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Snarling #12wbt: veganism, eating disorders, orthorexia and the culture of food policing


This post involves discussions of eating disorders and veganism, which may be triggering for you depending on your circumstances. Please read it in a safe space and access support people if you think it will trigger disordered thinking or behaviours for you. Negative comments on this issue from friends aren’t welcome and are actively triggering of ED, so please refrain from that if you know me personally.

This is not an easy post to make because it discusses aspects of my life and identity that have underpinned some of the most important bonds I’ve made in my communities, and who I see myself as. It is a complicated, long post, but I think some of the things I’m going to discuss are important to talk about.

As I’ve been embarking on building a realistic, settled and balanced relationship with my body and food, I’ve discussed a bit about my history with disordered eating here. I’ve posted here about my how my relationship with food has been fractured and dissonant from a very young age.

I remember having compulsive eating behaviours from the age of about eight. I was a compulsive emotional eater, and engaged in covert or “sneak” eating – a mountain of mugs built up under my bed from quiet gorging on icing (frosting) that I would make and eat with a closed door. Sneak eating is still something I do, though I try to minimise it. I can’t remember if I ever saw covert eating modeled for me, though I think all of us have seen compulsive overeating in our communities.

Disordered eating, even if it doesn’t develop into a diagnosable disorder, is really common and was very observable in the interactions of the microsystem I grew up in, particularly with my parents and siblings (holler ecological systems theory and Bronfenbrenner) – and I think that’s influenced by and tied up in lots of non-medical social stuff, particularly around gender from our macrosystems. Hiding food is something I think lots of women do, or at least, I’ve known lots of women to do it. And fixation on food and dissonance around how we think and behave is not the fault of the individual in a wider sense, because our culture encourages it in everyone, especially women.

So, my baseline throughout my life has been to have a very quirky relationship with food – I have reflexively used it to service every emotional state. Celebration, sadness, shame, self hatred, joy, feeling ill. My thinking around food has tended to be historically very extreme – food has been good vs bad, and eating certain foods has by extension made me good or bad.

Food is interwoven fairly inextricably in how I process my feelings and identity. Untangling that is not totally possible, though taking steps to minimise the entanglement is positive for me.

When I was 20, I discovered a lot of things about animal testing and the way that animals are treated in food production that disturbed me (and still disturb me) and my response to this information was to exclude animal products from my diet, very strictly. I went vegan. This conversion happened over a period of a week. It was pretty sudden and pretty dramatic (like a lot of things I’ve done in life!) I think that my response was a rational and positive one.

Veganism can be a rational response to cruelty. It is. I believe that. I believe everyone has the right to choose to distance themselves from systems that they observe as harmful. I think veganism is pretty rad as a way to disengage and also engage with systems that are often unspeakably awful.

I became more involved in the vegan community online, and made lots of friends in the Sydney vegan community, who now remain some of my deepest, most meaningful friendships. I love these people. They are honestly some of the kindest, most gentle and caring folks I’ve ever known, and they’ve been there for me through thick and thin. I don’t think it is their veganism that makes them awesome, but I think their general disposition towards being concerned about justice and kindness informs their veganism. They want the world to be fairer and kinder, and this is how they go about it.

I wanted (and still want) that too. Unfortunately my disordered eating – cycles of binging and restriction and very polar thinking about food that has distinct mental health outcomes of depression, anxiety and physical health symptoms (starvation, overeating, swings in weight and blood sugar) – was worsened by veganism. It’s really easy to develop an even more extreme set of rules (and ways to rebel from these rules) about food when you’re following an ethical framework that sets out, very clearly, “good” and “bad” foods. The labels are a bit different – “ethical” vs “unethical” but the thinking is so close as to be the same. For a person with ED, separating disordered eating from veganism is close to impossible. I’m very proud of people who through therapy and lots of personal work are able to do this.

The problem for me became that my ED both caused ‘lapses’ from veganism because of it’s nature and my veganism caused behaviours with my ED, because of culture of the framework.

When you’re vegan, you feel the weight of the suffering of all animals on every meal, on every bite (and many vegans would argue you should, and that this constant gnawing guilt is positive. I personally think that’s a bit fucked up.) Every choice you make takes on global, massive, heavy significance. And let’s be honest here: many (not all) vegans scrutinise each other and everyone else. They just do. They scrutinise others in the same way people do on thinspiration/pro-ED forums. They do in the way hardcore paleo people do. The organic crew. The no-sugar people. They do in the way any group others people outside the club. And I know what vegans say about other people when they’re 100% sure no other non-vegans are in the room because of how long I flew stealth because of shame, before awkwardly admitting in a few calculated safe-risk situations that I wasn’t as pure as my friends.

I went away for the weekend with a girlfriend/partner back in the day, who was vegetarian but pretty accepting/non judgemental of most folks, and at the time I was pretty seriously vegan. I remember sitting down for a buffet breakfast at this fancy, lovely hotel and agonising over eating the mushrooms (which may have been fried in butter, but I didn’t know either way and it was killing me). Her gentle, kind words (which I’m kind of paraphrasing here because it was a long time ago!) have always stuck with me: it’s just a plate of mushrooms. You eating these mushrooms doesn’t make you a good or bad person.

