On orthorexia, body shaming, and having a healthy relationship with food

A couple of months ago, I published a story to another blog about my weight loss.  It was almost an ironic post – there’s nothing quite like a great weight loss story to serve as click bait, but the message underpinning my story is quite different than your typical weight loss story. For one thing, it’s old news. I lost weight about eight years ago. The real story is that I have kept it off since, because it wasn’t a diet, nor was it a cleanse or some other magic bullet.  It was a change of lifestyle.

before and after

My post caught the eye of an editor from the Huffington Post, and she asked me to be part of HuffPo’s weight loss series. Since I think my message of making sustainable and longterm changes to your habits – rather than dieting and seeking an easy alternative – is an important one, I agreed to participate.

What I did not expect – but perhaps should have – was a chorus of voices that declared me to be “anorexic” looking.  Others yet tried to knock down a straw man that they – not I – had set up, arguing that vegan diets can be unhealthy (indeed they can be, and I had not in any way attributed my weight loss to going vegan, and was clear that initially going vegan had contributed to my weight gain). I believe that you can be very healthy as a non-vegan if you’re shovelling in mounds of fruits and vegetables;  I just don’t think it’s very kind to eat animals.

It all got me thinking about the perils of judging a book by its cover, as well as the delicate balance that exists between eating healthily, and veering into orthorexia nervosa territory.

Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity…An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style.  Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).  Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.

Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.  Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous.

From: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa 

Indeed, I was tiny in my “after” photo. At the time I was running about 50 km a week, and weighed about 110 lbs.  Basically, I looked like an elite runner. But,  I was eating about 3,000 calories a day during that time, and there was no disordered eating on my part whatsoever.   Just because someone looks tiny, does not mean they have anorexia nervosa, and it makes me really angry that people on the internet toss around uninformed eating disorder “diagnoses” in this way.

It is essentially taking a serious and deadly eating disorder, and using it as an insult and as a body shaming tactic.  That is not okay. It’s not constructive, it’s not accurate, and in this case, it demeaned the efforts that I had undertaken to overhaul my lifestyle – from one that was sedentary and poorly nourished, to one that was active, energetic, and healthful.

That said, the comments didn’t “hurt my feelings.”  My self confidence is too high for that. I just made me worried for others who struggle. What kind of message does it send to anorexics – or anyone really – when someone who is physically fit and eats like a horse is accused of “looking anorexic”?

IMG_0507
Healthy and fit at 35.

What matters is not so much our outward appearance, but the way we deal with food in our minds and in practice. When I am fit and active and eating well, my body naturally becomes very lean.  I realize that most people will never be as tiny as I am. That’s neither a good or bad thing! It just is.  It doesn’t make me an anorexic, nor does it mean that someone whose body naturally levels out at a higher weight or size is “not trying hard enough.”  Healthy bodies can be in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Which leads me to our relationships with food.  I would venture to say that during the timeframe of my “after” photo, while I certainly had no issue whatsoever with calorie restriction, as a relatively new vegan (about two years) I was perhaps a bit overzealous in my list of dietary inclusions and exclusions.

This is something that I have seen over and over again in nearly 11 years of veganism. New vegans who, full of enthusiasm for their new lifestyle, become health obsessed.  They zealously restrict huge swaths of food (i.e. gluten, soy, artificial colouring, foods that aren’t organic, foods that contain any sugar) and consequently eventually find veganism to be impossible.

But the thing is, veganism isn’t about being perfect, and avoiding anything even remotely “bad” at all costs.  It’s about eating in such a way that reduces harm to animals.  “Health policing” other vegans serves zero purpose other than to assert some sort of health superiority over those who are exercising their right to occasionally indulge.

Plus, it doesn’t reduce harm to animals if your diet becomes so restrictive and socially isolating that you end up resuming eating them again.  Especially since, realistically, having a bit of gluten or sugar on occasion really isn’t going to cause any longterm damage.

Eleven years after making the decision to become vegan, I believe my relationship with food is better than it has ever been. I allow myself unfettered intake of fruits and vegetables, as well as things like lentils, beans, rice, quinoa, and other healthy starches.

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Post all you can eat at Hareg. June 2015.

I am high carb, because carbs do not make you fat, they give you energy. I need fuel; I run three times a week, I play ultimate three times a week, and i’ve recently added in strength training twice a week.  I eat close to 2,500 calories a day.

Sometimes I eat fake meat because it’s easy and I’m busy. I’m 100% committed to veganism, but a new vegan who comes to believe that eating a “processed” veggie burger is “bad” is someone who is at risk of reverting back to meat.  Is that what we want?  We shouldn’t shame people for consuming things that are less than 100% perfect.

Sometimes I eat a treat from a vegan bakery. Often I eat dark chocolate.  The other day I even had a little ice cream cone from Thimblecakes.

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I think the key is to see food as something that gives us life, and gives us energy to accomplish our day to day tasks, but which can also be a treat that should not make us feel shameful. Of course, the key is to keep it a treat.

If the basis of our diet is nourishing foods, then we don’t need to sweat the little things.

So I don’t.

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