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Green Recovery: Sarah Gives Veganism a Second Chance

Posted Nov 30 2011 2:04pm

cell social at budokan 004

Hi all! Happy to see that you’re so excited about the cocoa buckwheat granola . I ate a bowl of it with almond milk and blueberries this morning, and it was totally delightful.

A few weeks ago, Amanda emailed me:

…While I love your recipes and your take on vegan dining, I’m wondering when you are going to post more on the Green Recovery series or on eating disorders. I really enjoy and respect your commentary on these things. I know that you are a very busy woman and so I understand that you might not have the time available to devote to these more sensitive endeavors, but I’d love it you’d post more on that.

Amanda, thank you! Green Recovery is very dear to my heart, and so I’m thrilled to hear that my readers are attached to the series as well. It has been hard to present these meaningful stories in the midst of school bedlam, but today, I’m sharing an entry from Sarah, who blogs at Welsh Girl Eats . As you’ll see, Sarah—a recovered anorexic—has had both positive and negative experiences with vegan diet. A good many of my readers with ED histories are both fearful and intrigued by veganism (it’s one of the reasons this series felt important to me), and so I think that many of you will relate to Sarah’s story. And I hope we’ll all be able to celebrate her current journey towards a renewed commitment to veganism. Thanks, Sarah, for joining us!

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Where to start!

Like many people, I have a long and complex relationship with food, but I’ll try to keep it brief. I began to associate food and my body with depression and other negative feelings in my teen years. In my early twenties I was diagnosed with IBS (constipation type) but on reflection I believe I have had IBS since I was a child. When I went to university my need to feel in control and obsession with food and weight, which had begun in earnest when I was 17 years old, escalated. Life got messy due to family problems, and there was the (self-imposed) pressure to do well at university. I had no coping mechanisms in place. I also increasingly associated food with pain due to my IBS, and at 21 I became anorexic. Luckily, I got married a year later, and for the sake of my husband and our life together I decided things had to change. I embarked on recovery myself. I reframed food in my mind as something that was healthy and necessary for life rather than something to control, limit and use to deal with my emotions. I was in recovery/recovered for a while after that and began to love food again. At 24 I found out that I had gluten and lactose intolerance which helped massively in managing my IBS.

At 26 years old I went back to university to study to be a registered nurse. Aware that university pressure was one of my triggers, I wanted it to be different this time—and it was, at first. But then began a catalogue of events and triggers led left me staring at a relapse again. Half way into my first year of school I had lost weight (just from healthy exercise, which was new for me). During the summer I had 3 months of university holidays, which worried me. I didn’t want to gain weight and feared I would due to having little to distract me from food and not being as active. My IBS had been getting worse as well. During the holidays I took up yoga which helped with stress management, and, as a natural academic, I began to research additional ways to manage my IBS.

During my research I came across many people (Gena, Elise , Lauren , Twins etc) who had been able to manage their IBS and other digestive ailments through adopting a vegan diet. Instinctively I brushed over it, thinking it was too extreme and unhealthy. On looking into it more and weighing it all up, though, I decided to give the vegan diet a go. I was determined to be diligent about it, so that I could have a healthy and balanced diet, particularly as I was already gluten-free. I had also read loads of reports on how a vegan diet had helped with weight loss and weight management. In all honesty, I did not want to lose weight. I just didn’t want to gain weight. This was an important distinction in my mind, and one which differed from my previous anorexic days. In retrospect, however, I think it was a warning sign and the wrong reason to try a vegan diet.

In August 2009 I embarked on a vegan diet. And I loved it! It helped with my IBS and I loved the way of eating; I really wanted to do it in a way that energised me and gave me strength and health – all positive motivations for sure. I did lose weigh, but it was incidental. I was eating well and enjoying food.

Towards the end of that year people started commenting on my weight being lower than pre-veganism (I was not underweight at this point), and in Summer 2010, the comments from others and the pressure to excel at university got too much. (Additionally, I hadn’t had a period for 15 months.) Those close to me hypothesised that it was due to my weight loss and vegan diet (it turns out that my lack of periods was mostly due to PCOS – polycystic ovarian syndrome – which I was diagnosed with in December 2010).

Nonetheless, being naturally anxious, and often giving too much clout to what others say to me, I started believing that it was because of my vegan diet and worried that I was relapsing. It sounds strange but people’s comments and their expressions of concern that I was anorexic again was an additional trigger. In August 2010 I became more controlling about food, and I was constantly hungry and thinking about food. My IBS was becoming awful again (no surprise really with the increased anxiety levels and ED habits), my BMI was too low, and I was using veganism (and raw veganism) as a way to be super controlling about food.

With my head in a muddle, I decided to throw in the vegan diet. Veganism became associated with weight loss and negativity rather than the initial joy I gained from eating that way. It seems that veganism, for me, has two faces. When life gets tough and I feel as though I can’t cope, it’s a way for me to be more controlling about food. When life is fine, veganism is a way that I can love food with freedom and creative expression.

