A few weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled “Mostly Vegan?” that got a huge response. It’s worth reading the comments on this one if you’re curious, but to sum it up for you, the point of my post was to distinguish between my attitude toward being raw and toward being vegan. I’m raw for health reasons, and reasons of personal taste. I’m vegan for those same reasons, but also for ethics. While I’m happy to bend and flex how raw I eat, I’m not similarly flexible with my veganism: I’m mostly raw, but I’m never “mostly vegan.” That’s not to say that I don’t wholeheartedly believe that being mostly vegan is still a great way to enjoy optimal health and save animals; it just means that my own veganism is a wholesale enterprise.
One of my reader (and friends) responded to that post with this heartfelt remark:
I’m a struggling vegan. Also in recovery, I’m an ED survivor. Currently, I’m vegan 95% of the time, but there are dairy-ingredient junk foods that I can’t seem to resist. My counselor says it’s because I restricted myself for so long, that now my brain just goes wild when presented with foods that I’m ‘allowed’ to eat – even though I don’t want to eat them, ethically and morally. It makes me feel sick to consume these foods, but I keep doing it, hating myself every minute. It’s the ED all over again, but in some reversed, convoluted state of binge eating mixed with rebellion against the authority of veganism as a “don’t tell me what to do.”
Although I’m deeply sorry to hear that this reader is struggling, I’m also so glad that she brought her struggle to light. This tension—”I want to be vegan, but I used to have an ED, so food ‘rules’ scare me, trigger me, and piss me off”—is one that many of my Choosing Raw readers share. In fact, it’s something I’ve wanted to address for a long time. Superficially speaking, there seems to be tension between choosing the vegan lifestyle and maintaining distance from an ED past. ED’s are rife with rules and restrictions, and part of overcoming them is learning to let restrictions go. So when confronted with a diet that has some significant built-in restrictions—namely, animal foods—it’s hard not to balk a little bit. Which is why so many men and women with ED pasts tell me that they can’t be vegan.
I sympathize, and I think my readers know by now that I support any mode of recovery—even if that’s not a vegan mode. At the same time, I’m a good example of a person with a significant ED history who has also managed to embrace veganism without a sense of conflict or unease—indeed, without even seeing the lifestyle as “restrictive”—and so my goal today is to share a few of the ways I try to reconcile my own veganism with my history. It’s not prescriptive, and it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all plan: it’s merely my vantage point, put into words.
To start, I don’t really see veganism as “restriction.” Restriction, to me, implies being either banned from something orbound in by something (I’m not talking about technical definitions, but rather my subjective reaction to language, and why certain words feel either wrong or right). Being “restricted” implies a passivity that I don’t recognize in my own food choices. In fact, the word I most use to describe my own veganism isn’t “restrictive,” but selective, which does more justice to the fact that being vegan is an active choice. I choose not to eat animals and their products: no one’s making me do it. It’s something I do autonomously, and—no matter how unlikely this is—I could always choose differently. Veganism doesn’t interfere with my freedom; it’s a direct result of it.
Checkpoint #1: If veganism is something you’ve been pressuring yourself into—either to please others or to meet self-imposed ideals—you may very well forget about the active nature of that choice. Which is why, no matter how zealously I support a vegan lifestyle, I think people need the space and freedom to evolve at their own pace. No good comes of trying to push yourself into a lifestyle or ethical stance that’s you aren’t really at peace with—all that will happen is a nasty backlash.
If this describes you, I urge you to take a little time to think about why you’re aiming to be vegan, and also to ask yourself whether or not you’ve tried to make changes too quickly. Better to face those questions honestly, than to feel as though you’re living a lie, or find that you frequently “cheat” at being vegan. If the language of cheating has even entered the picture, you’re probably not ready. Give yourself a little time, until the feelings of doubt give way to feelings of certainty.
My point about language, above—selectivity vs. restriction—puts into relief another key point, which is that veganism is a willed and mature decision, whereas eating disorders are not. Yes, there’s some consciousness involved in the development of an ED, but saying that a person chooses to develop anorexia or binge eating disorder is like saying that an drug addict chooses to become an addict, or that a person with depression chooses to be depressed. EDs, like addictions and depression, are illnesses. Those of us who have recovered know that recovery does demand a certain amount of personal responsibility and effort, but if it were that simple, EDs would not be the life-threatening monsters that they are. ED are not things we choose to have, and we can’t just as easily choose not to have them.
Veganism, though challenging and serious, is a choice. It is a choice born of an informed perspective and a strong conviction that something is right. My veganism was a mature, adult decision. I never decided to get anorexia.
Of course, even comparing veganism and ED behavior is questionable, because it suggests commonality. Ask most vegans, and they’ll tell you that they no longer even think of animal products as food. A natural part of the transition into being veganism is that meats and (ultimately) dairy and eggs simply don’t even factor into your food pyramid: it wouldn’t occur to you to eat them, even if you could. I never felt this way about food as an anorexic. I was always heavily aware that there was a lot I could be eating; I just didn’t. As a vegan, I feel exactly the opposite: a whole world of delicious food is available to me, and, with very few exceptions, I eat it all. The stuff I don’t eat—animal food—is no longer even on my radar as a diner.
