January 29, 2023

My Vegan Diet Looked Healthful On The Outside. Here’s What Nobody Knew.

(Photo: Moyo Studio via Getty Images)

(Photo: Moyo Studio via Getty Images)

For the past five years, I’ve been a strict, no-cheat vegan, and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my time in the vegan community, it’s that veganism truly is a lifestyle, not a diet.

Even though vegan rhetoric maintains that plant-based living is the most healthful way to eat, going vegan is usually about so much more than health. If you ask any vegan off the street — my former self included — you’ll often hear a combination of motives. People go vegan to combat animal cruelty, climate change, factory farming and even capitalism. Eating a plant-based diet is still the single biggest way to reduce your personal environmental impact, despite the occasional headline about the horrors of almond milk and soy protein. This gets into the reason why veganism lives in a world apart from standard diet culture: These things only really work if you stick with it for a long time.

There are so many genuine moral motivations that lead people to go vegan, and I wouldn’t have gravitated toward it in the first place if those issues didn’t truly matter to me. Even so, there is another factor that I need to acknowledge: Prior to my five years as a vegan, I was an unrelenting anorexic.

It is both as simple and as complex as the following details: My mother was always on some diet when I was growing up, I was a dedicated ballet dancer, my family has a lengthy history of anorexia, my adolescence was awkward and lonely, my gag reflex is weak.

I’ve always felt the pull to restrict, but the real spiral began around age 12 or 13. I’d toss my school lunches by day and by night I’d drink mug after mug of black tea to avoid snacking after picking at my dinner. I started stealing diet pills from my mom —every other day, so she wouldn’t notice. I counted calories on the Notes app of my iPod touch and in straight columns on the back pages of my journals.

By high school, I was consuming nothing but massive quantities of lemon water and black tea until dinner time or dance class, when I’d eat half a protein bar before, saving the other half as a reward for when the pointe shoes came off. I had a secret Tumblr blog dedicated to my dieting, complete with tips for losing water weight; the best cigarettes for appetite suppression; “inspiration” photos of bony arms, collarbones, thighs so fragile the knees looked painful to touch.

For a while, those around me thought I looked fantastic. Aunts and uncles would admiringly tease that I needed to eat more whenever they saw me at holidays. I wore pink leotards and white tights in class, my hip bones casting tiny shadows on me. When my skinny jeans began to hang off me, my mom praised my frame and took me to American Apparel.

But nothing comes without a price. My eyes went dead with dark circles. I went months without getting my period. My hair thinned and started to fall out. I was always freezing, even beneath layers. Once, in second-period choir rehearsal at school, I fainted in the middle of the soprano section. Some people thought it was a joke.

The problem ballooned past ignorance. I started therapy and abandoned my blog. My parents stared me down at the dinner table until I cleared my plate. I outgrew my American Apparel jeans.

In what I’d later come to recognize as a remission, not a full recovery from the disease entirely, I gained what I considered to be an exuberant amount of weight throughout the therapeutic process. I started eating what I wanted. I cut the tags out of all of my clothes so I didn’t have to look at the sizes. I took down old photos on social media in which I was skinny, dead-eyed and emaciated, so people wouldn’t notice and compare. As I inched toward progress, it seemed like everything was going to be fine, until one day it just wasn’t.

I began pinching the fat at my hips as I laid in bed awake at night. I stretched my hands to their limit trying to touch my thumbs and middle fingers in a circle around my thigh. I weighed myself every day, but instead of purging or starving, all I did was cry. I saw myself as living in two worlds — the world where I was so thin I knew it would one day kill me and the world where I was out of control, ballooning by the day into a body that could withstand the many years I’d hate living in it.

It was around this time that I discovered the vegan YouTubers and bloggers. I latched on to the thin, tanned bodies. The blond hair glowing in the island sun as they smiled with green smoothies in hand in Hawaii, California, Australia, Bali. These people were aspirational, and even though they each had their own personal brand of diet specifics, they all more or less told me the same thing: Do you want to look like this? You can eat anything you want, as long as it’s made of plants.

