In 2019, it’s hard to miss the endless proclamations of how plant-based diets can benefit our lives. Climate scientists are urging people to eat less meat in a bid to save the planet. Celebrities such as Beyoncé are touting countless vegan diet plans. Some days you can barely walk in the street without seeing ethically motivated scrawls of chalk on the pavement stating that if we don’t eat dogs, we shouldn’t eat pigs either (turns out the Vegan Chalk Challenge is a global thing – that answers a lot of questions). Plant-based lols are even winning prizes at Edinburgh Fringe, with comedian Olaf Falafel winning Funniest Joke of 2019 with his broccoli-based pun.
Veganism seems that it can do no wrong; it’s ethical, trendy and healthy. It’s the best way for us to do our bit and help save the planet. In addition, veganism is also celebrate as one of the best ways to lose weight. This interests me because it presents a conflict in some important values of mine – it brings a desire to be healthy and environmentally conscious up against my recovery from restrictive disordered eating. I’ve often wondered, could I limit myself to a plant-based diet whilst knowing the fantastical weight loss hype that exists alongside it?
Plant-Based for the Planet
A recent UN report has outlined the carbon emissions caused by livestock and advised that the public cuts down on meat consumption in favour of plant-based alternatives. It is reported that around 15% of global emissions come from animal products, and half of these emissions are caused by the farming and production of beef and lamb.
I appreciate that the headlines come with the message that climate scientists are “not telling people to stop eating meat”, but are encouraging us to chose more plant-based options, reduce meat intake and make more ethical decisions when we do choose to eat it.
This is exactly the rhetoric we need surrounding dietary guidance. We must be empowered to make changes, rather than be instilled with shame when we feel a target is out of our reach. Sure, it would be ideal to have an optimum diet, the most eco-friendly kitchen and a scheme that plants ten trees for every piece of broccoli you eat. But we’ve all got to start somewhere, and we can’t move forward when we’re tangled up in food guilt.
Plant-Based for Weight Loss
Now onto Beyoncé. Beyoncé has commended a vegan diet for weight loss in the run-up to Coachella, and now has a subscription service where fans can get access her favourite plant-based recipes which sell the dream of “A Better You and A Better World”.
One promotional video starts with her stepping on the scales, stating “every women’s nightmare” followed by a sigh after viewing the number – “we’ve got a long way to go”. At the end she celebrates being able to fit into one of her many Coachella costumes. Through two and a half minutes showing Beyoncé in dance rehearsals, working out with a trainer and having her meals prepared for her, we are supposed to believe that paying $14 for a plant-based meal plan will get us there, too.
It must be said that it’s an improvement on some of her previous dietary recommendations, such as the “Master Cleanse“. This was another (technically vegan) diet plan which consisted of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and water – yes, that is all. However, the current plan is now facing criticism from nutritionists for not being sufficient; they have stated that the 22 day plan is dangerously low calorie and features false nutritional information.
Despite this, her efforts are welcomed by some – who cares if she’s got the calculations wrong, Beyoncé is making plant based diets more socially acceptable. She’s encouraging her fans to adopt a healthier lifestyle and simultaneously helping the earth, right?
Lets be honest, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Beyoncé’s product just happens to overlap with a dietary choice that has gained huge momentum in the past few years. The number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, and Beyoncé ‘s marketing team are riding that oat milk wave all the way to the bank. They know they can no longer sell us a cleanse without backlash, so they’re exploiting our self esteem in an “environmentally friendly” way and slipping through the cracks.
Plant-Based in Recovery
During my first six months of diet culture rejection, I went vegan. Despite swearing by Body Positive Power as my new way of life, I had subconsciously absorbed all of the media’s messages about anything that might be good for weight loss, and came up with the perfect alibi.
“It’s for ethical reasons” I’d tell myself as I scanned pages of Google search results for ‘weight loss on a vegan diet’. “Ten reasons why you’re not losing weight on a vegan diet” – wait, going vegan isn’t a fail-safe weight loss plan? “Five reasons why you’re GAINING weight on a vegan diet” I could gain weight? But Beyonce said?
It was only when I dusted off my login to an pro-eating disorder forum (a site I used to frequent in 2014 – not a good time for me and my bulimia) to search for vegan weight loss success stories that I realised I wasn’t really doing it for the planet. And I certainly wasn’t recovering.
From then on, I would notice that at times of stress I would get a compelling urge to cut out meat and dairy. It was a trait given to my by my eating disorder – I had learned to channel any negativity I was experiencing into guilt about my food choices. Only now, instead of my weight, I’d convinced myself that the guilt was for harming animals and single-handedly causing climate change.
Dietary restriction and disordered eating can often come entwined. One study found that one in two women with a history of eating disorders were likely to have adopted a vegetarian diet in the past, with 42% of this population being motivated by the prospect of weight loss. The moral elimination of all animal products may also be linked to the onset of Orthorexia – a form of disordered eating categorised by and unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food. Vegans and vegetarians are also more likely to display Orthorexic eating behaviour than those who do not restrict their diet.
Personally, I feel recovered enough to believe that I don’t want to lose weight. But as soon as I tried to remove one food group for good, I found myself pacing aisles in the supermarket, checking labels and reluctant to eat anything. This was a stark reminder that my mind had an ulterior motive, and that I was more concerned about having my Beyoncé moment than looking after my blood pressure or carbon footprint.
The Key is Guilt-Free
I’m aware that some people credit plant-based eating for aiding their eating disorder recovery, and I commend anyone who has managed to get through this experience by whatever means necessary. If, for you, guilt-free eating means cutting out meat and dairy whilst maintaining a healthy dietary intake, please continue to enjoy your mysterious tofu scrambles and courgette-based cakes. Please send recipes too because I am intrigued.
However, if eliminating food groups brings back the anxiety and emotional turmoil of restriction, please remember this; there are hundreds of ways that you can make a difference to the environment, to animal welfare and to your health. But first, you need to free up mental space for these values. The last thing you need is another negative voice telling you that your “willpower” is not up to scratch. Not today, Satan.
Above all else, your desired outcome is to be free of guilt and shame surrounding food – to understand when dietary changes are truly your choice or whether they are motivated by the embers of disordered eating.
The bottom line is that it’s okay if a plant-based diet isn’t possible for you. Please rest assured, this is not a set-back. Understanding our boundaries means that we are moving forward in recovery, empowering our minds and beating disordered eating. And we can still eat cheese whilst we do it? Sounds like a win to me.