Rules, Restriction, & Recovery: When Veganism Isn’t The (First) Answer

By Nia Calloway. Photography by Deun Ivory.

September is National Recovery Month and this self-care Sunday writer Nia Calloway dives into her personal recovery with an eating disorder as well as the ways we may at times use food as a scapegoat and new ways to live in harmony with our food lifestyles and abundance.

As fucked up as it sounds, I may not have found veganism without first having had an eating disorder. Upon deciding that I would restrict my food intake by first eliminating animal products, I was only partially driven by ethics. At the end of the day, I was overwhelmingly driven by control. During my teen years, I felt so out of control and became obsessed with how people viewed me. I resorted to controlling my food, and of course that lead to an eating disorder. Thankfully, I am now completely driven by ethics rather than by control. I have the self-control to not have so much self-control.

However, as much as I advocate veganism to basically the entire world, I do not recommend a vegan diet for someone who may be recovering from an eating disorder. This may sound contradictory and possibly even hypocritical, but I have my reasons.

In terms of a standard American diet, veganism doesn’t appear normal, especially raw veganism. As popular as veganism is becoming (which is wonderful), it is not a conventional diet. Eating disorders are all about control, rules, and becoming obsessive and compulsive about those rules. I worry that for some people in recovery, veganism might become the next vice if they aren’t careful. As abundant as veganism has made me feel, it still has rules. Veganism is the omission of all animal products including meat, fish, egg, dairy, and even honey. Spiritually, veganism is about compassion and animal liberation. If there is no spiritual, health-conscious, or ethical foundation for making a lifestyle change into veganism, it can become another way to enforce food rules upon oneself. It is so crucial for someone in recovery or post recovery to find and maintain a sense of normalcy with their eating.

Normalcy involves listening to hunger cues and releasing the tight chains of control.

I noticed on Instagram and social media that while there are a lot of vegans, many of them have also recovered from eating disorders. I wasn’t as encouraged as you may think to see that trend. I was concerned. I wondered if these Instagramers were still depriving themselves from a sense of normalcy. Is it right for people recovering or who have recovered from eating disorders to jump right into giving ourselves new sets of rules and regulations? Only we can judge that for ourselves.

I certainly did not jump into veganism. I hadn’t touched veganism until nearly four years after recovering. I ate meat and cheese and pretty much all animal products when I was recovering. Not because it was “the right thing to do”, but because it brought back a sense of normalcy to my relationship with food. Some unhealthy food relationships turn into something as extreme as fear, sometimes anxiety. I was both fearful and anxious about food while I was sick. While recovering, I didn’t want to fear any kind of food any longer. If people recover from eating disorders and jump straight into an “extreme” food lifestyle for reasons other than ethics or complete physical wellness, they are allowing themselves to remain fearful of certain foods because they are inevitably avoiding them. I do recognize that people may have already been vegetarian or vegan before having eating disorders, so they will have to find a sense of normalcy in the diet they were accustomed to before becoming sick.

Either way, a normal relationship with food without fear, full of eating intuitively and mindfully, is essential to recovery.

When I decided to go vegan, I made sure that it would be about ethics and not about rules and restrictions. I was slightly hesitant to make such a huge change in my life because I didn’t want to trigger any restrictive or harmful habits I had when I was sick. However, I knew this was a different time and a different Nia. I did not need or want veganism to make me thin again. I did not need or want veganism to make me feel like I have control. Veganism is about the wellbeing of Mother Earth and all of her creatures. Veganism is about lessening suffering while improving my physical health. I view veganism as a lifestyle rather than just a diet.

Many people get wrapped up in the idea that veganism frees them to pig out and not listen to intuitive hunger cues. They get wrapped up in the idea that there’s “no calorie restriction” and then give themselves permission to binge (another type of eating disorder) at their next vegan meal. Listen, carbs are good. Carbs are great. Our bodies will naturally want a ton of carbs and therefore we should give our bodies lots of energizing carbs. But, the biggest thing I’ve learned from being sick is that eating and hunger is physical, not mental. We should be listening to our bodies rather than counting calories in the first place. Don’t try out veganism with the same sick mentality you had from bouts of yo-yo dieting in the past.

