I'm so glad #Veganuary is over. Mine is a controversial point of view, but I’ll tell anyone who listens: For some of us, the pressure to go vegan and record it all on social media for a month is neither helpful nor healthful. In fact, for me and the other 1.25 million Britons living with or recovering from eating disorders, it could be very problematic indeed.
"It’s not Veganuary’s fault that you have a mental health issue!" you may shout at me. And you’d be correct. Equally, the tide of plant-based #influencers repeating the word 'grains' over and over and over didn’t make me anorexic. But when you’re desperately trying to fight a demon in your brain that clutches at every reason NOT to eat something, they certainly don't help. It is of course wonderful that the nation’s excessive meat consumption, rallied against by many for so long, has finally come to mainstream attention. Veganism, for an ever growing number of people, is the right choice; taking a little extra time to consider food choices and meal preparation leaves their relationship with food untouched. Yet for more of us than most people notice, even a mere flirtation with veganism could be problematic.
Hundreds of vulnerable women (and some men) visit my website, Notplantbased.com – a health myth-busting community – for support and advice about what to eat. The readers I speak to are all exceptionally anxious, crippled by thoughts and neuroses about food and their bodies. And over the past year, it has been the rise of the #instavegan on social media that has elicited the most turmoil.
Clearly, 'health influencers' are going to be extolling their take on veganism for the foreseeable. So for those of us who are a bit weird about food, how can we protect ourselves from spiralling into something dark and – at worst – dangerous? Here are a few things that have helped me stay on the side of eating everything…
Unfollow, unfollow, unfollow…or delete?
Jump aboard the #digitaldetox train and cull the social media platform that makes you feel the most shit about yourself. You may feel like a naked child at first but remember, you survived for a significant number of years without it and you'll be here long after people move onto whatever the next platform is. If deleting is too drastic a step, try beginning a dialogue with yourself about how each post makes you feel. Pretty shit? UNFOLLOW. No one ever had a conversation at work about the latest picture of celery juice to be uploaded (except to slag it off), so you won’t be missing out on anything.
Renee McGregor, a dietitian who specialises in eating disorders, agrees that a particular type of Instagram account can be toxic: "Individuals susceptible to developing an eating disorder are always looking for validation to maintain their behaviours because it makes them feel safe and in control, even if physically they are causing more harm than good. They will be drawn to following those that cater for their disordered needs, creating confirmation bias and making it harder for them to challenge their ED thoughts."
Stay away from 'clean eating' cafés
You know exactly the ones I’m talking about: most commonly found in the trendy area of town. A lunch date at a #wellness centre will trigger anxiety about what you 'should' be eating, and probably leave your tummy grumbling on the Tube home. You might get a bit gassy too. Go to Pizza Express and be done with it, ffs.
Renee says beware of joints that aggressively push burgers without the bun:
"I am inundated with clients who go out to eat at places that support their irrational fear of carbohydrates. It’s ridiculous; we need carbohydrates for energy and it doesn’t help people with eating disorders to cut one of the main food groups from their diet. Overall, focusing on building relationships – which so often happens during social eating – is so important, rather than worrying about the composition of your meal."
Remember, what works for someone else might not be for you
While I am thrilled for the Instagrammer who miraculously 'cured' her chronic thrush with her dairy-free diet, your chronic thrush may need a different type of treatment. There is no 'one size fits all' solution to health and dietary problems. We all have unique genetic properties that are rapidly changing at any given moment. For someone else, with a different story and DNA, going vegan may be great. But for you – especially if you’re overcoming a troubled relationship with food – an unrestricted diet, full of meat, vegetables, milk and even sugar is undoubtedly your best medicine. For now, at least.
Renee says: "One of the key aspects of recovering both physically and mentally from an eating disorder is getting to the point where your body is regulated both hormonally and biochemically, only then can you really move forwards. Sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone have a big part to play in cognition and mood so when their levels are low, it can really affect your ability to be rational. If you are still restricting food groups from your diet, then you are still trying to maintain an element of control and not really getting to the root of why you are using food as a means of coping. Exposing yourself to your so-called 'fear foods' and being able to sit through the discomfort of the anxiety is a huge part and parcel of your recovery journey; appreciating that your worst case predictions do not actually come true."
This is a cognitive behavioural therapy strategy I picked up during my eating disorder treatment. STOPP provides a helpful buffer zone between the anxiety-provoking event and your resulting reaction. Do the following:
1. STOP physically. Like literally stop whatever you’re doing and stand still on the spot. This signals to your brain the need for a 'pause'. 2. Take a breath and concentrate on the sensation as the air goes in and out of your lungs. 3. Observe. Name the emotions you’re feeling (out loud if possible) and acknowledge what the thoughts in your head are saying. Are they accurate depictions of the events? Are your thoughts helpful? 4. Pull back and try to see the situation from an outside observer – objectively, is it really that bad? 5. Proceed armed with all this information. By this point, you’ll be level-headed, calm and safe in the knowledge that everything is exactly the same as it was five minutes ago.
Most recently, STOPP proved helpful to me when a friend explained all the reasons why my morning latte was destroying the environment.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Sarah Vohra says: "Anxiety symptoms can respond to a CBT treatment modality, such as STOPP, but this would very much depend on the individual and the difficulties they present with. There is also evidence that CBT can be helpful for binge eating disorder and bulimia."
Tell your friends…and colleagues
People say stupid stuff. They don’t mean it, and most would be horrified to think that their silly anecdote made you sick with anxiety. As someone who has spoken publicly about my eating disorder, I’ve been forced to make peace with the fact that everyone from the CEO to the office cleaner is probably aware of my mental health condition. While that used to terrify me, these days it’s nothing short of a blessing. My colleagues and companions are now so wonderfully dedicated to protecting my health that they wouldn’t dare engage in a conversation about the evils of sugar. If anything, my 'eat what you love' message has challenged some of their pseudoscientific beliefs – and they’re happier for it. You don’t have to tell them everything; share as much or as little information as you feel comfortable with. It’s a small burst of anxiety that will grant you years of relaxation at al desko mealtimes.
Renee advises: "Focus on choosing the perspective that has your best interest at heart as well as holding onto the fact that you really are the only one who knows what is going on for you. While the rest of the office may be on the latest detox, for someone recovering from an ED, this is not relevant to you."
Remember, life is short…and yours is complicated
If you think about it, your food choices constitutes a small percentage of the substance of your overall life. It is a minor; a meh; a so-not-a-thing. But the reality for some of us is that if we let food decisions encompass more than a momentary thought, they have the potential to take up more time and space. It is a tragic waste of energy when you consider all the other, more important, thoughts that could occupy your brain: a peaceable solution for the Middle East; strategies to close the gender pay gap. The ultimate goal for every disordered eater is NOT to think about food. It is only once you have reached this point that forms of dietary restriction serve to be something other than dangerous. And when that moment comes, it’ll be worth the wait, trust me.
Renee suggests reminding yourself of the bigger picture: "Ask yourself, how do you want to be remembered? As someone who was defined by what she did or didn’t eat or as someone who was kind?" Fundamentally I guess you have to choose whether you want simply to exist or actually want to live life? You can choose to use information to validate your thoughts or you can find evidence to challenge your thoughts. I know it might not seem like it, but you are in control.
Not Plant Based has written a book. Eat It Anyway: Fight the Food Fads, Beat Anxiety and Eat in Peace by Laura Dennison & Eve Simmons is out now, published by Mitchell Beazley