At age sixteen, I decided I was going to eat a plant- based diet, and lose weight. Even though I was extremely active: ran long distance for school and competed across New England with figure skating, losing weight stayed on my mind… constantly. For four years, I ate a plant-based diet which meant that I would not consume animals or animal products. While I felt excited about going plant-based, I was also using it as an excuse to avoid certain food groups. Feeling uncomfortable in my skin, restriction seemed like the answer at the time. I stopped eating meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy in hopes of losing weight. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED eating a variety of: grains, fruits, veggies, roots, beans, nuts, and seeds; however, I was able to avoid foods that I labeled in my mind as “bad foods”. Was I overweight? Oh goodness no. I was underweight to the point that my gastroenterologist said I would have to have an endoscopy. The reason being was to see if there was an answer as to why I was losing so much weight and why I was underweight. As I appreciate this doctor’s thought on a physical reason as to why I was so sick, he never considered that I was struggling with an eating disorder. I was a figure skater and distance runner who was a perfectionist and had major weight loss, stomach issues, anxiety, depression, and many food fears. I still wonder today why my doctor didn’t consider a possible eating disorder, nevertheless anorexia nervosa.
Anorexia is suffocating. All the mind thinks about is the anxiety around food, the fear of weight gain, judgment of others, and what to do in order to lose weight. You feel unworthy, empty, numb, and sad inside. Looking into the mirror, I saw a reflection of a very sad girl who longed to be skinny, to be boney, to be “desirable”. All my mind was focused on was how to be better, always overthinking. In addition, pop-up ads, radio commercials, magazines, and people around me were talking about damn weight loss. The message I kept hearing was that I needed to lose weight in order to be worthy or acceptable in society. The constant message of needing to lose weight only reinforced my restriction. I wanted to restrict no matter what the consequences were. I tried everything under the sun that was considered to “burn fat”, or be a “weight loss hack”. All my mind was focused on how to be better. I was internalizing all my emotions and feelings, pretending to be okay even though I was hurting my body every minute of the day. Those around me saw a girl that was health conscious and active but, my mind was in a constant battle of choosing “health” over well-being.
Still, there was a part of me that knew what I was doing was wrong and not emotionally healthy. My excuse to get a referral for a dietician was that I wanted to learn more about how to deal with my numerous food sensitivities. I could no longer eat many different types of foods because my stomach was so destroyed due to my restriction, purging, and use of appetite suppressants and laxatives. I could no longer tolerate: gluten, eggs, dairy, apples, peppers, bananas, tomatoes, well you get the picture…
I remember sitting with my dietician, at my initial appointment, and she got to the type of questions related to disordered eating. I felt defeated in a way because I finally was admitting that my relationship to food and my body was damaged. In the back of my mind, I knew I needed help. I couldn’t keep going the way I was. Barely eating, overexercising, compulsive body checking, negative self-talk, an intense fear of gaining weight, and many other eating disorder behaviors that were controlling my life. It was affecting my performance in my sports, my relationship, celebrations with friends, and dinner nights with my family. I wanted more out of life. I needed help and even though my eating disorder brain was telling me not to, I reluctantly did. At age seventeen, I was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I was in complete denial that I had an eating disorder and was only at a dietician's office for the purpose of learning how to fuel properly for my distance running, figure skating, and how to manage my gastrointestinal issues and food sensitivities.
Other symptoms of my eating disorder’s havoc was awful abdominal pain, digestive issues, and constipation. At first, it was thought that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), but my medical tests and examinations showed that I was in fact a “healthy” seventeen-year-old girl that for some reason was having stomach problems. Hmm, well anorexia nervosa will most definitely mess up the stomach because of the lack of nutrition and energy that is going into the body. Restricting food can cause nutritional deficiencies, stomach pain, constipation, and every other symptom that will mimic a gastrointestinal disorder. How I wished that I did have some type of stomach problem instead of my anorexia. I didn’t want help at first because all I wanted was thinness, which was slowly but surely deteriorating my body. I was afraid of asking for help because I was in fear of gaining weight, even though I was so sick.
At the same time as being sick with my eating disorder, I was also tackling a bachelor's degree in public health. The perfectionism in me pushed me to go hours to days without eating and use my studies as an excuse to not eat. How in the world did I manage to get out of bed everyday? Well, the perfectionist in me bullied me into not eating, running faster, studying more, looking the best, being the best. My illness then translated into my work at school. What I mean by that is, I was focusing my projects and papers around obesity or in my reality, fatphobia. Now, I look back and feel conflicted. I completed some amazing research, projects, slideshows, presentations, and papers. Furthermore, I fell in love and felt better about eating plant-based because there are truly so many benefits to eating plant-based. In my case, a plant-based diet wasn't the best option for ME because I was struggling with an eating disorder.
