Vegan Salt –the blog

{July 21, 2010}   Food, Guilt, and Self-Loathing

The day I learned to feel bad about eating was the same day I learned to feel bad about myself.  I was seven years old.  Until then, I’d never noticed the size or shape of the body I inhabited, and I’d never forbidden myself any food.  At dinner with my family that fateful night, I had just reached for my eighth slice of my mom’s homemade pizza (my favorite meal) when she called me away from the table to talk to me about overeating, and about the weight I’d been putting on.  I don’t remember the first seven slices of pizza I ate that evening, but I will never forget that last, joyless slice, topped with sausage, green bell pepper, mozzarella, and black olives.  I chewed it grimly, robotically, eyes and throat burning with stifled tears, and marveled that the food I loved gave me no pleasure or comfort.  As I ate it, I only felt worse.  The little girl who timidly returned to the table that night, steeped in shame and disgust at her appetite for food and her grotesque body, was the girl I would be every time I ate for years to come.

From that point on, food and I went through constant cycles of desire and guilt.  There were fad diets, brief struggles with exercise, a few meager attempts at self-induced vomiting, and baggy clothes to hide me from the eyes of others.  I imagine my obsession with calories, fat, weight, and my distaste for my own body were rather standard for an American girl. I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder.  I wasn’t obese.  Once I got a growth spurt in my teens,  I wasn’t even overweight.  I was just your average girl who felt guilty because she ate “bad” food.  (“Badness” could be quantified by the number of calories, fat, sugar, carbohydrates, size of portion, time of day… I halfheartedly imposed nearly every category of diet on myself at some point.)

But there are two kinds of guilt.

  1. Legitimate remorse and regret for having actually done something wrong, such as turning your back on a friend, putting someone in danger, carelessly breaking a heart, or betraying someone’s trust.
  2. Unreasonable guilt: feeling bad when you’ve done nothing cruel, unkind, or harmful to another.  (Or when the harm you caused was accidental or unavoidable.)

Most of us carry around the wrong kind of guilt, especially when it comes to food.  Guilt is only rational when it is linked to the morally bad, not the nutritionally bad.  However, morally bad food, food worthy of feeling guilty over, does exist.  What makes some food bad (in the primary, ethical sense of the word) is the suffering and injustice that was carried out in the production –generally, its extraction from the body of someone who was given no choice. The only morally bad foods are foods for which other beings were harmed.

Morality in general comes down to whether an action is harmful, cruel, or unkind to others.  Why it took me so long to apply that sense of right or wrong to my food, I can only guess.  But after years of shifting foods from one category to another based on their carb-ness, fat content, or color, the simplicity of this logical good/bad food dichotomy blew my mind.  Veganism freed me from counting calories and all that other nonsense.  Eliminating animal products from my diet meant eliminating any cause for legitimate, ethical guilt about food, breaking the eat/guilt cycle.  (Okay, there are still ethical considerations that factor into plant foods, such as whether coffee and cocoa are fair-trade certified, and whether palm oil is taken from the orangutan forests, but eating a diet of plant rather than animal foods bypasses direct victims; an enormous moral leap!)

Once the food guilt was gone, everything else fell into place–not within a day, but at a steady rate.  Emotionally, I began to fully enjoy eating again, and since food was more fulfilling, my desire to occasionally binge went away.  I stopped thinking of any foods as “forbidden,” not even animal products!  (I can eat them, but I really don’t want to.  Eating the result of suffering and injustice?  Yuck!)  I truly don’t deprive myself of anything anymore, and this healthier mental attitude has changed my entire life.

And what happened to the self-loathing?  Well, it helps that ethically good foods tend to be nutritionally good foods as well, once you take sugar and processed junk out of the equation.  I have lost weight.  Too much weight, according to some people.  But without guilt coming between me and my body anymore, I’ve found that I can truly be happy with my physical size and shape, no matter what other people think of me.  My body is fueled by compassion now.  How delicious is that?!




To learn more about how I lost weight (without trying) by going vegan, click on The End of Dieting.


