The Dieting Chronicles, Part 3
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If it's the first time you're reading or listening to this series, I highly recommend that you start from the beginning so you get a full sense of where I'm coming from. I began this series after some very deep soul searching, I gave you an introduction to the series which included a little public apology I felt was important, and then we headed deep into the stories of the myriad of weight loss diets I tried, 23 to be exact, in part 1 and part 2 of the series. You'll hear all about the points, the crazy nutritionist, how deprivation and dieting itself can lead to not only weight gain but is the number one ingredient for a messy relationship with food. In last week's episode I covered mostly what happens when these body shaming, pro-restrictive voices come from people who have letters after their names, and how destructive that can be. I finished that episode by finally arriving at the point in which I found veganism. That's where we're picking things up today.
If you're a veteran of our blog and have been reading from the beginning, you've probably read all about how being vegan started for me and what that journey was like. It's been such a special part of my life, it's changed me in so many ways, and in others I'm exactly the same person only with a different plate in front of me when I sit down to eat. When it comes to my endless diets though, it sadly wasn't the end of the line.
As you know, it was the movie Vegucated which made me finally take the plunge, and for the first year my life changed radically. For the first time ever I was rid of the never-ending rollercoaster of dieting. I was eating what I desired, experimenting with a new way of cooking, trying out new ingredients, finding my vegan sweet spot as I call it. I was getting a handle on the social situations which were the only hard thing for me when going vegan. For the first time I was eating freely. Unfortunately that didn't last very long.
I would soon be exposed to what is the inevitable result of our dieting and perfectionistic mindset when it comes to food. It's been so ingrained in us that we need to be constantly in control of our food that we're constantly checking ourselves, monitoring, being aware of portions and the types of foods we eat. Don't even get me started on the thin ideal and the unrealistic expectations we have when it comes to what our bodies should look like. It's a melting pot of factors that even within such a kind and compassionate choice as the choice to be vegan, and even within a way of eating that already includes restriction (since you're eliminating meat, dairy and eggs), we have found ways to restrict even further. We've found ways to make certain foods the devil (i.e. gluten, soy, sugar, oil, processed foods, white flour, just to name a few), we've found a way to translate the constant fear mongering that we already have enough in our society and pour it all over our food (i.e. foods that cause or prevent cancer, superfoods, inflammatory foods that should never pass your lips, etc.). We've even gone so far down the rabbit hole that people now shame vegans who don't eat in this way (PS: every single time I use oil in a recipe I get a comment along the lines of "ugh! that's disgusting"). It's like the Hogwarts of perfect superhero eating, and since we come from a society that actually values being strict with yourself and watching what you eat, we've taken a bite of the poisonous apple. Those days of eating vegan and enjoying the bounty that nature provides, eating what is desired and then moving on are long gone, at least for the easily-triggered by diet language folks like me and so many others.
Although I was perfectly happy eating vegan, enjoying my food and then moving on to live my life, I got a huge dose of the "you still need to be vigilant" pill, not to mention the "should I be eating this way too?" pill, and especially the "I need to still watch my weight" pill, and the "am I eating correctly?" pill.
Soon I was right back where I started. Only now it was eco-atkins instead of atkins, vegan paleo instead of paleo, the high carb low fat craze, the nutritarian diet, the low fat diet, the raw diets, the juice cleansing, and the number one most destructive diet that I have ever done (at least when it comes to my mental health and well-being, and that is what is now called clean eating. A diet (or way of eating as many people will say, but don't kid yourself... it's a diet) that has a beautiful romantic principle at its base, and one that is certainly true and wonderful (eating plenty of natural foods that come from the earth (aka all the beautiful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc., that are of course health supportive and an essential part of any diet), but also one that has plenty of other rules on top. These include, and different proponents of this diet recommend different things of course, a reduction of portions, often times to unreasonably low quantities and calorie intake, elimination of all processed foods, a reduction of starches and carbohydrate rich foods, and as was the case with the vegan clean eating diet I tried (which I will not name here), elimination of fruits and starchy carbohydrates at certain times of day. So yes, on the one side of the spectrum we have experts recommending limiting carbohydrates and on the other we have the potato cleanse which yes, is in fact a real thing. Turns out nothing has really changed from the pro and anti margarine days of the 80s.
I'll never know if this diet was simply the final drop in a glass already overflowing with water, and by water I mean 23 back to back diets and my slowly reaching a breaking point, or if indeed it was the structure of this particular one which pushed me over the edge. I do know what happened though. For the first time I became truly obsessed with portion control, I developed such a fear of the foods that were not allowed in the diet that I almost didn't want to eat them in the times or amounts that were allowed. It was the most restrictive diet I had ever done, out of 23 diets which is saying a lot, and it made me unhappy, unhealthy and it made me obsessed with food.
I'll say it again, when we restrict, when our bodies feel deprived, when we have so many rules around our eating, the only thing that is guaranteed to happen is that we will obsess and eventually overeat. When it comes to my personal story with food and the problem I have had since childhood (aka overeating), this diet made me turn a very dangerous corner, and the overeating became so much worse. Even now after going back to eating normally and slowly in the process of rebuilding a normal relationship with food, I still feel the effects and the thoughts of this very dark period pop into my head when I eat a certain food. Dieting is the road you DON'T want to take if your destination is healthy and balanced eating. I can tell you that from having lived it, and from hearing and learning about thousands of women who have been down the same rabbit hole and have found the courage to climb out.
