What Do You Mean You Don’t Eat No Meat?
How alternative diets fit into intuitive eating and the anti-diet movement
When I first told my family that I wasn’t eating meat anymore, a look of genuine confusion and dismay crossed my aunt’s face. What could I possibly mean by this?
My aunt is an incredibly loving and maternal woman who, with my uncle, hosts every family holiday, birthday, and special event that we celebrate. The very idea that I would be self-imposing a dietary restriction that she had very little experience with was clearly perplexing. What was I to eat? How was she to feed me?
“What will you eat on Thanksgiving?” she asked, already upset that I might be left wanting during a holiday, even one that was months away at that point.
“Probably some of the fifteen side dishes,” I teased. “I’m not too worried about it.”
Every time I think about this exchange, I’m reminded of the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Aunt Voula learns that her niece’s non-Greek fiance, Ian, is a vegetarian. “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?” she asks. Then, after pondering the problem (and it was, clearly, a problem) for a moment, she concludes, “Oh, that’s okay. I make lamb.” Problem solved.
So, if all foods are allowed, how do you eat intuitively while also following a diet that is, by its very nature, restrictive?
We’ve yet to have a holiday, or dinner of any kind really, in my family with a spread that leaves even an inch of extra room on the table, or without at least one full dessert per person. Missing out on turkey wasn’t exactly going to make me feel deprived in this house.
I’d tried following a vegetarian diet once before, in middle school, but being unable to prepare most of my own meals or do my own shopping, it only lasted about a year. Back then, I thought of it exclusively as a great way to lose weight. I failed to factor in the reality that in my traditional Italian family that ate meat almost every night, I’d be eating a lot of pasta.
A lot of pasta.
And then one night, I was at a friend’s house for dinner, and I broke down and ate a cheeseburger. It was delicious. It was also everything I had missed for what was probably an entire year of very poor nutritional choices and a lot of frozen vegetables.
However, as an adult with a much better understanding of my own nutritional needs, as well as my own grocery budget, I felt prepared to give it another try. I had stopped cooking meat at home years earlier, so this wasn’t too much of a change from my normal diet.
Still, as someone who had long struggled with creating rules and restrictions around what I could eat and when, I understood that my decisions would likely have consequences for me beyond what foods I could eat at Thanksgiving.
There are a variety of reasons, including for religious or cultural purposes, why someone might choose to limit or eliminate specific foods from their diet that have nothing to do with health or weight loss. Most religions have some sort of dietary restriction or fasting period that their members adhere to out of genuine belief. In Geneva, Switzerland, there’s a day of non-religious fasting each September that’s celebrated as a public holiday. Following a tradition or partaking in a cultural event that includes food restrictions is not, in itself, antithetical to intuitive eating.
I was empowered by what I’d learned about intuitive eating to make those decisions with an open mind and without the judgment that is inevitable when you link your identity to your diet
When there’s a special meaning for fasting or restricting certain foods, you don’t feel deprived of those foods because you’re receiving nourishment and fulfillment in another form. Without that sense of deprivation, you’re less likely to fall into a binge spiral once foods are available to you again. You’re also not very likely to lose weight from these restrictions because they’re just a normal part of your lifestyle, not a strategy you’re using to drop a few pounds. The problem arises when you use traditions around food as a guise for restricting to achieve weight loss.
Growing up Catholic, my friends and I would make a show of our sacrifices each year during Lent, the season of penance in preparation for Easter. Each year, we’d give up candy or soda or cake or pizza for forty days, in part because we were encouraged to do so in our Catholic schools, but it didn’t hurt that summer and bathing suit season were just around the corner.
Few (maybe none) of us cared about making sacrifices for our beliefs, whatever they were, we just hoped that giving up junk food for a few weeks would make us slimmer. Perhaps there were some who got some deeper spiritual nourishment from their acts of self-denial, but I certainly wasn’t one of them.
