How to Eat Ethically When You’re Recovering from an Eating Disorder

Photo by N I F T Y A R T ✍🏻 on Unsplash

My mother put me on my first diet when I was twelve.

I still remember the way she traced a circle in the palm of her hand to show our babysitter how big three ounces of meat was, to monitor our serving sizes. I also remember choking down raw broccoli and bell peppers — two foods I cannot eat raw without feeling ill, twenty years later. 

I became a vegetarian in 2002 when I was in eighth grade, for the animals. Around age 17, I became vegan entirely, but added eggs and dairy back into my diet quickly because it was nearly impossible to stay vegan in an omnivorous home. I remained steadfastly vegetarian through college.

Since then, I’ve been on-again-off-again with animal products, but I chose more ethical products from local farms and sustainable sources. 

I was always struggling to find a diet that felt okay ethically, while also balancing the desire to lose weight. Was it meat? Was it veganism? Was it raw veggies? Was it paleo? Was it keto? Was it intermittent fasting?

I aspired to be vegan because it felt like the most ethical, cleanest way to eat. But even a plant-based diet isn’t without cruelty and harm. 

When Your Quest for the Perfect Diet is Killing You 

After realizing in huge, blaring, neon letters in my mind last February that I had a full blown eating disorder, I stopped dieting altogether. I stopped counting calories, started eating tortillas at Chipotle again, and even ate refined sugar without hating myself.

I let all the rules about food fall away, leaving only the need to eat when I was hungry and trusting myself to do so. 

In this period of recovery, I had to let my aspirational veganism go. First, because eating eggs was a way I could actually eat something consistently without needing to fight with my mental health. Second, because a plant-based diet was something I was doing to change my body, rather than fuel it, and I needed a break from a weight loss mentality while recovering. And lastly, because literally nothing is perfect or without harm – not even a vegan diet.

The truth is, I needed to take care of myself. The weight of researching everything, measuring the validity of a food choice against its impact on animal welfare, human labor, carbon emissions, and everything else that goes into making a choice, was too heavy. My mental health suffered as I agonized over the morality of everything I ate. 

We Aren’t Winning Points 

Have you seen The Good Place? Spoilers ahead!

In The Good Place, when people on Earth die, they get sent to The Good Place or The Bad Place based on point totals of their actions during their lives. But as society developed, it became impossible to get into The Good Place even if you lived a perfect life, because every single action is more complex than it appears. 

Each tomato at the grocery store carries an invisible price tag of ethical costs. The pesticides degraded biodiversity in local insect life, the crops were harvested with prison labor or other exploitative practices, the seeds were patented and those patents were used to sue small local farmers when the wind deposited an errant seed on their land. 

Or, to quote Chidi Anagonye four times:

  • “Oh no! I used almond milk in my coffee, even though I knew about the negative environmental impact.” 
  • “I read an article saying that growing almonds was bad for the environment, and yet I continued to use almond milk in my coffee.” 
  • “Well, if it is Hell, I know why I’m here. Almond milk. I drank so much of it despite the negative environmental impacts.”
  • “So, we’re in the Bad Place, and I know why. Almond milk. I knew it was bad for the environment, but I loved the way it coated my tongue in a weird film.”

We cannot eat perfectly ethically in a society that prioritizes profit over people, over animal welfare, and over environmental sustainability. Corporate responsibility is so much bigger than individual action can hope to overcome. 

What does this have to do with my eating disorder? I was focused so much on eating only clean, healthy, safe foods that I would starve myself rather than eat something that wasn’t organic, wasn’t gluten-free, wasn’t sugar-free, etc. If it didn’t satisfy the rules of the clean eating deities of the day, it wasn’t okay to eat. 

Hungry after 8pm? Go to bed hungry, the rules say you can’t eat. Refined grains only once a day. Eat fruit on an empty stomach. Make everything out of cauliflower. 

I also continued my trauma around being forced to eat “healthy snacks” (usually raw vegetables I did not enjoy) as a child. I would pack carrots in my lunch and tell myself all day, “If you’re not hungry enough to eat the carrots, you’re not hungry.” I hate raw carrots. I starved myself thinking it was good for me. 

I could only eat perfect, healthy food. Learning something new about each food became dangerous. And so my list of foods it wasn’t okay to eat grew and grew, leaving me with precious little I could eat to sustain myself. 

Only sprouted grain bread. Only organic potatoes. Only grass-fed beef. Only half an apple. Only what fits in these containers. 

But we don’t have running point totals guiding the morality of our choices — dietary or otherwise. We can only do the best we can with the resources, information, and ability available to us. 

I still care about the ethics of my food choices. But I have to eat. I have to nourish myself. I have to let some of the rules relax. 

Rather than only eating certain things, what if our only job was to do our best and listen to what our bodies need? 