Rebecca says:

Beautiful post. Thank you for that 🙂

Stewart says:

Well put.

This was a good reminder of why I have wanted to be vegan.

Krys says:

Hooray! I look forward to hearing more about your journey. I’ll be checking in on your blog! =)

veganactivist says:

Thank you for writing this. I tried to start a blog post once about this subject, but it was too difficult to put into words. Veganism helped me with eating problems too. My problem was chiefly with overeating – eating as substitute for love and comfort, as salve for insecurity and self-loathing. And once I became vegan, it seemed … okay, if I needed to eat a large amount of food. If it were a huge plate of rice and veggies, unlike cheese and crackers at least it wasn’t going to do me harm. At least I didn’t also have to worry that it would increase my weight. And lessening the guilt at the plate (how aptly you characterize it!) helped give me some space to sort out the emotional issues that were causing the overeating.

Another connection: learning to cook vegan meant taking time with spices, ingredients, techniques, and smelling and tasting things individually to see how they might fit together as a whole. Spending time cooking and thinking about food meant that I started to enjoy the *process* – and eating the food at the end of it became just one part of the whole, of savoring and finding pleasure in preparing, cooking and eating. Most vegans I know are intensely social (and sometimes competitive!) about their food. Maybe cooking with friends or loved ones, laughing (and drinking wine if you like) while preparing meals, is part of the cure for the loneliness and fear associated with food for some of us.

I have heard that sometimes people try to mask eating disorders such as anorexia by ‘going vegan’ – using the ethical abstention from animal products as a way to avoid calories, fats, and nutrition altogether. Clearly, this is not right. Vegan diets are balanced diets that require fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in the right proportions to sustain life and health. Those who are using veganism as avoidance should seek help. (I’m not equating it with your perspective, which is one of balance and joy. But I thought I would point out that this is a related problem for some people.)

Women should not be subjected to this intense pressure to conform to a narrow physical ideal, and they should be given support and help if they develop psychological problems as a result of this pressure and this injustice. And we should work also to change the culture that demands unreal perfection from women. Veganism means justice for all.

This post really got me. I remember that moment too- when eating became synonymous with guilt. And I remember when it was suggested I could use a little makeup. I still feel so self-conscious when I leave the house without mascara on.
But veganism has given me so much- comfort in my own skin, compassion that extends from my plate to my everyday endeavours, peace within myself, a respect for food… I thought I was the one giving for a cause, but I was wrong.

booga says:

Thank you for sharing this. So true, every bit of it.

I actually was chubby, but my mother never told me that. I got it from my peers. Your guilt must have been so much worse getting that from your mom, and so young. Good for you for overcoming the guilt!

Helena says:

Great post. Thank you for sharing and be so honest.

great post. i got the same kinda things from my mom…she totally meant well, but it resulted in what feels like a lifetime’s worth of self-confidence issues. i still haven’t completely gotten over that – it’s amazing how much those things can affect us.

While our stories are not the same, the outcome was. Past food issues have been healed with eating in a way I can morally feel great about.

Awesome job speaking out. You are beautiful and an inspiration to so many daily.

Krys says:

I just want to say that I don’t fault my mother at all. I did have an overeating problem, and she approached it gently, careful not to criticize me in front of others. I was a sensitive child, so even the softest criticism affected me deeply, but I don’t think I would have handled it any better, had I been in her place.

Britta says:

I have been vegan for 8 months now and loving it, but the weight loss that I was hoping for is really really really slow. I have lost 20 pounds, which is awesome, but it’s really just about half of what I need to lose. I’m not finding that a change to veganism makes it easy to reach the goal weight.

Recently I have been eating more macrobiotic meals which are more satisfying, and it means I am eating less processed vegan foods, but the weight still isn’t coming off. I have stayed the same weight for months now. It’s frustrating.

I felt the same way as you about being sensitive as a child, and an overeater. I read the book Overcoming Overeating, and it helped a lot with the guild issue you spoke of. I am able to remove the guilt almost all of the time and I don’t have the urge to binge anymore. I still have bad cravings, but they can usually be satisfied easily, so this is a huge stride for me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: