How Going Vegan Healed My Relationship With Food & My Body

Ad failed to load

In my early- and mid-20s, I was stuck in a cycle that will be familiar to many women living in a world where we are told skinnier is better. I had gained some weight and suffered from constant bloating, and, at the time, I deemed this change to my body to be unacceptable, so I became strict about my eating habits. I cut out gluten, believing it was the cause of my constantly-distended feeling and constipation. I tried reducing sugar. I would eat super-healthily during the day, and binge on the allowed snacks at night, punishing and rewarding myself with food.

None of it worked — I felt more bloated, constipated, and unhealthy than ever, overeating my "allowed" foods and craving bread constantly, always feeling a sense of deprivation. While I didn't starve myself or purge, I was like many women: viewing food as something either "good" or "bad," something that would make me sick or healthy, pretty or ugly. I was suffering, but so many people around me seemed to suffer from the same sort of thinking, and I didn't see how any woman could fully escape it. I really wish someone had told me then that going vegan would be the only thing to truly shift the paradigm.

I didn't consider being a vegan or vegetarian for most of my life because I didn't consider myself an "animal person." I just thought, Hey, veganism is great, but the world has enough problems and I'm going to focus on those. I knew something about the environmental impact of eating meat, and so I limited my intake. Everything in moderation, including sin was my motto.

Ad failed to load

It wasn't until I saw the documentary Earthlings (they call it "the vegan maker") that my perspective profoundly changed. I became a vegan that night for several reasons: foremost, because facing the actual footage of animals being killed and exploited made me feel physically ill, forever and immediately changing all my associations with the foods their suffering produces; secondly, because as a feminist and Jew, there was no way I could see dairy cows locked to what the industry calls "rape racks" or pigs herded into gas chambers without seeing myself in their fearful eyes. It was a visceral and immediate reaction, surprisingly clear. I turned to my partner, a vegetarian of eight years: "We can't participate in this. We have to be vegan." He nodded. "You're right."

In the days after, I was afraid that the decision might trigger obsessive eating habits again — habits that had mostly (but certainly not entirely) faded since I fell into a happy relationship. Wouldn't going vegan make me see certain foods as taboo or "bad" more than ever before? Wouldn't I be restricting my diet in a way that triggered me? What if I craved cheese the way I lusted after bread when I was gluten-free? What if I felt a constant sense of deprivation?

As it turned out, going vegan did just the opposite of what I feared. It made my relationship with food healthier than it's ever been. It simplified everything. At the risk of sounding cashew-cheesy, it healed me.

Ad failed to load

Instead of viewing food as either "good for me" or "bad/going to make me bloated/gain weight/feel sick," things suddenly became very clear and simple. There was only one rule to follow: I would not eat anything that was the product of animal suffering. To my own amazement, in following this simple rule, my own body ceased to suffer almost immediately.

I now eat in a way that is not based in a belief of what food will do to me — but rather in a belief of what I will allow to be done to my food.
Ad failed to load

Having made the switch for purely ethical reasons, I was astonished when the selfish benefits started rolling in. The bloating I had been battling and blaming on gluten? Gone. The constant constipation? Never a problem again, not even when I traveled. I hadn't realized that dairy is one of the hardest foods for our bodies to process, and that most of us are far more lactose intolerant than we realize. An astonishing three-quarters of people actually lack the enzyme to properly digest cow's milk —  an estimated 98 percent of Southeast Asians, 90 percent of Asian-Americans, 74 percent of Native Americans, 70 percent of African-Americans, and the majority of Latino, Indian, and Jewish (my ethnicity) people suffer from lactose intolerance, many of them without realizing it. I had no idea I was one of them until I felt a total absence of bloating and constipation in my life.

Even more exciting, however, was a more subtle physical and emotional change: the root problem of feeling disconnected from my own body and trying to control that feeling with food? It was gone.  

Here I was, finally gaining the sense of order and morality so many of us look to from our diets, just by following one rule that completely shifted the way I was taught to think about food as a woman. I now eat in a way that is not based in a belief of what food will do to me — but rather in a belief of what I will allow to be done to my food.

Ad failed to load
Erin Janus on YouTube

My experience is not unique. As movies like Forks Over Knives have shown, the health benefits of a vegan diet are profound, especially when it comes to the long-term effects of combating obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. What's less talked about, however, is the potential an ethically-motivated (rather than purely health-motivated) plant-based diet could have when it comes to repairing our relationship with our bodies and food itself.

