Last week, YouTube star Yovana Mendoza, who built her brand around a vegan lifestyle, was criticized after after she was filmed eating fish in Bali. While Mendoza, known professionally as "Rawvana," told the Daily Beast she recently began eating fish at the advice of her doctor, vegan fans were angry that she didn't immediately disclose her diet change. But even though this incident took place in the very public world of social media, Mendoza's experience of having to change her diet for nutritional reasons is hardly unique. And nutritionists tell Bustle that having to change your eating plan for health reasons — or any other reason — is completely valid.
Even people who've been eating a particular diet for a number of years sometimes need to add new foods for health reasons. And if someone is committed to a particular diet for ethical reasons, as is common with plant-based diets, having to make a change can often be accompanied by feelings of guilt. However, it's important to remember that when it comes to eating plans, health is paramount, and what works for one person doesn't work for everyone.
"I think it's important to start from the ideal that there is no one size fits all [with nutrition]. Everything needs to be modified to the individual and take the whole person into consideration," Maya Feller, a registered dietician and founder of Maya Feller Nutrition, tells Bustle.
In her apology video, Mendoza said she had developed an overgrowth of bacteria in her small intestine as a result of her raw vegan lifestyle. This prompted her doctor to suggest she begin adding animal fats into her diet with the goal of improving her overall health. If you're experiencing discomfort from your eating plan or feel you're not getting proper nutrition, Feller says there are several questions you can ask yourself. "Specifically do you have good energy throughout the day? Does your digestion function well? Are you experiencing any negative side effects? Do you feel satiated after meals? Does the pattern of eating leave space for your lifestyle? Does the pattern of eating leave space for balance?"
If you're answering no to a number of these questions, it might be time to consider that a particular eating plan may not be what's best for your body, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. "There is so much guilt associated with food and wellness in general. It can seem exclusive and that there is just one way to be well. In my opinion, each person needs to define their own parameters of wellness and it should include feeling good about yourself and your choices," Feller says.
"For people who decide to remove animal-based foods from their diets for ethical reasons, but find that they want to reintroduce them and feel guilty, I suggest looking at all of the [other] ways you can make ethical choices in your life and find small ways to implement them." She also suggests being intentional about the meats and fish you do eat by doing your research so you can make the most informed choices.
"Letting go of the food police allows you to make food choices based on your inner needs, self-care, health, and pleasure, rather than diet rules."
Serena Poon, a chef, nutritionist, and reiki master, tells Bustle that your body will let you know when a meal plan isn't working for you. "If your body is experiencing reactions that last more than just the first few days, or if the reactions are more severe than slight discomfort, it may be because the plan is not aligned with what your body needs. Intuitively, we usually know when something feels wrong."
She adds that if you need to change your diet for health reasons, it's OK to put yourself first. "We contribute to ourselves, to others, and to the world at large when we function at our best. If you love animals but feel that you don’t function optimally as a vegan — there is no guilt or shame," she says. "In the meantime, there are many ways you can still contribute to the vegan community and still support animal rights while making your dietary transition. We honor others with our best selves when we honor ourselves with our authentic truths."
Joyce Faraj, Ph.D., a nutritionist at Mountainside, tells Bustle that restrictive eating plans can be harmful in ways that aren't immediately obvious. "Certain ways of eating that may be restrictive may be very stressful to manage. This stress can also lead to poor physical and mental health as it may increase cortisol, which is a stress hormone that can wreak havoc with our systems by contributing to increased blood pressure and blood glucose."
Dr. Faraj says that an important step to removing the feelings of guilt associated with making this kind of change is silencing the voices in your head. "In order to remove guilt associated with eating foods we once considered 'bad' or 'unethical,' it is important to challenge those thoughts, which reside deep in our psyche, telling us we shouldn't eat them," she says. "Letting go of the food police allows you to make food choices based on your inner needs, self-care, health, and pleasure, rather than diet rules."
Understanding how what you eat in the morning affects you in the afternoon takes a certain amount of mindfulness, Dr. Faraj says. However, it's an important part of any diet change. "In order to determine whether foods we eat sit well with us or not, we first need to be mindful of how we feel not just during meals but an hour or two after a meal. If we realize that certain foods may be causing unwanted gastrointestinal issues, potential intolerances, or allergies, we need to first learn to listen to our bodies and pay attention to how we feel."
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.