As I hinted yesterday, I’ve got a very special guest post for you today. This will be the first in a series of posts that I’ve been hoping to start for a long time, and to which I know you’ll all contribute wonderful commentary. The title of the series is Green Recovery, and its purpose is to explore the link between plant-based diets and recovery from disordered eating.
If you have spent any amount of time in the healthy living or vegan communities, you may have observed something: many men and women who are drawn to plant-based diets happen to be people who have recovered from disordered eating.
If you ask me, this isn’t really surprising: people who are rebuilding a relationship with food post-recovery tend to seek out diets that are healthy and wholesome. Plant based diets also offer a sense of ethical contribution through food choices. It’s hard for many people with intense ED histories to enjoy food without self-loathing or paranoia: if they can be assured that their food choices are actually serving a useful and beneficial purpose, it may motivate them to continue getting better.
The incidence of vegan eaters who are also former ED sufferers is remarkable, but it tends to be a taboo topic in vegan circles, with good reason. First of all, it’s important not to suggest that there is a strict uniformity among vegans. I’ve met vegans of every profession, religion, race, age, and sensibility. There hasn’t been an easy-to-identify common denominator, except that most of us care passionately about animal welfare, and most of us care about being healthy. Even those two generalizations are problematic, because I know plenty of vegans who are uninterested in healthy eating, and I know some who aren’t interested in animals. (I recently argued that veganism is most rewarding when animals are at least a part of the picture, but I also happen to believe that there’s no right or wrong reason to eat a plant-based diet, since any vegan diet saves animal lives.) So we have to avoid the implication that, because there happen to be many vegans who struggled with EDs once upon a time, there is a certain vegan “type,” and that type is prone to disordered eating. It’s much more reasonable to say that there are many vegans who have ED histories, and that the link is worth exploring, but that it’s only relevant to some vegans, not all.
We also have to tread carefully, because vegans spend enough time batting down unfair accusations that veganism is a “sublimated eating disorder,” “a starvation diet,” “rabbit food,” “nothing but carrots,” “only for weaklings,” and so on. If you eat a plant based diet, I’m sure you’ve encountered this assumption at least once before: the spoken or unspoken suggestion that vegans are by definition sickly and weak, either by choice or because of the diet. It’s an absurd accusation, but the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the high number of vegan eaters with ED histories might be twisted into evidence. So naturally we vegans cringe a little when we talk about the commonality of ED histories in our community: we don’t want to give detractors ammunition, and we know we might.
But does holding our tongue about this phenomenon—the appeal of veganism to people with ED pasts–get us very far? I don’t think so. Rather than keeping silent about the fact that there is a large portion of vegan eaters who, once upon a time, struggled with food, isn’t it more honest and productive to explore it? Mightn’t we discover patterns and themes that help to shed light not only on our own motives, but also on the value of vegan diets? Mightn’t it make it easier for vegans who have never experienced these struggles to identify and empathize with those who have? And, most importantly: mightn’t we actually identify certain lifestyle habits or ways of thinking about food that can be of value and use to the people who treat EDs? Let’s not forget that many treatment centers actively discourage plant based diets, and encourage foods that are heavily processed and rich in animal flesh. Shouldn’t we at least admit that a plant based alternative may be useful to some of the men and women who suffer?
I think so. And that’s what this new series is all about.
Starting today, I’ll have a monthly or bi-monthly guest post on CR from a plant-based eater with an ED past. My hope is that we’ll listen to his or her story, and then offer up our thoughts and reactions in a constructive fashion in the comments section—just as we always do.
It’s important for me to be very clear about what this series is not. This series is not prescriptive. I’m not arguing that veganism is a cure for disordered eating. That’s simply untrue, for many reasons. Just as there’s no real uniformity among vegans, there’s little uniformity among former ED sufferers. We can identify some commonly shared personality traits—perfectionism, for example—but the truth is that EDs descend on all sorts of people. They affect people of every race, socioeconomic background, gender, and age. Likewise, there are many sorts of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are only the three most commonly known and understood. Disordered eating is a spectrum, and each individual case of is likely to encompass more than one behavior: many anorexics transition into bulimia, or alternate between the two; many binge eaters go through restrictive periods that mimic anorexia.
