I am not what I eat

Off the Beat

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Content warning: disordered eating

It’s sophomore year of high school. I’m hungry. My mom just picked me up from cross country practice, where I ran 800-meter repeats on a dirt track. When we get home, I leave my muddy shoes at the door and make a beeline for the kitchen. I dig ravenously through the fridge, looking for something to replace the hundreds of calories I just burned at practice.

I settle on an apple and two tablespoons of peanut butter. An apple is about 95 calories, and two tablespoons of peanut butter are 210 calories. I measure it all meticulously, and before eating even a bite, I pencil it all into my food diary. 

It was a purple notebook with some sort of inspirational quote on the cover; I don’t remember what it said exactly. Each page was labeled with the date, with subsections for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the end of each day, I wrote the total number of calories to the decimal and highlighted it.

Sometimes, on the days I managed to keep my caloric intake below 1,400, I drew a smiley face at the top of the page. On other days, when I ate more than 2,000, I drew a frown. My sophomore self thought this was a beautiful system. If the house ever burned down, I would have grabbed my food diary before running out the door.

During this time in my life, I didn’t consume a single calorie without first writing it down. But after more than a year of pages filled in the diary, I started to burn out.

I’d lost weight, but I’d also lost a lot of my happiness and zest for life. I was starving myself of energy, and the cracks were starting to show in my schoolwork, my athletic performances and my personal relationships. I was looking for a way out of the hell I had created for myself.

So, I threw out my food diary, and I went vegan that very day. Transitioning to a purely plant-based diet was not hard for me — after a year of extremely restricted eating, it actually felt liberating. I could finally eat a healthy amount of calories, just as long as I never let dairy, eggs or meat pass through my lips.

What I didn’t realize was that I’d swapped one form of unhealthy control for another.

I was probably one of the “best” vegans you’ll ever meet. I read ingredient labels with the fervency of a newspaper copy editor checking for libel. I turned down countless samples offered to me by friends and family when I even just suspected they could contain animal products. I was the worst dinner guest anyone ever hosted.

I still feel guilty for once asking a restaurant worker six separate questions before ordering. And when I moved to Berkeley, I contended with subpar dining hall food, even though this left me undernourished and fatigued. But at least I felt in control.

The COVID-19 pandemic shattered any sense of control any of us could have had. It also slowed my life down, and I began to notice more about myself than I was comfortable with. During the long months of quarantine, I came face-to-face with the food-journaling mentality that I thought I’d thrown away years ago.

With the world burning outside my window, I craved the comfort of scrambled eggs and herb-crusted salmon, and I hated myself for having these thoughts. I also grew extremely tired of the foods I’d been eating for the past few years. I felt like a “bad” vegan. With a dwindling appetite, my energy levels plummeted and my hormones became unbalanced. I knew a vegan diet was sustainable for the planet, but was it sustainable for me?

Similar to a once-loved outfit washed in a dorm dryer too many times, the vegan label felt too tight and restrictive. I was beginning to outgrow it.

I realized that the vegan diet was my vain effort to enact control over myself and my eating habits. Ironically, the more I clung to this sense of control, the more my life began to spiral. 

So I cooked myself some salmon, throwing out the vegan label like I’d done with my food diary so many years ago.

Ex-vegans often face a lot of backlash and judgment. I wish this wasn’t the case. I’m sharing my story so that others don’t feel like a failure if veganism doesn’t work out for them. I was vegan for years, but in order to truly recover from my disordered eating habits, it was something I needed to let go.

There are days when letting an animal product slip into my diet feels wrong. Days when I’m painfully aware of the “May contain milk” label. Days when I still want to ask 10 questions before placing a food order. Days when I think I should have traded back my veganism for my old food diary. 

But denouncing my veganism has been an exercise in relinquishing control. I allow myself to feel guilt because I also feel a sense of freedom I haven’t felt in quite some time. 

As the world opens up, I am excited to order dishes I’ve never tried before. I am excited to try other recipes: some vegan, some not. I can be an herbivore one day and an omnivore the next. My diet choices don’t define me, and I definitely don’t need to label them.

After all, I am me. I am not what I eat.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.