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I went plant-based 13 years ago. I’m ready for more flexibility.

Thirteen years ago, I went plant-based for my health: I was struggling with digestive problems, joint pain, shortness of breath, and skin conditions. I was concerned about the heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and osteoporosis that runs in my family. According to Forks Over Knives and numerous scientific papers, a plant-strong diet with a focus on whole foods was the best way to address it all.

It wasn’t long before I began proudly announcing my status as a plant eater. I started using negative, derogatory language to describe animal products and became judgmental of people who still ate factory-farmed meat and ultra-processed foods. I was that vegan: the one who stereotypes others by the contents of their shopping carts and brings up the gruesome details of factory farming during meals.

Being plant-based became part of my identity.

theresa sam houghton at Albany VegFest

I was moved to teach classes and give talks. I went to vegan festivals and handed out vegan pamphlets while wearing pro-vegan t-shirts. I blogged about vegan food, got certified as a plant-based health coach, and launched a business under the plant-based banner. The budding alt protein movement caught my attention as the industry grew, and I threw myself into it with nerdy abandon as a content marketer for plant-based companies.

What started as a quest for better health turned into a personal brand—with a hefty side of self-righteousness.

I know I’m not alone in this. The trajectory repeats itself in all diet cultures, resulting in tribalism that feeds feelings of grandiosity among its members and ostracizes anyone who steps outside the group’s self-determined dogma. These myopic, restrictive bubbles trap their members with cherry-picked science and the threat of being canceled for any deviation or disagreement.

But my thoughts and beliefs are shifting. I’m disturbed by infighting among plant-based factions and fanatical attitudes toward dietary perfection. Differing opinions about protein and fat have led me to step outside the whole food, plant-based bubble and listen to scientific analyses from other voices who take a more measured approach.

I’m starting to ask myself: why are we plant-based? Are we truly standing for something and protecting our health? Or are we clinging to a dietary “identity” that’s really a cage in disguise?

Slaves to dietary perfectionism

There’s no denying that the average American eats too many ultra-processed foods and not enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Plant-based diets could significantly impact the national disease burden in a society where 60% of adults have chronic conditions linked to lifestyle factors.

For many, dietary change is a godsend for managing, reducing, or reversing disease. But for others, it becomes a trap of restrictive rules from which they can’t escape.

Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash

I saw this firsthand at a vegan conference I used to frequent. Many attendees trudged the halls like living skeletons, just this side of emaciated. They scrutinized the food buffet and avoided anything they considered artificial or “bad,” regardless of how meticulously the dishes had been prepared to meet their dietary preferences. They’d consumed so much plant-based health and nutrition information that they were almost paralyzed—afraid of oil, fearful of fats, and wary of added salt and sugar.

That’s where I found myself early in my plant-based journey, and I still struggle with some of those rigid thoughts and behaviors.

Google has the power to suck me in for 20 minutes as I try to figure out exactly how much protein I need to support my workouts on a plant-based diet compared to an omnivorous one.

Variations in caloric absorption between different forms of the same foods haunt me when I plan meals or make snacks.

I worry that switching from a savory, veggie-packed breakfast to a bowl of oatmeal with fruit and nuts for just one morning will throw off my entire carefully calibrated diet—even though the “rules” by which I calibrate are of my own making.

Social media only exacerbates the problem. Heated debates fly from every direction and clash in a mind-bending kaleidoscope of questions: should we go SOS-free? Follow a Nutritarian diet? Get in line with the McDougall plan? What about the Esselstyn diet—must we all adhere to its stringent protocol because we have the beginnings of heart disease due to our mothers’ diets when we were in the womb?

For those just starting to explore a plant-based lifestyle, the flagrant fanaticism is enough to make them give up before they begin. The potential health benefits don’t seem to be worth the trouble if they come with an unyielding framework that dictates every bite.

Fear: an industry standard

Far from leading people to better health, these frameworks perpetuate fear: fear of gaining weight, fear of developing chronic diseases, fear of premature death.