Being Okay with Imperfection

I eat cage-free eggs, and I eat fish. I am otherwise plant-based in my diet. I limit consumption of foods with a high human cost, such as quinoa (once an affordable staple in South America, now exorbitantly expensive and used as an export for our White American Vegan needs). I buy fair-trade coffee and chocolate. I should get back into the habit of buying the Dirty Dozen organic, but I don’t always. I try to buy whole, fresh foods without packaging, but I have fibromyalgia and sometimes my ability and energy level means I need to buy a bag of pre-chopped fresh or frozen veggies. 

And the imperfection is okay.

I cannot be perfect. But I can feed myself.

How to Eat Ethically When You’re Recovering from an Eating Disorder

Your first priority in eating while recovering from an eating disorder is to feed yourself and work on the mental health aspects of your recovery. But as you get further into recovery you may want to start investigating more sustainable and ethical food choices. However, if you find yourself feeling triggered or backsliding into disordered eating, please take a break and focus again on just feeding yourself and taking care of you. 

If it is not triggering to place limits on food in your recovery, you can start to do research into the sustainability and ethics of your food. 

Certifications and labels can help you check at a glance if a product meets certain standards. But sometimes labels can say things that sound nice but don’t actually have any standards attached. This can be hard to navigate as you start exploring more ethical food, so this list should break down what to look for as a next step on more ethical eating. 

Though certifications and labels may not be perfect, they do help us to vote with our dollars and show brands that people are willing to purchase products that prioritize more ethical and sustainable methods. The more people can purchase with ethics in mind, the more the market will shift to provide more options that meet those demands. 

  • Certified Organic: USDA Organic certification means that produce was grown without synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, sewage sludge, and irradiation. Organic also clarifies that the product contains no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Organic animal products come from animals that meet welfare standards including outdoor access, no antibiotics or growth hormone treatments, and were fed an organic diet. Packaged organic products are made with at least 95% certified organic source ingredients. Note: Organic crops are still treated with pesticides, but they must be approved for organic use — always wash those fruits and veggies. Learn more about the USDA Organic label at the USDA website. You don’t have to buy everything organic — check out the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen list to learn which fruits and veggies are best purchased organic due to high pesticide levels. 
  • Rainforest Alliance Certified: Rainforest Alliance certifies farms that meet certain criteria, including environmental sustainability standards (climate-smart agriculture, deforestation, conserving biodiversity), working conditions standards (human rights, shared responsibility, living wage, gender equality), and more. You can check out all their standards at the Rainforest Alliance website
  • Fair Trade: A fair trade certification can be found on food, clothing, and other items that tend to have exploitative labor practices in their conventional production. A fair trade label protects against child labor, slavery, discrimination, union-busting, and environmental pollution – among so many other standards. This is a great label to start with if you want to move toward more ethical consumption. Coffee and chocolate are two major crops that benefit from a shift toward fair trade purchases. (Aldi is a great low-cost option for both of these!) Learn more from Fair Trade Certified and Fairtrade International, two organizations working toward more sustainable agriculture that prioritizes human rights. 
  • Certified Humane: Certified Humane is a nonprofit seeking to improve the lives of animals used in agriculture, and the organization is endorsed by 70 humane associations including the ASPCA. Like all things, they’re not perfect, but they make an effort. You can look up their standards for all animals on their website and decide for yourself if they meet the standards you have for your animal products. 
  • Cage Free: There are actually a lot of “cage free” standards depending on the certifying organization, and they are also (unsurprisingly) not perfect. But they do require chickens to be kept in better conditions than overcrowded factory farms. Check out this article from the Humane Society of the US on different cage free, free range, and other labels you might see. 

You can also shop more locally from farmer’s markets, local farms, and people who keep backyard hens for eggs — this way you can directly ask the source of your food what sort of practices they put into their produce and animal products. 

Access to Food is a Privilege

It is crucial to acknowledge the privilege in access to higher quality, organic, and local foods. Many people across the globe, including those of us in the United States, simply don’t have access to affordable food that meets every checkbox. 

It may be nutritionally ideal to eat fresh, organic, local produce that’s in season — but not everyone can. Whether due to budget, access to the stores and markets that provide these foods, the time it takes to shop and prepare meals while balancing work, life, and family responsibilities, etc. 

No diet is perfect or without consequence, from environmental effects to animal welfare to human exploitation. So please, do the best you can, and know that it is good enough. 

And for those people who would judge others for the food they can access and the time and energy they can put into researching foods (and I have been that judgmental person)… know that everyone is doing their best, and spend your energy donating to causes that help address food insecurity and advocating for better animal welfare and human rights in our agricultural systems. 

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Comfort in my own skin

Losing weight used to be the most important thing in my life. Year after year, it was my resolution each January. And year after year, despite my weight, I still never felt like I had succeeded. If I gained, I had obviously failed. If I maintained, I had not done enough. If I lost, I still had so much further to go.

