health

'For four years, I only ate healthy, clean and non-processed food. It destroyed me.' 

It was a gloriously golden, warm September afternoon and I was crumpled up in the foetal position on my bedroom floor, ugly crying. I had nothing left in me. I was a 23-year-old, newly married, employed, financially alright, plant-based vegetarian, and for the 600th day in a row, I felt horrible.

I was supposed to be packing for a leisurely weekend camping trip but I could not muster up a shred of mental, physical or emotional energy to pack or prepare. In frantic texts to my new husband, I described myself as “drained,” “zapped,” “dried up.”

Somewhere in my exhausted tears there was frustration. This should not be happening to me. I had been a vegetarian for a decade; for the past five years, I had been eating a “clean,” plant-based diet. I took a B complex, I didn’t have anemia, I drank vegan protein shakes almost daily even though they made me cringe, I drank enough water, I slept well.

I should be okay. Yet here I was, crying at 2pm because I felt like zombie.

And then a strange thing happened. I had not had animal protein in 10 years and I hadn’t craved it in nearly as long, but suddenly my body instinctively called out for meat.

A few days later, I ate chicken. A week or so later, I had sausage. I was a carnivore again. Slowly, I regained strength.

When I gave myself permission to eat meat again, I started to look at all the many other foods I had demonised and just how sick I had become.

Meat had been the first thing I nixed.

After that, I whittled down the list of “safe” foods more and more.

I would allow no processed foods; everything had to be in a form that my great-grandmother would recognise. I had read that on a wellness blog somewhere; it was a way to identify if I was eating food in its purest form. (Never mind that my great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise avocados or kombucha.) So no tortilla chips, no crackers, no mayo, etc. Pretty much everything from the centre aisles of the grocery store was unacceptable. Whole foods only.

I wouldn’t eat granulated sugar, because sugar “lights up” your brain the same way cocaine does. (As it turns out, so does sex and laughter.) All sugar had to be “natural”: honey, maple, coconut.

I severely limited my dairy. Cow’s milk was offensive unless it was fermented. We are the only animals that drink another animal’s milk, I read over and over. How barbaric. How absurd. (Yet somehow yoghurt was okay…) Goat’s milk was better but I was a poor university student and goat’s milk is expensive. Thankfully, coconut milk was declared sacred by the wellness community I followed religiously and it could be bought more cheaply. In terms of alternative milks, soy milk was antiquated, almond was adequate, and oat milk had not yet arrived. Coconut was in vogue.

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Side note… Here are four beverages more hydrating for you than H20. Post continues after video. 

Gluten was, of course, suspect. It seemed to be like the tobacco of our time; everyone was doing it but silently it was killing us. So even when the finest sourdough was available to me, I usually passed up the chance.

Eggs were questionable. They had so much fat and cholesterol. Better safe than sorry. Maybe just an organic, free-range egg from time to time.

I’d never picked up a coffee habit, which was good because coffee could shorten your life. Green tea was better. No sugar, no milk.

Vegetable oils were just downright bad. I’m still not sure why. Too fatty? Too processed? Olive oil was better, but then I found out it has a low smoke point which means that if you make it too hot it gives off carcinogens, which equals cancer. So I only ate olive oil uncooked. But that was okay because I had coconut oil, a gift from the gods.

This is what I ate everyday for four years:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal or “overnight oats” with smidgen of coconut milk and smidgen of honey (maybe), topped with walnuts and a banana.
  • Snack one: Apple or banana, perhaps some peanut butter or a raw fruit and nut bar.
  • Lunch: A very large salad of organic spring mix with about half a can of raw beans or raw sprouts, dressed with olive oil only.
  • Snack two: Fruit, raw fruit and nut bar, a spoonful of nut butter, or a homemade smoothie.
  • Dinner: Another salad the same as the first, or perhaps quinoa or lentils with lots of cooked vegetables.
  • “Dessert”: Another large bowl of oatmeal, nearly identical to the first. Perhaps refined sugar-free, gluten-free banana bread slathered with coconut oil.

And every day, after eating like this, I felt so righteous. I did yoga almost every night. Each day, I walked all over my university campus with a 9kg backpack. I got eight hours of sleep. Frequently, people commented on my weight and how delightfully “skinny” I was. I was doing everything right; I was being so very good.

About three years into being stringently a “clean” plant-based eater, I started to have severe chest and stomach pain.