This kind of crippling terror in relation to food is so insidious that it has its own name: orthorexia.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Coined in 1998, the term refers to “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating” and is characterized by:

  • Fear of eating foods deemed “unclean” or “impure”
  • Fear of not having access to “safe” foods
  • Increasing restrictions on personal food choices
  • Obsession with content centered around healthy food or healthy eating
  • Unhealthy interest in or criticism of what others eat

Though not an official eating disorder, orthorexia is a real condition—one that runs rampant in plant-based communities. It sucks the joy out of eating, leading sufferers to denigrate themselves if they deviate from their personal dietary rules. These behaviors and thought processes can easily progress to a clinical eating disorder if the environment and community continue to reinforce the supporting narrative.

Us vs. them: The plant-based superiority complex

Niche plant-based and vegan communities have long spearheaded such reinforcement, but it’s beginning to spread to the mainstream plant-based movement as well. There’s a pervasive “us-vs-them” mentality that begets negativity, disharmony, and verbal abuse.

Even within apparently supportive plant-based communities, there are divisions: strict vegan, sugar free, gluten free, whole food plant based, whole food plant based no oil, whole food plant based salt-oil-sugar-free, ultra-low-fat plant based (no nuts!)…the list goes on. Each tribe has a particular “rule book” that members must not question for fear of being criticized, ostracized, or canceled. If someone faces a health problem that the community’s rules are purported to prevent or cure, they’re told that they’re Doing It Wrong and that returning to the prescribed dietary pattern without wavering is the only way to avoid the dire consequences of chronic disease.

Where do we draw the line? Do we turn up our noses at Grandma because she still uses animal products to cook her traditional dishes? Do we snub our friends who eat meat (or dairy, or oil, or sugar, or…)? Do we degrade ourselves for not attaining the perfect plant-based ideal of our own making?

Breaking Free

And so I find myself at a crossroads. Although adopting a plant-based diet has improved my digestion, minimized my skin issues, and eliminated my joint pain, it hasn’t solved every health problem. It’s not the magic bullet that its staunchest proponents insist it to be, and the constant internal battle over rules and frameworks has taken a toll on me psychologically.

As someone who’s struggled with both anorexia and bulimia, I find myself frustrated with the rigidity. I’m sick of scrutinizing restaurant menus and sitting on the sidelines at group meals. I want the freedom to choose what I eat—even if it’s not always plant based.

Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash

And sometimes I wonder: what if, one day, the health issues I still grapple with made it inadvisable or impossible to stay plant-based? Would I lose my "identity" as a plant-based advocate—or even my livelihood working with plant-based brands? Would harsh judgment be directed at me as it has been at others in the community who failed to maintain the purity apparently required by those in this niche?

I don’t want to grapple with fear over whether having one half of a farm-raised deviled egg at Christmas or experimenting with A2 cheese might get me booted out of the space where I’ve spent the last 13 years making plant-based friends and connections. And I’d like to drop the superiority complex associated with the number of years I’ve been eating only plants.

Do I still believe that eating plants is the healthiest diet? Yes.

But I don’t think we have to be 100% rigid about it.

The movement I joined with such enthusiastic belief in its ability to improve people’s health has become—in many ways—a stifling, judgmental bubble that leaves no room for dissent.

Our rigidity inseparably intertwines diet and lifestyle choices with people’s identities and breeds fear, guilt, and disordered eating patterns.

I, for one, am ready for more flexibility to figure out the best way to support my health and the health of those around me—including developing a healthy relationship with food.

Which might just mean having a deviled egg this Christmas.

This was a hard (and scary) piece to write. I’m grateful for the help and support of the Foster collective in putting it together, especially Sarah Ramsey, Sara Campbell, Anthony Pica, Jude Klinger, Steven Ovadia, Russell Smith, Chris Angelis, Diana Klatt, Lyle McKeany, Zoe McDonald, and Sixian Lim.

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