Though the Grapefruit Diet and the like may finally have been condemned, there are other pseudo diets that lurk in the mainstream, masquerading as the key to optimal health while continuing to promote restriction, fear of foods, and disordered eating. For many of us who have dealt with disordered eating or eating disorders, vegetarianism, veganism, a gluten free lifestyle, and so forth can be a gateway to a whole new dimension of restriction. So many of us have gone down this path, cutting out this and limiting that. We swear it’s for health reasons; that we just saw the latest research and bacon will surely kill us, and we are making our decision based on what is best for our bodies, not our waistlines. And maybe for some that kind of decision might work. Maybe for some that might be true. Maybe for some, cutting out meat or limiting dairy might actually make their digestive system run a little smoother and their energy a little higher. Maybe for some it truly isn’t a big deal, and the ethical nature of veganism is reason alone to make certain dietary choices. I am not one of these people.
For me, the moment I think about restricting a single food item, alarm bells go off. My brain starts going loop-de-loo, and all I want is everything. The moment in which I think hey, bread is evil, let’s not eat bread, for example… all I do is eat bread. It happens with every single food group, and it has ever since my binge eating disorder really took ahold after years of yo-yo restriction. You see, my brain has been trained. It believes that every time I even think about removing something from my diet, I am about to go down the path of deep and heavy restriction. Past experience has told it so. And so when those thoughts start mulling around, my body’s survival mode kicks into high gear, and it’s binge season up in here.
Because here’s the thing: restriction, physical or mental, perceived or actual, triggers bingeing. Thinking you should not have a food item or believing you should not eat a food item is just as damaging as actually not having that food item. Our brains deal with it the same way; they revolt the same way.
And so even though I value the ethics of a vegan lifestyle; though I love animals and have seen some documentaries that have made my skin crawl and my gag reflex activate; though I know factory farming is both horrific and revolting; though I know it is a valid option; I cannot do it.
That is not to say that veganism cannot be done by those of us with a disordered eating past, or that veganism is the beginning of an inevitable downward spiral for us all. Everyone is individual, and what each person can handle is so different from the next. For some, veganism is an ethical choice that poses no mental health dilemma. I am not one of these people.
It’s also important to say that while there are some ethical vegans out there, the reality is that the diet-centric world we live in uses dietary choices such as veganism to legitimize restriction. It is very, very easy to tumble down the orthorexic rabbit hole when you’re told that everything that isn’t plant based might have the power to kill you. For sure, not all vegans tout this kind of essential, “clean” eating, but many do, and their messaging is damaging. It feeds into our restrictive lifestyles, and makes it seem completely normal. It suggests that being scared to go to a family holiday because you may not be able to eat the food is a valid and acceptable reaction. It promotes the idea that those who are not vegan are wrong, bad, and dirty. None of this is okay. Judging others for their food choices is never okay. And so when contemplating whether or not veganism is a compassionate choice for you, it is important to investigate why you’re even considering it. Be honest with yourself. Is it just another way for you to try to lose weight, control your food, or otherwise engage in a disordered way? If there is even a chance that it might be, even a small part of you that wants it for the wrong reasons, I implore you to stay far, far away.
All that being said, I do believe there is a happy medium. Rather than suggest to myself that I should cut out meat, dairy, or anything else, or promote the idea that veganism somehow makes me a better human, I strive for balance and ethical sourcing of my food. I search for meat and dairy items with sources that make me feel alright. I tend to limit my meat intake because I just find that it makes me sluggish. There are also certain times of the month when all I want is steak… like, all the time. So that’s what I eat. For me, following intuitive eating and recovering from my eating disorder means not making across the board rules about food at all, but instead just eating what feels good and what feels right, and letting everything be as fluid as possible. Sometimes that means I have a lot of fish and veggies… other times that means I’m on a hard boiled egg kick. I even have rediscovered a love for milk after years of replacing it with a soy alternative due to perceived “health benefits,” and the “poisonous” quality of dairy milk. But I hate soy milk. I hate the way it tastes, I hate the texture, and I hate how fake it feels in my mouth… so I don’t have to drink it. Plain and simple. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll feel differently and never want to drink milk again… but right now, I really like having the option.
So here’s what it boils down to: veganism might work for people. I would never suggest otherwise. But when thinking about switching to a vegan lifestyle, remember that we don’t make our choices in a vacuum. Our thoughts and feelings and opinions about anything and everything are influenced by our culture… and our culture is all diets, all the time. Not only that, but if you have a history of trying to manipulate food, engaging in a lifestyle that promotes strict rules may not be the best self-care choice. And that’s what it’s all about: what choice is the most compassionate for you? Not for the chickens or the cows or the cashier at Whole Foods. What decision is right for you? Personally, just the idea of veganism sparks all kinds of dormant disordered ideas at this moment in my life. This is a sign… don’t ignore it. Love yourself enough to listen.
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Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
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