Vegan at Vandy: You are what you eat

Join me as I explore the complex art of actually listening to my body

Recently, I read an amazing book called Inner Engineering by the world-renowned yogi Sadhguru. In the book, he talks about the five different layers or sheaths of the human system. The most basic and tangible layer is our physical body, Annamaya Kosha, which translates roughly to “food heap.” The remaining layers include our energy, our mind, our wisdom and our bliss.

I love the phrase “food heap” because at the end of the day, that’s literally all our physical body is. After a cycle of about seven to ten years, every cell in your body has been completely regenerated, excluding a few special ones in your heart tissue and cerebral cortex that you get to hang onto since birth. The energy required to create all those billions of brand new cells has to come from somewhere. That’s right. You guessed it. That energy comes from food. I’m sure you’ve heard your mom or some annoying relative tell you, “You are what you eat!” I hate to say it, but this cliché is spot on.

After going vegan, I was tempted to believe that even my most subtle bodily and mental troubles, like lethargy and occasionally fogginess, would drift away completely. Absolutely nothing bad will come from keeping certain substances out of your “food heap” like decomposing corpses and hormonal antibiotic-pumped puss. For those coming off of the Standard American Diet, which actually recommends you eat these carcinogens, you’ll see incredible changes in mental clarity, digestion, mood and energy level just by removing them. There’s more work to be done, however. The focus on exclusively removing ‘bad’ things from your diet can become a long and winding obsession, especially if you’re not paying just as much attention to adding an abundance of ‘good’ things as well.

Just this afternoon, I was feeling a bit sad, sluggish, achy and tired. I’d had about two liters of water already, did about thirty minutes of yoga after waking up, and had a bowl of oatmeal with chia seeds and banana for breakfast. By Instagram standards, I should’ve been feeling like a grade-A specimen of perfect health, but I didn’t. Sometimes, I get like that and think, “What the heck. I’ve been vegan for three years. I meditate. I do yoga. I eat spirulina like all the time. What’s the problem?”

I haven’t come up with a perfect answer to this question yet. I am learning, however, that the human system is quite a bit more complicated that I thought at first. The way different foods interact with our minds, levels of energy and bodies is wildly complex, too. Two summers ago, I was struggling with my acne and decided to really experiment with my diet. I ate only whole foods, probably a good thing, and ate absolutely no overt fats for two months. No hummus, not even avocado. Somewhere I’d read that oils and fats could contribute to acne, so I cut them out completely like the extremist I am. For those two months, my skin was still bumpy, inflamed, and broken out, I was very depressed, my periods disappeared and none of my meals satisfied me. It’s safe to say I learned quite first-hand why we need fats in our diet. Not only are fats absolutely essential for hormone production and regulation, but certain key nutrients like Vitamins A, D, E and K that keep your skin glowing and mood stabilized can’t be absorbed without eating some fats. You can eat all the kale you want, but without that handful of almonds or drizzle of olive oil, your body won’t be getting all the goodness out of it you might think.

So, after today’s incredibly lazy, foggy afternoon of wondering helplessly why I wasn’t feeling ready to run a 5K, I dragged my butt over to The Juice Bar in Hillsboro to see if I could improve my situation. On the walk over there, I’d convinced myself I needed a green juice: “Greens. I just need something green.” When I got there and craned my neck to look at their menu of smoothies, I couldn’t take my eyes off the super rich peanut-buttery ones. I went with my gut, and got a large cocoa peanut butter smoothie, made with coconut milk and even a little bit of spinach. It took me about ten minutes to suck the whole thing back, and afterwards, I genuinely felt like skipping down the sidewalk. I could smile again and think clearly and actually go about enjoying the rest of my day.

To save you some of the experimentation and guess-work I’ve willingly put myself through, listen to your highly sophisticated, constantly communicative and deeply complex food heap. If it’s telling you to chug a half pint of peanut butter and coconut milk, do it. If just looking at that slab of ground-up greasy flesh makes you sick, maybe don’t eat it. Just make sure that the chatter in your head is quiet enough to let you hear the subtle little messages your body is constantly trying to send you.

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Emily Azzarito
Emily Azzarito is a junior at Vanderbilt. She is studying cello performance at the Blair School of Music. She has performed in Spain, Germany, and twice at Carnegie Hall. More notably, she’s been vegan for two years. For ethical reasons, Emily became vegetarian when she turned thirteen. Five years later, she adopted a vegan diet to support a healthier lifestyle. Emily enjoys sampling vegan fare from restaurants all over Nashville and posting pictures of it on her Instagram. When she’s not eating piles of salad, she enjoys painting portraits, doing yoga, and lifting weights. Her favorite food is Ben and Jerry’s Non-Dairy Caramel Almond Brittle ice cream.