Plant-based living saved me from myself and the internal battle I had been fighting for years.
When I was fifteen, I was navigating high school, running cross country, and diving into books about nutrition, because I had already decided that becoming a registered dietitian was in my cards. To the outsider, I looked like a perseverant, meticulous young person far ahead of the game when it came to planning for my future.
In reality, this was the beginning of what would become a nearly eight year struggle with disordered eating. What began as a new and exciting area of study for someone who had barely run a mile or thought about how to properly fuel the body with nutrients, turned into an obsessive habit of counting calories and miles, standing on the scale, and skewing a serious distortion into a “no big deal” denial fest. I decided that I didn’t have a problem with food, but I wanted to help people who did. Ironic.
This waxed and waned throughout college, where it was exacerbated by a tumultuous relationship, countless sessions with therapists, physicians and dietitians, and, for the first time, actually admitting that something wasn’t right. Eventually, with the help of a tight support system, I was able to slowly achieve a more balanced state of health, and regular eating pattern, by the time I graduated. What remained most was the critical self-talk and automated habit of tallying calories in my head as I chewed them.
Fast forward a couple of years after completing my dietetic internship and obtaining my RD, and I entered the outpatient arena where I fulfilled my original dream of working with clients who had eating disorders. Though grateful for the experience, it quickly became apparent to me that disordered eating was subject matter that I no longer wanted anything to do with professionally; this was supposed to be a piece of my past, and that is where it needed to stay (not to say that others who have overcome eating disorders don’t make excellent field professionals). Though far from where I had been, I was still lacking a totally peaceful relationship with food. I couldn’t justify telling others that what they were doing was unhealthy when I wasn’t always following my own advice on proper nutrition and self respect. Practice what you preach, they say.
As a dietitian, having mental anxieties over food was especially difficult. I was a nutrition expert, but I hated food. I couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter what I was eating (while considered “healthy” by USDA standards) wasn’t making me feel good, in any regard. Eating a large meal focused around animal products made me feel bloated and tired. In turn, this made me over-analyze my caloric input and output, which usually resulted in some sort of self-deprecating thought process related to what I ate or whether or not I exercised that day. An exhausting domino effect, when I knew there had to be a better option out there. No longer an eating disorder, but still a wildly distorted relationship with food.
Eventually, I found plant-based eating (or perhaps it found me?). It started when my husband and I, who regularly incorporated chicken, pork, and turkey into our meals, decided to go vegetarian for 30 days… just to see if we could. Vegetarians had always seemed like a strange crowd to us, and vegans? REALLY WEIRD. At first, eating only plants was such a foreign concept that it seemed impossible to figure out what to substitute in the “meat space” of our dinner plate. We were forced to experiment with making beans, lentils, and soy into palatable centerpieces instead.
As our 30 days came to an end, we started watching some documentaries, like Vegucated and Forks Over Knives, and reading books like The Food Revolution. It was after seeing these, and finally making the full connection between our food, where it comes from, and its impact on our health and the environment, that we decided to cut out eggs and dairy as well. It was my husband who first said, “I don’t want to eat anything that comes from animals anymore” after seeing how chickens were treated on factory farms. Heartbreaking and maddening (in a “how the hell did I not see this before?” way), to say the least.
As we educated ourselves further, the plant-based diet we adopted quickly became a plant-based lifestyle, shifting priorities and widening our perspective from our little kitchen to the larger world around us. Naturally, plant-based living reconnects you with the planet, the source of all life. I often say that plant-based eating is a gateway to caring about your impact on important issues in the world, including environmental degradation, animal welfare, and the quality of the food system.
With a little practice, veganism became kind of exciting, got a whole lot easier, and we found ourselves not even missing animal products (no, seriously). We no longer felt bloated, tired after eating, or unsatisfied. With little to no effort, I finally completely stopped mentally counting calories, beating myself up over eating dessert, and finding a need to equate my self worth with the food I was eating. For the first time in my life, I feel entirely satiated after finishing a meal, physically and mentally. I could estimate my caloric intake if I wanted to, because of years of practice, but I no longer care to because I know I’m fueling my body properly. My weight has naturally found its happy set-point without my compulsively stepping on the scale (gasp!). These days, food is only at the forefront of my mind because our plant-based meals are so delicious and fulfilling that I want to share them with everyone (Attention Everyone: Go vegan! It’s amazing!). Are we perfect? No, of course not. But we do the best we can because we now fully understand the outcomes of our choices.
I credit plant-based eating for my finally being able to achieve recovery. In the eating disorders world, ‘recovery’ is a particular state of conscious, intentional living that essentially lasts the rest of your life. It is waking up every day and choosing to make healthy decisions, cutting yourself some slack, and respecting the skin you’re in. Plant-based living has allowed me to find the healthiest, happiest, and most impactful version of myself.
This is not everyone’s story, but there are millions of people out there who have experienced some version of what I just shared (are you one of them?). You may have a long history of yo-yo dieting and fluctuating weight. You may have experienced the trauma of body shaming and society anxiety around food. Maybe you are just confused about what the heck you’re supposed to eat from this industry-laden, money-driven, opaque and largely garbage food system, making it impossible to find the healthy balance that should be the norm.
So, what’s my point with all of this?
Plant-based living is not a diet. If you try everything plant-based living has to offer, it quickly becomes about more than just the way you eat. In the United States, we’re raised to be disconnected from where our food comes from and the consequences our food choices have on anything but ourselves. Selfishness; this is diet mentality, and is not characteristic of a plant-based lifestyle.
Plant-based living is sustainable because it’s about being invested for more than one reason. “Diets” don’t stick because we are only invested in them for one reason: to lose weight. When things get boring, or too restrictive, all bets are off. We go back to our original habits because eating blended kale and eliminating bread is the furthest thing from enjoyable. When you are invested in a life change for reasons deeper than this (your overall health, your impact on the environment, the welfare of animals), the odds of saying “screw this” and reverting back are much lower. It takes some effort, of course, but I can promise you that not only will plant-based living improve your health, it will also make you a more compassionate, profound human being.
Worth giving it a shot? Definitely. It may just save you, too.