Experiences of Eating Disorder Recovery From A Bad Vegan

Words: Raf Galdeano
Featured Image: Hannah Powell

This author promotes eating without restriction, whatever or diet you follow. I wholeheartedly stand for the buying and consumption of pre-cut frozen vegetables, burnt toast which you eat covered in Marmite, Linda McCartney sausages paired with hash browns in a tower and making dodgy garlic bread from rosemary focaccia found in the Asda reduced section. I support cooking two kilos of daal and sitting at your friends table with a mountain of mac and cheese shortly after eating paprika covered chips; get your five-a-day from baked beans, tinned sweetcorn, frozen peas and apple juice. In short, eat whatever you want as long as it is guided by an intimate understanding of your body – loving those parts of yourself which do not seem to fit.

The reasons people go are as varied as those engaging in the lifestyle. Some go vegan for animals, some are rebelling against an exploitative agricultural system, some for health, some purely for the environment. Veganism encourages its’ followers to have a closer relationship with the world around them. It typically means avoiding all dairy products, meat, eggs, leather, products tested on animals and honey, though this varies. A lifestyle focused on cutting out certain types of foods added to an eating disorder, sounds like the recipe for disaster, right? Look at what we are told about veganism, Healthline writes that: ‘studies consistently link vegan diets to lower body weight & BMI’. Jamie Oliver’s food team agrees, describing vegans as ‘consuming lower amounts of calories’, alongside a blogpost by ‘Zenhabits’ who begins their piece by writing ‘Yes, vegans on average are healthier and leaner than the average person. But that’s an average — there are unhealthy vegans.’ The big ‘U’. Unhealthy. Unhealthy, in this context meaning, fat, the opposite of which being, healthy, and therefore skinny.

Why the obsession with weight & health?  Why are we so scared of being fat? Maybe because fat doesn’t just mean fat, it isn’t just a descriptor of a body type. If speaking of fat in the contexts of health and veganism the subtext is that fat is to be feared. Skinny is clean, skinny erases all previous health conditions you have. Skinny gives you worth, it enriches your life, it allows you to be seen as desirable. Weight is weaponised in plant-based & vegetarian circles to create a referent object of fear: fat. Jodie Layne describes the reinforcement of thinness & veganism perfectly here, writing:

‘[…]a vegan diet is almost always partly about losing weight’…there is always a message that a “proper” vegan diet would result in the pounds just falling away.’

I turned vegan to decrease the guilt I had every time I binged, to allow myself to see as not only fuel but a way of making a difference. Other vegans I spoke to while in the process of writing this spoke of turning vegan in order to take a closer look at their food, as a way tear down concepts of ‘good & bad’ fats. A friend said veganism was a way of giving them a reason to ‘engage in food again’, because they were doing a good thing by eating vegan. We were all met with images like this:

 

Ad by PETA

 

We were fed narratives of food purity, of PETA making the tenuous connection between weight and morality. Greater than the cruelty of industrial dairy farming, the big evil to fight is our weight. And so, as a vegan who has been at war with their body for years, I decided to eat on my own terms. Eat my crispy tofu fried in sunflower oil, take that extra dollop of full fat hummus. Ignore the Instagram accounts and vegan cookbooks telling me I was only doing veganism correctly if the main ingredients in my cookies were dates and chia seeds. 

Recovering from an eating disorder isn’t as easy as just eating. For some, eating disorders are a way of survival in a body that has only ever betrayed them. For others it’s the singular point of control while everything is painful and confusing. So, know that I see you, those who are simultaneously surrounded by weight loss images and posts of self-love. You who are told to shrink your bodies into places they were never meant to fit. To the fat people whose bodies are used as the punchline to slogans. To my vegans recovering from eating disorders or in the midst of them; you know restriction is not the way to happiness. Veganism is not the way to weight loss, nor am I arguing that in isolation it can repair an eating disorder. It is simply a different way of eating and of giving yourself freedom. Contrary to a majority of vegan discourse, all it stands for is reducing the level of cruelty that goes into your diet and life.

When I eat now, I do so consciously. I prepare my own meals so I know what goes into all of my food, be that Asda vegan popcorn chicken and mashed potato or stir fry. I am able to eat without guilt and my food not weaponised against me. I understand now that I deserve food which allows me to find cooking to be a deeply calming experience. Food became exciting for me in my veganism as knowing I could make meringue from chickpea water and ice cream from bananas felt like magic. Knowing I can pretty much concoct a meal from whatever food I rescue and find in reduced sections of supermarkets is a superpower. I remember queuing for an hour and a half just to eat Temple of Seitan, and you know what? Totally worth it. When I am sad and my housemate ‘accidentally’ drops milk chocolate on the floor so I can eat it, I don’t beat myself up about it. If there is non-vegan food that would otherwise be thrown away, I will eat that too. My relationship with myself and my body is far more important to me than moral absolutism. Shame is something that I will never let myself experience around food again.

An important thing to note in the closing of this is that my version of veganism is simply possible for all people all the time. Not everyone has access to cooking facilities, the time to trawl multiple supermarkets for the cheapest vegan products. Because I am only cooking for myself, and I have no children or dependent people to cook for, it does not matter if I experiment with lentils and it is a complete disaster. Where I live, fruit & vegetables are easily accessible and most importantly, cheap. In a society where four million children live in poverty, where their parents are so overworked making ‘healthy’ food choices over and over again are an impossible expectation, attempting to paint my recovery and vegan lifestyle as ‘simple’ is untruthful. Do the best you can, with what you have. That is all anyone can expect of you.