So I was vegetarian for a while. And for a while it worked…until it didn’t, or rather, I didn’t. This isn’t going to be one of those posts that tries to debunk the value of a vegetarian diet (sorry, carnivores, I know you love to find those stories online). I think they’re great and work quite well. I was the issue, not the tenets of a vegetarian diet.
My problem wasn’t that I suddenly became anemic or suddenly found myself spending inordinate amounts of time in my city’s hipster neighborhood. Rather, putting myself on a vegetarian diet triggered me back into restrictive/disordered eating patterns that I’ve had off and on since my teens. I’ve hinted at disordered eating and body image problems in other blog posts. I understand why those behaviors manifested in that way, I’m satisfied with my self-analysis, and I choose not to share it here. Maybe in my book. 😉
Anyway, once I cut out meat, it was just too tempting to see where I could cut back further if not food types then at least the overall amount of food I was eating. I’d already lost a few pounds at the beginning of this year, mostly due to some still-unexplained gastrointestinal problems (Yes, I’m finally seeking treatment, which makes my mom happy). I was also struggling with some personal situations, and I chose to cope with that by restriction and controlling my weight.
O my brothers, you have no idea how the dopamine coursed through my little brain when I saw the numbers drop with the flattening of my waist and the growing looseness of my trousers. (I pretended not to notice the loss of muscle tone). Why, this was working even better than I imagined! I used my newly found vegetarianism to restrict even further. I’d found the perfect cover. Besides, I’ve never looked like someone with an eating disorder. No one would ever know.
This wasn’t a case of orthorexia, though. I wasn’t focused on “eating clean” or raw or only fresh produce or whatever. I just liked rules around eating. I’m a very organized person, which has served me quite well in the workplace, but rules and restriction and control taken to an extreme can be damaging. And since I made the rules I could carry them out in any way I saw fit.
By the end of my vegetarian experiment I was subsisting on junk food and very carefully counted out Saltines, which the latter, in my defense, were the only things my irritable stomach could tolerate sometimes. (In fact, today I had to settle on Saltines and plain Ramen noodles for dinner because my stomach decided once again to ruin my day.) My weight dropped to 110 pounds and occasionally below, which delighted that still lingering ED part of my brain, but the rational part figured I needed to nip that problem in the bud and go back to letting me eat pretty much whatever I wanted.
I realized I had a problem around April when I noticed that I was perfectly fine eating mashed potatoes and cake served at a commemorative banquet, but I sanctimoniously pawned off the steak and salmon that was also served. Granted, I would have axed the salmon anyway because I don’t eat fish at all (GROSS!!), but was I doing myself any favors by gobbling up potatoes and cake? It wasn’t even the nutritional deficiency or even the hypocrisy of my choice that got to me. It was my realization that I had very easily fallen prey to old patterns of control, frantic rationalization of unhealthy choices, and destructive self-consciousness that pushed me to release the rules I had placed on myself.
What rules and restrictions are keeping you in an unhealthy state of mind or body? Let’s step away from food for a moment. These rules could manifest in thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, or actions and may be your first line of defense against whatever is troubling you. You may place them upon any area of your life or in any relationship. Are you trying to be “perfect” so your partner will love you? (As if their love hinged on that). Are these rules created so you can live up to the expectations you created and projected onto someone else? Is it working?….you sure about that?
But are those rules ultimately serving you in the long term? Are you waiting for that magical person, situation, or thing to happen and only then allow yourself to be happy? Are you coping with a problem by punishing or controlling yourself? Do the rules soothe you in some way? Can you perhaps find that comfort in something else? Can you love and be gentle with yourself the way you are with other people you care about…would you at least consider it?
In late spring I started eating meat again along with a number of other foods. I let myself indulge. I gained a few pounds, but I attribute that more to dining out with friends and slacking off at the gym than adding meat back into my diet. I still think factory farming is horrible, and I do try to make mindful purchases of meat products. I just know I did the right thing for what my mind and body needed.
The thing about not restricting is that I don’t want to pig out on really…anything. Many people who restrict food or diet are afraid that giving up their rules means giving up hope of giving their bodies what they truly need. That hasn’t been the case. That Whataburger meal I promised myself over Labor Day weekend was awesome, and I don’t feel like having another one for a while. I also made a pork roast with homemade gnocchi and marinara sauce over that same holiday weekend. I put a lot of love and effort into the meal, an homage to my Italian heritage, and I was satisfied with a small amount (plus my body doesn’t like digesting pork so that’s an occasional thing anyway). I made the meal because I wanted to introduce a friend to my family’s traditions, not to “reward” myself for a workout or promise myself I’d eat carbs just this one time as a “cheat day.”
If you need more examples, how about these: I had a bag of Cheetos in a basket on top of my fridge that I completely forgot about, and I was annoyed that I still had a box of Pop-Tarts to finish after several weeks of seeing them on my kitchen counter. I would have been obsessing over those silly trigger foods back in my worst disordered eating days. The fact that I didn’t is a small but distinct point of progress for me.
Now I don’t think about food as much, and adding meat back into my diet helped kick-start a more balanced approach to how I chose to nourish myself. If I wanted to eat crappy food, I did, and I learned how to listen to what my body wanted. My body still gets mad and reacts unpleasantly to certain foods, and hopefully with the help of a doctor I can figure out what to avoid. My body likes fries and chocolate, but guess what? It also more often than not likes fresh fruit and vegetables, no guilt tripping necessary. I just wasn’t listening.
I’m still not where I thought I was at the end of last year, although I’m in a much better place than I was many years ago. I don’t know how long it will take me to break old habits or if I’ll ever be able to entirely, and I’m okay with that. I like being a few pounds lighter than I was a year ago. I like that a skirt that used to be too tight now fits just right. I’m not getting rid of my digital scale that I step on just about every morning. I’m going to continue exercising because I like it, not to punish myself for imagined sins. Swimming, ballet barre, and taekwondo are fun! Moving my body has always been a joy rather than a chore for me, and lately my body is telling me it wants more so I’m listening.
I also know what will ultimately serve me best is a shift in focus away from judging myself by how I look (and how I foolishly assume other people are judging me by that) and how I choose to nourish myself. I look forward to the time when I give little to no judgement to what I’m eating. Being that self-centered all the time is exhausting.
It’s time to break some rules.