If there’s one thing you know how to do as a person with fucked up eating, it’s hide things and worry about what everyone will think. The thing that is sad about veganism and some other frameworks for eating, is that the fear of social exclusion is not ill-founded, and being on the receiving end of abuse and hostility is a real thing that happens (especially online – like many other folk, vegans are some of the worst keyboard warriors I’ve met). I think it’s a bit more intense with veganism though than say, organic eating, because it can go to the core of how people see themselves in their world. I was intensely worried about what eating those mushrooms would mean for my friendships, and my whole sense of self. Who was I, if I ate the mushrooms? Was I bad or good? Was I worse or better? It was deep ED land, compliments of veganism.

I know that’s not a nice thing to hear, but it is true. Vegans need to stop and think about how what they do and say may be actively triggering and harming people in their ranks (and outside of them. And I’d argue that distinction is heaps more murky than people like to acknowledge). And while veganism doesn’t cause eating disorders, it can make them worse without heaps of support and critical reflection, and I’m not sure that kind of support and reflection goes on in these communities enough. I really do believe people with ED are attracted to things like veganism and say, paleo or low carb eating as well, because of their strict rules. I know I was.

It’s all very muddy and hard to pick apart when you really sit down and look at how it all interacts. I would engage in sneak eating of forbidden cheese because it was “bad” and doing bad things felt good (and then bad again very quickly) and I would then renounce cheese and engage in ritually shaming myself (mostly in my head). I would also engage in shaming and criticising others (sometimes on this blog!) for eating non vegan foods, mostly online (because hiding behind a keyboard and sneering at vegetarians/omnivores is a lot easier than doing it in person at a dinner party, where you have to deal with the social consequences of the actual rudeness of saying these things to another person’s face). Shaming others for food choices is a pretty classic ED behaviour which I don’t do any more because I am aware of it, and check it. It makes me sound like a dick and it ruins connections with others. There are other ways to talk about veganism that are more positive and helpful for everyone (who doesn’t love a vegan cupcake stall, or vegan cooking blog, am I right?)

And I am not vegan at the moment. That’s really hard to type. HARD, PEOPLE. I hide my non vegan things (see how I say “things?” rather than naming the actual items? Yep) in the opaque vegetable crisper drawer of my fridge because I am just so fucking ashamed and terrified of my non vegan friends seeing my dirty shameful food. In my head, no matter what I do, I can’t separate the eating of an egg (though a painstakingly researched free range, low concentration of hens per hectare egg) with being an evil person. This may sound bonkers to you, but it isn’t wild thinking in the context of the vegan community. The answer isn’t as simple as not eating the egg either, because the underpinning psychological tic just lays dormant, waiting for another object to affix itself to. And I need complex conditions under which I can stop feeling the guilt and shame (such as being abroad, where making vegan choices is way way harder, therefore being vegetarian is less of a transgression. Welcome to the merry-go-round, guys!).

All of my instagram photos obscure or hide elements of my shop or cooking that involve non vegan products. Is this positive behaviour? No. Is this culturally influenced? Yes.

All of my instagram photos obscure or hide elements of my shop or cooking that involve non vegan products. Is this positive behaviour? No. Is this culturally influenced? Yes.

There’s a name for this manifestation of ED, and while it isn’t a diagnosable condition, it’s pretty spot on (and I didn’t know about it until a friend mentioned it in passing to me today and I was pretty much like WOAH and that prompted this post). It’s called ‘orthorexia’ and you can read more about it here, and here, but basically it is “righteous” eating. To quote:

Orthorexia is a term coined by Steven Bratman, MD to describe his own experience with food and eating.  It is not an officially recognized disorder in the DSM-5, but is similar to other eating disorders – those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa obsess about calories and weight while orthorexics obsess about healthy eating (not about being “thin” and losing weight).”

I believe that orthorexic thinking is, at least for me, something that can crop up for people who are trying to overcome restriction and binging. It’s a nifty little side step in which ED can hide. I’m not counting calories! I’m eating healthy! I’m not logging my food, I’m just NEVER EVER EATING SUGAR. I’m not obsessively exercising, I’m just religiously having a green smoothie every day and excluding gluten (even though I’m not gluten intolerant or coealiac). I’m not weighing myself, I’m just feeling like a saint because I’m only eating organic food. I’m better. I’m healthier. I’m good. You might not be pathologically orthorexic, but I bet a lot of us “good feminists” (hello, more purity politics) recognise these thoughts!