Eating disorder behaviors can appear in many different ways. I would hide in the “safety” of plant-based eating. It was like a free pass on not having to eat certain foods. I felt like I was a genius, somehow fooling my healthcare team. I said it wasn’t an eating disorder thing. I tried to convince them that I choose veganism because of environmental, and ethical reasons. I adopted a diet and a lifestyle in hopes of losing weight even though my heart was in the right place. I did want to help reduce my environmental footprint, make better consumer choices, and speak out against animal abuse. Some of my favorite papers that I wrote were about the mental health of slaughterhouse workers and water contamination due to animal agricultural practices. I loved these papers and still am so proud of my research and work. In a way, I feel guilty about not eating plant-based food, but I had to drift away and work on my recovery.
Gravitating toward a certain type of diet, such as plant-based, can certainly be a sign of disordered eating. However, it does not mean that every person who eats plant-based or is a vegan has an eating disorder. There are many people who love to eat a plant-based diet and thrive on it. I could not because it was intertwined with my eating disorder thoughts. I had to put myself first and take action on how I could work towards my recovery. With the help of my health care team, we made small, manageable goals for me to accomplish. With time, and me working on rewiring my brain on how to eat again, I started to tackle recovery.
Many of us have heard and are probably sick of hearing, “recovery isn’t linear”, but it is so true! My direct experience has proven to me that recovery has ups and downs, and curvy turns. Such as having days where I find it hard to eat, I want to hide my body in baggy clothes, and body check in the mirror like no one’s buisness. With self-compassion, self-love, and acceptance and of course with time, I started to appreciate my body for all the amazing things it can do. Our beautiful bodies have so many incredible capabilities like cell regeneration, metabolism, and being the home to our soul and mind.
I am now at a point in my life where I want to enjoy the moment and be present. I want to have all the delicious foods my eating disorder deprived me of. And it's not only the food, but the memories that my eating disorder starved me of. I want to experience life and have wine, cheese, and crackers with my best friends and mum. I want to go out for ice cream on a summer night, have cake on birthdays, and treats at work. Why do we focus so much on a number? That equals worth? Hell no. Life has so much more to offer than to lose weight.
When diet culture impacts our friends and family, it is certainly difficult to be an individual struggling with an eating disorder. Our friends, family, and even coworkers may say things that are simply unintentionally triggering. A family member talks about the latest fad, or a friend will talk about how their mom lost so much weight on keto, or one of our coworkers will talk about their new diet. Sometimes, I just want to scream at these people and say, “this is diet culture!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, but we must have compassion for these people, because they do not know better. Whoever that may have said something triggering, are in the same situation as I was, fooled by diet culture.
These food rules that society has come up with on how to lose weight is exhausting. Additionally the diet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry because they are profiting off of our insecurities. “Over the past twenty years, the diet industry has tripled its gross annual income to approximately sixty-billion dollars”. Falling into the trap of “weight-loss” products is a scam and will only leave you feeling worse because the results that were promised did not commend. I will tell you first hand that losing weight is dumb. WHY focus so much on the number on the scale, instead of the number of experiences and beautiful moments that life has to offer. From personal experience, I can tell YOU that recovery is beautiful and possible.
I used to be at such a low point of my eating disorder that eating a meal would cause an anxiety attack. Now I am running again, eating ALL types of foods, and experiencing moments. I am so incredibly grateful for all the support I have received to work on my recovery. To do that, I have had help from my dietician, therapist, and of course Dr. Powell, who all believed in me. I am thankful to be now part of Empowered RX which now gives me a community of others who know EXACTLY what I am talking about. From here, I will continue to work on recovery so that someday I can help my own patients who struggle with body image, eating disorders, and self-confidence.
Life is full of colors, happy moments, beautiful scenery, and nature. I find myself feeling extra happy and content when I look up at the sky, going for walks with my dog, and laughing until my stomach hurts with my best friend. Why wouldn’t I want recovery? Diet culture won back then but here I am now reclaiming my voice and inner power. For anyone that is struggling with an eating disorder or even disordered eating, know that it is okay and safe to reach out for help. You are worthy, you are enough, and you deserve happiness.
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