My highest weight was 300 pounds. I panicked. I felt out of control. I changed my diet and exercise habits and started to lose weight.

My lowest weight was 201 pounds. I panicked. I felt unsafe. I changed my diet and exercise habits and started to gain weight.

While I was elbow deep in an MLM company selling shake mix and workout DVDs, I used to collect and share all sorts of fitness inspiration (“fitspo”) graphics and memes in my coaching groups. Slogans like “Eat like you love your body” and “Don’t let food be the boss of you” and “Strive for progress, not perfection” and “In three months you will thank yourself” were my absolute bread and butter (but, like, gluten free, because gluten is evil).

And I strived for those things. I ate salads and raw veggies and superfood shakes because I wanted to eat like I loved my body. I avoided sugar entirely, even eschewing condiments, because I wanted to eat like I loved my body. I did three day clean eating cleanses and sugar fasts and Whole30 so that I could be the boss of food, instead of letting food be the boss of me. When I slipped up and ate something off-plan, I tried to remember that it was still progress as long as I didn’t gain weight back — a couple bad days on a diet doesn’t mean utter failure and a life in this fat body. I knew that after three grueling months of breaking my bad food habits, I would be on my way to a toned, lean, fit Pinterest body. All of the fitness memes promised that soon, this lifestyle change (not a diet, a lifestyle change) would become an addiction and I would wake up in the morning and all of the little Disney blue birds would come put my moisture wicking skintight pants on me so I could go run a quick 10k before breakfast. Every day. I looked forward to that day.

I would finally love myself, if I could only overcome my lack of self control. If I could eat right, I would finally love my body. If I could exercise enough, I would finally love my body.

One of the graphics saved on my phone says “I am obsessed with becoming a woman comfortable in her own skin.” I was determined to lose enough weight to reach this point. I knew I could become comfortable in my body once I had found the right mix of food and movement to unlock the secret code to making my body get smaller.

I started running. I did 5Ks, and then a 10K, and then a half marathon. The next year, I did another half marathon and signed up for the race that would change my life and make me a true runner. I signed up for a Ragnar relay. Two hundred (ish) miles in two days, sleeping in a van, running on sleep deprivation and cold bagels and the promise of epic satisfaction and pride when I was finished.

But the Ragnar didn’t change me. I felt the same. I questioned if I had done it right. My first leg was partially canceled due to flooding, so I didn’t even run my whole Ragnar. My position had shorter legs, so I questioned the validity and badassness of my Ragnar experience. Did I even do a Ragnar if I wasn’t completely broken by the end of it?

I was still chasing that self love. I was still chasing body satisfaction.

And I thought pain and exhaustion and limitation and control was part of that journey to becoming comfortable in my body.

I started therapy to specifically target my relationship with food just a few weeks ago. On February 1st, my therapist and I identified a target thought process: I am not allowed to eat. I had a very rough night that evening and cried a lot. Processing is hard. But over the weekend and through the next week to my first “reprocessing” appointment (in which we focused on changing the target thought to “I am allowed to eat”), I did a lot of work.

I unfollowed any account on Instagram or Facebook that focused on dieting or thinness. I followed a bunch of real, actual body positive accounts (especially large bodies). I started reading about the anti-diet culture. I pre-ordered “The Fuck It Diet” by Caroline Dooner.

After the reprocessing session, I ate without restriction. And something unexpected happened inside me.

This is going to sound so hokey and silly but I swear, this is what happened.

The space in my mind that previously held all of my rules and need for control had given way to hold contentment and joy instead.

Where I used to ask myself twenty questions to determine how valid a hunger pang was, I now just made something tasty and enjoyed it, then went on with my day.

Where I used to keep a constant inner monologue of comparison to what I had eaten the day before, how fast my dining companion was eating, whether or not I could finish my side of fries without looking like a fatty mc fatty fat, I now just ate what I wanted and went on with my day.

Where I used to look at a large body on Instagram and focus on fat rolls and sagging skin, I now saw what I was after — the look on their faces. The way they held their shoulders back and head up. The way they were comfortable in their bodies… as they were right now. 

Y’all, something snapped inside me.

That is what was missing for me. Contentment with my body isn’t an aspiration. It’s not something that will happen if only I can achieve and limit and drag myself to it. It’s not the reward for suffering. Contentment with my body – becoming a woman comfortable in my own skin – is a right-now thing. Not a someday-maybe thing.

I was obsessed with becoming a woman comfortable in her own skin. And all I had to do to become her was love myself right now.

The shame was so, so heavy. After over two decades of carrying the burden of hating my body, I put it down. And what rushed in to fill the void was love.

bikini

This. is. what. I’m. talking. ABOUT.