Checkpoint #2: “When will meats disappear from my radar?” you ask. Just give it time. New vegans so often feel pressure for everything to fall into place at once, but they shouldn’t: we’re all creatures of habit, and it takes time. If you still miss things, and it’s a fight to resist eating them, try to relax. You’re on a journey, and the destination is a fixed spot. You have a lifetime to hit your groove as a vegan, so cut yourself some emotional slack.
Finally, and importantly:
Let’s say that everything I’ve said until now is wrong. Let’s just say that veganism does involve restriction. I find it helpful to remember that the food “rules” that governed my life during the ED all circulated around one thing: what would make me fat, and what wouldn’t? What was “healthy,” and what was not? I never thought in “animal vs. non” terms: the stuff I avoided was usually a macronutrient group (carbs, fats), a food that had always been forbidden (pizza, oil, dessert) or something that felt too calorie dense or voluminous (peanut butter, grains). The fear foods varied, but they were all united by a single trait: I had decided, for whatever reason, that they’d make me fat.
As a vegan, I’ve neither lost nor gained weight. And though I became vegan in part to deal with my IBS, I never thought it would make me thin. I had enough understanding of nutrition to know that veganism can be a tool for weight loss, but that it won’t cause weight loss in a healthy person (unless that person is trying). I’m glad that I maintain my weight without too much vigilance as a vegan, but that was never the goal. If I had wanted to remain a waif all my life, I could have kept eating Greek yogurt, candy, fat free fro-yo, and steamed chicken (which is what I largely ate in my ED days).
What veganism has shown me is that food groups aren’t the enemy. I embrace carbs, fats, and protein. I dig into whole grains, organic, non-GMO soy, fruit, veggies, nuts, and seeds with equal opportunity zeal. I enjoy vegan desserts when I’m in the mood for them (hello, sweet & salty cookies from Sticky Fingers!!), rich, nut-based raw dishes when I feel like it, and I have no problem whatsoever bending some of my own preference for whole foods with the occasional soy creamer, bag of carob-covered rice cakes, or even a Jolly Rancher or Swedish Fish when PMS strikes and sugar is needed. Yes, I’m really, really, really into a high raw, unprocessed, all vegan diet. But I’m no longer phobic about food—even food that’s out of the ordinary for me—and I will never again live a life that’s governed by weight-fueled rules.
Checkpoint #3: Are you becoming vegan because you secretly hope it’ll make you thin? Be honest. If the answer is yes, you’re not alone: plenty of my clients confess to me that the reasons they say they want to be vegan (health! the planet! my GI tract!) ultimately matter little to them if they can’t successfully lose weight. That’s OK. Just keep in mind that if this is true, and you’re also an ED survivor, veganism may not be the right path for you…today. Don’t give up, but do take a few weeks or months to consider your motives, and maybe talk to a vegan friend or two. Use vegan blogs to remind yourself of the reasons for being vegan that go beyond weight. And then, when you’re feeling more inspired, try, try again.
It’s easy for outsiders to assume that all food restrictions are created equal, but it’s an unfair assumption. Dietary restriction is not, ipso facto, disordered, and the things that drive my selective food choices today are not the same forces that motivated me to eliminate things from my diet when I was sixteen. I limited my food back then, not because of ethics, but because I wanted to control my body.
My choice to avoid animal foods today, on the other hand, does not preclude my indulging in foods that would have horrified me ten years ago (avocados, chocolate, vegan cookies, oil-based dressings, or Luna and Larry’s ice cream). There’s plenty I eat now that, if I were to eat it all the time, might make me gain weight. But I’ve learned to enjoy a sane, moderate, and phobia-free diet. Veganism had a lot to do with the sanity part (see: Green Recovery) but it was never a weight maintenance tool, and it never will be.
I hope that this post speaks to some of you. I know it won’t speak to some others. Any kind of “do” or “don’t” can feel familiar and triggering to a formerly disordered eater. It’s not my place to govern how anyone else recovers, and I want all of my readers to know that I’m not selling veganism from a pulpit. What I am hoping to do is show my former ED readers who do want to be vegan—the ones who are ready, but hesitant because they’ve been told (or fear themselves) that it might interrupt their recovery—that there are plenty of important differences between the formulations and rules of an ED, and the choice to avoid animal food.
And don’t forget that the biggest difference of all lies within you. We survivors of EDs tend to forget that we’re tough and resilient: we may be a lot less fragile than we give ourselves credit for. If you’ve recovered recently, then don’t, by any means, trigger yourself unnecessarily with food choices. But do remember that you are not the person you used to be. Not every form of selectivity as an eater is destined to haunt you forever, or damage you. In fact, making informed and willful choices may actually remind you of how far you’ve come.
OK. Enough from me. I’m dying for everyone’s thoughts – if you had the patience to read through all of this!