Failing to Success with Veganism

I am so happy to share a story about Audrey Dingeman, someone I met last year while ordering dinner over the phone from her restaurant and my favorite, Golden Dinosaurs. As I was ordering she asked, “are you the Healthy Giraffe?” She mentioned she was considering training for a triathlon and marathon again, was interested in my coaching and our relationship grew from there. Through getting to know Audrey I have learned a lot about her journey in pursuit of living a healthy lifestyle and it’s quite complex, full of failures, and also loaded with numerous successes. We share the same perspective of embracing failure in a big way as it makes us better.

Audrey is humble, vulnerable, is not pushy about being vegan but yet doesn’t hold back the facts of what transpires to animals and human health when consuming animal products.

I hope you enjoy Audrey’s story and learn something new as I did…

Describe your diet growing up through adult hood

Raised by parents who grew up in rural Iowa, I was raised on a steady Midwestern diet of meat, dairy, and starchy vegetables. Most of my childhood was also spent living in a single parent home, so convenience and affordability took precedent over quality and nutrition. Around the age of 11 or so, I remember riding in the car, looking out the window at the cattle pastures and hearing my mom talk about how cute cows were and how much personality pigs had (she was raised on a cattle farm).

As an animal lover from day one, I remember asking my mom “if cows are so cute then why do we eat them?” I’m sure she gave me a typical parent response that I honestly don’t remember, but a few weeks later I was sitting with my dad at Burger King, and I asked him what was in a chicken tender. He told me chickens, and I asked “like the ones walking around at grandma’s farm?” He said yes. I put down the chicken tender in my hand, and declared right then and there I was no longer going to eat animals because I loved them so much. He laughed it off and made some jokes, and I did as best as I could with the options available, but only made it a week and started eating meat again.

About a year later, my dad was hospitalized for what turned out to be a minor heart attack and had to have a pacemaker installed. He was 38, the age I am right now. He wasn’t obese or sedentary, but he lived a typical American lifestyle with a diet of meat, potatoes, beer, cigarettes, stress, etc. He tried to blame it on genetics (both of his parents died young), but I told myself I wasn’t going to be in his shoes at that age, and I stopped eating red meat. I kept eating chicken for a few more years and then went ovo-lacto vegetarian in 1996. I tried going vegan a couple years later – my best friend was a few years older than me and very active in animal rights activism, but the vegan dairy products of the 1990s were nothing like the ones available today. Most were impossible to find and inedible once you actually tried cooking with them, so I went back to ovo-lacto for many years.

In my mid-20s, I went back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree in Animal Ecology and Natural Resources Management. I went vegan again and was very committed to it for several years. I learned to can the vegetables I grew in my yard, and since I lived in the middle of Iowa, I learned to cook all the things I missed after going vegan. I learned how to make seitan, fry and bake tofu (and what type of tofu to buy for each different application), began eating tempeh and started feeling amazing. I also got into running at the same time.

I never liked running when I was younger, but I did it a lot as a basketball and soccer player. As an adult, running became my meditation time – my time with myself. Ames, Iowa is a pretty small college town and a few months into running I was training for my first half-marathon and running around through the entire town four to five days a week. My vegan diet and running routine helped me trim back down to a healthy weight, and I felt amazing. I ran my first half-marathon and signed up for a second. I was hooked! I also started cycling and participated in two days of RAGBRAI, a week-long bicycle tour west to east across the entire state of Iowa.

Fast forward a few years later, and my husband and I moved to Gainesville, FL. We had a very stressful move, and a very hard first year and for reasons I can’t really explain, we gave up our veganism and slipped into some bad habits and lifestyle choices. I think part of me was curious about how meat and dairy things tasted since I’d never really had adult meat/dairy products like steak or seafood and while I regret my regression back into that lifestyle, this isn’t a story about perfection.

After eating like crap, drinking too much (oh boy is Gainesville a party town), and not exercising – unless you count riding a bike to the bar – I did some self-reflection and realized it was time to return to my vegan life and the positive choices that inevitably accompany an ethos centered around compassion for animals, the planet and for one’s self. I owned a book I had read back in my Ames days called, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. I recommend this book to any and everyone. It is a non-judgmental look into the cultural and societal reasons people eat meat. I read the book for the second time and went vegan that day. That was 2013, and I’ve been vegan ever since, and I know now that I’ll never go back.

What were some of your challenges when making the switch?

Obviously changing one’s whole diet and lifestyle is difficult, and I am a perfect example of an imperfect person trying hard and failing hard at transitioning to a permanent vegan lifestyle. The biggest challenges included unavailability of suitable options, the long and error-filled learning curve of teaching how to cook in a completely different way, and the social stigma of being vegan (in Iowa, I used to tell people I was a vegetarian but allergic to dairy and eggs, and for some reason this was okay with people). Even as a 30-something vegan adult, I still got flak from my parents who still thought it was a phase. It wasn’t until I opened my own vegan restaurant that they finally accepted it and stopped picking on me for it. A few years ago, my mom actually transitioned to plant-based plus fish, and no longer has to be on heart or cholesterol medication, but I digress.

What were the positives you noticed early on?

For me, the way my body changed was the first positive. My clothes fit better, I rarely felt bloated, and I learned to have a loving and healthy relationship with food and what it can do for the body. I no longer needed to take ibuprofen every time after long runs, I slept better, and I dropped two minutes off my average mile. I was also eventually able to wean myself off my anxiety medication (with the help of my doctor).

What are some of the positives you notice now?

