The Time the Vegetarian Got Sick

Several years ago I was at a potluck and one of the dishes was a vegetable soup. A friend of mine who had become a vegetarian had the soup. She enjoyed the soup and seemed to be in good spirits and health.

Later the discussion of health and nutrition came up. She went to thank whoever brought the soup because she couldn’t eat the meat dishes. At that point, the wife of the couple that brought the soup informed her that the dish wasn’t vegetarian and they used chicken stock as the base.

Within the next 20 minutes, I saw my friend go from happy and healthy to miserable. Her stomach hurt. She was nauseous. Her skin was pale.

Then the husband of the couple that brought the soup returned from the store and was informed of what happened. He shook his head and stated that he cooked the soup with a vegetable broth. The soup was 100% vegetarian. The wife said she saw the box of chicken stock in the kitchen. He told her that was for another dish they were taking to a potluck the next day.

My friend now knew she never consumed a meat product in that meal. Yet for twenty or so minutes she believed she did. This made her sick. Legitimately sick. Everyone could see her getting ill. Once she learned she hadn’t had meat, the paleness of her skin went away, but she claimed to still feel ill. But less so. She seemed uncomfortably confused. Cognitive dissonance.

This episode demonstrated to me the power our mind can have on our body when we believe something we ate is toxic. The belief of how harmful meat is the body was so powerful to my friend that she developed symptoms from just believing she had consumed meat.

This story is not meant to poke fun at vegetarians. You can see it with people that discover they consumed wheat and believe they are gluten intolerant. Maybe they were at one point, but the symptoms don’t appear until they discover later what they ate.

People also use positive associations to feel better. Vitamins are the classic case. Take this capsule and you’ll be better. And they do feel better, right up until the day they discover most vitamins are worthless.

The takeaway lesson here is that stories on nutrition and health can be extremely powerful even when they aren’t completely true.

When I think back to times when I made the most gains in health were also times that I was exposed to a new compelling story about health. And the times when I slid the most were the times when those stories fell apart.

I have a very smart friend who does not believe in the CICO (Calories in, Calories out) model for him. For others maybe, but not for him. He KNOWS for himself that carbs are bad for him and as long he follows Atkins he will lose weight. If he doesn’t, he will gain weight. This belief has become a self-fulling prophecy. When he follows Atkins, he stops drinking, exercises and controls his meals. When he slips, he eats normal food, drinks wine and doesn’t exercise.

I don’t bother correcting his belief because, without it, he’d likely gain more weight and drink daily. It is all he has.

In my next post, I am going to discuss a nutritional belief of mine that got shattered and when it did, the weight started falling off.


Photo by Tanja Djordjevic


Add yours

  1. I would have laughed so hard at her… in her face no less. Of course this is probably why I don’t get invited to dinner parties in the first place.

  2. @T – Sadly, this friend did not respond well to this incident. Instead of having a learning moment and reassessing her choices, she doubled down on her food issues and became more and more restrictive.

    She has lost so much weight now and is so sick. Probably the worst thing is she judges others for eating normal foods which she sees as toxic, but she fails to grasp they are healthier than her.

  3. MAS,
    I am curious to find out how you used story to lose weight. I think that believes/stories/thoughts are ornamental. They really don’t mean much unless it adds something or we lose something without it. It’s about what you gain versus what you have to lose, not about what is right or wrong.

    It explains why there are so many religious people. It is not about whether or not there is a guy in the sky, but about community, identity, and lighting a candle in a church. They don’t think (feel) right or wrong, they only think (feel) gain/loss. Actually IMO in most cases this is the rational way to behave.

    I suspect that the reason that this girl got so upset is because she felt her identity was threatened. The threat of losing her beloved identity and the emotions involved weigh heavier than what is objectively true.

    Feelings of shame, pain or envy, triggers us biologically, thoughts on themselves don’t.

  4. @Gokhan – Great question and I hope to explain my thoughts on the topic, many of which are still being formed. The short answer is the story serves as a compelling and often novel framework for helping us succeed with a given diet. The longer version will be in an upcoming post.

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