My vegan diet looked healthy on the outside. Here’s what no one knew.

For the past five years, I’ve been a strict, no-cheat vegan, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in the vegan community, it’s that veganism is truly a way of life, not a diet.

Even though vegan rhetoric argues that plant-based living is the healthiest way to eat, going vegan is generally about much more than health. If you ask any street vegan — including my former self — you’ll often hear a pattern combination. People are going vegan to fight animal cruelty, climate change, factory farming, and even capitalism. Eating a plant-based diet is still the greatest way to reduce your personal environmental impact, despite the occasional headline about the horrors of almond milk and soy protein. This explains why veganism lives in a world apart from standard diet culture: these things only really work if you stick with them for a long time.

There are so many real moral motivations that drive people to go vegan, and I wouldn’t have cared about that if those issues didn’t really matter to me. Even so, there’s another factor I have to acknowledge: Before my five years as a vegan, I was a relentless anorexic.

It’s both as simple and as complex as the following details: my mother always dieted as a child, I was a dedicated ballet dancer, my family has a long history of anorexia, my teenage years has been clumsy and lonely, my gag reflex is weak.

I always felt the need to restrict, but the real spiral started around the age of 12 or 13. I was tossing my school lunches day and night, drinking cup after cup of black tea to avoid snacking after picking my dinner. I started stealing diet pills from my mom every other day so she wouldn’t know. I counted the calories on the Notes app on my iPod touch and in straight columns on the last pages of my journals.

In high school, I only consumed massive amounts of lemon water and black tea until dinner time or dance class, when I ate half of a protein bar before, saving the other half as reward for when the spikes have receded. I had a secret blog on Tumblr dedicated to my diet, with tips for losing water weight; the best cigarettes for appetite suppression; “inspiration” photos of bony arms, collarbones, thighs so fragile that the knees seemed painful to the touch.

For a while, those around me thought I looked fantastic. Aunts and uncles admiringly teased that I needed to eat more every time they saw me on vacation. I wore pink leotards and white tights to class, my hips casting tiny shadows on me. When my skinny jeans started to hang down, my mom praised my figure and took me to American Apparel.

But nothing is priceless. My eyes are dead with dark circles. I went months without having my period. My hair thinned and started falling out. I was still freezing, even under diapers. Once, in second-period choir rehearsal at school, I passed out in the middle of the soprano section. Some people thought it was a joke.

The problem has gone beyond ignorance. I started therapy and gave up my blog. My parents stared at me at the table until I cleared my plate. I’ve outgrown my American Apparel jeans.

In what I later recognized as remission, not a complete cure from the disease, I gained what I considered an exuberant amount of weight throughout the therapy process. I started eating whatever I wanted. I cut the tags off all my clothes so I don’t have to look at the sizes. I took old pictures on social media in which I was skinny, dead-eyed and emaciated, so people wouldn’t notice and compare. As I progressed, it seemed like everything would be fine, until one day it just wasn’t.

I started pinching fat from my hips as I lay awake at night. I stretched my hands to their limit trying to touch my thumbs and middle fingers in a circle around my thigh. I weighed myself every day, but instead of purging or starving myself, I just cried. I saw myself living in two worlds – the world where I was so thin I knew it would kill me one day and the world where I was out of control, swelling every day in a body that could withstand the many years I hated living in it.

It was around this time that I discovered vegan YouTubers and bloggers. I clung to thin, tanned bodies. Blonde hair glistening in the island sun as they smiled with green smoothies in hand in Hawaii, California, Australia, Bali. These people were ambitious, and while they each had their own personal brand of food specifics, they all told me more or less the same thing: Want to look like this? You can eat anything you want, as long as it’s made from plants.

“Although it seemed, even to me, that I was out of my illness, nothing in my thinking about food has really changed. Veganism gave my eating disorder a mental outlet where I could privately be as sick as ever.

Compared to the rules I had learned to follow all my life, it was as easy as chia seed pudding pie. Get rid of meat, dairy, and eggs, and I could have total freedom. I had endured much greater risk for much less reward.

On my 18th birthday, my little sister made me a cake, decorated and sculpted from scratch to look like the cover of “A clockwork orange.” It was the last non-vegan food I ate for the next five years. As a gift to myself, I became a vegan and, I believed, cured my eating disorder.

When I say I was cured, what I mean is this: by providing myself with an arbitrary but specific set of nutritional guidelines, I felt free to eat whatever I wanted in the world, as long as he was vegan. And since these guidelines were also ethical, they were easier to follow. If I broke a keto kick, I would only fail myself. If I broke vegan, I would disappoint the world. It took some tweaking, but after a few months I found myself, perhaps for the first time, able to eat some semblance of a normal diet.

I lived in a world where, as long as I was vegan, everything would be fine. The more reassured I felt, the warmer I was to eating normally. I let myself be satiated. I ate three meals a day. I’ve even let some vegan junk food sneak in from time to time.

For my physical health, it was a godsend. And for a moment, it seemed like one for my mind too. Veganism was the only way I had ever learned to fuel my body without questioning every calorie. But whenever people asked me why I was vegan, year after year, I talked about the horrors of factory farming while a little voice inside me always whispered, This is how I stay lean without driving me crazy.

Although it seemed, even to me, that I was past my illness, nothing in my thinking about food has really changed. Veganism gave my eating disorder a mental outlet where I could privately be as sick as ever.

This is not a condemnation. In many ways, becoming and staying vegan saved me from further damaging my body in ways that are hard to retroactively fix. I can’t say what kind of health issues I would have now if I hadn’t made some sort of change to eat more, and for that reason, I’m still glad I did.

At the same time, the healing of my body allowed me to imagine that nothing was ever so bad. I’m not sick anymore ! Look at all the evidence! Look at my strong core! My ass! My arms! My face! No matter how I feel about food, this healthy body is enough for me, right? I backed off and did none of the crucial healing mental work. I didn’t cure my eating disorder – I just let it live in a sleepy state for years.

This is what ultimately led to my departure from the “vegan” label. Although there were other factors at play – tired of excluding myself from group experiences, having a super cool chef roommate (thanks to Aurèle) and traveling to other places – I finally realized that I had done nothing to address my problems. I never learned to stop restricting. I had just found a more discreet way to do it.

Although not officially recognized by the DSM classification of mental disorders, there is a term that has gained popularity in recent years. “Orthorexia” is a form of disordered eating characterized by an obsession with limiting oneself to clean or wholesome foods – which veganism may inadvertently encourage. When I spoke to a former vegan and eating disorder survivor who had been diagnosed with orthorexia, she told me, “It’s very common and very overlooked. [It] pretends to be a functional state of being. There are so many nuances to experiencing an eating disorder, and diagnoses should reflect that.

As to whether veganism is ultimately “good” or “bad,” I don’t think it’s possible to say. Like so many other things, it’s complicated and depends on the person. And I also know that I can’t reasonably blame the plant-based lifestyle for the way I used it as a tool to ineffectively cope with my mental illness.

But losing the vegan label has already made me face many patterns that I should have faced years ago. Questions of food anxiety, choice paralysis, body awareness. I have to face it all now, and I do it for real.

I still eat mostly plant-based foods. In fact, I often eat exactly the same foods as when I was vegan, at least for now. Who knows where I will be in 6 months or 10 years? I have no idea what my diet will look like because it’s a freedom I can allow myself now.

Simply changing the rules I set for myself opened up a lot of work to do. And that’s a job no green smoothie could do for me.

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