Hello friends. This week has been long and exhausting; a lot of academic stress and anxiety coupled with far too little sleep. So it’s with a lot of joy that I’m presenting a narrative that lifted my spirits as I put the week into perspective; I hope it will do the same for you. It comes from CR reader Lauren, who has triumphed over anorexia and found veganism in the process. It seems to have transformed her relationship with food as profoundly as it did mine. I hope you’ll enjoy her thoughts.
Growing up, I was never insecure about how I looked–I played soccer and was one of the better girls on the team. As I got older I ran cross country for school and guys were astounded that I’d eat a hamburger and then pie (“What?” they’d say, “Girls don’t eat that!”). During my senior year in high school, however, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given a few months to live. Unable to handle the fear and stress, I started watching the amount of fat I ate (I grew up in the era of “low fat diets” being good for you), hoping it would give me some sense of control. I’d restrict how much food I’d ingest during the day, but at night ended up gorging myself on low-fat cookies and snacks. Not surprisingly I didn’t see much change in my weight, so I decided to up my exercise routine.
At this time, my mother decided to go on a macrobiotic diet, and my father and I followed suit. She did it for the health benefits–I did it to lose those stubborn pounds around my thighs. As the year progressed, my weight started dropping (eating only rice and veggies while running an hour a day will do that!), and I got compliments from family and friends. That fueled my drive to continue restricting, until I ended up at a very low weight. By this time I was in college, and my mother (who was actually in remission), looked healthier than me! I ended up seeking treatment, gaining weight, then leaving the nutritionist and doctors that had helped me.
From then, I never fully “recovered”–I”d lose weight during those times of great stress or felt out of control (my mother eventually passed away and my weight plummeted, a wedding engagement was called off and I fell back into low weight numbers), and even the positive stresses in my life (getting married, having a child) still led me to lose weight at a rapid pace. I couldn’t understand why eating normally was so difficult for me–I’d pour over the amount of chicken on my plate (I was not yet vegan), debate whether or not to eat the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, then berate myself for indulging on ribs. I also started exercising like a maniac, running 10 miles, swimming for an hour and then doing weights. Everyday. I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore, besides “the girl with the eating disorder”.
During this whole time I continued eating fish, chicken, the occasional steak here and there. I would still binge on Ben and Jerrys at night, and feel grossly bloated after. In January 2012, my husband decided to become a vegan, and my first thought was, “uh oh. How will this work with our family meals? What would I eat when he’s eating salad?” I wasn’t yet ready to give up animal products, but knew that I wasn’t in a good place health wise either (my weight was still painfully meager).
The turning point came when I saw my daughter one day refuse to eat any of the chicken or rice on her plate. I realized she was mimicking exactly what I was doing (“Oh no, I”m not hungry, no chicken for me!”). I didn’t want her to live a life of disordered eating, so I had to be a model for her on how to live healthfully. That being said, I looked at what I actually was eating and where it came from: cottage cheese, beef jerky, canned tuna. Foods that I thought were “safe” and “ok” were actually highly processed, and from animals that were treated horribly. I felt sick to my stomach thinking that I was giving these same types of foods to my daughter, who had no idea what other types of nourishing fruits and vegetables were out in the world!
At that point I started researching veganism more, and found that living this lifestyle was something nourishing to my body as well as my spirit: I wanted to be WHOLE and healthy, not just at a normal weight but still struggling to be “normal”. Our family thus emptied out our cupboards of spam, whey protein, all the animal products we could find. Our fridge was suddenly void of milk and cheese. My old leather bags were thrown out, as well as our leather shoes. Emptying the house of animal producs (made from or tested on) felt liberating, freeing.
Eating wise, my outlook on food changed: food was no longer the enemy, but something made specifically to fuel my body and keep me healthy. I had had a fear of nuts and avocados (I thought there were too many fat grams in them), but then started eating them with abandon when I realized that I needed those nutrients if I wanted to survive. We started cooking at home more, and eating home made meals was satisfying and fulfilling. Our whole family sat at the table, spooning up hummus and quinoa, talking about the days events. I slowly felt more comfortable experimenting with new recipes, and old eating disordered thoughts that used to scream in my brain started dying down. Eating vegan forced us to look at what we put into our bodies, and more importantly, showed me that food was meant for nourishment. I no longer feared what the food would do to my thighs, and consequently, I began eating more freely–snacks with my daugther, the impromptu vegan brownie my husband made–every bit brought me closer and closer to true recovery from anorexia.
I have finally gained weight, which was and is a tremendous feet. I am still petite, but I’m only 5 feet 2 inches tall and Japanese, so according to my dietician (who is helpful in making sure I maintain good macro and micronutrient intake), I’m in a healthy zone. Ironically, the more I weigh, the less I worry about the number or how I look. I personally don’t care about BMI and weight–I’d rather FEEL GOOD than get hung up on a number. I love that I can have my daughter feed me roasted edamame and not worry about the additional calories. I am blessed that our family meal times consist of delicious, nutritious plates of organic food, rather than fast take out.
Roasted edamame, courtesy of The Kitchn
Most importantly, I am enthralled that my daughter also eats a vegan diet with us, and sees through my example that I nourish myself through conscious, ethically based meal decisions, and that I don’t have to harm animals to live a fruitful life. My biggest desire is to be the best mother I can be, and now that I’m in a much better place–physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally–I finally feel able to say that I have reached that goal.
As usual, so many things here resonate. Lauren’s emphasis on the responsibility she felt as a parent to set a good example really touched me. As I have said before on my blog, no one could have a more healthy and appreciative relationship with food and her body than my Mom, so I don’t believe that my problems with food stemmed from anything I saw at home growing up. But so many people with eating disorder histories do feel that their anxieties were compounded by their mothers’ words or actions. Bravo, Lauren, for doing your best to protect both yourself and your daughter from self harm.
I also found myself thinking about Lauren’s line, “I couldn’t understand why eating normally was so difficult for me.” Last week, I and two other students led a campus discussion about eating disorders. One of the other two panelists described her experience with binge eating after a bout with anorexia, and noted how deeply ashamed she was (and sometimes still is) by it.
Of course, as she noted, binge eating is a natural response to chronic restricted food intake. Though it does not always follow anorexia or bulimia, it very often does, and for good reason: when you deprive your body of adequate caloric density, it assumes that it’s starving (and it often literally is). It will greet food as a precious and probably fleeting opportunity for nourishment, which is why so many men and women who binge eat in between bouts of food restriction feel uncontrollable hunger, or find that they dissociate from conscious behavior during their binges. The body, starved for adequate nourishment, is exerting its survival instinct.
All the more reason for us to always nourish ourselves, literally (with healthy, hearty food) and figuratively (with self-care and self-respect). I hope Lauren’s story shows you that it’s always possible to find such care and respect again, even when they’ve temporarily been lost. Congrats, Lauren, on your continued recovery process—and of course, for extending the compassion you now grant yourself to your animal neighbors, too.