A therapist once told me that veganism is a form of disordered eating. Maybe it is. Then again, maybe it’s not.
I began a vegetarian diet when I was 19 years old, ostensibly because I thought it would help me lose weight. It didn’t help me lose weight (my weight actually stayed the same), but it wasn’t a huge divergence from how I was already eating. While I gave up meat quite easily, I still ate eggs, small amounts of cheese, and Greek yogurt. It wasn’t until I was 22 and experiencing severe gastrointestinal distress that I gave up dairy altogether. Each time I ran, debilitating stomach pains would force me to take numerous pit stops to relieve myself, or sometimes throw up. After cutting out dairy, my problems all but disappeared and my doctor said the most obvious, revolutionary words I’ve ever heard, “This is actually quite normal. You’re just lactose intolerant.” Of course.
Veganism became my default mode, and despite what any carnivores may think, it’s not all that hard. Avoiding meat and dairy is only mildly tricky when dining out, or attending social gatherings. It’s simple enough to order a salad sans chicken, or a bunch of side dishes, and many establishments offer vegan, or at least vegetarian, fare. It’s even simpler to bring your own vegan dish to a social gathering, so that part was never an issue.
After seeing a therapist, I was shocked that my diet of choice may be considered disordered. Although I didn't agree with her, I did need to re-evaluate why I changed my diet in the first place. Recognizing that restriction was at the heart of my diet change was challenging, for no other reason than it is painful to examine one’s own downfalls and traumas.
Many vegans I’ve met changed their diet after seeing a documentary like What the Health or Cowspiracy. Although I watched these films, they were not my impetus. Any way we dress it up, meat is a dead animal. A corpse. A carcass. Since I was a child, I have been intuitively drawn to more colorful food, and was blessed to grow up in a family that gardened extensively. Each summer, we grew strawberries, sweet corn, peppers, green beans, potatoes, spinach, broccoli, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and more. Vegetables and fruit harvested straight from the earth are so full of color and life that is really isn’t surprising that dull brown or white meat held little allure.
As I’ve slowly healed from my eating disorder, I’ve had to resolve some deep conflicts. If all foods are good foods, is it still okay to “restrict” animal products? Is veganism a healthy diet for someone who is very active? What emotions surface when I think about eating meat or dairy again? I will attempt to answer these questions as succinctly as possible, to illustrate that veganism is not, in fact, always disordered.
1. Do vegans “restrict” animal products?
The short answer is no. People adopt vegan diets for different reasons, but my choice to abstain from eating animal products has become an ethical one that is worlds away from my former unhealthy and disordered restriction. I do not feel like I’m missing out when I chose not to eat meat, and have never experienced a craving for any animal product, cheese, yogurt, and steak included. I feel good in my body, listen to my hunger cues, and satisfy my cravings and nutritional needs without eating animal products.
2. Is veganism a healthy diet for active people? There is so much I could write about this because it’s a relatively controversial topic, though one that is not super well researched. Dr. Joel Fuhram writes, in “Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete,”
“The optimal diet for the vegan athlete has not yet been defined…Vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, and nutritarian diets are healthful options for serious athletes. To maximize performance, recovery, endurance and resistance to illness, enhanced intake of beans, greens, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and other colorful plant products are recommended. These same suggestions also are important for the nonvegan athlete. Supplemental protein is an option but not needed for most athletes...rather, added B12, vitamin D, zinc, DHA, and possibly taurine are more likely to be helpful.”
A host of vegan athletes serve as anecdotal evidence that the diet can be healthful and not detrimental to performance. Nimai Delgad, Dominick Thompson, Erin Fergus, Scott Jurek, Tom Brady, and Heather Mills are just a handful of examples.
Nancy Clark, a sports nutrition expert and author of "Nancy Clark's Food Guide for Marathoners" has written,
"It’s possible that some vegan athletes are low on creatine, a nutrient that you get only from meat and that can help during short bouts of intense exercise, like sprinting, though supplementation isn’t necessary. My feeling is that hard training trumps everything. Diet, if it’s healthy, isn’t going to make that much difference."
Of course, what Nancy Clark fails to define is what a "healthy" diet actually looks like, but "healthy" looks different on everybody. Her point is that diet, in and of itself, is a terrible predictor of athletic performance.
3. What emotions surface when I think about eating meat or dairy again?
When I think about eating dairy, I recall the horrible stomach pains and bloating that accompany yogurt and cheese. I don't care how good ice cream might taste, nothing is worth the discomfort and pain that soon follows. The thought of eating meat brings about a bit of sadness and a bit of curiosity. Sadness, because it has become impossible for me to separate the animals I love from the bloody meat sold in plastic wrap at butcher's counters across America. And curiosity, simply because it has been years since I've eating a burger or a chicken breast. The taste and texture seem foreign to me, though they remain undesirable.
When people ask me why I am vegan, I like to say that it simply makes sense. It makes sense for my body, my tolerances, likes and dislikes, and my moral code. There is great peace and balance in living like this; doing no harm, embracing vitality, radiating kindness, and honoring not only my body but the bodies of all living things. Diets are deeply personal, and I ad not saying that veganism is the best diet for you. Listen to your body, really listen, and it will tell you exactly what it needs.
P.S. If you've struggled with an eating disorder, veganism might not be right for you. Work with a therapist, dietitian, or doctor to determine your best options. If you're struggling and don't know where to start, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE, or find a qualified therapist near you HERE.