Veganism and Disordered Eating: Taking Care of Yourself While Giving a Shit
For some folks, even discussing a vegan diet can be extremely triggering. Harming anyone is the last thing I want to do, so please be warned that this post could be triggering and step away if you need to.
For a long time, I thought it was not possible for me to be vegan. Despite the fact that I’ve morally and ethically agreed with veganism since I was fourteen. Unfortunately, I have also struggled with an eating disorder for most of my life and even though veganism reflected my truest convictions, the idea of “restricting” my diet felt like backsliding on my recovery. I’m not an expert. But what I am is a nurse, a vegan, and an eating disorder survivor in recovery. I can’t tell you what will work for you. But I can share my experience and hope that it will help you understand me better, and maybe help you on your own journey.
When I considered attempting to go vegan again, I first had to examine my motivation. I had to be honest with myself. SOOOO honest. Was this just another diet? Was it about losing weight, or limiting my food choices, or finding fun new ways to obsess about food? There were times in my life when that was the case for me. But not now. To be certain I asked myself 3 more questions:
1) Is eating animal products causing me more or less emotional and psychological distress than not eating them?
2) If I went vegan and gained ten pounds, would I still be happy with my decision?
3) Am I coming to this decision from a place of joy or fear?
Vegetarian and vegan diets are common in eating disorder sufferers because it allows us to eliminate entire groups of food with a simple justification. This is restriction. Not eating something you want is restriction. I’d like to tell you what happens to me (and many others) when I restrict. I fall into the same destructive pattern of restriction and rebound, over and over and over. This is not exclusive to people with eating disorders. Regular old dieters do the same thing. When I try to hold myself to an unrealistically strict diet, my body and brain rebel against that restriction with major cravings and distress and anxiety. I swing violently and extremely in the opposite direction. Not only does this cause me to eat the thing I wanted to restrict—I might buy out the grocery store of that thing and eat it until I’m sick. When this happens, I feel depressed and like a failure and often start the whole process over again, telling myself what I need is better will power to be able to adhere to my stupid, overly strict rules. This never really works. Punishing myself never works. Will power never works. (At least not for me or anyone I know.)
At this point you might be asking, “But Mac, isn’t going vegan a strict and restrictive diet?” The answer is that yes, it can be. But when I asked myself the three questions, this is what happened. I realized first, that eating animal products was causing me more distress than not eating them. I finally felt strong in my recovery, but still, somehow my eating disorder was destroying my ability to live and eat in a way that felt true to my morals. I realized that it truly wasn’t about weight. If I went vegan and gained 10 lbs, first of all, I’d never know because I don’t weigh myself anymore. But if my pants felt tighter, it would not make me want to give it up, because I would still be living the way I wanted to live. When I thought about going vegan it wasn’t because I was afraid of getting fat or getting sick. I didn’t think, wow, I’ll die of heart disease if I don’t follow a diet right now. Actually, what I felt was excitement. I thought, “Yes! I can learn to cook new things and feel good about what I’m eating and still be okay in my recovery.”
"But Mac, how do you not eat animal products and not feel like you’re restricting?" For me, the key is to eat whatever I want. Read that again, please. Whatever. I. Want. When I get a hankering for something—say a burger—I examine it in my head to make sure I know what I’m actually craving. For me, it is almost never really meat. If I just had a beef patty, would that satisfy me? No. So, what is it that I want? A big, tasty patty on a soft, yummy bun with lettuce and tomatoes, some kind of delicious sauce and maybe a slice of cheese if I’m feeling cheeky. Can I eat this while vegan and satisfy the craving? Yup! I do it all the time. Whatever I’m craving—I have always been able to find a vegan option that satisfies me without making me feel deprived. But there’s some rules I follow to stay on top of this.
1) I honor my desires—100% of the time.
2) I never let myself feel guilty about something I’ve eaten. (This is actually way easier for me now that I’m vegan, because even if I eat the whole bowl of cookie dough, I know no animals suffered or died for it and it’s not killing the planet.)
3) I go at my own pace and honor my needs. For me that means I’m not 100% whole food plant-based. I’m not eating only raw foods. I don’t demonize any one food group like oils or sugars or carbs. Sometimes I use oil and sometimes I don’t. I might try a WFPB or raw recipe on occasion if they look tasty. I also eat vegan mayo, potato chips, and oreo cookies.
What I’m saying is, my most important rule is not to get caught up in anyone else's diet rules. If you wanna be more plant-based, be YOUR version of plant based. It will take some trial and error and sometimes it might be frustrating, but as long as it is making you feel better and not worse, keep going.
I hope this gives some insight into who I am and where I’m coming from.