Now, I won’t lie and say that the physical and physiological benefits of veganism don’t matter to me. They certainly do. The benefits of veganism matter to me because I remember being in a wretched place where my physical, physiological, and mental well-being did not matter to me. I was in addiction mode. Upon making this lifestyle change, I did my research and realized that there is a way for non-animal diets to ADD to my life, not take away from it. From there, I could teach my body about abundance and nutrition and ditch the rules and restrictions. Going through my illness helped to wipe my slate clean of self-destructive habits.

Perhaps my illness primed me to listen to my body better and make my health and wellness a top priority. Veganism is about lessening suffering and bettering my mental and physical health.

I recognize that veganism may have saved some people from their eating disorders, and how the lifestyle of compassion and abundance ignited a sense of self-love. But I also recognize how veganism might feel like the next set of rules and restrictions to glom onto. I UNDERSTAND feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and SO out of control. So many people resort to controlling the intake of their food in times of personal crisis, I totally get it. However, I don’t think that food should be the scapegoat for dealing with personal issues. It inevitably leads to an unhealthy cycle. I feel like if I jumped straight into veganism before fully recovering to a state of normalcy, I would have felt like I still didn't have to deal with my fear foods (meats and dairy). This is why I stress the importance of finding veganism and adhering to this lifestyle for the liberating reasons of compassion and abundance.

The use of food and controlling it as a means of finding comfort is interesting. Of course food is comforting, it is a biological need. Food is laced with nostalgia and the childhood memories of togetherness and warmth. We love how a big social feast makes us feel loved and gives us a sense of belonging. People even show others their love through food. Food bears so much emotional weight. People sometimes turn to food when the scary feelings of loneliness or sadness arise.

Food is totally comforting, but so is a phone call to a dear friend, a warm bath, or perhaps a ten-minute intentional savasana. Food is not the enemy, and in the case of an eating disorder, it’s not even the issue. The issue lies in the relationship with food. Does it nourish us or does our consumption and lack thereof provide a quick antidote for latent emotional discomfort and pain?

In times of personal crises, when we turn to food, drugs, or reckless spending and behavior, we are only giving ourselves temporary peace. Controlling food in a restrictive way only gave me temporary peace, surface-level peace. What I should've done in my confusing and internally messy teenage years was speak up. I should have spoken to a friend or family member about how I felt. I should’ve made my feelings of anxiety and insecurity known and real, even if it meant writing it down in a journal. We don't verbalize our feelings because we don't want our feelings to be real. We want our uncomfortable feelings to remain latent. However, our problems eventually bubble to the surface depending on our choice of destructive behavior. I’ve always had difficulty voicing my true emotions and problems due to pride. I prided myself on seeming like I had it all together. I grew up in a family that did not always address issues when they were just issues. Most problems in my family were addressed when they became full blown arguments or crises. As uncomfortable as it feels, we must be willing and brave enough to voice even the smallest seedling of an issue.  If our problems are not vocalized, we are that many more steps away from resolving our issues healthily.

Veganism isn’t my safety net from eating cheese, meats, or other animal products that I once placed fear upon, veganism is a spiritual journey. Veganism encouraged my journey toward true empathy and compassion. When looking into the eyes of a furry or feathered friend, I see a kindred soul, not something I must assert my dominance over. Veganism has opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of Mother Nature’s children. Veganism helps validate another being’s presence on Earth.

Realizing that everyone’s presence on Earth is valid and important helps me realize that I am important. It helps me realize that my being is valid on Earth, which allows me to operate more so from love and abundance rather than competition and scarcity. I don’t believe that a perfect vegan exists, but if this journey allows you to decrease suffering (including your own) in any kind of way, act with compassion, improve your health, and realize that an abundance-mindset is the status quo, then veganism is working for you.

When ethics, compassion, and empathy come to focus, there is no room for fear. That’s why veganism makes sense for me in my being. Overall, this process has taught me about the power and necessity of abundance. It has taught that I must ADD to my life, not subtract from it.

Nia Calloway call Austin and Houston, Texas home. She contributes to BGIO because the wellness mission has inspired her to have one of her own. Nia's go-to self care practices are yoga, smelling nature and laughing. Find her on Instagram @iamniacalloway and @tribeweyoga on Twitter @fabcalloway and her digital home,