The F-word in question here is “food”. I’m a vegan, so I get defined by my food a lot. I also try to eat sort of healthy, so people often have the idea that I’m a superhuman kale machine. This is a misconception. I would say that I have my shit together in the food department a little more than I used to, but I’m still figuring it out. I’ve come to learn that this is absolutely okay. I’m not going to lie- I would love to be a superhuman kale machine. But I am also a teenage girl who likes chocolate.
So what about the F-word?
For most of my life, I ate whatever I wanted and didn’t really think about it. A lot of it was junk food and I avoided vegetables like the plague. I wouldn’t even try salad until middle school, and even then it was only Caesar. I was a pizza and pasta and chicken tender eater for the better part of my life. My diet now is not only more ethical but also far more nutritionally complete. I could look back on that portion of my life with disdain, but I actually envy past me a lot. My relationship with food was far healthier than it has been since and my cynical side says that it was probably healthier than it ever will be.
So I kept eating pizza and pasta and chicken tenders without a second thought through my sophomore year of high school. A few months in, my first relatively long relationship ended. I felt so many new and awful things and didn’t know how to deal with them. In the first few weeks, I lost my appetite completely. Then I started eating again, but more. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my appetite and portions steadily increased. I didn’t weigh myself regularly, but at some point toward the end of the school year I stepped on the scale to find that I had gained 20lbs in a pretty short amount of time. I was shocked.
I became more conscious of my weight, but I made no attempt to revise my eating habits. My clothes still fit, but they were uncomfortable. I always had to do the “these are too tight” dance in order to squeeze into my jeans. For a while, I thought I looked okay, but toward the end of spring and into the summer I was tagged in some pretty unflattering photos on Facebook.
It took until autumn of that year (2015) to get sick enough of being uncomfortable to do something about it. I downloaded MyFitnessPal and set a daily calorie goal a few hundred below maintenance and the weight began to trickle off. My goal weight sat at a few pounds below my old comfortable weight. I still ate whatever I wanted, just less of it. I learned how to moderate and bargain- if I wanted to indulge on several things, I picked one of them. I went over my calorie allowance here and there, but when this happened, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world. I counted calories without obsessing. I saw results.
If you know me, you know that I browse Reddit pretty frequently. I read some of the weight loss communities and found nothing but helpful advice and oodles of support. A majority of them advocated for exactly what I was doing, so even though I was pretty new to the whole nutrition thing, it was good to know I was doing something right. The more time I spent on these subs, the more I noticed certain people promoting something called “keto”. I’d never heard of it.
I soon became curious enough to venture over to the keto subreddit. The ketogenic diet, I learned, is an extreme low carb diet. Its followers aim to consume 20-25 carbs or less daily. Meats, cheeses, and some leafy green vegetables get the ok. Sweets, breads, and most fruit have to go. Many foods sit in a gray “sometimes” area. The idea here is to send your body into ketosis, which turns it into a fat burning machine. Added benefits are supposedly appetite suppressant and generally feeling awesome.
I’m not going to beat around the bush. Keto made me crazy and seriously messed up my relationship with food. Keto isn’t a magical diet. I did lose weight while on it, but only because I continued to count calories the way I had been. I felt awful. I didn’t like the food very much. I got tired of covering things in cheese to make them edible. I became afraid of carbs. Reading all of the pro keto stuff every day had me brainwashed, for lack of a better term. I had lost almost 30lbs in total by the end of my three-month affair with that diet. I was petrified of going over my carb limit and gaining back all of the weight I had lost. Occasionally, I ate a “forbidden” food, which then triggered an all-night binge. I would eat everything around me and wake up feeling absolutely terrible the next day.
I cringe now thinking about how miserable I let myself be because of a group of Reddit users. None of these people were health experts! I didn’t even realize that keto wasn’t working for me until far after I stopped it. Initially, I just quit keto because I realized that a diet that discourages eating a lot of vegetables and instead encourages (bunless) bacon cheeseburgers doesn’t really make sense. I didn’t like bananas before, but by the end of my keto phase, I would have killed for one.
