by Angie Nasrallah
Paleo and Vegan! Can you say those two words together in the same sentence? Well, let’s see… I’m mostly Paleo; but, right now I’m vegan. That doesn’t sound right does it?
And, why do we call ourselves words that identify us with a particular diet? While camping next to a middle-aged couple, you may hear the wife reveal as you offer a roasted marshmallow, “Sorry, we’ve been Atkins for ten years now.” Somehow, we identify with the foods we eat.
A couple of years ago, my doctor put me on a strict Paleo diet to help with my digestive problems. A Paleo diet is an approach to eating that focuses on reducing inflammation in the gut or body by eliminating known inflammation causing foods like additives, gluten, processed grains, industrial seed oils, dairy and sugar. Inflammatory foods happen to be associated with a modern diet rather than the foods eaten by our ancestors. So, basically, Paleo is a way of eating that gets us back to vegetables, clean meats, most fruits, nuts and seeds. Think cave woman or early native American. Think hunters and gatherers.
So, why am I writing about being Vegan and Paleo? In the Orthodox Church, we strive to fast several times a year. Whether you are Vegan or Paleo, South Beach or Whole 30, these prescribed fasts ask us to stretch ourselves physically and spiritually by fasting dairy, meats, eggs, wine and olive oil. Thankfully, the church fathers weren’t of any dietary persuasion and they knew in their spiritual wisdom that food consumption is directly related to our spiritual lives. As my husband says, “Heavy stuff.”
Now, to the dilemma: How does one keep the Orthodox fast and yet still keep the parameters of a healthful diet? How does one, during Advent, hunt and gather? If you were to set up a Venn Diagram with Paleo and Vegan as the two headings, the common foods in the center would be…vegetables! Unless you are John the Baptist, eating locusts and honey, this is very difficult.
This past Lent was an interesting experience for me and I want to share with you what I’ve learned about merging these two seemingly opposite approaches to eating. Perhaps this information will be of help as we enter Advent.
The first thing was to realize that fasting is about reconnecting with God and becoming the kind of Christians God wants us to be. Fasting helps us toward that end, but it is not the whole equation. “The value of fasting,” St. John Chrysostom says, “consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices.” This reading from St. Chrysostom showed me something very important: I’ve got to work on my inner thoughts and my sinful nature first! It is actually easier to give up chocolate or coffee cream than to quit sinful habits. The first week of Lent was difficult, fasting nasty thoughts and meanness. Then, I had to work on replacing those destructive thoughts with prayer and kindness. This was and is the real work of Lent.
The next thing I did was open up and start talking with people about my struggle. After Divine Liturgy, during coffee hour, I would hang by the coffee pot and just talk with people about what I was going through with diet and Lent, etc. Surprisingly, what I discovered is that a lot of people struggle with dietary issues. Here I thought I was all alone in this! One mom I talked with said she struggles with a rare autoimmune disease that requires she cannot consume sugar, nightshades, gluten or dairy. Another man mentioned that he was attempting to lose 35 pounds and get back to his prenuptial figure. A friend shared that her thyroid disorder had her on a strict Paleo diet for life. Hearing these and more stories showed me that we are not alone in our struggles. Everyone is dealing with something.
Thankfully, I read this during the fifth week of the Fast: “He who prays with fasting has his wings double, and lighter than the very winds…nothing is mightier than the man who prays sincerely …But if your body is too weak to fast continually …. although you cannot fast, yet you can avoid luxurious living” (St. John Chrysostom. Homily LVII on Matthew XVII). I may not be able to keep the Fast well, but I can at least cut indulgent foods like vegan chocolate death cake or the lobster bisque!
So, with the words of St. John Chrysostom in my mind, I altered the way we served fasting foods at home. Here is some of what I did:
- veggie spaghetti – I made pasta for my wheat eating family and I cooked up spaghetti squash for myself (and whoever was brave enough to try it).
- veggie chili – I served the beans on the side!
- veggie soups were made with Qorn, a protein product made from fungi.
- avocados were always kept on hand and served for breakfast, lunch and dinner
- nuts of all kinds were always on a counter for eating
- I kept a can of tuna or salmon around and put that on salads at lunch when I needed a protein hit. By the way, the calcium in canned salmon is a good replacement for what you are not getting from dairy.
- I could definitely keep the dairy and the alcohol fast closely.
If you are on a restrictive diet for medical or health purposes, there are still ways to participate in the church fasts. In attempting to reach beyond our comfort zones we can allow the Lord to work within us. We can connect with people who are also struggling and offer encouragement. We can fast destructive thinking. We can show our families that we are not perfect and that God uses broken vessels. We can still step away from this world for a few weeks and deliberately work on our relationship with the Savior by purposely not indulging in the luxuries that are so abundant in our world. That may mean different things to different people, but for me it was staying away from indulgent entertainment, gossiping , beef, dairy and sweets.
So, what does it mean to be Paleo and Vegan? It will mean different things for different people. But, as we trust that He can work out the details of a keeping a challenging diet and a fast, it will likely show each of us that we need Him more than we need food!!
May each of us have a blessed Advent and a joyous fast in preparation for our Savior’s birth!