This is a topic that is especially near and dear to me as I’ve been an ethical vegan for over a decade and am passionate about embracing intuitive eating and fighting back against diet culture. But isn’t veganism restrictive? Doesn’t that go against the principles of intuitive eating? How can you give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods but not eat certain foods?
The answer, my friends, is values. We all have values. I’d like to think we each have a unique values system that we use to make decisions all day, every day. Intuitive eating is inclusive and embraces values-based eating. Don’t want to eat animals? You don’t have to! Follow religious dietary laws? OK. Care about sustainability? Rock on!
As long as these choices are truly motivated by those values, not by diet culture, you absolutely can practice intuitive eating while also making food choices based on ethics. Here’s how it works.
Intuitive Eating and Veganism
Here’s the thing about ethical veganism: we don’t see non-vegan food as food. I chatted with my friend Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, about this and she referred to this as our “food environment.” I love that term! Vegans’ food environments don’t include animal products so not eating animal products doesn’t feel restrictive. “We all have personal food environments that we live and eat within,” Jen says. “They can be flexed and change over time. To a degree, these environments are determined by the food we have access to geographically or financially. They are also shaped by the foods we like and decide to include in our diets. It isn’t that we are denying ourselves certain foods — they simply don’t exist as options in our chosen food environments.”
Another way I like to present this is most people in America do not eat dog meat because they find it unethical. I feel the same way about meat (and milk and eggs and honey) from all animals. The acceptability of eating certain animals and their products is entirely culturally constructed (i.e. Cows are holy in Hinduism, but they are eaten, artificially inseminated and milked in Western cultures. The Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China garners outrage while Americans hold rib cook-offs and chili contests).
“As long as veganism isn’t used as a weight loss diet or a way to mask disordered eating, you can absolutely be a vegan intuitive eater,” says Angela Wortley, RDN. She goes on to explain, “Helping my vegan clients avoid the diet culture messages that are rampant in the plant-based community and find a way of eating that supports their ethics as well as their authentic health (described as “the dynamic integration of inner attunement and health values in the Intuitive Eating 3rd Ed. book) is one of my favorite aspects of being an intuitive eating dietitian. A lot of vegans feel excluded by the non-diet community so showing them that it isn’t an either/or thing can be a huge relief.”
Intuitive Eating and Religion
Some religions include dietary laws such as Judaism (kosher) and Islam (halal). While sometimes these restrictions can be tied up with an eating disorder (just like with veganism), it’s totally possible to follow religious dietary law and eat intuitively. I gathered input from RDNs from three Western religions to provide input on this topic.
First up is Yaffi Lvova, RDN, and Rena Reiser, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, of kosherintuitiveeating.com. “Kosher is a set of boundaries given to us that helps us identify with our faith and heritage,” they said. “Within these boundaries there is plenty of room for a variety of choices. Intuitive eating helps us to make choices that are healthy for our body and mind, while keeping kosher takes care of our spirit. Much like we structure intuitive eating to manage a medical necessity, our intuitive eating allows for the boundaries of spiritual care as well.”
Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD, shared with me how intuitive eating works for Muslims. “Intuitive eating is for everyone, regardless of religion or dietary restrictions,” says Rahaf. “In Islam, all foods are permissible, referred to as halal, except for alcohol and pork and its byproducts, referred to as haram. Muslims can eat intuitively by enjoying a variety of foods within those boundaries, respecting their body and eating mindfully. In Islam we are entrusted with taking care of our body, and eating intuitively is part of that process.”
“I practice a Christian religion, as do the overwhelming majority of my clients, and I see so many intersections of values in my practice,” says Kristen Nickels, MS, RDN, LD. “One idea that’s been really helpful in my practice recently is that two (or more) things can be true at once. For example, just like we can find someone to be a really good person and still strongly disagree with them on a particular issue, we can prioritize animal welfare and environmental sustainability while also upholding values of flexible eating and sharing a meal with loved ones. As with so many things in this work, I think we have to examine the value and negative effects of rigidity — even in the things that are so important to us.”
Intuitive Eating and Environmental Sustainability
This one is also personally important to me and I understand the struggle of trying to make eco-friendly choices and feeling like you’re never doing enough. There can be a lot of shame wrapped up in our consumption when we realize how environmentally damaging our habits are. But here’s the thing: until the systems change, truly sustainable eating will not be accessible for everyone. It’s not practical to go entirely plastic-free in the kitchen and putting the onus entirely on individuals sets us up for failure.
My advice: Choose things that are easy, accessible, affordable and realistic for you to change. Make a couple changes at a time and slowly add on more. Don’t feel like you need to change everything at once. Lots of people making small changes makes a bigger difference than just a handful of people striving for perfection.
“I truly believe we need to rethink our daily practices that influence the health of our planet, says Sarah Wax, MS, RD, LDN, CPT, SP. “But striving for a low-waste or zero-waste lifestyle is pretty complicated when it comes to food. A lot of food is packaged, not everyone has the time or money to go to the farmers market, not everyone has a backyard to compost. I think we have to be flexible with our goals. Recognizing the privilege of being able to choose sustainable options can help us find better solutions for everyone. For example, ask for bulk items at your local grocery store. Demand companies be held responsible for their waste. Raise awareness about Terracycle‘s free programs. Start a compost program at your apartment complex. Demand livable wages and work to break down inequality.”
Interested in learning more about eco-friendly living? Check out this post.
Other Ethical Considerations that affect our Food Choices
From slavery in the chocolate industry to palm oil production threatening the survival of orangutans, there are numerous foods that are rooted in exploitation of humans and animals and destruction of the environment that you may not want to contribute to. Here’s the truth: there is no way to eat that causes zero harm. Even if you’re vegan, tractors that plant and harvest produce are running over small mammals and smacking into loads of insects.
The key is to choose the issues that are most important to you, that you have the resources to take a stand on, and focus your energies there. Start with just one or two and once those changes are manageable, consider adding on some more. Not sure where to begin? Check out the Food Empowerment Project’s Top 10 Eating Tips.
“When you have a strong moral compass, it can be difficult to balance the pull you feel to make ethical food choices with a desire to have food freedom,” says Jessica Patel, RDN, LDN. “First know that sustainability and ethical practices in food production are incredibly complex and interrelated so one food choice isn’t going to make or break the whole system. Do your best to support brands or companies that align with your values. Start by purchasing foods that have a certification for the causes you support. If you enjoy a cup of morning coffee you might think about purchasing ethically sourced coffee. Remember that intuitive eating always comes back to intention. It may be helpful to ask, ‘Why am I making this food choice?’ Is it out of fear, guilt or shame? Or does this decision help me feel empowered or at ease?”
Here are some of my favorite resources for ethical eating:
- Food Empowerment Project’s well-researched Chocolate List to find ethical chocolate choices (also available as an app)
- Vegan Outreach’s 10 Weeks to Vegan (great introduction to veganism with no weight talk!)
- World of Vegan’s How to Go Vegan guide is loaded with helpful tips and resources
To summarize, intuitive eating is an inclusive approach that supports values-based eating styles and ethics such as veganism, religion and sustainability. It can be helpful to check in with yourself regularly and journal about your motivations for your consumption choices. If they have anything to do with trying to change your body shape or size, that is a red flag that diet mentality is creeping in.
Looking for support in balancing ethics and intuitive eating? I offer one-on-one nutrition counseling and self-care coaching!