Morality and food have always been connected. Religions have some of the oldest rules about what you can and can't eat, but as many of us have become more secular, we've been left without a set of guiding principles. In the place of Halal or Kosher, we now have food fads: gluten-free, low-fat, sugar-free, paleo — and yes, for some, vegan. The rules vary, but I believe the objective is always the same: to feel a sense of control over what we put in our bodies, to feel healthier and suffer less, to believe there is a right way to eat, a way that will return us to the way we felt as children, or even in Eden — eating when we're hungry, stopping when we're not, knowing what we crave, feeling fulfilled and healthy, at one with our bodies and the world. Having tried all the other ideas, in the end, it was only going vegan that gave me this feeling, I believe because it was the only choice rooted in total non-violence.

Ad failed to load

I am grateful every day that I can be healthy — and thrive — simply by eating a balanced plant-based diet. I feel a sense of abundance, rather than deprivation. Because I can't always eat the desserts at parties, every time there's a vegan dessert on a menu, I now order it enthusiastically. I don't miss pizza, ice cream, cheese, or literally any other food, both because my associations with the "real" versions have changed so dramatically, and because there is a truly a satisfying vegan alternative for every craving out there (truly). When I do overeat something too rich, something that rarely happens now that the psychological warfare with myself is over, I have compassion for myself instead of hatred. That's what my only rule can be distilled to now, my new motto: I will have compassion.

As women, we are taught to view our bodies as potential objects for consumption. Even our food is tainted with this internalized objectification. A pint of ice cream is not just a pint ice cream. It is a battlefield, where wars of being deemed attractive by society's standards or disciplined or above it all are won and lost.

Ad failed to load

What if, in facing how that dairy ice cream is actually made, women realized that we are part of a much larger system of oppression? That other mothers are suffering immensely so that we might eat their breast milk — and that we often feel we should beat ourselves up for "eating the whole pint" in the first place because society also views our bodies as objects for consumption? What if we refuse to participate in any system that believes any body or reproductive system can be owned and exploited for money and power? What if our rebellion is not to abstain — but rather to treat ourselves to coconut milk ice cream instead, and eat just as much as we want, without any sense of guilt?

Every day, I make a small choice on the side of compassion over domination, love over fear. And every day, when it keeps being something I can do, something easy and simple and empowering, I strengthen that muscle for all areas of my life. I remind myself that female animals are not objects for my consumption, and in so doing, begin to unlearn the ways I, as a female animal, have been taught to view myself as a piece of meat. Eating is no longer a potential punishment — not for me, and not for anyone else. It is an act of empowerment.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

7 Signs Your Partner Is "The One," Even If They Have Commitment Issues

There's nothing better than finding that one person you could actually see yourself spending the rest of your life with. However, realizing that your partner has commitment issues can put a damper on things. It may even have you questioning whether o…
By Kristine Fellizar

Bustle's Editors On Florida + Fergie

Welcome to a new week, Bustle readers! February is already more than halfway through, and the weather feels way more like spring than winter right now — but don't get used to it. There's a lot to recap today, from the latest on the tragic Parkland sh…
By Rachel Simon

Here's Where Your Next Trip Should Be, Based On Your Zodiac Sign

If you've been craving a vacation, now is a good time to take the plunge. According to data collected by travel site Expedia, late winters and early spring are pretty much the best times of the year to go on vacation. Based on average airfare ticket …
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

How This Quadriplegic Beauty Lover Beat Cancer & Became A Professional Makeup Artist

In 2010, one day before she was supposed to start cosmetology school, Steph Aiello was involved in a car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down with limited ability to move her hands and one of her closest friends dead. She would spend the…
By Sara Tan

7 Common Marriage Rules That Aren't Good For Relationships

When it comes to marriage, everyone loves to give their two cents, and with all the warnings and advice floating around out there, no wonder people find marriage intimidating. Luckily, you don't always have to play by the rules, and there's some bad …
By Carina Wolff

The Infuriating Way Hollywood Movie Sets Are Designed To Make Life Harder For Women

Whitney Cummings is fed up — with the way Hollywood treats women, and in particular, the way the it treats female directors who have children. While the entertainment industry may be working hard to get more women behind the camera, Cummings wants to…
By Casey Cipriani

19 Things Your Parents Told You Were Illegal In The '90s

Kids say — and think — the darnedest things. We have overactive imaginations, adults like to mess with us, and we don't always understand everything we hear. That's why some kids call strawberries "straw babies" — a boo-boo so adorable, you don't eve…
By Megan Grant

