On Thursday of last week, I shared a wonderful Green Recovery post from fellow blogger Kimmy, who is the author of Rock My Vegan Socks. She wrote something that inspired today’s post, which I’ll share with you:
One of the toughest things for me was to not have “no” foods. To not look at food as good or bad, but food/fuel for my body and to eat. When I see foods as “bad” it triggers me to try and avoid them at all costs until I finally break and binge on them. Sure there are foods that are more healthful than others, but I’ve learned that it’s ok to enjoy a variety of things and if I eat a little more of the foods that aren’t quite as healthful, my body naturally starts to crave more healthful things. I’m still trying to figure out balance, it’s definitely a work in progress.
Kimmy’s experience with “no” foods is not unique. In fact, I’d say that most people who deem certain foods as bad or forbidden end up struggling with the very same bingeing issues that Kimmy describes. When I start working with a new client, I’ll always say that our work is to be a judgment free space. We’re not going to label foods as “good,” “bad,” or—my least favorite expression of all—“clean.” Food is not “dirty.” If a client tells me that he or she was “bad” over the weekend, I’ll gently encourage him or her to rethink the statement. Perhaps it would be more productive, I’ll counter, to say something like “I didn’t choose foods that made me feel my best this weekend.” No moralizing, no confessional. Good/bad terminology only creates angst.
Anyone who has recovered from an ED has probably had to do some work with this issue of forbidden foods. Some people call them “no” foods. I used to call them “fear” foods. No matter what we call them, they present us with the same set of problems. The world will not be a less vast or overwhelming place if you place food into strict categories. Nevertheless, this habit gives us the illusion of control, the sense that we’re somehow in greater command of our lives.
The other problem with no/fear foods is that they serve to reinforce the ED sufferer’s sensation that everything to do with food is a BIG, HUGE deal. When you’re living with an ED, every single food choice is loaded with significance, to the point where even a small decision—avocado or nuts? Olive oil or coconut oil? Sweet potato or quinoa?—can feel crippling. My memories of anorexia and orthorexia involve so many moments spent in a paralysis of indecision over what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat. This tendency still sometimes bubbles up when I get caught choosing between two dinner options or ordering at restaurants. Fortunately, time, therapy, and lots of practice have taught me to snap out of the deadlock quickly, commit to something, and remind myself that no single food choice matters that much. It was one of the hardest parts of my recovery, and it would not have been possible had I not learned to let go of the idea that foods exist on a dramatic spectrum of good and bad, healthy and unhealthy.
For all of these reasons, I see the deconstructing of good/bad categories as a vital part of the recovery process. I don’t think it’s possible to embrace one’s appetite freely so long as one is busy assigning undue significance or false health claims to food. This opens up an interesting question: as a vegan, how do I reconcile my perspective on “no” foods with my choice to eliminate a significant number of foods from my diet?
I have been asked this question by readers who are in ED recovery countless times—so often, in fact, that I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to address it head on. In many ways, this question cuts right to the heart of the Green Recovery concept. My premise for the series, which grew out of my own recovery experience, was that it is possible for people who are recovered or in recovery to maintain discernment with food, all the while letting go of the fears and anxieties that characterize an ED.
When I posted my first Green Recovery submission I suspected that the idea might provoke some pushback, and indeed, in the years since I’ve been publishing Green Recovery stories, I’ve gotten some criticism along with plenty of positive support. One of the earliest pieces of critical feedback I received was from a therapist who asserted to me (respectfully, over email) that it’s really not possible to experience true freedom from the ED while also having a substantial number of off-limits foods. From her perspective, veganism could only serve to underscore a person’s attachment to the ED.
This echoes much of the thinking that surrounds ED treatment. There is an emphasis on breaking down good/bad dichotomies, lifting any limitations or rules that have been imprinted on eating, and letting go of unnecessary emotion surrounding food—specifically, fear, anxiety, self-loathing, judgment. When I was in therapy and working through my ED, my therapist continually pushed me to release my attachment to food. She believed that I wouldn’t be able to experience freedom from the disorder until I could let go of the idea that everything I ate was so meaningful and so important. The work I did with her was valuable, and I’m grateful for it. Today, when I gently counsel clients to let go of the guilt/anxiety that can surround food decisions, and remind them to keep the big picture in mind, I’m channeling that work.
Sometimes, though, the emphasis on breaking attachment to food and razing good/bad thinking can come across as an effort to divest food of meaning. One of the things that a school counselor said to me long ago was that I had to see food as “just food.” I clung to that idea as a defining feature of recovery for a long time—so much so that I even wrote a post with that title, “just food,” early in my blogging days. I was still under the influence of what I had been told about recovery, which was that I had to see food as “fuel.” I was also told that having any “no” foods at all—including those imposed by veganism or vegetarianism—was at odds with recovery, that it would only perpetuate my tendency to invest food with too much importance. From the perspective of someone who works with EDs every day, I understand this position. It’s what works for many people. A good friend once told me that she could never be vegan because she could never again deem any food as off limits or forbidden. Knowing what she’d been through, I empathized completely. But my own story has been very different.
