You Are NOT What You Eat: Instagram, Veganism & Orthorexia

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There is a disturbing trend out there involving excessive focus on healthy eating. For some, it’s not just a trend, it’s an illness.

Such an obsession can and does happen with many different diets and in many different places, but let’s talk about why we need to be worried about it with veganism and in Instagram.

Instagram & Self-Worth

People who have chosen to eat vegan can likely understand and sometimes identify with a focus on health and healthy eating. On Instagram there are beautifully staged meals and side-by-side #transformationtuesday selfies. Scrolling through vegan feeds, people might begin to regret the lunchtime grilled cheese or, worse maybe, the morning smoothie that might not have had enough kale in it.

For some, these Instagram is a source of inspiration for healthful meals or encouragement to go for a much needed bike ride. But for others, it can lead to a downward spiral.

A person can become focused on whether she is eating well enough to achieve her ideas of perfection: if she is vegan enough, if her diet is helping her to achieve that flat stomach, if she eats enough salads, etc. Social media like Instagram can feed or instigate this obsessive behavior.

So why does this happen? Why can something that is meant to be inspirational cause such pain?

Food As A Cure-All

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There are so many wonderful reasons to eat a plant-based diet. People turn to it for its health benefits, its lower carbon footprint, its kindness towards animals and for simply its encouragement to eat more veggies.

There are some, however, who eat vegan and think it will solve many more problems. They think it will not only make their bodies healthier but also make their bodies look better. They think if they are eating so well, they might finally be a worthy person — worthy of love, success, happiness…

When this focus becomes an obsession, it becomes an illness. This illness is not in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) yet, but it has been termed orthorexia and there are many reasons for us to worry about its effects.

Identity & Judgment

While an illness like orthorexia likely requires a complex treatment beyond awareness, there are some common themes that we would all benefit from being aware of in a diet like veganism.

People can see their diet as who they are. With a diet like veganism, because it is such a contrast to the greater world, it can indeed seem defining. But the truth is, a diet does not define a person, it is just one aspect of a complex life.

There are major risks to believing we are one thing we do. By putting too much emphasize on one aspect of our lives, we risk toppling completely when that part is strained.

Exacerbating this identity issue is the ever-present judgment. Judgment is a major source of pain these days beyond food fixations but it certainly crops up in this particular issue.

There is a serious distinction between prioritizing eating vegan and obsessing with eating vegan. Yes, serious. There is no reason to disparage people who don’t eat vegan ever but there is certainly no reason to disparage people who have a pathological fixation.

You never have to eat animal products again but that doesn’t mean you should judge others who do. Their reasons may be more complex than you know.

Extremism & Alienation

Even if a person does not have clinical orthorexia, what are the benefits of an extremist approach to eating vegan?

Well, some might believe we have to go hard with veganism in order to achieve it at all. That it has to be our entire focus in order for it to become truly a part of our eating habits.

Fair enough. This perspective is very understandable and there may be something to it, at least for some. Problems arise when this approach is directed outwards at others and, if a person holds themselves to this standard, they end up hating themselves.

We must take care of ourselves and each other. We must be kind while also being inspiring. We can provide each other useful vegan information without shaming.

A vegan resource site (like Plenty Vegan) is meant to be supportive. It is not meant to be a depiction of a perfect life. We must all be vigilant about what we are projecting.

Take Care

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Eating vegan will not solve all of your problems. It alone will not make you a better person — you are so much more than what you eat.

Take care of yourself. If you are spending too much time thinking about what you eat — why? Is it because you are learning how to eat vegan and that it is ok for now? Or are you too fixated? Are you eating enough calories and do you have energy?

Veganism is about health but it is not about beauty. Focus on how you feel, not on how you look.

See eating vegan for what it is — something that you are interested in for your own personal reasons and not a cure-all.

By holding veganism up on high as the only way to live, you risk not only your own wellbeing but the wellbeing of others. If you end up falling off the vegan wagon, you might end up judging yourself harshly because of it. And your judgment of non-vegans not only encourages fewer plant-based diets but can also needle at already existing issues they might have.

Let’s keep talking about this issue and let’s send out the good vibes along with the realistic flaws to assure each other that we’re all just doing the best we can.



Originally published on Plenty Vegan.