There’s been some famous cases of orthorexia and people being honest about their food habits, such that of Jordan Younger – and some heavily oppressive flack they’ve copped for that honesty. I get grumpy at the coverage of this – you’ll notice a distinctly anti-vegan, pro-meat tone in some of the articles (hooray, this silly person now eats meat again just as they should! Down with vegans!) or a pro-vegan subtle weight loss message (do we really need to include before and after photos of the person who had dramatic weight loss due to their restrictive veganism? Who is that useful for? So basically we’re still ogling and approving of the skinny, right? Fuck off.) Personally I think Jordan Younger is really fucking brave to do what she did. 

I should be really clear in writing this post that I think our politics around food need to start functionally omitting discussions of blame, “total” behaviours, or polarity. If I could encourage myself and others to have one personal affirmation, it would be “I am not my food, and my food and habits do not determine my worth.”

That is super challenging as an affirmation because many vegans and healthy eating gurus (including, let’s face it, me still) just Do. Not. Believe that. Or preach it. The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) message is: your food DOES make you good or bad.

My friend Cassie, who is vegan, is probably one of the most legit excellent vegans I know because when I nervously talked to her about this, she just didn’t judge me (or if she did, she didn’t do it out loud, even if that was super hard for her). I think she saw my anxiety and decided somehow that being a good human was more important than being the vegan police. That giving me a space in which I could be my whole integrated self, and not triggering my ED, was more important that insisting I meet a standard. For that I’m grateful, and even if she doesn’t realise it, I felt closer to her and less fucked up in that moment.

I am facing a new health challenge at the moment that I’m still mulling over, and trying to be critical of when fitting it into my knowledge of myself as a person with “food issews”. My fertility doctor just told me I have the compound heterozygous MTHFR gene mutation, which has implications for how I absorb folate (I don’t do it well, and need to supplement with folenic acid), and has links to recurrent pregnancy loss as well as other health concerns.

There’s a raft of information about eating and living with MTHFR, but my friend flagged with me that it could prompt orthorexic thinking and eating, which is a legit concern. Some of the advice given to people with MTHFR (particularly compound heterozygous MTHFR and single or compound homozygous MTHFR genes) is pretty extreme and I’m not sure yet how scientific some of it is. Some doctors with information online about MTHFR genes recommend excluding dairy and gluten, but the rationale for that I’ve yet to discover.

I’m not feeling triggered by the (so far small) changes I need to make to diet and supplementation because of MTHFR so far. I know I’ll need to monitor that, though. There is always within me the potential to find just another new way to limit or alter my behaviours for piousness. And the potential for that around making babies? Huge, because of how huge the stakes are emotionally. There’s few things I want more than to take home a healthy baby at this point, so I need to be reeeeally careful I don’t unthinkingly use that to support making wild choices. 

The #12wbt probably does provide a holding space for people with orthorexic thinking and behaviours, I don’t doubt. Loads of it is triggering of those thoughts in me. There are messages around altering your social ties, avoiding or altering social situations and creating defence mechanisms for eating “unhealthy” foods that definitely cater to orthorexia.

But on the other hand, Michelle Bridges does preach balance. She talks about the whole journey being important, not the destination. There’s lots of contradictions in the message, but she does try to encourage people to be real about their eating and not judge themselves for what they eat, instead being consistent and generally nutritious, not perfect. There’s so many competing ideas in the #12wbt but I think an effort is made to navigate away from extreme eating, and to include a range of foods. There’s no eschewing of sugar or carbs or fat. There’s a little bit of everything, and I like that.

This post is not designed to say that veganism is bad, because I don’t think it is. I would love to somehow find my way back to being vegan and not feeling fucked up by it, I’m just not sure that will happen any time soon – and I carry daily guilt around about that. I would like to get rid of that guilt (even as some people think I should feel it even more keenly, I’m sure) and reclaim my humanity from the intrusive “not good enough” feeling that always comes from somewhere. Veganism is not bad because ways of eating can’t be inherently bad – but it is complex, and it is made up of flawed humans who sometimes make not very kind choices in how they treat people. In the end, there will always be the vegan who doesn’t give a shit about how people feel because they’re a warrior for animal rights, and then there will be the ones who make you soup and celebrate the efforts you do/can make. The ones who remember that veganism was originally designed to be about what is “practical and possible”. 

At the moment my focus is just on eating balanced meals that have a bit of everything (and by everything I do mean sometimes chips, chocolate and beer) and becoming a person who is generally thoughtful about food but not compelled to act by an internal script of goodnes/badness.

I really want to be able to display chilled out, balanced behaviours around food for my children and minimise purity politics in my home. This probably means they won’t grow up in a home that is 100% vegan and with a Dad that sometimes eats meat (and a Mum who doesn’t feel totally comfy with that choice, but tries not to be a dick about it). I mourn that a bit. I don’t want them growing up thinking veganism is bad though and I want that to be a choice they can make if it is made feeling whole, and empowered, and happy. I recognise that will probably be complicated for them, just as it is for me.

Most of all, I want my kids to know that I will love them no matter what they do or don’t put in their mouths. That their worth isn’t defined by what they eat. While that seems to have skipped my brain, I want to work hard on it being installed in theirs from the beginning.


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