Escaping the Pursuit of Wellness: Why my aunt’s death turned me into a vegan and what I learned

When I was 21 years old my aunt died. It was the first adult experience I’d had with death, and I was shattered.

My aunt had never married, and so my siblings and I were the closest things she had to children of her own. I adored her and she treasured each of us. She was part of the fabric of my life and losing her felt like losing a part of my being.

She was part of the fabric of my life and losing her felt like losing a part of my being.

In the last few years before her death, she became interested in natural healing alongside the conventional treatments for her advanced colon cancer. Her close friend was a natural-eating guru and had introduced her to raw juicing and the like. After her death, I found the book she’d used to learn about these things and was hooked.

Overnight, from knowing almost nothing about nutrition, I read up on everything I could about raw food and the healing powers of food. I am not an extremist in any way, but to my own surprise, I immediately began eating a 90% raw diet, apart from challah on Shabbat, and some brown rice in the evening. I embraced everything that taught that eating poorly is the cause of almost all ailments, and by altering one’s diet one could cure herself of almost anything. I preached to anyone who would listen about the detriments of processed food, how cooked vegetables lose vital nutrients, and how garlic is bad for you because it comes out when you perspire. I believed I was virtuous and morally superior to those low beings who consumed white bread and processed food without a second thought.

A year later I became engaged my husband. Just before our wedding he was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition and went on a strict natural diet to treat it. I was not phased. Although I had very much relaxed by this point, and ate a variety of processed foods, along with animal products and plant-based foods, I still believed that diet was the answer to everything. All the literature I read supported this. This food causes inflammation, and bananas cause mucus, and acidic foods cause stomachache. Even how we combine foods affects how our wellbeing.

This was years before quinoa, chia seeds and buckwheat became standard ingredients, but in our home they were normal. So when people would complain of digestive issues, chronic migraines and other chronic but difficult-to-treat conditions I would judge them automatically: “Of course you are sick, you eat terribly and don’t exercise. It’s your fault. All you need to do is change your diet and you will be well.”

“Of course you are sick, you eat terribly and don’t exercise. It’s your fault. All you need to do is change your diet and you will be well.”

I sent dozens of people to my husband’s naturopath, and in the decade since then “wellness” has exploded into a $4.2 trillion industry, with celebrities promoting celery juice as a miracle cure. Unknowingly, I bought into the underlying motives before it became a buzzword. I believed that if I could somehow eat well enough, I could save myself from my illness, pain and death.

 I believed that if I could somehow eat well enough, I could save myself from my illness, pain and death.

The frantic pursuit of wellness taps into humanity’s, and my own, desperate desire to escape death. We are made to believe that if we do yoga, take the right supplements and avoid certain foods we are guaranteed longevity and that we can succeed in preventing and even curing a variety of diseases.

Except life isn’t like that, as I looked around.

A close friend, who has been eating mostly plants for decades simply because she enjoys it, struggled with fertility challenges and took several years and a completely miraculous road to have each of her 2 children.

I have a childhood friend who was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and is on a very strict elimination protocol, yet still suffers terribly with GI issues. Her symptoms are slowly easing, but not at all gone despite being on a ‘super healthy, clean, gluten-free, dairy-free’ diet for a few years. Her sensitive digestion will likely be part of her life for the long-term.

Then there is my 87-year-old gran who lives on tea with two sugars, toast, cheese and tea biscuits, and is mostly healthy. There is also my neighbor, who goes to the gym every day, wins marathons, doesn’t have an ounce of fat on her and is the envy of all her friends — when behind closed doors everyone in her family believes she is orthorexic (a form of anorexia driven by a fixation on healthy foods). And my husband, who is less extreme but still careful for the most part about his diet, is, with G-ds help, healthier than he has ever been.

It is so easy, so tempting and so very comforting to reduce our well-being to “Well if you just ate the right foods, exercised enough and took these supplements you would be healthy.

It is so easy, so tempting and so very comforting to reduce our well-being to “Well if you just ate the right foods, exercised enough and took these supplements you would be healthy.” For many years, thinking like that made me feel like I was in control, and that I could stave off the things we fear most —  the fragility of being alive. Losing my aunt taught me firsthand that we are mortal. I was terrified, looking for any promise that I would not follow that path.

But as I gained some perspective during my journey to becoming a feeding coach based on my own traumatic experience with my eldest daughter, I learned that health is an extremely nuanced and complex matter comprised of a bazillion known and unknown factors — from genes, environment, diet and sleep to stress, emotional experience, gut health, movement and so much more. There is no one-size-fits-all cure-all guarantee. We are all unique and individual, with our own path and destiny.

There is no one-size-fits-all cure-all guarantee.

The belief that health is not guaranteed no matter what you eat or don’t eat is scary to accept in a world that promises you can achieve wellness if you try hard enough (and are privileged enough to afford it).

Embracing our lack of control takes immense courage and honesty, but in my experience makes for a more authentic life. Yes, we feel more vulnerable, but we can relinquish the pressure to pursue every avenue promising well-being.

I put effort into serving my children nutritious food. I care deeply about them and want to do everything I can to help them thrive. But it means that I also don’t freak out with worry if they eat cookies or candy at a birthday party, or refuse to eat green vegetables at dinner and Shabbat lunch eat nothing but challa (bread) and dessert.

It’s a very different world from what I once lived. It’s a world where I do my best in supporting my husband’s unique dietary needs, as that’s what makes him feel best. It’s a world where I go to yoga and the gym because it makes me function better. But it’s also a world where I know that despite my best efforts, I cannot control the outcome of my family’s or even my own well-being.

It is in this world, where nuances, complexity and unknowns are ever-present, that I find the ultimate comfort in trusting that it is only G-d who is in control and that my life circumstances are what they are because He wills it.

This article was originally published in Ami Living Magazine.  

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