My Vegan Transition: Part I

Note: This is the first in a three part series about transition to veganism.

If I had to estimate the starting point of my transition to veganism, I'd say it was when I was fourteen years old, a full decade before I actually adopted a vegan lifestyle.

In my first year of high school, I was running track competitively. I'd played soccer since I was about the size of a soccer ball itself, but this was the first time I was training as a runner. I noticed that eating red meat either before or after practice (or anytime, really) didn't make me feel good. So I stopped. I felt better and ran faster, and other than my semester abroad in Spain during my junior year of college, I basically never ate red meat again.

If I had to estimate the starting point of my eating disorder, I'd say it was when I was thirteen, five years before I began my descent into anorexia. 

A true Southern California kid, I did the Junior Lifeguards program every summer, where lifeguards taught children ages nine to fifteen about ocean safety, first aid, and, most importantly, surfing. I worshiped the program leaders. I spent six hours on the beach with them Monday to Friday, soaking up their seemingly endless knowledge of currents and cutbacks. So when they explained the health risks lurking in the combo meals at the nearby In-N-Out Burger and challenged us to give it up for as long as we could, I vowed to never set foot in a fast food restaurant again. I didn't touch an order of fries for another seven years.

When a reader requested a blog post about my transition to veganism, I was shocked to realize that I'd never really written about my experience. I wrote a brief vignette about the actual day I went vegan (known affectionately as my "veganniversary" in the vegan community), but I never told the whole story. Upon reflection, I think that the reason I haven't written about my transition in detail is because it is inextricably tied to my eating disorder recovery. I'm no stranger to writing about my ED history, but it feels daunting to tackle the years of slow, incremental steps I took to heal myself. And that's what I have to do in order to write about my veganism, because if I had to map my transition to veganism and my eating disorder recovery on a chart, they would be parallel lines. The stronger and mentally healthier I became, the more I was able to adjust my lifestyle to reflect my values.

The truth is, there are already a lot of articles out there about how to transition to veganism. All kinds of people have gone vegan for all kinds of reasons, and there's no shortage of their experiences chronicled here on the Internet. So, I'm not going to write a generic piece about the five/seven/ten steps I took to go vegan (plus, I've already kinda done that). I'm going to write about my own journey to veganism, in which I had to balance my desire to be vegan with very real health concerns, and what I encountered along the way.

3 in 4 of Us

In the years between my fateful fast food pledge and my clinical eating disorder diagnosis, I steadily developed a host of disordered eating behaviors that laid the foundation for my later anorexia. This pattern, sadly, is not unique. A 2008 study found that sixty-five percent of women between the ages of 25 and 45 in the U.S. reported having disordered eating behaviors such as fasting for weight loss, purging, or taking diet pills and laxatives. With an additional ten percent meeting the clinical criteria for an eating disorder, this means that three out of four women have an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies. 

That statistic is depressing but not surprising. While eating disorders are mental illnesses with complex risk factors and causes, the diet and beauty industries' misogynistic policing of women's bodies provides endless fuel for what I would say is nothing short of an eating disorder epidemic. I don't blame us, though. It's not our fault.

Make no mistake; those with political and economic power profit off our dissatisfaction with our bodies. Corporations force-feed us a physical ideal that no one can attain, turning our bodies into problems and then selling us products to solve them. The commodification of beauty, or perhaps more accurately, of domination over our own bodies, separates us not only from our money and our self-esteem but also our political will. A person who is starving can think of nothing else; she doesn't have the resources, the energy, or the time to create change. Yesterday, a friend reminded me of this chilling quotation from Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth:

Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history.
— Naomi Wolf

I write all this to make it clear that disordered eating is a systemic problem with systemic causes, and so it's no wonder that I was already engaging in some of these behaviors before I had even hit puberty.

Veganism doesn't cause eating disorders...right?

Specifically, my behavior patterns matched those of orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating and exercise to the point of self-harm. As I became a more serious athlete, I fixated on nutrition labels and minutes on the treadmill, viewing "health" as a trophy that was just around the corner from my next run or perfectly minimized carbohydrate intake. Ultimately, I didn't just want to be healthy. I wanted complete control over everything I put into my body. I wanted to be pure.

The concept of bodily purity often appears in the vegan community, popping up everywhere from raw veganism to advocacy messaging that labels non-vegan food as dirty or toxic. Don't get me wrong; there is ample evidence to suggest that a variety of both artificial and naturally-occurring toxins are present in animal products, and processed meat in particular has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans) by the World Health Organization. Plenty of vegan food is bad for our bodies, though (Oreos, anyone?), so this messaging isn't really about veganism, insofar as veganism means abstaining from animal products. It's about a diet. And it's about control.

Declaring certain categories of food as impure is dangerous because the practice creates a value system that categorizes some food as "good" and other food as "bad." This moral ordering of food ultimately gives what we consume psychological power over us, as our minds war with our bodies to achieve a mythical standard of physical "cleanliness." That this mentality exists among both vegans and people with eating disorders should disturb us.

