I feel bad for veganism sometimes. Not vegans (we can handle the heat), but veganism as a term, a lifestyle, and an identity. It gets the reputation of being hippy-dippy, boring, unhealthy, condescending, and unnatural. (Because humans are meant to eat meat, of course.) And sometimes, veganism has even been accused of causing eating disorders.
While veganism is undeniably restrictive in the typical sense of the word (abstaining from meat and dairy is an obvious form of restriction), this restriction does not have to be detrimental. It can be beautiful and life changing. For many, it can mean properly nourishing their bodies for the first time in years. It can mean finally breaking free from food fears. Ironically, it can mean the exact opposite of restriction.
My history with food is pockmarked with times of pain and confusion. It all started when I was a junior in high school. I used my teenage skills of persuasion to convince my reluctant parents that dropping out of public school to homeschool myself for the remainder of my high school experience would be most beneficial for my education and overall wellbeing. With a few pounds (really, just a few) of unwanted teenage weight on my hips, a mind plagued by anxiety and OCD, the steadfast determination gifted to me by my innate perfectionism and need for control, and the isolation of being an online student, I now realize that I was a prime candidate for an eating disorder.
Let me tell you something about eating disorders. They are predators, entities in themselves, separate from their victims. When they spot the perfect prey, they swoop in for their pound of flesh.
My eating disorder began innocently. It was small and undetectable until it festered and flourished in my perfect little petri dish and ultimately caused me to lose over thirty pounds in only a few months. An apple counted as a meal. My browser history consisted of pro-anorexia forums and Google searches for the calories in lip balm. My bony butt hurt when I sat on hard surfaces for too long. My mind and body were ill.
With the support of my family, mainly my incredible mother, I was able to recover, although I'm not sure how much I vibe with that word. Recovery, at least in my life, is not so much a destination but rather a process that will never end. It's a road I walk every day, sometimes taking wrong turns that lead to dark corners, causing me to turn around and reroute. There are times I take wrong turn after wrong turn, convinced I must be a lost cause if I keep messing up like this. Sometimes I even do it on purpose; I see the "no trespassing" signs and consciously choose to not heed their warnings. But these days, when I catch myself wandering down one of those dangerous paths, I stop and turn around before the vulture has a chance to strike, before I reach the dark corners where I know nothing good ever happens. Today, I see these dark corners for what they are: hiding places. After I come out of hiding, I make my way back on the sunlit path. Veganism has helped me do this.
There are people who believe veganism leads to eating disorders or exacerbates already existing ones. I don't blame them for thinking this. There were times when I believed this, too. If you were to ask me to make a list of all the times I attempted veganism and ultimately bailed, I wouldn't be able to do it. I went back and forth for years, not during my eating disorder, but after. There were times when I thought veganism aided in my recovery, and there were times (not too long ago) when I falsely believed it was halting my recovery. Those latter times were when I would throw in the towel, because recovery was too important to me. Maybe some people could be vegan, but I couldn't be. Not with my history. It was better for my mental health to allow myself all food groups, animal flesh and byproducts included. This is what I told myself. My loved ones conceded this flawed mindset.
For the past seven or so years, every time I've abandoned veganism, its warm and welcoming arms have pulled me back in. I've always known in my heart that it's the lifestyle in which I'm meant to live, but in the past, I let my eating disorder complicate things. I listened to friends and family members when they warned me that any form of food restriction would be a disservice to my mental health. I believed medical practitioners who touted the importance of meat. And now I see the truth: Veganism never heightened my unhealthy eating habits. My eating disorder did that all by itself.
The problem regarding veganism and eating disorders lies not in the vegan lifestyle, but in the reason why someone chooses to be vegan. If a person decides to go vegan as an excuse to say no to food, as a means to continue on a path of unhealthy restriction, then that person has an eating disorder independent of veganism. I've been in that place, and it is entirely unfair to place such a heavy blame on a lifestyle that is about so much more than food. Sure, a person can be vegan for the right reasons and still have an eating disorder, but the fact remains: eating disorders exist independently.
On occasion, I still struggle with disorderly thoughts around food. I will not lie to you or pretend that veganism has completely erased my dark history and colored over it with rainbows and unicorns. It was not the cause of my ED, and it is not the cure, but it has dramatically changed the way I look at food. It has given a refreshing new meaning to every meal I have.
Unlike my reasons for going vegan in the past, today I am not vegan solely for myself. While I am a huge believer in the health benefits of a plant-based diet, these perks are not the main fuel for my passion. Trust me, I could be just as thin by eating nonfat yogurt and poached chicken breast like I used to, or by replacing my nourishing morning oatmeal with buttered coffee. (I've been down that hole, too.)
Today, I am vegan for a variety of reasons. This lifestyle takes the emphasis off calories and deprivation and places it on a higher level, on issues greater than myself. Innocent animal lives are in danger. Our environment is being destroyed by animal agriculture. The food on my plate is not just about me anymore. I refuse to support cruel industries that torture and murder sentient beings, industries that then decorate their packaging with cartoon faces of happy animals and lie to consumers by stating false and deadly health claims.
I was able to go back and forth with veganism for so many years because I was not well educated. My reasons for being vegan were not pure. I knew a little, but I didn't know enough. I thought I was vegan for the right reasons, but I wasn't. I was still too focused on restriction, and that was by no means veganism's fault. It's time for society to stop blaming veganism for causing eating disorders that would exist regardless of a person's abstinence from meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal-derived products.
Veganism is not an excuse to refuse food or decline dinner invitations. It's a vote for morality. It's a choice to respect ourselves, the lives of animals, and the state of our planet. It's an opportunity to eat in abundance, to nourish our bodies with cruelty-free foods that heal. For those who have struggled with eating disorders, it might be the first time they're able to eat fearlessly, to stop counting calories, and to see food as more than just food.
When I was in the grips of my eating disorder, nothing mattered more than being the skinniest person in every room. My food choices revolved solely around how they would impact my weight. This is a shallow, meaningless way to eat. Being vegan for selfless reasons has awarded me the invaluable gift of seeing food in an entirely new light. I speak for myself when I say that veganism tremendously diminishes the malicious voice of my eating disorder whenever it haunts me, but I know there are countless others who also relish in this miracle.
It saddens and frustrates me that veganism is often accused of creating and worsening eating disorders. It is not just a diet. It is not at fault when it is misused as a means to continue unhealthy habits of restriction. For so many people, including myself, it is a profound awakening. It is joy. It is abundance. It is freedom. It is peace. It is compassion. It is looking your eating disorder square in its ugly face and saying with confidence, "You are not what matters anymore."