I’m reading the book Intuitive Eating, which I highly recommend. I was looking for something like it that could get me back to trusting my biological hunger without worrying that I need to control myself or my weight. It’s raised my consciousness to the ways I had a “diet mentality” even though I’ve only rarely restricted my food for the purposes of weight loss. I picked them up mainly because of being vegan, especially as a teenager when I had less control over my food in general.
Intuitive Eating co-author Evelyn Tribole asks when describing the diet mentality, What has dieting cost you? Consider your social life, relationships, eating behavior, mood, time, food preoccupation, & money?
The biggest cost was an “eat while you can” cycle of fasting and bingeing. Traveling as a young vegan, I would easily go a few days eating barely anything. I would pack food, but vegan travel foods in those days were so calorie-light that it never seemed to be enough. Often, I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I wasn’t eating what everyone else was eating, so I would wait until things drew down for the night to eat. Sometimes you don’t realize you’ll be out all day– other junk food vegans surely remember a getting-a-can-of-Pringles-and-peanut-butter-crackers-at-the-gas-station-and-making-them-last-all-day day. I developed an almost effortless ability to suppress my hunger when there was nothing around that my brain read as food. Despite what were, in effect, externally-imposed semi-regular fasts, I only felt hungry or put-out a small portion of the time. But as soon as I got home, I binged for days. I was genuinely very hungry, but I ate far beyond the point of satiety. I was packing it away for the lean times because my body did not trust the food would always be there.
What sucks about this is that I unintentionally trained myself to ignore or suppress my hunger signals and to treat food as a scarce resource. I mean, in high school, this was true. Even in college, it was still kind of true. (Vanderbilt Dining Services tried but they could easily omit to have a vegan option at all on some nights in the main cafeteria… which you had to use a meal swipe to discover… half-black bean salad it is!) But it’s definitely not true for me now, with my own kitchen in Boston. Even on the highways of the South I have a choice between my old standby, Subway, and Burger King now. Sometimes there’s even a Chipotle. There’s abundance out there but in my mind each vegan food item is still the oasis in the desert.
I developed a habit of stocking up on food reserves whenever I had the chance, whether I was really hungry or not. Even now, it can be hard for me to recognize when I feel full. I frequently overeat and get indigestion and bloating. I lard up my cooking with extra oil even though it gives me gas and make myself huge portions that I struggle to finish, yet somehow that negative feedback does not affect my sense of what to make next time. Intutitive Eating begins by observing your biological hunger signals, like stomach growling, salivation, and fatigue, and pausing as you eat to observe how full and satisfied you feel. It’s amazing how much more satisfying eating is when I tune in to feeling satisfied, lol.
Veganism also reinforces the tendency to judge ourselves by our choices of “moral” vs “immoral” foods. Make no mistake, I think it’s immoral to contribute to the torture of animals. And I simply do not want to eat the flesh and products of enslaved and miserable animals because of moral disgust. I don’t even know if I would eat cell culture animal meat at this point just like I wouldn’t want to eat cell culture human meat. It feels wrong and I think that’s alright. However, as a byproduct of following my genuine motivations, I get a constant, intoxicating stream of reassurance that I’m a moral person because of my “correct” eating, which creates an association between restrictive eating and morality, self-discipline, and self-control. And if I start to feel insecure about my body, that sense of moral superiority that I’ve indulged when it comes to correct ethical vegan eating can turn into a sense of shame at eating too much or not restricting myself to the purest foods.
Has dieting ever served as a coping technique when you feel out of control? Where dieting gives you a focus and distraction from stress?
Veganism has certainly done this for me. I did not become a vegetarian to gain a sense of control, but having a restrictive eating project could certainly provide that sense when I was stressed out. When I stepped it up to veganism, even though I had long ago come to the conclusion that that was better for the animals, I think part of me chose that time because I was seeking a domain to control more obsessively. I don’t get a big ego payoff from controlling my food anymore because it’s very second nature, but even in recent years I would still fret about the tiniest traces of animal byproducts in cosmetics and clothes. It was that stuff that made me realize I sought purity obsessions as an anxiety sink (and now I don’t worry about the trace animal fat derivatives in, say, nail polish). This need to purify and control is something I will always have to manage. If I don’t manage the underlying anxiety then every purity domain I snuff out is simply reborn in another form. Eventually my obsessive thoughts turn to weight loss, even though I don’t experience that as a strong desire. I’d think, Oh, you’re already small so it would be so easy to get a little thinner and more defined! Get rid of that gut! Then you’d be perfect… Vegans develop skills at restrictive eating and veganism can provide excellent cover for an eating disorder, so I think it’s particularly dangerous for us to let a need for control manifest itself in a diet mentality.
In summary, veganism is a form of restrictive eating, by definition, even if it’s not motivated by body image or weight loss concerns. There’s the potential that veganism could harm your relationship to food. I’ve been fine this entire time, but I anticipate feeling happier, healthier, and more secure as I let go of the food scarcity mindset I developed as a teenager and deal straightforwardly with anxiety rather than letting it play out in food purity psychodramas.
The biggest dynamic intuitive eating seeks to end is feeling deprived, which makes forbidden foods the object of obsession and can lead to bingeing on them when you slip up (“last supper” eating, because you’ll neeeever have it again). That’s not exactly the dynamic with veganism, because, much as I once loved the taste of animal products, I do not want to eat them. But I can let myself feel deprived when I say something like “I can’t eat this” rather than “I choose not to eat this.” I can sometimes feel put-out when I’m eating a plain baked potato for dinner at Cracker Barrel with relatives, but the truth is that I choose to do that, and I’m happy that I have the freedom not to eat animals. It’s important to remember why we choose to eat this way, and that, although it restricts the range of foods we eat compared to those around us, we’re actually taking advantage of an incredible freedom to follow our consciences.