Veganism is not an eating disorder, nor does it cause mental illness. Veganism is about minimizing harm to animals whenever practicable and possible, and at its core is a philosophy that has nothing to do with health or weight loss. There's no doubt in my mind, however, that the "purity" element of the vegan movement promotes disordered eating. Jordan Younger, a blogger/influencer who now goes by The Balanced Blonde, famously wrote about how her vegan lifestyle led her to develop orthorexia, and she eventually dropped the vegan label altogether.

Veganism by definition requires the removal of certain foods from one's diet, so it follows that this kind of "restriction" can mask or trigger other restrictive eating behaviors. Some people, like Jordan Younger, find that the limitations created by a vegan diet catalyze disordered eating; others go vegan (or vegetarian, or gluten-free, or paleo, or any other specialized diet) as an excuse to restrict their food intake or to hide preexisting disordered eating. As a result, many treatment professionals do not recommend any kind of restrictive diet during active recovery from an eating disorder.

This makes perfect sense to me. When I was in the throes of my eating disorder, I isolated myself, avoiding eating meals with others (if I ate at all) and making up excuses for why I couldn't eat certain foods. When I began my recovery, it was important for me to feel complete freedom with food; nothing was off limits, and the more positive associations and social connections I could add to mealtimes, the easier it was for me to stick to my meal plan. Recovery and weight restoration was the hardest thing I've every done, and I am sure that it would have been even more of an uphill climb if I had been vegan or vegetarian at the time.

Recovery: The Early Days

When I first sought treatment for my eating disorder at age nineteen, one year after it had started in earnest, I was very ill. (I have never been sicker in my life than I was then, and yet I've also never received more compliments on my body. Stop complimenting people on their weight loss. Yes, even if you think they're losing weight in a healthy way. You never know what's actually going on with someone.) I was nineteen and just entering my sophomore year of college, living on campus and eating at my school's dining hall 99% of the time since I didn't have a kitchen. I used to see other students I suspected also had eating disorders pile lettuce onto their plates, recognizing their furtive glances at the label on the back of the dressing bottles. One day, a laminated sign appeared on the glass protector covering the salad bar. It read something like: "The contents of the salad bar do not provide sufficient nutrients for a full meal due to the lack of carbohydrates and healthy fats." I guess someone in the administration caught on.

In the early days of my recovery, I was both terrified and elated at all of the options available to me. Not everyone needs to regain weight in recovery, but I did, and my meal plan proved it. Six times a day, three meals and three snacks, I faced down the dining hall. There was so much I'd never eaten before, so much I'd never allowed myself to so much as look at in the snack aisle. I was torn between joy and fear: "You mean I finally get to eat a Pop-Tart again? Fuck yeah!" quickly turned into "Wait, there's no way I can eat a Pop-Tart. I'll gain weight!" My eating disorder told me that gaining weight would literally be the end of my world, and yet it was exactly what I had to do in order to survive. 

In those days, I had more than a few "fear foods," foods that were absolutely off-limits because they were "bad" (remember the purity mindset?). The first time I ate French fries after my thirteen-year-old self rejected them was after my twentieth birthday, in my therapist's office in Northeast LA. The fries were from McDonald's, and by the time I settled onto the plush couch in the soothing, beige room, they were cold. I ate them as we talked and marveled at the normalcy of the process; I still half-expected something horrible to happen as I consumed the forbidden food. The next time, it was a milkshake. Soon, I was making near-daily trips to the cafe on campus for an afternoon shake, since the only way I was able to physically consume enough calories to satisfy my dietitian was to drink some of them.

The early days of my recovery were gruesome and exhausting. Our society is so obsessed with weight loss that no one ever talks about weight restoration and how difficult the process can be. It was physically and psychologically painful, and I felt uncomfortable all the time. It took everything I had to dismantle my disordered eating behaviors and restore my weight as an omnivore. I cannot imagine going through that experience as a vegan. Some people are vegan before recovery and stay vegan through the process, and others go vegan as part of their recovery. I'm not saying it can't work, but it would not have worked for me.

Eventually, with a few missteps, I became healthy enough for my treatment team to clear me for a semester abroad in Spain the following year. I relapsed the summer before I was scheduled to leave, and had a month to get my shit together so that my therapist wouldn't pull my medical clearance. Thankfully, I was able to go (and the rest is history). While living in Madrid, I happily ate whatever was put in front of me at my host mom's table or at the tapas bar. The highly social aspect of mealtimes there showed me an entirely new way to enjoy eating, and I hadn't felt so free in years. My recovery accelerated in Spain in ways I'd never imagined. I felt mentally healthy, which was a massive accomplishment for me.

Which is why, when I returned to the States in January 2013, I finally felt ready to cut most meat out of my diet. It was the official first step of my three-year transition to veganism.

Click here to read Part Two of my vegan transition!