I think that there are a few problems with the idea that recovery resides in never having an off-limits food again. The first is that it feels a little bullying, as if the penance for those of us who used to have EDs is that we surrender the right to ever again exert preferences or harbor strong feelings about what we eat. There is therapeutic importance in leaning into getting over “fear” foods, sure. But I think that people who have had EDs maintain the right to bring active choice to what they eat. In the context of today’s discussion, this may include choices that have an ethical or philosophical origin, like veganism.
I also dislike any suggestion that food should be without meaning or importance, even if it’s offered for the sake of overcoming the anxieties and fears of an ED. For one thing, food isn’t meaningless or without importance. It is profoundly important to all of mankind, because we are creatures with rich inner lives and complex feelings and a tapestry of culture in addition to the fact that we have bodies, and those bodies have nutritional demands. The fact that food is meaningful to us is evidenced in our rich culinary traditions, in the importance we place on gathering at a table and breaking bread, in our rich legacy of cookbooks and recipes. I went on a date once with a man who told me that if there were a fullness pill, he’d take it, because he had a busy life and considered eating to be a strain on his schedule. But such individuals really are few and far between. I challenge most anyone to say that food is just food, or just fuel. And it strikes me as especially unrealistic to think that anyone who has struggled with an ED would be able to make such a claim. For most of us, food is meaningful and important. The question is, can we channel that meaning into positive, healthful, and self-loving directions?
I think the final problem with making unilateral statements about “no” foods is that it fails to take into account the single most important feature (within the context of recovery) of how we eat: motivation. I’ve often said on this blog that one can engage in disordered eating no matter what the diet. It’s true that EDs often hide behind vegan diets, paleo diets, or other specialized diets; of course they do. But if you’re determined to create rules surrounding food, you certainly don’t need to select a special diet in order to accommodate them. I was an anorexic omnivore. The fact that I was ostensibly able to eat anything certainly didn’t stop me from bankrupting my diet. Encouraging a wide array of foods may offer some insurance against disordered habits, but the real issue is always the same: one’s mindset.
If we focus on motivation and mindset rather than labels, we can actually create a nuanced and authentic dialog about our food choices. Once again, I’ll refer to my own experience. There is a world of difference between my feelings about animal foods today and the fears that characterized my food choices in the past. The primary distinction is that I choose not to eat animals for ethical reasons, and not because I think that they’re “bad” for me, or because I think they’ll make me gain weight. Put differently, veganism feels like a moral imperative to me at this point.
I also do everything I can to resist letting fear guide my food choices. I often talk to my clients about fear-based nutrition versus evidence-based nutrition; the former encourages strict rules and guilt, while the latter tends to encourage common sense, balanced eating habits, and moderation. Fear-based thinking ruled my world for a long time, and for me, recovery means refusing to allow fear to guide my choices. I don’t avoid foods because they are too caloric, too high in fat, too rich in carbs, too sugary, etc. I also don’t forbid foods on the grounds that they are “unhealthy,” because a fundamental feature of my present-day health philosophy is an emphasis on the big picture. Of course certain food choices can cause health imbalances over time—I’m not suggesting that diet isn’t a contributor to health. But for the most part, no single food encounter is life-or-death.
Finally, I acknowledge that true nourishment is not just about the nutritional quality of what we eat. A slice of gooey vegan cake, a warm latte with sugar dusted on top, a plate of chickpea fries, hot from the fryer: these foods can nourish us in ways that go beyond the minutiae of micronutrients or protein. They can be comforting. They can constitute a complex sensory experience. They can be fun. They can be communal. The health benefits of food are firmly rooted in the experiences they afford us, as well as in their nutritional offerings.
Image courtesy of Allyson Kramer
Of course, it’s possible to claim that one is avoiding a food on ethical or conscientious grounds (for example, choosing to boycott a particular food producer because one doesn’t believe in its business practices), when in fact one is appeasing the fear-based thinking. It’s also possible to mask ED tendencies behind the veil of being a “picky” eater. But I still don’t think that we should make all types of dietary discernment off limits for people in recovery. In so doing, I think we might actually block off approaches to food that, however unorthodox, could prove to be beneficial.