Just as disordered eating is best understood in the context of a single person’s experience, so too is recovery: we can only really talk about what works and why by talking about the person who is suffering, and how he or she is suffering. Veganism seems to offer a lot of men and women a way out: it offered that to me, and it changed my life. But many other former ED sufferers have told me that their history actually makes veganism untenable for them: they spent so long labeling certain foods as “off limits” that they can never again think about any food as forbidden. The selectivity that veganism imposes on one’s diet would in fact hinder their recovery—or at least that’s how they feel.
So you see, I realize that veganism is only a solution for certain people who have recovered from the worst part of their EDs. But the response of that group to veganism is compelling. Time and again, I’ve watched women and men who considered themselves beyond help respond positively to a vegan lifestyle. And for those who become interested in the ethics of veganism—as I have—the lifestyle may offer a final escape from the terrible, isolated egocentrism that many ED sufferers experience. It helps us to shift attention from our weights, our clothing sizes, and every morsel that passes through our lips, to the plight of animals. And since those with ED pasts have suffered, they may be better suited than most to summon up compassion others who suffer.
Before I introduce Freya’s story, I should point out one more important thing: I don’t want any of my vegan readers to think that I’m belittling veganism by suggesting that it’s a “recovery tool.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not arguing that veganism’s importance is limited to its usefulness in the recovery process; if anything, I might be arguing that our own struggles can seem less all-encompassing and urgent when they’re juxtaposed with the issues that are central to veganism: animal cruelty, lack of compassion for life, environmental destruction, and so on.
As I was considering who I might approach to write a green recovery story, one lady came to mind immediately. Freya is the charming and vivacious author of Brit Chick Runs, and she has one of the most harrowing and inspiring recovery stories I’ve heard. I met her at the HLS last summer, and I was instantly enchanted with her. When I later read about her road to recovery—and as I’ve read and processed her intelligent responses to my posts on veganism and EDs—I realized she’d be a perfect person to share a green recovery story with us all. I asked her to talk about why and how she believes veganism has helped her to find health and wellness. I also asked her to talk about the downsides: has veganism hindered her progress in any way? This series will not be meaningful unless it’s totally honest, so you can expect my guest posters to know that they’re absolutely entitled to share any misgivings they may have about veganism as a long term lifestyle choice.
Please read to the end of Freya’s story, and then share your responses in the comments. I’d also love to hear any of your thoughts on my intro. And, at the bottom of Freya’s narrative, you’ll find details on how to submit your own story to Green Recovery at CR.
Firstly, I’d like to say a big thank you to the lovely Gena for asking me to write this post; I’m truly honoured she asked me because I’m a big fan of her blog. I think she has one of the best life balances in the blog world I’ve ever come across, and I don’t know how she does it! An inspiration, for sure.
I’ll start off with a tiny bit of background about my eating disorder – In my pre-ED days, I ate everything but red meat, although there was a heavy bias towards chocolate, crisps and very little else. I was pretty active however, so looked healthy – although looking back and comparing myself to how I feel now, I wasn’t healthy. Think: lacking in energy and sluggish.
When I was about 17, pressures from school, mild bullying and general teenage angst led me to develop pretty severe anorexia. I managed to avoid inpatient treatment (thanks to my mum’s determined belief that we could get through it without IP treatment) and instead went on my dietician’s plan for weight gain and recovery. Interestingly, the nutritionist actually tried to put me off eating vegetables due to their lack of calories, but that’s beside the point.
I did gain weight, but I didn’t gain health – mentally, I wasn’t at peace with myself or with food, and was struggling, which led to a few minor relapses in my recovery.
