Last summer at Vida Vegan, a young woman approached me and introduced herself cheerfully as Katie, author of the blog Vegan Noms. I recognized her and the blog immediately, but was surprised when she told me that she loved the Green Recovery series and wanted to send me a post. I told her I’d be delighted to hear her story, and that my readers would be, too.
Today, Katie shares an account of how an innocent effort to start getting “toned” at her college gym turned into an obsession with calorie counting and weight loss, and subsequently into a dance between restriction and binge eating. She then describes how veganism has helped her to make “conscious, wise, and non-obsessive decisions about how I nourish my body.” I am so grateful for her candor, and I hope you’ll all share your reactions through comments, or through visiting Katie’s blog.
My story began as many of them do: a 19 year old college student with time to kill in between classes and so why not tone up a bit at the rec center? What is still confusing to me is that before this all began I had a pretty healthy relationship with food. I ate when I was hungry or when it was meal time and I ate because I enjoyed food. Dieting or even taking a closer look at what I was eating was not on my agenda; I simply wanted some awesome abs. So it started with clumsily working out for a few weeks. But, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted and so I turned to the worst source possible: the internet. Not any old website, but the sites dedicated to women and weight loss with the catchy article titles and alluring promises of results with little effort. Through these sites I learned that I had to burn more calories than I was consuming to lose weight so that my oh-so-tone muscles would show.
This was my downfall. With my lack of nutritional knowledge and significant obsessive compulsive tendencies, this meant that I had to eat only as many calories as I could calculate having burned off during a daily work out. This spiraled quickly into believing that the calories a day I would allow myself must present itself on the elliptical’s “calories burned” display. I would constantly, repeatedly, obsessively, intrusively count and recount the calories I had consumed and would allow myself for the rest of each day. It took over my every thought. Food consumed me from that moment on, I no longer consumed it. It had so much power over me. I created rules based solely on calorie intake instead of the nutrients my body needed.
This is me at my 20th birthday party, cutting up vegetables for snacks. I obsessed over what I would serve to my guests for weeks and had accounted for every calorie.
When my daily restricting became too overwhelming and my body’s hunger for nutrients finally overtook me I started to binge. It seemed to take a turn very suddenly and I became very depressed and agitated about not seeing or feeling the results I wanted. The food log I had started to keep began mocking me when I would lie about what I had eaten. My nightly binges would typically include almost a gallon of ice cream, 4 bowls of cereal, and either chips or cookies. I believed I could still exercise the calories away the next day, yet my previous drive to go to the gym was slipping as I headed deeper into my depression. I stopped caring about my schoolwork and eventually dropped some of my classes. I felt so utterly out of control and did not know how to pull myself out of my hole until one day I searched online for local counselors specializing in eating disorders. I took the information to my mom and told her everything that was going on with me over the last year and a half. She was incredibly supportive and was behind me every step of the way as I began counseling. My counselor was fantastic and gently guided me away from my disordered thinking and supported me as I began to feel whole again, and my obsessions and compulsions relating to food nearly disappeared. I am now halfway into a Master’s program in mental health counseling, coincidentally the same program my counselor completed, and know that the positive experience of having gone through treatment led me to choose this path.
It wasn’t until perhaps a year later that I discovered the veg*n lifestyle. My relationship with food had swung from obsessive and disordered to almost lackadaisical and centered on convenience. I still did not have an understanding or appreciation of how food nourished my body or how my choices affected my health. My launch into vegetarianism following a commitment to not eat animals for ethical reasons eventually led to becoming vegan after a few late night crying sessions in front various online articles, lamenting my taste buds’ relationship with cheese. Yet, with only a few stumbles I dove headfirst into veganism and have never looked back.
With so many people believing that vegan “diets” are restrictive, I can understand how, at face value, an outsider might be concerned with someone who is recovering from disordered eating patterns choosing to live as an herbivore. Yet in the nearly four years I have been vegan I have discovered more foods, developed more cooking skills, tried more recipes, learned more information about nutrients and my body’s needs, and consumed more green smoothies than my collective years before the transition. Being vegan is not only about choosing what not to eat; it’s about choosing to invite (mostly) wholesome foods into your body. Being vegan is not only about opening your eyes to the horrors of the meat, dairy, and egg industries; it’s about opening your eyes to how food affects you, makes you feel, makes you energized, makes you smile.
Vegan doughnut? Yes, please.
Becoming vegan has not only led me to make conscious, wise, and non-obsessive decisions about how I nourish my body; it has also given me the courage to return to exercise. When I became more mastered at interpreting my body’s signals, I eventually couldn’t ignore its pleading to get moving! From leading a basically sedentary lifestyle to now being involved in a local fitness group’s branch of the CrossFit enterprise (CrossFit Akron, represent!) I feel more energetic and powerful than I ever have. But more importantly, I have rebuilt my relationship with exercise and created something healthy out of something disordered and dangerous. I no longer concern myself with counting calories or weighing myself or timing those awful marathons on the elliptical machines. I count reps and push myself for the satisfaction of completing what I thought I never could. I feel a surge of pride when I can lift 5 or 10lbs more than I did before. I revel in the connection I feel with the other members and shout out encouragement to those who have done the same for me.
Nutrition and health are no longer internal, lonely struggles. I have vegan friends and, thanks to the Vegan Con blogger conference, a worldwide network of vegan comrades with whom I can feel connected. I share my successes and innovations with these supports, as well as my fellow fitness members. I can openly discuss my experiences with other friends and family members and encourage the same insight into their overall health. I have embraced the role of “token vegan” and gladly invite questions about nutrition and the ethics of eating. Veganism has brought me so many gifts and I am truly grateful for Gena’s voice in the community and her offering of the opportunity to share our stories.
Thank you, Gena!
Thank you, Katie!
The quote that most stood out to me in Katie’s narrative was this one:
Being vegan is not only about choosing what not to eat; it’s about choosing to invite (mostly) wholesome foods into your body. Being vegan is not only about opening your eyes to the horrors of the meat, dairy, and egg industries; it’s about opening your eyes to how food affects you, makes you feel, makes you energized, makes you smile.
When I talk to people about the link between my veganism and my ED history, I always say the same thing: veganism taught me that my food choices can do good. Good for animals, good for the planet, good for my health. With that realization came the confidence to eat without guilt, and ultimately to eat with inexpressible pleasure. I love that Katie clearly echoes this sentiment in her own, unique way: veganism has empowered her to feel well again, all the while making her more conscious of how other living beings feel, too.
I was also fascinated to read about how fitness and exercise were actually the catalysts behind Katie’s disordered eating; I’ve heard many stories that begin with a diet and expand to include exercise obsession, but few that actually begin at the gym. Could any of you relate to this? I was far from a gym goer during my initial bout with disordered eating at the age of twelve, but exercise played an enormous role in my college relapse, and it took me a long time to stop using fitness as a means of “counteracting” food choices. I’m curious to hear how you’ve all experienced the link—positive or negative—between exercise and self-appreciation.
With that, friends, back to my usual grind. See you back here tomorrow for some food!