So, it was particularly important to me that this new diet and lifestyle shift was not just another Lenten diet. This needed to be something that was important to me and that I genuinely believed to be right, or else it was unlikely that I’d put effort into sustaining it properly. And it is important to me. Deciding to stop eating meat was primarily the result of learning about the environmental and social impacts of a diet that includes meat. There were other, more emotionally-driven reasons behind my choice, as well as some genuinely health-related ones, including several tests that reported my cholesterol was well above where it should be. I was very motivated to make this diet complete, healthy, and sustainable.
All of this was happening around the time I first learned about intuitive eating. Like many people who’ve spent their entire lives on a diet, I thought of intuitive eating as a way to train myself to enjoy healthy foods exclusively, while simultaneously curbing my sweet tooth and my love of French fries. In other words, I thought of it as a diet. I hoped I would somehow trick my brain into wanting to only eat the things I was “supposed to” eat and thus lose weight in a more “natural” way.
When there’s a special meaning for fasting or restricting certain foods, you don’t feel deprived of those foods because you’re receiving nourishment and fulfillment in another form.
The first and most fundamental principle of intuitive eating is to reject the diet mentality — to remove restrictions and rigidity from the way you eat and exercise, and to allow all foods at all times. So, if all foods are allowed, how do you eat intuitively while following a diet that is, by its very nature, restrictive? How could I follow a diet that was intellectually and ethically important to me without feeling deprived and ending up at a diner one night binge eating cheeseburgers?
I understood that the idea was to allow all the foods, but I hoped that if I just didn’t allow myself to have any bad foods, eventually I’d learn that the things that made my body feel good were (surprise!) fruits and vegetables and lean protein. That’s not how intuitive eating (or bodies) work, though.
The very point of eating intuitively is to figure out the foods that work best for your body and to eat them in a way that feels good for you. Feeling good encompasses more than just how you feel physically: your emotional and spiritual well-being is important in this journey as well.
Still, despite my best efforts this time around, a vegetarian diet wasn’t something I could maintain for very long. I felt tired and run down, and my stomach was bloated and ached. These are relatively common complaints for new vegans and vegetarians, but I couldn’t seem to get past it. On a bit of a whim (or probably because my body was craving certain nutrients it wasn’t getting), I decided to incorporate seafood into my diet once or twice a month. I am not a huge fan of seafood, but it felt like a compromise I could live with. And it made a huge difference for me. About 80% of the food I eat is strictly plant-based, but I’ve followed this pescatarian diet for the last two years, and it’s worked really well for me.
If your choices make you feel good, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you’re far more likely to sustain that lifestyle.
It was clear to me both then and now that I needed to reevaluate my diet with both my physical health and my ethical concerns in mind. I was empowered by what I’d learned about intuitive eating to make those decisions with an open mind and without the judgment that is inevitable when you link your identity to your diet, as I had many times before. In the last two years, I’ve felt better than I ever have, and that feeling is quantifiable: my weight has stabilized, my total cholesterol and lipid ratios have improved, and my blood pressure has settled on the low end of normal.
This is not to say that a vegetarian or vegan diet can’t work for others. My best friend began following a plant-based diet while training for and running the Disney World Marathon and continues to do so healthily and happily to this day. While she originally made this change to lose weight during our training, her choice became far more meaningful to her over time.
“For me, living my vegan lifestyle is truly honoring my health because I feel pride about the things I’m putting into my body,” she told me recently. She no longer follows a plant-based diet simply to lose weight, but to feel her best. Her regular diet is neither punitive nor restrictive in any real sense, and she’s sustained this lifestyle for several years now, with positive health impacts that go beyond the scale.
Even restrictions that start as a weight-loss strategy can have a place in your intuitive eating journey. If your choices make you feel good, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you’re far more likely to sustain that lifestyle. If the only benefit you get from your restrictions is a smaller dress size, that’s unlikely to be enough to satisfy you in the long run.
If you’d like to read more about my quest to destroy diet culture, check out these stories as well. Thanks for reading!
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