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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Shopping Consciously as a Minimalist

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Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

While minimalism is already widely accepted as an eco-friendly way of living, there are still ways you can continue to do your part if you’ve adopted a “less is more” lifestyle. Shopping consciously is one of the easiest and most effective ways to embrace minimalism, while also putting our planet first. As you embrace the minimalist way of life, here are just a few ways you can shop more consciously along the way.

Take Inventory

Before you set out on any sort of shopping excursion, it’s always important to create a home inventory. By definition, minimalists seek to live with the items they need, as opposed to what they might want. This means you should strive to not have a significant amount of duplicate items in your household. While stocking up on canned goods or owning several sets of sneakers might not feel like a big deal in the beginning, buying excess quantities of items you already own can create more waste in the long run due to forgetting what you already have, food expiring before you can eat it, etc. Taking the time to write down a clear and concise inventory of the things you already have is a sure fire way to keep you from buying items you don’t need. 

It’s important to note, though, that not everyone can afford to replace things if they don’t have duplicates. Don’t feel pressured to pare down to the barest of minimums, and it’s ok to keep a backup of something stored in case of emergencies. Instead of focusing on a numerical limit, consider your space the limit. Only keep as many of something you can reasonably fit on the shelf, in the bin, or in your dresser.

Practice Mindful Grocery Shopping

A great way to keep yourself conscious as you shop is by being as mindful as possible as you purchase your groceries. Whether you like to buy your ingredients on a weekly or biweekly basis, be sure to have a plan of action when you enter the store. Having a list helps keep you on track and inspires less shopping spontaneity. Don’t shop on an empty stomach as this can cause you to purchase more than you need.

Consider changing up your diet slightly by adapting to a more environmentally friendly way of eating. Try your hand at practicing recipes that incorporate little to no meat, as the meat market’s carbon footprint is a steadily growing problem. Planning out your meals well in advance will keep you from making unnecessary purchases and it will keep your pantry more organized over time. 

Shopping at local farmers’ markets can also help reduce the carbon footprint of importing food from far away and helps boost the local economy and support small business.

Donate As Much As You Buy

This is essentially the “one in, one out” rule.

Try to make a mental note to donate items from your home just as often as you add new items. If you’re debating buying a new chair or sofa for your living room, first assess which current piece of furniture you know you could do without, unless you are shopping for a space that needs a change in functionality to seat more people or add a guest bed, etc. 

This goes for your clothing as well. For each new item you add to your wardrobe, choose one to get rid of, if your closet is already at capacity. Smaller possessions such as clothes are easy to accidentally stock up on if you aren’t careful to clean out their hiding places regularly. The next time you feel yourself in need of some wardrobe retail therapy, look online for a closet clean out option to help you keep your closet from becoming overwhelming. Donating will help ensure that all of your shopping is a circular process, helping you maintain a minimal life the eco-friendly way. 

Invest in Reusable Products

If you are able to invest in reusable products, it can reduce your overall home inventory as well as your waste. The best place to start when looking to buy more reusable items is with the things you find yourself using and needing most on a day to day basis. From zip lock bags to plastic water bottles, we tend to create the majority of our waste in the kitchen.

If you haven’t already, try reducing your plastic waste by buying a quality reusable water bottle to keep you hydrated throughout the day. Instead of having to continually purchase zip lock bags for your leftovers, look for alternative ways to keep them fresh, like with beeswax wrap. Take the time to consider washable, reusable alternatives the next time you’re hoping to shop more consciously. 

Checking Your Minimalist Privilege

It is extremely important to note that not everyone has the financial means or the ability to follow these recommendations. Sometimes you have to buy in bulk to save your pennies, and the one-in-one-out rule does not apply when you are starting from a point of having less than you truly need in the first place.

Minimalism is a way of life to prioritize the important things over living to excess — and that is whatever you make it.

The reason for the season

Today is Black Friday.  You may or may not have gone shopping at 4:00 this morning.  I know that my sister was at a store before the sun was up because she literally started a retail job TODAY.  Poor girl.