For one thing, it can be deeply healing for a person who has had an ED to be given permission to eat in alignment with his or her values. Allowing compassion for animals to guide my food choices has compelled me to embrace food so much more profoundly than I ever did before. Becoming more sensitively attuned to the ethical issues that surround food production has helped me to shift my focus away from the fear-based thinking; it actually exposes the irrationality and insignificance of calorie obsession and/or orthorexia. Additionally, eating a wide variety of nourishing foods that appeal to me (as opposed to animal flesh, which never did) has helped me to forge a more harmonious relationship with my food. It does not surprise me at all that my only lasting recovery has been as a vegan. And these are experiences that have been echoed again and again and again by the men and women who have submitted Green Recovery stories.
Earlier this year, I reflected in some detail on my own ED history. I mentioned that, in the very early days of my veganism, it’s hard for me to say whether or not my motivations had to do with preserving a sense of safety. At the time, it didn’t feel this way, because veganism encouraged me to eat so many foods that I’d have never allowed myself in the past, from rice to tofu to big, creamy slabs of avocado and gobs of nut butter. But I can’t say for sure whether or not the lifestyle did allow me to preserve some sense of control—the impulse we associate with disordered thinking. I remember feeling, as I transitioned to veganism, a very new and special sense that the food I was eating all had value. Part of this was a response to eating whole foods, things that I knew had grown from the earth. They felt more pleasurable to me than the conventional foods I’d tried so hard to force myself to enjoy in past recoveries, as a part of my effort to “prove” that I was better. Part of it was a sense that veganism—though I didn’t yet identify as an ethical vegan—was intertwined with broader issues of social justice and environmental awareness.
You could certainly look at this—the identification of plant foods as natural and wholesome, anyway—as an attempt to appease the ED quest for purity and superiority. Not long after this period, though, I did genuinely descend into a bout of orthorexia, and it was nothing like my early vegan days. I know this, because it was actually the memory of my first year as a vegan that pulled me back from my foray into the extremism of “detoxing.” I looked back on my early vegan days and remembered how positive and constructive the act of eating had felt. I remembered taking pride in the nutritional richness of the foods I ate. I remembered feeling as though I was using food to nourish myself, rather than allowing it to be an outlet for self-control.
Today, I don’t need to attach quite so much unilateral positivity to everything I eat. Foods don’t have to feel wholly beneficial in order for me to enjoy them, and in many ways this is a mark of my personal growth, my increased detachment from the ED. But back in the days when recovery felt so fragile and so new, veganism gave me a context in which to shift my thinking about food. What was previously frightening and guilty became beneficial and meaningful. I believe that this is what I needed in order to get better: I needed to reframe my understanding of what food was and how it could make me feel. Veganism allowed me to do that. And that’s why it’s impossible for me to believe that veganism is, ipso facto, at odds with recovery. I don’t think I would or could have recovered with out it.
Veganism isn’t a positive or a beneficial choice for everyone in recovery–especially those for whom the recovery process is very new. You’d be surprised at how often I find myself gently encouraging clients not to commit to vegan diets—not because I don’t want to see everyone go vegan, but because my first responsibility as a nutritionist is to protect clients’ health. If I strongly suspect that the impulse toward veganism is rooted in potentially harmful impulses toward self-control or denial, I think it’s my job to share that suspicion. I’ll respectfully remind my client that veganism isn’t going anywhere, and that he or she has a whole lifetime in which to embrace it heartily and healthily. But committing to veganism for questionable reasons during the tender phases of recovery isn’t likely to benefit the individual or the lifestyle.
And each week, I also encounter men and women who seem to feel—correctly, I think—that veganism is a positive, healing avenue. I don’t think it’s my job to discourage all of those individuals because there are some other individuals who won’t approach veganism that way, who will use it as a way to subvert the ED. This is something that I believe we all need to accept about recovery: different approaches reach different people. Attempting to manage or contain EDs by shutting down every treatment approach that isn’t unilaterally successful will leave us with no approaches at all.
Of course, advocating an approach like veganism puts a great deal of responsibility in the individual who is recovering. It means asking him or her to have open, honest, critical dialogs with the self and with treatment providers about motivations. It means challenging people who do want to maintain a vegan recovery to look deep within themselves, and ask what’s driving their intentions. I think it creates more necessity for therapy, treatment, and support, because it’s easier to analyze one’s motives with the help of an outsider. With the right kind of guidance, though, it’s work that can be done. It’s easy to say that everyone with an ED is so deluded and far gone that they cannot be trusted to ask these difficult questions and make these choices. But frankly, I don’t agree. Many ED sufferers do maintain enough awareness to self-examine, and I think we should work to create a conscious and supportive space in which they can do it.
I certainly didn’t intend to write a novel tonight, but this is a big, complex topic. If you’re still reading, you have my gratitude, and I certainly hope you’ll share your thoughts.