Posted on Oct 11, 2018
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
Nineteen years ago, when I found out what happens to animals in the milk and egg industry I went vegan on the spot and never looked back. A few years later when Jay joined The Gentle Barn as a volunteer and we fell in love, he too adopted a vegan lifestyle and we have since raised three vegan children together. We did it for the animals but assumed there would be health benefits that came along with the diet. And there certainly were, at first. Our kids never had infections or illness, we always had energy, and we assumed we would avoid any of the standard AMERICAN diseases that come along with the standard AMERICAN diet. But when I turned fifty last January I became dissatisfied with my body condition. If I was eating right, why was I gaining weight? If I was so healthy, why did I feel sluggish? But I dismissed these questions reasoning that I work constantly, get little time off, and with all the animals, don’t get enough sleep. This week Jay and I spent time in Sedona at an Engine 2 vegan immersion retreat learning about a Whole Foods plant-based diet and realized that all the things we thought we were doing right, were wrong!
I knew that animal protein produced a whole slew of health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia. I knew that dairy products were just as damaging to the body, as meat. And I even knew that for health, there was no difference between eating red meat, chicken, or fish; there was no such thing as “healthy” flesh. But It turns out that oil, refined sugars, and processed foods do the same thing to the body over time. Being vegan does not bring about automatic health, but eating whole foods does! During the retreat we ate fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and legumes with no oil or added sugars; and felt great! We ate oatmeal for breakfast with greens, berries, mangos, and bananas. We had rice, beans, lentils, soups, and greens for lunch. And enjoyed whole grain pastas, greens, potatoes, and burgers for dinner. We were full and satisfied the whole time. We attended lectures every day from the leading specialists in this field, like Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Michael Klaper, and Dr. Doug Lisle. These doctors are actually reversing illness and obesity in their clients with a Whole Foods diet. And we spent time every day exercising, hiking, doing yoga, meditating, and reflecting on the past and future.
On one of my walks, I started thinking about food and what it means to different people. Some just eat to survive. Some eat for emotional sustenance. Some have an easy time keeping a slim, trim figure. And others, like me, just cannot keep the weight off no matter what they do. Where does it come from and why? As I walked along the red rock paths memories started coming to me. I remembered playing on the beach when I was nine years old. I was in my own little world-building sand castles, collecting shells, and jumping over incoming waves, when my mom called out to me, “Ellie, suck in your stomach!” I am positive that because of my moms own poor self-image she thought she was giving me a life skill that would serve me later. And in fact, it did. Because of this training, I had very strong tummy muscles and could tighten them to make my stomach look very flat. But the self-hatred I now carry about my body originated from those seemingly innocent lessons. Even when I was a size eight throughout my twenty’s and thirties, I still felt unattractive and ashamed of my body. And I think a lot of women in our culture do too. Whether it’s the negative messaging in the media, or from our childhoods, many females carry judgment about their own beautiful bodies. I look at others with love and praise. It is only to myself that I am cruel and critical.
In Sedona, on the Mago retreat center, there is a river that flows into a beautiful lake. It is said to represent the mother or the womb. There is a bridge there where using a leaf symbolically, you can cast what you’re carrying that no longer serves you, into the river and let Mother Earth carry it away. I decided that I didn’t want to carry around this self-hatred anymore and that I would release my current body image and finally accept my body as beautiful. My curves, my roundness, my lumps, and bumps, and I would accept myself with love. I cast a yellow leaf into the stream and watched as the female energy carried it away and with it my shame, my self-criticism, and my judgment. I straightened my back, held my shoulders back, exhaled, and I let my stomach relax for the first time in many decades. From now on I will see myself and my tummy as beautiful, no matter what.
They weighed us and took blood on the first day of the retreat and again on the last so they could compare weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels with us. In just five days Jay and I lost weight and all our numbers went down significantly. We were stunned! We felt full and satisfied, we slept better than ever, had a surplus of energy, ate more than ever, and were healthier for it. I've heard that the garden is our medicine, and it’s really true. Meat, dairy products, processed foods, oils, and sugars are killing us all slowly. They are causing constipation because they lack fiber and water. They are causing heart disease and cancer. And the obesity rate in this country is like nowhere else in the world and reflects our diet. But when we go back to the garden and eat the gifts that Mother Earth has for us, the rainbow of colors, and the delicious grains, our bodies have every single nutrient it needs, including the fiber, the water, and the sustenance that brings everything back into balance and actually reverses disease.
I entered into this movement with a deep love for animals and an intolerance for injustice. I went to work saving animals, sharing their stories, and opening hearts until we have a gentle world for all of us. I spent the first fifty years of my life caring for others, and little time caring for myself. This week, by discovering my poor self-image, letting it go, and learning how to care for myself and be healthy, with each and every meal I won’t be working against myself or destroying my own body, I’ll be nurturing and caring for myself through good, healthy, Whole Foods, that will nourish and sustain me, and in turn will enable me to have much more strength to care for others. I have never before made myself a priority. Health was not something I focused on, but I did try to lose weight with fad diets that never worked and left me feeling frustrated and hopeless. Now for the first time ever I’m making my health a priority, but not to lose weight, but to feel better. And in feeling better, I’m losing weight, and I finally have so much hope! Thank you Engine 2 for giving me my life back!!