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Here's why I'm happy I failed at being a vegan

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On World Vegan Day, reporter Laura Dennison discusses her time as a vegan and why she decided to leave the lifestyle behind.

I know, I know, I know, I know. I know – this is dangerous territory. The same vegan community who pose gently with bowls of courgetti could be willing to beat me around the head with the vegetable from which it came should I bad-mouth their way of life…so I’ll try to tread lightly.

It’s totally understandable that the subject of food and diet is one that is so emotionally fraught and contested. Food is individualistic and central to our social lives, our economy, our physical self and our mental health – having tussled with years of bulimia, I know this better than most. Those who believe that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to our diets are being held to ransom, dismissed as simply being stubborn, unhealthy, confrontational or just pure stupid.

“Look at her! Using real butter on her toast like a heathen!”

Milk in a glass
(Yui Mok/PA)

Truly, I am Quasimodo. I am an ex-vegan of six months who did the unthinkable and went back to a world of eating flesh, pus and chicken brains coated in fried batter. I am the dirt through which your legumes and cauliflower grow. I am the Croc and you are the Louboutin. I am the present-day beast, you are the beauty and I stare at your Instagram account while gnawing on a leg of raw lamb, spitting fleshy juices at my iPhone screen.

I’m okay with being Quasimodo though, and not just because he was a lovely chap, but I’m also okay because since successfully dislodging my fingers from down my throat for long enough to gargle an audible opinion, I believe that I deserve for my voice to be heard. A voice that is honest and shaped by six years’ worth of eating disorders.

Veganism – you might’ve heard of it? It occupies your social media feeds and provides ample ammunition for many a think piece to be thrown down the internet’s well, along with this one, maybe. What was once a diet constructed to protect animals, the environment and the human conscience, has now been hijacked and reincarnated into the more marketable terms of #cleaneating and #plantbased – trends centred on vanity and giving yet more reasons to feel completely inadequate.

Vegetables
(Steve Parsons/PA)

Many of us who have grown up online are constantly searching for justifications as to why we are yet to fulfil our potential – to find love, unearth abs and build a successful career with tonnes of money. We’re trying to figure out why we are 28 and living with our mums, who still wash our underwear. Then came a-marching the polished, clean eating brigade with their laminated answers to our existential questions typed up in a minimalist font. Hey! Maybe you’re just ugly because you are eating the wrong things?

Courgetti, chai seeds, Instagram, bone broth, spirulina, kale, quinoa, yoga, coconut oil, beach waves, white teeth, high-waisted thongs and sparkly eyes. These are the ingredients for a perfect, alkalised life. Wake up and smell the fermenting nut milk, won’t you! It appears that you must now be beautiful and “plant-based” to give nutritional advice. Food historian and writer Bee Wilson, wrote on The Pool after being jeered and reduced to tears by fans of a prominent clean eating blogger: “The implication is that – forget knowledge – you are only allowed a view on nutrition if you are young with model looks.”

A lot of today’s nutritional prodigies do not come from a medical background and present no qualifications other than good genes and perhaps a wealthy family – yet dictate strict food rules that people ought to follow. It’s rather worrying that a lot of their followers don’t seem to even know the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist. Nutritionists are not trained in the clinical aspect of nutrition and don’t undertake any clinical placements. To become a nutritionist in the UK, you can do an online course which takes just six days.

PETA protester
(Steve Parsons/PA)

I became vegan because, having spent over a quarter of my young life structuring my life around the number on the scales, I was desperate for something new that might help me decrease it. New-age veganism was an opportunity for me to disguise disordered eating with smoothies and health concerns, built on hopes of clearing up my skin and looking beautiful, not necessarily to have a kinder attitude towards the planet. This may seem selfish, but it’s incredibly difficult to look after those around you when you can’t even look after yourself.

My veganism died a predictable death because of boredom and my utter unhappiness at not feeling as good as everyone had promised I would. Defeated and bloated, I spoke to dietitian Ursula Philpot, who specialises in eating disorders, for confirmation that I wasn’t a total dud. She said: “Interestingly, whenever anyone changes their diet, or when they cut something out of their diet, about 90% of cases will report some positive outcome. But actually, over time, that effect plateaus or even dips and the temptation then is to cut something else out to get that same effect.”

Vegan tattoo
(Fred Hayes/AP)

Teen years spent on pro-ana Tumblr posts graduated to stylised Instagram galleries, continuing to fuel a sugar-coated self-destruction, but this time rooted in fundamental classism. Growing up in Dudley and having parents who are both as down to earth as is humanly possible without plummeting into its molten core, this was all very new to me. My dad, by the way, grew up on boiled new potatoes, meat and veg in a terrace house and yet became a professional footballer for over a decade. What does that tell you?

Ursula describes the current eating culture as feeling “very superior”. She said: “If you can’t afford chia seeds and you don’t blend your green shakes then you’re in some way inferior where your food quality is concerned, which I don’t agree with.” Ursula believes that part of the problem lies in the language used by those promoting specific diets. “‘Clean eating’, what does that imply? Food doesn’t hold a moral value, it’s nutrition, not something you should be making moral judgements about”, she said.

Vegetables being cut up
(Jonathan Brady/PA)

Thankfully, the years of living with an eating disorder are behind me and I’ve now grown to recognise the importance of questioning why we might be tempted to cut things out of our diet.

If you are considering veganism for no other reason than wanting to lose weight or to look more beautiful, I suggest you think deeply about how this disguised restrictiveness could heighten your problems with food and potentially jeopardise your happiness. I also suggest that you take into consideration the ever blurring line between clean eating and veganism and be honest about what it is you are trying to achieve.

In a world of green smoothies, know that it’s okay to be a spud.




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