I Regret Why I Became Vegan

When veganism is seen as just another diet fad, it benefits no one

‘The Rabbit’s Meal’ (1908). Credit: Henri Rousseau/Barnes Foundation via Rawpixel

CW: Disordered eating (specially orthorexia) is discussed in detail

I wish that I had come to veganism because of my love for animals, my care for the environment, and my hope for a better, kinder future. But I didn’t. I came to veganism because I thought it would be an easy way to lose weight and, in my mind, make my deeper body image and eating issues go away.

During my first visit home after starting college, I had a regular checkup and my doctor told me to “make sure I didn’t gain any more weight” when I went back to school. On the same visit home, others made comments about my weight as well. As my freshman year went on, I replayed those voices in my head as I picked up habits like skipping meals, weighing myself daily, and obsessively going to the gym in my dorm building. I took a nutrition class, which unfortunately introduced me to an app that I began using to count calories.

When freshman year was finally over, I returned home for the summer with plenty of body image and food-related baggage, and then I found vegan influencers on YouTube. These people — mostly thin, young women — credited a “low-fat, high carb vegan diet” for clearing their skin, boosting their energy levels, and, most importantly to me, helping them lose weight. Being vegetarian and lactose-intolerant, I was already eating almost completely plant-based foods so switching to this diet felt like a relatively easy way to lose weight when it seemed like everything else I had tried thus far had failed.

I began following this restrictive vegan diet, eating a lot of high-carb foods like rice, sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables, and bananas while virtually cutting out all oil and fat-rich foods like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. I did lose weight, but I was following a diet that was not nourishing or sustainable in the long-term.

Many people who try veganism as a diet do not make it to being vegan for the long-term.

When I first became vegan, I became overly focused on what kind of food I could eat, while believing that I was just being “healthy.” Now I can recognize that this kind of thinking was actually disordered eating in disguise. “If the list of unacceptable foods begins blending over into more and more food groups until you realize that your list of acceptable foods is so restrictive that your relationships, your thoughts, your emotions and your freedom have also become restrictive in order to maintain that list, an eating disorder is lurking,” said Alsana’s Vice President of Clinical Nutrition Services Tammy Beasley in an interview with Taylor Wolfram, a vegan dietitian.

My fixation on “healthy” foods escalated to orthorexic eating and thought patterns. Orthorexia is an obsession with “healthy” eating or eating the “right” foods and while it is not yet a formally recognized eating disorder, it is very real and difficult to grapple with, unlearn, and recover from.

Many people who try veganism as a diet do not make it to being vegan for the long-term. It is a really hard transition to make, and for me it really only happened with the support of loved ones as well as my therapist. Eventually, I slowly realized that I was struggling with disordered eating and body image issues, and that while veganism is intrinsically linked to food, it is not just another diet fad. As I delved more into veganism as a set of values, I found that I really wanted to embrace that lifestyle and with that, I needed to live differently and less restrictively.

The first step for me was unsubscribing and unfollowing the vegan influencers that I had been watching and taking advice from. After that, I remained vegan, but I turned to sources outside the vegan community that valued the pleasure of food and intuitive eating to help reframe my thinking. Exploring the world of food, veganizing recipes, and developing my cooking skills were essential in helping me learn how preparing and eating food can bring me enjoyment, happiness, and nourishment.

I try not to ascribe moral value to the foods that I eat — foods are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ my value as a person is not determined by what I eat, and I extend that same grace to others.

Since then, I’ve discovered there are so many people within the vegan community who value intuitive eating, body positivity, recovery, and an anti-diet approach to food. However, because of how entrenched I was in a specific subsection of veganism focused on restriction, I needed that clean break for a while to really recover.

I have now been vegan for years and these days I couldn’t tell you how much I weigh; I barely glance at nutrition labels and I exercise because it helps me focus, not to lose weight. I try not to ascribe moral value to the foods that I eat — foods are not “good” or “bad,” my value as a person is not determined by what I eat, and I extend that same grace to others. I buy and make foods that make me feel full, nourished, and satisfied. I make recipes with salt, sugar, and fats, and feel good about it because I am making an enjoyable, delicious meal for myself and loved ones.

With all the progress I have made for myself, I still encounter triggering content within the vegan community, especially online, as people use diet language like “guilt-free” or “clean” to talk about food, share “before and after” photos of their bodies, and engage in food policing. On top of that, many vegans seem to be okay with people eating plant-based for the sake of losing weight because “at least they’re going vegan at all.”

Diet culture is intrinsically linked to racism, sexism, and fatphobia. Since the values of veganism include abolishing oppression in all forms, vegans should logically be fighting against diet culture.

This kind of attitude is especially prevalent when it comes to celebrities trying plant-based diets or going vegan. Anne Hathaway adopted a plant-based diet to lose weight for a movie role, Beyonce has done spurts of plant-based eating before big performances or tours, and more recently Adele’s weight loss has been attributed to a plant-based diet. And, for the most part, these celebrities have been touted by vegan influencers and publications for going vegan even though they are engaging with veganism as a diet and not as a lifestyle choice.

Some vegan publications have even promoted celebrities’ plant-based diets as ways to lose weight. Not only does this draw a false equivalency between weight loss and health, but the plant-based diets that are designed to cause weight loss will eventually lead many people to stop being vegan. The bottom line is a restrictive diet is never going to be sustainable long-term, vegan or not.

At its core, diet culture is intrinsically linked to racism, sexism, and fatphobia. Since the values of veganism include abolishing oppression in all forms and advocating for the freedom of all beings, vegans should logically be fighting against diet culture as well, instead of trying to make veganism fit inside a toxic system of beliefs.

The decision to go vegan changed my life, but I did not really decide to go vegan when I first stopped eating animal products. I truly went vegan when I embraced radical love and kindness toward myself and others instead of focusing on calorie counting and nutrition labels.

queer writer + editor from the southwest, living in the midwest.

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