Having a healthy relationship with food as a vegan allows you to nourish yourself without stress and fuel your animal rights activism. Here are specific action items for keeping veganism about the animals and not turning it into a restrictive diet!
First let’s talk about what a healthy relationship with food is and why it’s important. I’ll share with you my thoughts on this concept but I’d love for you to consider what a healthy relationship with food means to you and how that works in your unique life!
Here are some key characteristics of a healthy relationship with food:
- Consistency (eating regularly throughout the day)
- Abundance (eating plenty of food and not restricting your intake)
- Variety (eating many different kinds of food)
- Flexibility (being able to go with the flow and not feeling stressed about food)
- Adaptability (customizing nutrition recommendations to your life)
- Freedom (eating what you want without guilt or judgment)
- Pleasure (enjoying what you eat and feeling good while eating)
- Attunement (feeling connected to your body while eating and listening to its cues)
- Joy (feeling happy about food and while eating)
- Respect (treating your body with compassion and care)
When you are connected with your body and your relationship with food is easeful and guided by your internal wisdom rather than external dieting messages and the pursuit of weight loss, you’re less likely to experience disordered eating and feel out of control around food.
Research on intuitive eaters, those who reject diet mentality and instead focus on their internal cues, has shown them to have higher self-esteem and body acceptance, eat a wider variety of foods, and experience greater well-being.
I’ve seen in my work as a vegan registered dietitian how restrictive plant-based dieting can lead vegans down a path of food obsession and disordered eating. This leads folks to vacillate between periods of restricting and periods of binging or chaotic eating. They often feel like they need to follow a diet program and carry fears and anxiety about food, nutrition and health.
The truth is that you don’t need to exert control over your eating in order to have a healthy relationship with food. Some nutrition information is helpful to make sure you’re meeting your nutrient needs, and beyond that, you can work with your body to figure out what, how much and when to eat!
If you’re struggling with your relationship with food or think you might have disordered eating, please reach out for support. There is no specific point at which you suddenly qualify for help – if you even think you might have a problem with food, it’s time to reach out! Addressing issues with food early rather than waiting until they’re severe makes it easier to move toward a healthy relationship with food.
Ditch diet mentality
Ditching diet mentality is easier said than done and it can be a lengthy process. Because we’re socialized in a diet culture, it’s literally everywhere. It’s in the conversations between friends, family, neighbors and coworkers; it’s in the comments from our healthcare providers; it’s in the influencer social media posts; it’s in the pop culture media stories. Everywhere!
Start to recognize and challenge restrictive, fatphobic thinking about food. Understand that subtle dieting exists in addition to going on a specific diet program. For example, restricting oil, processed foods and sugar is dieting.
Constantly wondering if you “should” eat something or worry about how eating is going to impact your weight is diet mentality. Thinking you’re “bad” for eating something or feeling the need to compensate for eating something by later restricting is diet mentality. Fearing that one bite or one meal is going to have a significant deleterious effect on your health is diet mentality.
The creators of Intuitive Eating, an anti-diet framework for making peace with food, lay out the following steps for rejecting diet mentality:
- Recognize and acknowledge the damage that dieting causes
- Includes swinging between extremes of eating such as restricting and bingeing, increased stress, increased risk of eating disorders, increased risk of heart disease
- Be aware of diet mentality traits and thinking
- Such as obedience, willpower, perfectionism and failure
- Get rid of the dieter’s tools
- Toss the scales, tape measures, too-small jeans, calorie and macro trackers
- Be compassionate toward yourself
- Remember that your value is not rooted in your size, shape, diet or even health status
Set boundaries around plant-based diet culture
We can’t fully avoid diet culture but we can limit our exposure to it. And one way to do that is to set boundaries around content and characters that promote diet mentality.
Unfortunately there is no shortage of this in the vegan space as plant-based diet culture has infiltrated the animal rights movement.
