As humans, we have a fascination with labeling things. It’s quite beneficial in many ways to be able to categorize and label things. It helps with our understanding and allows us to make decisions quickly, as well as easily decipher characteristics about new people or things if we can associate with a label. But, labeling also comes at a cost. We miss the differences, we miss what makes other humans, experiences, and things unique.
I have been a vegetarian for over 15 years. What comes to mind when you think of “vegetarian”? Veggies? Rabbit-food? Healthy? For many years, I had to explain what that meant to others. Countless times I was offered chicken breast from well meaning people who I can only imagine heard “vegetarian” and thought “oh, healthy! chicken breast is healthy!” Over time, most people understood what it meant (except for the year I spent in Wyoming, where I’m pretty sure the word “vegetarian” is illegal.)
For the past year and a half, I have eaten a primarily plant-based diet. This has been for personal health reasons, moral reasons, athletic training reasons, as well as the scientific benefits of eating a plant-based diet for long-term health. (Although, I would argue that the reasons are not all that relevant.) Eventually, I was labeled as “vegan”. I took some ownership of this label and described myself as “mostly vegan”, which felt the most accurate to me. It makes things easier for people to understand. What I mean by “mostly”, is that I kept no animal based products in my house, but if I ate out, I might have pizza, or a sandwich with cheese, or non-vegan pancakes, etc. I began to notice that the more I became labeled as “vegan”, the more anxious I became. I began to feel nervous making food decisions, like “What if I pick the wrong thing? What if someone sees me eating cheese? What if this food or that food bothers my stomach? What if… What if…What if….?!” I also noticed some sideways glances from others when I might be eating something that they believed I try to avoid. Maybe it was out of concern that I perhaps didn’t know what I was eating, perhaps it was out of confusion. I felt judged. I also began to experience some significant stress while making food decisions.
My stress about food decisions was also related to weight loss. During 2 periods of extreme stress (including a year of chronic stress), I gained what I consider to be a significant amount of weight. It certainly is above the weight that my body has always considered “normal”, and it has been a stress on my body (especially my joints). I would like to emphasize that in most cases, weight alone is not a good measure of HEALTH. Health will always be more important to me than weight. Once life settled down a bit, and I continued to eat healthy and exercise regularly, my weight was slowly returning to its “normal”. But, then in an instant, I got injured and everything changed. Over time, I recovered from my injury, but my return to my “normal” healthy weight stalled. Then, this too became a stressor. I was stressed about not losing weight and stressed about what foods to eat to lose weight or to not have stomach pain or to fit into a label. I work with individuals regularly on healthy eating and body image and identifying disordered eating. Too much of my time was spent thinking about food and weight (and the stress certainly wasn’t helping my health out).
So, a few weeks ago, I decided to stop it all. Life is too short to be spent worrying and stressing and consumed with thoughts of food and weight. I’d rather spend my time reading a good book, or talking to friends or family, or playing with my dog, or doing whatever else I want to do! I stopped trying to fit my eating into a label (although, I’m still a vegetarian and still prefer to eat plant-based), I stopped quantifying my food in any way, and besides a rough meal plan for the week so that I know what to buy at the store without having wasted food, I don’t spend much time caught up in the details of planning. It’s been going pretty well so far. I weighed myself the other day and made more progress in returning to my pre-stress healthy weight than I have in 6 months. I know how to eat healthy and balanced. I need to trust that I will feed my body when it is hungry and stop when it is full. I need to trust that I will put healthy things in and enjoy an occasional treat. It is worth it to know that I can take care of myself and stay healthy without being consumed by it. Being healthy (and helping others get there) is a very important part of my life, but it isn’t the only part. The irony that disordered eating, body image, and relationship with food/weight are my areas of interest professionally is not lost on me. Although I was still taking care of my body well, my mind was under duress. Sometimes we have to recognize when we’ve veered off track and either get back on the path or make a new one!
So what now? I suppose I could call myself a vegetarian that prefers to eat plant-based and gluten-free, but I am thinking that I’d prefer to be label free. I’d prefer for people to not look at my food choices as a defining characteristic of who I am. I’d prefer to eat foods that feel the best to my body and nourish it, give it energy, and sustain it so that I may enjoy the fullness of life. I’d prefer to change as I feel appropriate, without being confined to the definition of a label.
We are more than a number on a scale, or the label of what type of food we eat, or what our body shape is, more than the color of our skin or our hair, so much more! We are brothers and sisters, friends, partners, parents, coworkers, animal guardians; we have complex feelings; we are so much more than a number.
What kind of life do you want to live? How do you want to spend your time? How do you want others to remember you??
Next goal: destroy the scale! (It’s really a terrible measure of anything more than your relationship with gravity)
If you’d like help getting healthier and finding balance, please send me a message through my Contact Me form on the side >>>>
If you are concerned about disordered eating, I encourage you to contact a local health care professional: http://www.edreferral.com/
Soon, I will be posting some recommended reading on this topic.