinakbet (Ilocano vegetable stew). Most days it was salted egg and tomatoes, and still, they were happy.
At 50, she and my dad have enough money to subscribe to a gym membership, eat SaladStop! every day, and stock up on "healthy junk food." But I always saw an unmistakable peace in their eyes whenever they turn leftovers into new meals and race to finish the riping mangoes from trees they grew themselves.
Why was it easier for me to buy overpriced frozen tofu sisig and artisan coconut ice cream, or make vegetarian pho with 15 ingredients? It is because I lived a few blocks away from the supermarket, had more than enough money for necessities, and cooked for no one but me. I realized just how selfish it was to push a diet I was privileged to have and that I have become dismissive of what else being healthy could mean. More than anything, I should be thankful for being able to eat, when others cannot.
Many factors influence our food choices, including social class, culture, and social context. I almost forgot that when I first expressed my desire to explore a plant-based diet to a friend who followed a vegan lifestyle, she told me that diet is a very personal choice and I should only make the jump if I feel called. She's right; nothing is more unhealthy than to be forced into something that doesn't feel right for your body, budget, or even beliefs.
I want to use my talent in rewriting the narrative of healthy eating and make my parents feel less guilty about the food they nourish themselves with. Perhaps I could make or write about food that respects the seasonality of produce, simplicity in food, and the reality of people who are limited by their budgets, not allergies. Again, I have nothing against being plant-based. There's just nothing wrong with wanting to know what else could be healthy for somebody other than me.
Often, what we think is healthy is simply a product of good marketing—copywriters like me have become so skillful at alienating people, like my parents, who don't live aspirational lives. I was reminded that before I liked food for its flavors, I loved its power to bring people together. I want that to be my mission.
To rally behind a healthy lifestyle, I have to find that balance. I wouldn't wish for people to antagonize every food like I once did. Instead, I want to change the lens through which we see them: feel-good food can be good food.
Someday, I wish to rhapsodize plant-based cooking, sugar-free baking, and the foods I grew up with so they don't need to be labeled, only enjoyed by the people I care about. Today, I just want to be honest.
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