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.
- 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.
- 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.