Consider the social media accounts you follow, email newsletters you subscribe to and books on your bookshelf. Are they telling you to restrict any vegan foods? Red flag! Are they promising that if you follow their diet that you will lose weight or experience a miraculous health transformation? Red flag, red flag!
Many people experience fear, anxiety, and an increase in dieting thoughts, urges and behaviors after interacting with this kind of content. If your goal is to have a healthy relationship with food, it’s a good idea to distance yourself from anything that makes you feel like you need to restrict your eating!
The same goes for people in your life. Practice shutting down conversations about weight loss and dieting. You can change the subject, leave the conversation or tackle the issue head-on if you’re up to it.
Enjoy a wide variety of vegan food and drink
If you notice that you have been restricting certain vegan foods or ingredients, practice giving yourself unconditional permission to enjoy them without guilt or judgment!
Vegan foods I commonly see restricted include vegan meats, cheeses and ice cream, as well as oil, salt and added sugar.
It might be scary to admit these foods into your life, and you might even feel a little out of control around them at first. That is completely normal. When we fear and restrict a food and then give ourselves access to it, it’s normal for us to overeat it. Unfortunately this can convince many folks that they need to go right back to restricting. (See the diet/binge cycle graphic above!)
But the opposite is true. By practicing continued exposure to the previously restricted food, you’ll reduce fear and anxiety about that food over time and eventually arrive at a peaceful place with it. Trust me, it’s a pretty amazing process!
You can do this by keeping those foods stocked in your kitchen and incorporating them into meals and snacks on a regular basis. Remember: portion control is a form of restriction. Practice listening to your body and eating as much as you please. Overate and don’t feel so well? That is valuable information and a part of the process. This can feel scary, and you don’t have to go it alone. We help our clients with this all the time!
Consider veganizing any non-vegan favorite foods, and exploring new recipes and cuisines. Have fun with food and enjoy the pleasure of eating without shame!
Get evidence-based vegan nutrition guidance
Want to make sure you’re covering your nutrition bases as a vegan? You don’t have to subject yourself to diet culture in order to learn about vegan nutrition. That is exactly why I created my signature course, the Anti-Diet Vegan Nutrition Online Course!
This is a completely diet-culture-free space to learn about vegan nutrition so that you can build nourishing and satisfying vegan meals and snacks and supplement responsibly. You can meet your nutrient needs without stress so you don’t have to worry about nutrition.
This course is for anyone interested in learning about vegan nutrition, including new and current vegans, folks interested in going vegan, or simply those who are vegan-curious.
The Anti-Diet Vegan Nutrition Online Course covers:
- Transitioning to veganism without turning it into a diet
- Nutrients (macronutrients and micronutrients) and where to find them in vegan food, beverages and dietary supplements
- Common vegan food fears and myths about oil, sugar, soy, vegan meats and more
- Planning, purchasing and creating delicious and nutritious vegan meals and snacks
- Eating vegan away from home, including at restaurants, business events and while traveling
- Discussing your vegan lifestyle with your healthcare providers
- Finding community within the vegan movement
- And more!
You can take the course at any time and work your way through it at your own pace.
Keep the focus on animal liberation
If you got into veganism to help animals but found yourself twisted up in plant-based dieting, you’re not alone. And if you got into veganism through plant-based dieting and then turned into an animal rights activist, you’re also not alone!
Whatever your path to veganism, it brought you to this blog post. That means you’re interested in working on your relationship with food. That’s incredible!
Ask yourself, “Does this choice further animal liberation or is it tied up in diet culture?” That can be a helpful reminder if you feel unsure if you’re making food choices from a place of values or from a place of diet mentality.
It can be helpful to consider helping animals in ways that have nothing to do with food, so that you have ways to live out your values besides your food choices. Here are 10 ways you can advocate for animals in addition to eating plant-based.
Consider what you want your relationship with food to be like. Is it already there or do you have some work to do? Give the strategies in this post a try and if you need more support, we’re here to help!