Anyway, today I want to bring your attention to the reason for the season.  No, it’s not (necessarily) Jesus.  It’s love and peace and giving.  Here are some ways you can embrace love and peace and giving without going to the mall:

  • Donate time, money, or gently used items to a charity, soup kitchen, or family in need during the season.  Make it a family tradition.
  • Make gifts: Make a delicious food item, put it on a pie plate from a thrift store, and include a note that the dish is theirs to keep or regift to someone else.  This is a nearly zero-waste gift. If baking or cooking isn’t your thing, consider making bath scrubs (in repurposed glass jars!), or make creative art pieces.
  • Spend time together: Spend time with your family and friends during the holidays, just catching up or doing something you enjoy like seeing a movie or treating yourself to a favorite restaurant.
  • Offer your services: Offer to do the dishes after the holiday meal, or spend some time watching your relatives’ or friends’ kids so the parents can get some time alone.  Every minute you spend helping someone else is a minute they get to themselves, and that is a wonderful gift to give.

These are just a few ideas for keeping the focus on family and love around the holidays. Share more ideas in the comments!

What are your favorite things-that-aren’t-things to get in the holiday season?

A minimalist by any other name…

This is a request from the Suggestion Box. Feel free to suggest a topic you would like me to write about if you are interested in seeing something appear on the Born Again Minimalist blog!

What exactly is a minimalist, and how does minimalism differ from simple living, or any other term?  Basically, we’re all doing the same thing, right?  We all want to declutter our homes, break free of consumerism and debt, focus on quality over quantity, and make room for our lives.

I’d like to invite you to watch this video, which I find very amusing.

There are blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, and more, just lurking on the internet waiting to teach you how to be a minimalist.  The best part, however, is that you don’t need anyone else to tell you how to live simply, live minimally, live lagom, or live your life any way.  There are guides and advice, sure, but your simple life is how you make it.

Forgive me for citing Wikipedia, but here are some general definitions:

Simple living encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one’s lifestyle. These may include reducing one’s possessions or increasing self-sufficiency, for example. Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they need rather than want. Although asceticism generally promotes living simply and refraining from luxury and indulgence, not all proponents of simple living are ascetics. Simple living is distinct from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice.

Adherents may choose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality, health, increase in “quality time” for family and friends, work–life balance, personal taste, frugality, or reducing personal ecological footprint and stress. Simple living can also be a reaction to materialism and conspicuous consumption. Some cite socio-political goals aligned with the anti-consumerist or anti-war movements, including conservation, degrowth, social justice, ethnic diversity, tax resistance and sustainable development.

Okay, cool, this sounds like me.  I’m living simply.  I have reduced my number of possessions, I plan to garden to increase self-sufficiency, I am pretty satisfied with my needs vs. wants.  I live simply for health and personal balance reasons, bordering on spiritual motivations.  I am striving to be anti-consumerist and anti-disposable-items.

Wikipedia also offers the following definition of minimalism:

Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is set out to expose the essence or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. Minimalism is any design or style in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect.

At its root, minimalism refers to music, art, architecture, writing, etc. that seeks to eliminate the superfluous and focus on the important bits.  It makes sense that the term could be applied to a lifestyle with the same basic idea: get rid of the excess and focus on what matters.

Giving a shout-out to Living Lagom, lagom is a term that basically translates to “just the right amount.”

There are as many terms to describe minimalists as there are minimalists.  And there is no one-size-fits-all definition.

Certainly I am not living as small as I could be.  I have a cat, and a compost bin, and I want to garden one day and maybe even keep chickens — these are not pack-up-and-move-your-life things to include in one’s minimalist life, but my intent is not to be able to move my life at the drop of a hat (though the thought of such a life is exhilarating!).  I only hope to live simply, decrease my dependence on corporations and consumerist culture, and be happy and as self-sufficient as possible, with a small carbon footprint.  I can call myself whatever I want, and so can you!

Be simple. Be a minimalist. Live lagom. Seek enlightenment.  Whatever you’re doing, keep it up if it brings you joy.  Remember that minimalism is not a destination — it’s a journey.  And you get to decide how it unfolds!

Spreading the word

I’d like to take today’s post to share some other blogs I have found since I began my minimalist journey.  I’m following 17 blogs, which seems like a lot, but many of them don’t post often, and they aren’t all about minimalism.  I am a woman of many interests.  I follow parenting blogs, vegan eating blogs, personal blogs of people I care about, and a healthy dose of minimalism blogs, including these:

Living Lagom – This blog is the first I started following when I began my Reader on WordPress!  She posts very insightful posts about living with just enough, and her tales of her non-minimalist sister help me to get through life with the non-minimalists in my life (which is everyone but me, basically!)