Veganism was something that had been in the back of my mind for a long time – I’m an animal lover and have always avoided red meat for that reason (cows were too close in stature to horses, and if you read my blog, you’ll know I’m a keen horse rider and lover!). However, after researching the farming industry for some time and reading some vegan books, I began to want to do more. I started to seriously consider the switch early last year, but my family and I felt that it would be too restrictive a diet given my past. However, by June 2010, I was more positive in myself, I’d done my research and felt so strongly about not only the ethics, but the health benefits of veganism too, that I decided to jump straight in. My family were against the idea to begin with, especially as I still had some weight to gain (and a marathon to run later in the year), but you know what?
I haven’t looked back.
Veganism has helped me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. A restricted diet? Quite the opposite! Before I went vegan, I was lacking in a lot of nutrients and avoided fats, sticking to a pretty limited diet. Once I became vegan however, I branched out in my recipes in a quest to tick all the nutritional boxes to prove to my family that I was better off and more healthy living this way. I discovered some wonderful new foods:
And developed a newfound love of all peanut butter, hemp seeds, tofu, and even the odd raw soup!
I also began to discover more about myself and my passions; the more I read about veganism, the more strongly I felt about the ethics the lifestyle is based on. Having anorexia makes one a very egocentric person, but becoming vegan has made me look at the broader picture – about the animals that are affected by small everyday choices I make, about how changing one thing can make a huge impact. I feel like I’m making a difference in the world, which has improved my self esteem no end. It’s like I’m discovering who I am and what I stand for, forging an identity for myself, which has had a significant impression on my mental health. Part of the reason why I developed an ED in the first place was because I felt overshadowed by friends and family, and subconsciously, I needed to try and define myself. Veganism has helped me do this, has helped me respect myself again.
On top of that, I’ve developed a firm love of cooking, discovering new foods and recipes (and blogs!), and I’m reaping the health benefits! I’ve never felt so energised, my skin has never been so clear and my hair so silky! On top of that, I still managed to gain 12 pounds and run my first marathon – two things which no-one thought possible originally.
Of course, there are negatives to every diet – it’s harder to dine out with family as the choices are so limited in my corner of the world, and I probably overdose on tofu when time is tight sometimes. Some of my family have had trouble accepting the vegan lifestyle too, assuming that it did mean I was relapsing, and it’s taken a long time for them to realise that the switch has actually been good for me. There has also been times when I’ve craved Greek yogurt – probably the one thing I miss as a vegan – but I believe the benefits outweigh the costs.
But the main point stays the same; becoming vegan has made me begin to love and respect myself again – I’m not there yet, but I’m sure as heck close (and am getting closer with every day), and knowing I am making my own little contribution to the world helps no end. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, and I’m finally becoming the person I want to be, free from anorexia.
I loved all of the observations in this post, especially this one:
Part of the reason why I developed an ED in the first place was because I felt overshadowed by friends and family, and subconsciously, I needed to try and define myself. Veganism has helped me do this, has helped me respect myself again.
This makes me think back to our recent conversation during NEDA week. I wonder if part of veganism’s power for a post-ED person is that it offers a world view and way of defining one’s identity.
Freya, thank you for sharing your story with us so bravely and with so much exuberance. All of us—former ED sufferers and non-ED sufferers alike—very proud of you and your recovery story. Remember that recovery is a long process, and that there are many more high points and triumphs to come—more than you can imagine from where you are now.
Would you like to share your green recovery story? I want to hear from you! I’m welcoming all vegan (or mostly vegan) readers with ED histories to send me a guest post submission that describes the link between their diets and their recovery. I want posts that are honest and thoughtful: the rest is 100% up to you.
Note that while want to hear from former anorexics and bulimics, I’d also really love to hear from binge eaters, compulsive eaters, or those who suffered through binge/restrict cycles. In my experience, many women with highly disordered habits tend to assume that they don’t have an ED unless it’s a clinical case of anorexia or bulimia. Not so. EDs, as I’ve said, encompass a broad spectrum. I’d like Green Recovery to focus on the more extreme cases, but I’d also like it to address cases of disordered eating that may have fallen under the radar, but were nevertheless significant.
You can send all submissions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Green Recovery Submission.” If you’d like to publish anonymously, that’s fine.
Tomorrow, we’ll return to business as usual. Tonight, let’s all reflect on Freya’s strength and her lovely words.