Although it seemed, even to me, like I had moved past my illness, nothing in the way I thought about food really changed. Veganism gave my eating disorder a mental outlet where I could privately be as sick as ever.

Compared to the rules I’d learned to follow all my life, this was as easy as chia seed pudding pie. Get rid of meat, dairy and eggs, and I could have complete freedom. I’d endured far steeper risk for far less reward.

On my 18th birthday, my little sister made a cake for me, decorated and sculpted from scratch to look like the cover of ”A Clockwork Orange.” It was the last non-vegan food I ate for the next five years. As a gift to myself, I went vegan and, I believed, cured my eating disorder.

When I say I was cured, what I mean is this: By providing myself with a set of nutritionally arbitrary yet specific guidelines, I felt at liberty to eat anything in the world I wanted, as long as it was vegan. And since these guidelines were also ethical, they were easier to stick to. If I broke a keto kick, I’d only fail myself. If I broke vegan, I’d be failing the world. It took some adjusting, but after a few months, I found myself, perhaps for the first time, able to eat some semblance of a normal diet.

I was living in a world where, as long as I was vegan, everything would be OK. The more reassured I felt in this, the more I warmed up to eating normally. I let myself get full. I ate three meals a day. I even let some vegan junk food slip in there from time to time.

For my physical health, this was a godsend. And for a while, it felt like one for my mind, too. Veganism was the only way I had ever learned to fuel my body without second-guessing every calorie. But whenever people asked me why I was vegan, year after year, I spoke of the horrors of factory farming while a little voice inside me always whispered, This is how I stay skinny without driving myself insane.

Although it seemed, even to me, like I had moved past my illness, nothing in the way I thought about food really changed. Veganism gave my eating disorder a mental outlet where I could privately be as sick as ever.

This isn’t a condemnation. In many ways, going and staying vegan saved me from further damaging my body in ways that are difficult to retroactively repair. I can’t say what kind of health problems I would have now if I hadn’t made some kind of change to nourish myself more, and for this reason, I’m still glad I did it.

At the same time, the healing of my body allowed me to imagine that nothing was ever that wrong. I’m not sick anymore! Look at all the evidence! Look at my strong core! My butt! My arms! My face! No matter how I feel about food, this healthy body is enough, right? I kicked back and did none of the crucial mental work of healing. I didn’t cure my eating disorder — I simply let it live in a sleeper state for years.

This was what ultimately led to my departure from the “vegan” label. Although there were other factors at play — growing tired of excluding myself from group experiences, having a super-cool chef roommate (shoutout to Aurele) and traveling to other places — I eventually came to realize that I hadn’t done a thing to address my problems. I never learned how to stop restricting. I’d just found a stealthier way to do it.

Although not officially recognized by the DSM classification of mental disorders, there is a term that’s gained popularity in recent years. “Orthorexia” is a form of disordered eating characterized by an obsession with restricting oneself to clean or healthful foods — which veganism can inadvertently encourage. When I spoke to an ex-vegan and eating disorder survivor who’d been diagnosed with orthorexia, she said, “It’s very common and very overlooked. [It] masquerades as a functional state of being. There’s so much nuance to the eating disorder experience, and the diagnoses should reflect that.”

As for whether veganism is ultimately “good” or “bad,” I don’t think it’s possible to say. Just like so many other things, it’s complicated and depends on the person. And I also know that I can’t reasonably blame the plant-based lifestyle for the ways that I used it as a tool to ineffectively cope with my mental illness.

But losing the vegan label has already made me confront many of the patterns I should have confronted years ago. Matters of food anxiety, choice paralysis, body awareness. I have to face it all now, and I’m doing it for real.

I still eat mostly plant-based food. In fact, I often eat the same exact foods that I did in my days of being vegan, at least for now. Who knows where I’ll be in six months or 10 years? I have no idea what my diet will look like, because that’s a freedom I now can allow myself.

Simply shifting the rules I set for myself opened up the floor for a lot of work to be done. And it’s work that no green smoothie could do for me.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.