Since my IBS was bad and I needed to gain weight, I thought that denouncing veganism was the way to go (note IBS and weight management were my initial reasons for trying veganism in the first place). I stopped blogging at Gluten-free Tries Vegan and stepped back from the blog world (reading and commenting on blogs, as well as blogging myself). Also, I was concerned that food/healthy living blogs were perpetuating my food, body and weight fixations.

Since then I have gained back the weight and returned to a healthy BMI, but I haven’t been happy with eating meat. I researched more about nutrition and how to have a healthy diet that contained animal products but it didn’t seem as healthy as plant-based diets. And health is something that has always been important to me (hence my training to be a nurse). And I just didn’t enjoy being omnivore again, both body and mind. I had started to count calories again, hating my body and becoming fixated on the weighing scales and how my body looked. I hadn’t adopted these behaviours and mentality since first being anorexic (and it was veganism initially that stopped me from counting calories). It was depressing. I was happy and relieved to be at a healthy weight again, but this wasn’t enough to help my mind. I wanted to reclaim my love of food.

I thought about adopting a vegan diet again but was fearful due to my recent relapse. I embarked on a predominantly vegetarian diet (although still eating meat and fish occasionally), but it STILL didn’t feel right (I know this sounds fluffy but I’m not sure how else to put it) nor did it feel entirely healthy. I really missed that joy I experienced through eating a vegan diet, prior to my relapse. So, over the last five months I have carefully been transitioning back to a vegan diet—with one major caveat. I am not committing myself to any labels whatsoever. I can’t go there, not yet at least. I’m just letting myself eat what I love, without pressure, and choosing foods that my body AND my mind enjoy. And honestly, that ends up being vegan food! I love it. My diet is plant-based by default; it is what is natural to me. And eating mostly gluten-free and vegan helps with my IBS.

In order to avoid the relapse that coincided with my first attempt at a vegan diet I am determined to do things differently this time. Whilst I want my food to be stomach-friendly, I am not going to stress about whether everything that passes my lips is vegan. May be one day I will be able to be more strict, maybe not. Importantly, my motivations are different—it is not for weight loss or management. I am disassociating veganism with weight control. It is for health and joy. Also, during the last relapse I became too fearful of grains and carbs in general. I am letting go of these fears, and am embracing my love of carbs.

Furthermore, I believe in non-violence and eating ethically. Whilst I don’t think eating meat and dairy are paradoxical to ethical eating, it is pretty difficult to navigate and source out these foods. It’s far easier to eat ethically through choosing vegan foods, than through navigating a diet containing animal foods.

I’ve also started blogging again because my love for food has returned since adopting a plant-based diet Welsh Girl Eats . I love the creativity that comes with eating a pre-dominantly vegan diet, and the energy and lightness that I feel. Whilst I have definitely come through my recent relapse, my journey with food, IBS management and mental health is still continuing; as is my transitioning to veganism. For me, balance—in body and mind—doesn’t come easily; it takes vigilance and perseverance. It is that which I am trying to achieve whilst honoring myself, my ethics and others.

What an honest, thoughtful, and generous post!

A couple of things come to mind when I read Sarah’s story. First, it strikes me that veganism seems to be a double-edged sword for many recovered men and women: it has the power to transform and heal a broken relationship with food, but the pressures to define one’s diet in a conclusive way (by saying, “I’m vegan”) can often feel triggering, and reinforce some of the control mechanisms that are germane to eating disorders.

To be totally honest, veganism (both the diet and the label) has never evoked the control and limitation that I associate with my eating disorder and relapses (it helps that I was not vegan during any of these periods, so I don’t associate plant-based food with restriction). I am, though, very sympathetic to the ways in which veganism can present these complications to people who have lived through EDs: will the vegan diet (or label) become an excuse to restrict? Will I lose weight? Will people assume I’m trying to lose weight? This series is meant to both be an honest venue for people with ED histories to talk about their relationships with plant-based diets, and (I hope!!) an example of how plant based diet can truly be a meaningful and safe path to a renewed and healed relationship with food.

Sarah illustrates well how former ED sufferers can live in fear of their family and friends’ concerns and assumptions. I think most vegans with ED histories can relate—I certainly can! I would say to Sarah (and all of you) that, if you do develop a joyous and healthy relationship with veganism, your family and friends will often learn to celebrate your choices with you. The best way to assuage their fears is simply to show them that veganism works for you—with a smile, a delicious vegan meal, and a healthy body and mind.

If your family and friends are onto something—that is, if veganism has become an unhealthy choice for you—then you should never fear taking a step back and taking a break from the lifestyle. Better to approach it with a whole heart when you’re ready, than to do it prematurely and suffer (and possibly develop negative associations). For more on this, check out my post on how all restriction is not created equal .

And use Sarah’s story as an example! Veganism isn’t going anywhere: when you’re ready for it, it will be ready for you. Focus on recovery, on finding yourself again, and then—if you’re still committed to the principles of a vegan lifestyle—find your way back, slowly and at a pace that works for you. There’s no rush, and once you do embrace veganism again, it will surely be with happiness and confidence.

xo

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