Why Uggs Are Never Going Away, Whether You Like Them Or Not

Uggs. The word alone can conjure up memories of teenage years, regrettable outfits, and undeniable comfort. But if, like me, you thought that you've already said goodbye to those fleece-lined tan boots, you can think again. It seems fashion has adopt…
By Lauren Sharkey

I Never Want To Write This Essay Again

I don't know where you were when you heard about Wednesday's high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I don't know what you were doing, or how you tried to process the news. I do know this: you thought to yourself, not again. And yet, again. Of cou…
By Jenny Hollander

Netflix's New Romantic Movie Will Have You Crying Like It's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Cancer movies are a heartbreaking staple of Hollywood and have been for decades. It's almost a law of nature: new year, new cancer movie. This year, it's Netflix's Irreplaceable You, a heartbreaking original about a longtime couple who get thrown for…
By Olivia Truffaut-Wong

Here Are All The Terms You Need To Know If You’re Watching Olympic Ski Events Right Now

Every four years the Winter Olympics rolls around to remind me that A) there are so many important Winter Olympic sports, and B) I know virtually nothing any of them. And I know for a fact, I'm not alone, I bet most people don't know what the differe…
By Danielle Colin-Thome

Kate Middleton Made Sales Of This $1 Secret Accessory Spike & She'll Turn You Into A Believer

There's a royal epidemic going on, people. It's one that causes any and everyone to obsess over the royal family's wardrobe and beauty routines, even if it means breaking the bank to look like them. So a frenzy was expected when Kate Middleton report…
By Summer Arlexis

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu Have Matching Tattoos & The Story Is So Cute

Olympic season gives people the feels. From those shipping Canadian ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to Shaun White's gold medal win on Tuesday, the feels are real. Now, there's another reason to get all up in your emotions. Adam Rippon a…
By Shea Simmons

A New Study Says Being In A Relationship Could Change Your Taste In Wine — Here's How

I’d be willing to bet that for many of you, a nice bottle of wine is awaiting you in your near future — and if you’re planning on sharing that bottle with a partner, there might be more to your choice than meets the eye: According to recent research,…
By Lucia Peters

Carrie Brownstein On Why Even The Obama Era Should Have Enraged You

An icy January morning soon after Hollywood's show of solidarity for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes and almost exactly one year into the Trump Administration feels like a momentous time to be sitting across from Carrie Brownstein. The Sleat…
By Samantha Rollins

Here’s What The Upcoming Year Of The Dog Means For Your Chinese Zodiac Sign

On Feb. 16 the world will celebrate the Chinese New Year, welcoming the Year of the Dog in like the good doggo it is — we hope. A new year means new zodiac predictions for the 365 days ahead. So, what does the Year of the Dog mean for your Chinese zo…
By Brittany Bennett

7 Signs You're Ready To Get Into A Relationship, According To Experts

It can be difficult to tell when you're ready to start dating again. Maybe you're coming off of a bad breakup, maybe you've just been focused on other things. And, ironically, one of the signs that you're ready to be in a relationship is that you're …
By Lea Rose Emery

I Got A Breast Reduction & It Was About So Much More Than The Size Of My Boobs

As a young teenager, I pretty much reached peak physical maturity overnight. One day I was wearing my first training bra a la Lizzie McGuire, and the next I was sweatily fumbling around a Victoria’s Secret with 32DD boobs, trying to summon up the cou…
By Sierra Taylor Horton

This Is, Hands Down, The *Grossest* Thing Babies Do Inside The Womb

Your baby's life in the womb may be safe and warm, but it's also kind of grody. Seriously, the whole process of growing into a human being includes more than a few icky moments along the way. But this is the grossest thing babies do inside the womb b…
via Romper

The 15 Best Fiction Books Of February Feature Tons Of Extraordinary Women

When the cold winds of February blow in, there's nothing I want more than to hide under my covers with a good book. Luckily, there's more than a few fantastic new fiction books coming out this month, so the only tough decision you'll have to make is …
By Melissa Ragsdale

17 Moms Reveal The Most Disgusting Part Of Their Pregnancy

Pregnant bodies do weird-ass things. Weird-ass, gross things. I mean, my pregnant body did (twice), and I have long-suspected I'm not alone. So I asked other moms to share the most disgusting part of their pregnancy and I learned that, not only am I …
via Romper