March 2016: Enter veganism. I’m going to be upfront and say that I didn’t initially transition to this lifestyle for the right reasons. I wanted to reintroduce carbs into my life, but I felt the need for food-related rules to follow. I decided over the course of just a few days that I wanted to do the vegan thing and threw out all of the low carb foods in my house that I knew my parents wouldn’t eat.
The following isn’t an advertisement for a vegan lifestyle, but here’s the thing: I felt great. Like, really great. I ate copious fruits and vegetables which had been off limits to me. I kept doing the calorie counting thing for another month or two, but then decided I wanted to put some muscle on. I used this as justification to limitlessly eat all sorts of awesome stuff over the summer. I didn’t initially go vegan because I cared about animal rights, but I started to care about animal rights because I went vegan. I may not have had the best reasoning at first for making the switch, but I know now that I made a great decision. Everything just felt right.
Where am I now and what did I learn?
So over summer 2016 I stopped tracking my calories so strictly because I was done with losing weight. Given that I was bulking, I actively tried to eat a lot of food. I put back on a lot of weight in just a few months. I liked the freedom at first, but after a while keeping up with the portion sizes was a lot and I started to feel a little sick. In October, my schoolwork and band commitments picked up and I stopped going to the gym. I began to just eat whatever I wanted, neither strictly tracking calories nor forcing myself to eat excessively. For the first time in months, my weight and my food took the backseat to other priorities. Between then and now I’ve lost about 15lbs and am back around the number I sat at before I gained that first 20. I’m pretty comfortable and I have no real weight goals except to sort of stay around there.
However, I have a lot of non-weight related food goals. I noticed in December that my food had become such a non-priority that I was forgetting to eat throughout the day, then when I remembered in the evening, my meal would look something like a Sheetz burrito and a Monster Energy drink. I felt like shit. I learned something really important from this: The best thing you can do for yourself (alongside get adequate sleep and hydration) is to eat a balanced and healthy diet. I’m not even trying to promote a plant-based thing here. I don’t plan to turn this into a full on “how to eat to feel better” post (although maybe down the road I will write one), but eating more vegetables, fewer processed foods, and drinking a lot of water can do wonders for how you feel.
I made a New Year’s resolution to start eating in a way that helped me feel good. I am still trying to do that. I’m getting better, but I still fall off of that wagon here and there (thank you, vegan chocolate and dairy-free Ben and Jerry’s). I do think it’s awesome to indulge in moderation. I’m also not good at moderation. So I guess that if anything, my next step is to find that balance of eating those “feel good” foods 95% of the time and keeping the treats small and not overly frequent.
The other thing I’m working on is repairing my food anxiety and the very strong guilt I get after overindulging. This is a reason that I am now very strongly against keto and other extreme diets. It made me very afraid to eat certain things and I felt so pressured to stick to those strict rules that when I stepped outside of those and went over my carb limit, I felt very intense guilt and found it very hard to forgive myself. It created a lot of unnecessary self-loathing. I still feel that same self-loathing and guilt when I eat something outside of my idea of “healthy” or eat a little too much. The remnants of that strict diet mindset have laced my brain and my relationship with food with a little bit of orthorexia. Extreme diets are very damaging. I did keto for just three months over a year ago and I am still dealing with the aftermath.
All I want at this point is to eat things that make me feel good and to have a healthier relationship with food. I plan to keep working on that. I don’t know if I will ever be that superhuman kale machine, but I can try. I’m also okay with baby steps. Trying to make crazy changes instantly is more damaging than good and will almost always cause you to revert back to eating worse than before. I think that most people want a better relationship with food. It’s cool, because we’re in this together right? Taking those little steps to eating better is such a great way to care for yourself. I wish you all luck in that journey to self-love.
If you read this whole thing, thank you so much for listening to my story.