Now that I’ve spent over a quarter of my life as a vegan, I honestly don’t notice too much anymore because I have been this way for so long. However, recently I’ve been eating more whole-foods-plant-based (WFPB) after going through two months of a terrible and painful illness (shingles: related to stress). During my illness, I was bedridden for three weeks, ceased working out completely (fatigue/lethargy), and gained about fifteen pounds as a side-effect of the awful medicine I had to take to get through shingles. Now I’m on week three of (mostly) WFPB, and I’m back to working out almost every day, and I’m starting to feel great again. I can feel my body returning to its optimal self, and I feel stronger and faster every day, and I have my diet and my amazing coach (Alan!) to thank for helping me bounce back.

What are some of the most significant things you have learned?

I’ve learned to keep learning, and to forgive yourself when you make mistakes (you will – we all do). I spent my time in undergrad investigating and writing about every vegan issue I could even remotely relate back to my classes, including animal rights activism, negative effects of animal agriculture on the environment, health and nutrition of a plant-based diet, and more. My last semester alone, I managed to write over 400 total pages of reports, essays, etc. all related to veganism and its various positive effects on animals, people and environment. I was probably the only vegan in my entire class at Iowa State University, but I didn’t care. I was careful to never be pushy, but I didn’t leave out the gritty details either. Throughout the years and with my experience, I’ve become a vegan sherpa and have helped so many people transition to more of a or a completely vegan diet/lifestyle. If anyone reading this wants to reach out, I’ll gladly help anyone or answer any questions. My email is audrey@goldendinosaurs.com.

What resources were most influential in your switch?

I grew up as an athlete but also as a skateboarding, punk rock loving kid, and veganism has deep roots in the punk rock world. The first site I frequented when I was learning to cook was the Post-Punk Kitchen, which was started by some kickass ladies who forged the way for home-vegan chefs with their public access cooking show and eventual online community filled with recipes and tips. Isa Chandra Moskowitz is my Julia Child; her book, Veganomicon, is what I refer to as the vegan Joy of Cooking. For those of y’all not quite so skilled in the kitchen or for those who are still learning the basics, I recommend her book, I Can Cook Vegan, as the recipes are organized from more simple to more complex, and there are a lot of tips for beginners or those needing a little refresher.

I’m also a huge fan of Bryant Terry (Vegan Soul Kitchen and more), the team behind No Meat Athlete, and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (The Joy of Vegan Baking) to name a few. I love collecting vegan cookbooks and trying new recipes. I love the challenge of veganizing almost anything.

Happy Cow is my go-to app and website to find vegan food when I travel. Visiting cities and trying different vegan restaurants is one of my favorite pastimes (Modern Love in Brooklyn and Omaha, Watercourse in Denver, Smith & Daughters in Melbourne, Australia and Champs Diner in Brooklyn are a few of my all-time favorites.) I have a long list of my favorite vegan places in every place I’ve visited, and I am often the source for people when they are looking for good places to eat in new cities.

In addition to cookbooks, having a support system that doesn’t ridicule your choices and a having a vegan sherpa are very useful in making this new lifestyle stick. My best friend (mentioned above) was my mentor through my transition, and I wouldn’t be as knowledgeable as I am without her help and guidance. My spouse is also vegan and having a partner with the same ideals and convictions is incredibly amazing.

Even though I have a science degree, I have never held more than a temporary job in the field and have been a lifelong restaurant employee, bartending and managing restaurants to get through college. I have worked every position in the restaurant from the dishwasher to the line cook to the General manager. My spouse and I eventually decided that our dream was to open our own restaurant, and we knew that it would be vegan because we couldn’t imagine dealing in the nasty business of the meat and dairy industry within the food-service industry. We opened Golden Dinosaurs in August 2018 and are going strong in our third year, even through the COVID pandemic.

What is next?

My future goals include opening more vegan restaurants, writing at least one vegan cookbook, traveling to more vegan places in the world, and continuing to learn new cooking and baking techniques. I’ve also got some ambitious fitness goals including the Chicago Marathon in October, the St. Pete Half-Marathon in November and my second (first Olympic) triathlon in the St. Anthony’s Tri next April. One day I would really like to train for and complete an Ironman, but I’m not ready to do that yet.

Any other things not covered you would like to share

Throughout this blog, I’ve used the word vegan (vs. plant-based). This is intentional, as there are differences between living a vegan lifestyle and opting for a plant-based diet. A great article explaining the differences can be found here, but the main difference is that plant-based is a diet and veganism is a lifestyle totally free from animal products that typically begins with an interest in animal rights (but not always). What’s right for one person may not be for another, and learning the nuances between the two and deciding what works best for you is a great jumping off point. More often than not, however, I’ve found that the folks who begin the journey as a diet with goals to lose weight/get healthier eventually take the dive to learn more about the ever-growing list of the horrible effects of animal agriculture.

So glad we met and now working together to meet Audrey’s goals…

Right before Christmas mutual friends, Jeff and Jenny Howe, owners of Nah Dogs Vegan Hot Dog Cart reached out to me about starting a plan for Audrey as a gift and we began our journey forward shortly thereafter. I love the vegan hot dogs too… what a great circle here to be a part of! Look for more updates from Audrey as she embraces more failures on her way to some amazing successes! #strong

– Add Health to Your Life

Featured Blog Photo – Audrey with husband, Brian, and their proud pup, Mako, in front of Golden Dinosaurs the day they officially adopted him. They have two rescue Great Danes (Mako & Walter) and a rescue dachshund (Cooper).

October 2020 – With sister, Kelsi, at the finish line of their own marathon – COVID-19 caused the cancelation of their originally intended marathon so they made their own. Now that is how to attack COVID-19!
November 2017 – NYC Marathon – Audrey’s first with her amazing support system – Kelsi and Brian.
Golden Dinosaurs & Healthy Giraffe training for triathlon season…where will you see Audrey race next?!?!?

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