The Simple Year – This mother commits to buying nothing new for a full year, and talks about her trials and tribulations, and she throws in some really funny stories too.  One of my favorites is the one about mismatched socks.

Living Simply Free – The tales of a woman who, upon having an “empty nest,” revisited her home full of stuff with new eyes and began to live simply and simply live, enjoying her time with her children, grandchildren, and several creative projects in her 300 square foot home.

Recently on Living Simply Free, I read about the Reverse 100 Thing Challenge, in which I shall participate.  It’s a challenge to remove 100 things from your home by the end of the year.  I’m in!  I can’t decide if I will write about it as I go along or if I’ll just do a post in December with everything I purged.  We’ll see.

What are your favorite minimalist blogs?

October spending: Week one

I have a confession to make.  I don’t really stick to a budget.  I pay all my bills and still have money leftover for nonessentials like going out, and I save over 10% of my income each week, so I usually assume I’m doing okay.

I have tracked my expenses for one week.  I am not doing okay.

Inspired by a fellow blogger at Drop That Debt, who posts her weekly spending every week, I decided to track mine for the month of October and see where my money was leaking out.

Spoiler alert: It’s groceries.

From October 1 to October 7, I spent over $950.

Bills: Rent ($505), student loans ($42ish and $96ish), internet ($30), and gas ($60 – includes the last installment of my deposit; gas bills will henceforth be a fraction of this cost!).  Okay, over half of that ridiculous number up there is bills.  Bills are legitimate expenditures.  Not bad.

Essentials: Gasoline ($31.77) – I have reduced my spending on gas over the last month by WALKING every day! Gotta go to the store? Walk. Want to eat out? Walk. Post office? Walk. (I love my city). My general practice is to use the car only for commuting to and from work, but I do use it to go to Earth Fare grocery store, which is too far for me to comfortably walk.  I try to do that on my way home from work though.  I also drive to my mom’s house, usually once a week.

Nonessentials: Kindle eBook ($5), DVD gift for my mom ($8.27), Groupon to organic restaurant ($1 – I had credits on my account), and a carbon offset for my flight to Spain ($38.42).  Obviously this section could be reduced by not buying eBooks, gifts, or Groupons.  I felt really compelled to buy the carbon offset being an eco-hippie.  It won’t be a regular thing because I don’t regularly take transatlantic flights.

Groceries (I hope you’re sitting down): 

  • Target on 10/1: $10.24 (spices, bread, vegan beef tips for soup)
  • Earth Fare on 10/1: $28.58 (some produce, ingredients to make two batches of soup – lots of canned goods)
  • Amazon, 10/2: $10.79: Organic non-GMO canola oil (because I’m a dirty hippie)
  • Earth Fare, 10/4: (big sigh) $64.76.  IN MY DEFENSE, $40 of this was a bulk bag of frozen soy nuggets, so that I can make vegan mock-chicken salad at home at half the cost (in the long run) of buying it pre-made from the deli counter.  I also got some apples, and stuff to make a vegan no-bake Thin Mint cookie recipe (which is delicious).
  • Walgreens, 10/6: $18 on batteries for my camera and bottled drinks before a photo safari.  Big fail here, I should have brought drinks from home.  I should also look into rechargeable batteries.
  • Marc’s, 10/6: $7.45 on vinegar, castor oil, wax paper, peroxide, and bread – I have no shame about this one.

I clearly have to get my grocery budget in order.  I promise that I do not normally spend $140 per week on groceries.  I usually spend about $20-30 per week.   I would like to get to a grocery budget of $100 per month.

How will I do this?

  • Avoid convenience foods or pre-made foods.  It’s cheaper to buy ingredients and cook.
  • Only buy what I will eat (if I buy too much, I will freeze it and eat it later)
  • Buy dry goods instead of canned goods.  It is more affordable to get a bag of dried beans than it is to get a few cans of the same beans.
  • Plan weekly menus and make a shopping list.  No more impulse purchases.

I think these goals will help keep me in line when it comes to groceries.  I am using October as my “control month,” and I will post these weekly updates on Sundays so as to not interrupt your regularly scheduled Born Again Minimalist programming.  My expectation is that the rest of the month will have a lot less spending because I’m keeping track of it all and I won’t want to keep confessing these spending sins.

How do you minimize your grocery budget?