It felt like the food I was eating would get stuck in my oesophagus. I went from doctor to doctor, for medical test after medical test. No issue could be found. (Thankfully, my dad is a school teacher and I was on his insurance, which is the only thing that made this possible.) I stumbled onto some research about B12 deficiency in vegetarians — something no doctor had warned me about — so I started taking B12. The pains abated.

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Then my energy levels plummeted.

I begged my doctors to find an answer. I asked for more tests and I gave them detailed food diaries. One doctor asked if I ate peanuts and beans. I told him yes. He said that I was then, certainly, getting enough protein so the answer must be that I was depressed. I ignored him and got a new doctor.

I tried a naturopath, who if nothing else recommended an elimination diet to figure out what food sensitivities I had (because I must have at least one). After six weeks of an even more limited menu than I’d previously had — I cut out all dairy, soy, nuts, eggs, gluten and coconut — I reintroduced coconut first and discovered I had a very bad reaction. Everything else seemed to be fine.

That was the problem: everything was “fine.”

What I know now

Daily, for at least four years, I had a deficit of several hundred calories. This did not cause me to lose any weight because my body had gone into starvation mode. Functionally, I had no muscle. The only micro-nutrient I got all of my daily value of was fibre; everything else I lacked, but specifically I wasn’t getting enough protein. I got maybe a tenth of the protein I needed, and it was never a complete amino acid profile. My total cholesterol was, at its lowest, 113mg/dL. There is research to show that cholesterol as low as mine increases risk for depression, anxiety, suicide, cancer and heart problems.

Other curious things from this time: I didn’t sweat anyplace except my armpits, and that I did profusely. I knew nothing of brow-sweat or boob-sweat, despite working on a farm in the summer. I also couldn’t tan; I only fried red. My hair grew very slowly and my skin was breaking out often. Also, my immune system was decimated and I had to pee constantly.

All of these things have resolved since my eating got broader.

Listen: A mother’s survival story – when your child has anorexia. Post continues after audio.

I’d found myself in this place, in no small part, because of wellness bloggers.

I was devoted to several. Their promises of health equated to enlightenment in my eyes, because I’d never felt fully well. (In retrospect, I’d been severely anxious since age five and had very low self-esteem.) The bloggers — almost entirely white females — were beautiful, glowing, thin, confident and they accomplished great things. They published books, they jetted off to Bali and Spain, the wore amazing clothes and did yoga in the sunshine. I was a sad, quivering American teenager who was home-schooled and friendless. Wellness blogs played upon every insecurity I had.

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Recently, several of the wellness bloggers I followed have started to flirt with intuitive eating. This might seem like a fine solution to the limited diet I restricted myself to. But at the time what I ate was truly all I craved. Everything else had been so demonised that it was no longer appealing to me.

I believe I had an eating disorder, just not the kind everyone talks about. Mine was called orthorexia, meaning I was eating “too well.” Food was all I thought about, regardless of whether I was hungry (but I was usually hungry). I was constantly planning my next meal so that I could be sure it would be completely safe. When I ate I’d stop far short of feeling “full” because anything close to that feeling scared me. Food was an obsession that swallowed up my day, and nearly my whole life.

Although I’ve nearly always had anxiety, my depression, I believe, was largely sparked by my “healthy” diet. While people praised how saintly an eater I was, my body was begging for more nutrients. Since I wasn’t giving it enough to work with, it had to shut things down, and I can’t blame it for thinking positive emotions and logical reasoning were acceptable things to put on hold. When my diet was the most stringent, I experienced the worst of my depressive episodes and suicidal ideation. When I started to eat meat again, my depression began to fade.

I remember every detail of the first time I ate a processed food again; I had tortilla chips. A very kind new boyfriend (now husband) accepted my issues with food and patiently walked me through the stages of my guilt. The same day we had dried organic pineapple rings that were lightly sweetened with granulated sugar. It was a big day for me.

Reconditioning myself to be okay with the foods I’d categorised as “bad” has taken time and there are moments when my twisted perceptions of eating creep back in. Now I eat just about whatever I please. My diet is still composed of mostly fruit and vegetables, and I am the most clear-headed I can recall being. For the first time, I have muscle and I can tan.

What the wellness bloggers portray is no longer what I’m after. Yes, they look lovely but I’ve no way of telling if they actually feel present and strong. That’s what I want now, and the only way I can get there is if I care for my body in a way that it understands. Deprivation is not its love language. It needs bounty; it needs grace.

This article originally appeared on Medium and was republished here with full permission. The feature image used for this article is a stock photo.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email at [email protected] You can also visit their website, here.

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