This was the last diet I ever tried, and hopefully the last one I will ever try. It's also the last installment in the series, which is why it's finally time to talk about the thing I've been teasing you about since this series began. The conversation as to whether or not veganism is a diet, and the underlying restriction that it entails.
What about the underlying restriction in a vegan diet?
Here's what I always find fascinating about us humans. We take a simple statement or idea, and we beat it into submission. We create clubs, theories, genres and sub-genres, diets and micro-diets, additional rules and an addendum to those rules. This has happened to veganism and it's why I personally believe we have so many ex-vegans, people who don´t want to identify as vegans, and what worries me even more, vegans who develop eating disorders such as anorexia, orthorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, among others. We've taken something that included flexibility and our own imperfect human nature, and made it into something else.
Here's the definition of a vegan diet as defined by the Vegan Society. This definition was created including original terms used by Donald Watson in 1944 who coined the term "vegan", and by Leslie Cross in 1949 who further detailed it. This is the Society's current version of the term "vegan":
"A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."
There are so many words in this definition we could talk for hours about, such as "seeks to exclude" and "as far as is possible and practicable" and perhaps we will in a later post and episode.
For now, here's what I think when we discuss the issue of whether a vegan diet is restrictive. The answer is yes, and no, and also, it depends on what you turn it into.
Does it exclude products yes. Restricting certain foods, animal foods, is at the base of what it means to eat a vegan diet. This does not necessarily mean though, that you will necessarily feel deprived or restricted of the foods you love. The fact that you can have a vegan burger when you feel like eating a burger, vegan cheese instead of dairy based cheese, vegan pizza, non-dairy ice cream, vegan lasagna, vegan birthday cake, you name it you can make it without using animal products, to me meant that I didn't feel deprived at all. Quite the opposite actually, I started to eat a larger variety of foods, I tried fruits and vegetables I had never tried before, my cooking was much more creative and certainly much more delicious. A lot goes into this, since I don't live near the polar ice caps, or in an impoverished country, I don't live in a food dessert or in an actual dessert. I had frequent, and plentiful access to food. This is not the case for everyone in this world, which is why the question of whether veganism is very restrictive will vary from one person to the next. To me it wasn't.
It wasn't restrictive until it was. I didn't feel deprived until I did, and I did, when I decided this wasn't enough, and that if there were now dozens of sub-ways to eat vegan it must be because I need to find one and do it. This was deprivation central, but it had nothing to do with veganism, at least not with the way of being vegan that I knew and loved.
It can be so hard to not fall into this trap
It can be so hard to not fall into this trap when already beautiful and slender newscasters are asking diet book experts questions on TV with the attention of a hawk, almost taking notes for later or as if they were listening to the Dalai Lama. It can be so hard to eat in a way that is already healthy and can be as simple as eating in the way you did before, simply swapping one ingredient for another one, and yet feel bombarded with information that that is still not enough. It can be so hard to finally find some peace with eating (this is what being vegan brought into my life since my food choices were not only about me anymore) and be surrounded with images of what an "ideal body" looks like. One that indeed requires restriction and an unhealthy relationship with food to subsist. It can be hard, it was hard for me, and it's hard for so many others.
Can a vegan diet feel restrictive? Yes, we are all different and we have different ways of approaching a change like this. Can a vegan diet mean simply an ethical choice to swap one ingredient for another and eat in a balanced way that allows for pleasure, enjoyment as well as nutrition? Yes! Can we turn this simple ethical choice to skip animal products and turn it into yet another diet that thrives on perfectionism, deprivation and obsession? Yes, that can also happen. It happened to me and it has happened to many others, but we can come back from that. We can regain our power as eaters, meaning no one gets to determine what you eat other than you. That can mean vegan as is my case (because I love animals and also love vegan food), but it doesn't mean perfect or pure, let alone clean or dirty. It's food. I eat it, I enjoy it and I move on with my life. This is part of what I want to help you regain by reading this blog, or by being a member of our online program or the courses we plan to create in the future. I want to remind you that you have the power, and that food can be simple. That food is nutrition and sustenance but also joy and pleasure and enjoyment. That food also always has an impact in the world and beings around us, that whether you are or want to be vegan, are nowhere near vegan, or are anywhere in between, there is a space for you here, and that you will never be judged if you eat an oreo cookie, or a vegan donut, or you love raw foods, or you still eat animal products. My goal is just to teach you how another way of cooking can be just as delicious, and that trying to be perfect or pure, have the perfect body or the perfect diet is not a part of the imperfect world we live in. That's my mission here at Brownble, and that's all I have to say on this topic for now.
Thank you so much for bearing with me through this series. It's the most personal one I've written and recorded for you so far. It's been hard because it's been challenging, and recent, and painful, but it was also real, and real is good. Thank you for being on the other end and listening.