More about food, ethics and mental health

Further to my previous post, there’s more to say about how changing what you eat an affect your mental health. I don’t mean in the “Eat more fruit to be less depressed” way (though getting enough vitamins and good stuff into your body can certainly help you to feel less bad).

Food is an essential and more or less inescapable part of our lives. For most of us eating is both a frequent and a multi-sensory experience and an experience capable of being very pleasurable. We combine foods to make a near-endless variety of dishes with their own tastes and smells and textures. Food is wrapped into our cultures and our relationships. Because we eat so often, what we eat can often become intensely associated with who we eat with, where we eat and how we feel when we eat. Certain foods may remind us of people and places from our pasts and stir up memories that may be happy, sad, nostalgic or traumatic. Some foods may help us to feel loved and welcome; other foods may make us feel disgust. For some people, particular foods may be so strongly associated with a painful or traumatic event that they cannot eat them.
In short, food is much more than fuel for our bodies and sustains us in more ways than merely keeping us alive. Food has a huge and complex role in our emotional and social lives.

So when we change what we consider to be food, that’s not the only thing we’re changing. Inevitably, when changing what we choose to put into our bodies, we are also changing routines and practices we didn’t know we relied on to help us feel safe and grounded.

This goes for whatever reason to change a diet – a new intolerance or illness, a pregnancy, living in a new country or with a spouse’s family for a period of time, a wanted change to exclude some foods and/or include many new foods. Things change in ways you may not have anticipated because for many of us what we eat and who we are are tightly wound together.

When I choose to become vegetarian, I found myself desperately wanting foods from my childhood. When I was being tested for coeliac disease (which I turned out not to have) I found myself getting teary-eyed at the idea that each croissant I ate might be the last.
Sometimes we discover that Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a roast or that going to the pub with work colleagues doesn’t feel right any more after we’ve stopped drinking alcohol. Or that lovely seaside town you went to as a child just isn’t the same without the fish and chips but the idea of actually buying and eating fish now disgusts. Things we rely on change when we change what we eat and change can feel scary and overwhelming.

All that change, much of it unanticipated can be stressful.
Stress can also come in the form of other people’s reactions. Some people will unexpectedly take it personally that you no longer eat what you did. In rejecting the food they make for you or the cafe they eat at, you seem to be rejecting them and they react as if you have. I lost a boyfriend by becoming vegetarian – he expressed his feelings for me by making me food and now I was telling him I really didn’t want bacon on toast or pasta with bolognese and he couldn’t help but take it personally.
Others will feel like you are judging them if you make an ethical choice for yourself. Some may feel like you are rejecting their culture or religion or even that you are deliberately trying to upset them.

Even when you are not rebelling or rejecting anyone, dealing with other people’s fears and feelings on top of your own feelings and the difficulties of adjusting your diet in a world actively trying to convince you to eat things you no longer wish to consider food is understandably difficult and painful. And stressful as fuck.

One more way that changing what you consider food can have effects on your mental health is through hunger. Being hungry is unpleasant, sometimes even painful. Many people will associate feeling hungry with bad things from their past, times when they haven’t been cared for and have been unable to care for themselves. Times when there was no money for food. Times when things went wrong. Even if you don’t have those associations, being hungry for more than just a few minutes hurts. And hunger can be a regular occurrence in the first few months of a new eating style. Who knew the veggie pub closed on Mondays? Why did you pay the entry fee for the pie festival before making sure there’d be something you could eat? Your friend was adamant that she could and would make something you could eat at the party but you arrived late and it’s been eaten? Hunger happens. It’s distressing when it does.

For all these reasons, it’s important to make sure you take care of your mental health when changing what you eat. Any existing problems might become temporarily worse as your life changes in unexpected ways. Other people’s problems might try to become your problem (Captain Awkward has many good posts on this but this one is about food). You may fall into the cycle from the previous post.

The solution, mainly, is to be aware that these things might happen and watch yourself to make sure you’re as mentally healthy as you can be. Remember that changing what you eat is HARD WORK and it will get easier but it’s okay to cut yourself some slack. Be gentle and caring towards yourself, you’re doing something difficult.

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Change is Hard, Give Yourself a Break

I’m vegetarian. I wasn’t always vegetarian.
I’ve been vegan. I am not currently vegan.

As someone who hangs around with enough veggies to occasionally forget that it isn’t massively strange that my girlfriend eats meat sometimes, I’ve seen quite a few people make a massive change in their diets for ethical and/or religious reasons. And I’ve seen a pattern that some people go through that I think is massively unhelpful for them.
It goes something like this: A person, let’s call them B, comes to some conclusions about their personal ethics and realises that eating certain foods and buying certain goods do not fit within their ethical system. So, B decides to make radical changes to their lifestyle – particularly their diet. Having decided to make such changes, B expects to be able to start straight away. They remove any remaining “unethical” foods from their living space and make one or two meals for themself with the remaining “allowed” foods. They feel great! They are really proud of themself for making the change and see themself as a good and wonderful person.
THEN something happens. B feels sad and wants bacon or ice cream. Or B goes to their favourite restaurant only to find they can no longer eat there. Or they rush into a sandwich store after class with a growling stomach and find nothing they can eat. B no longer feels like a good and wonderful person. They feel like a bad and terrible person for wanting the forbidden foods. They feel ashamed and upset.

LATER having got bored of the small number of “allowed” meals B knows how to make, B finds themself hungrily eating and even enjoying a forbidden food. They quickly feel guilty and conflicted. They wonder how they can be such an awful person as to want and enjoy food that has come about through suffering and pain. They feel like they have failed.
Over time, this cycle repeats, with B each time vowing to try harder. Eventually B will either succeed or give up on their new diet.

Is B you or someone you know? I have some words to have with the Bs of this world. Please, please give yourselves a break.

Seriously. Change, any change even the most desirable and wanted change, is hard. It is scary and difficult to make huge changes in our lives. It’s okay to take things slowly.

If you’re trying to go from omnivore to veggie, try cutting out particular meats first until you don’t eat meat and then try cutting out the gelatine and questioning whey powders and food colourings after that. If you’re moving from veggie to vegan, try cutting out eggs before cutting out pre-made things with egg in, find a milk substitute you like and can easily obtain before cutting out milk, try being vegan at home and veggie out of the house until you really know what you’re doing cooking-wise… In general, try to take things slowly and consider not taking something out of your diet until you’ve got something to replace it with. The replacement need not be a direct analogue – I’ve replaced the bacon-shaped hole in my diet with salty foods like crisps, with protein-y foods like chickpeas and with chilli, garlic and onion flavours. Simply cutting stuff out with no real plan on what you’re going to eat now is a recipe for stress.

But Ethics! I hear you cry. Yeah, I know. But surely *reducing* the amount of meat / dairy / non-organic / not free trade / etc food you eat will have some of the effect that ceasing to eat those foods altogether would have? That’s still something. Please remember that you’re living in a society/world which is actively trying to normalise the consumption of foods made from animals / made by exploiting people. You are surrounded by the foods you have decided to avoid and by people and companies whose job it is to entice you to eat them. Resisting isn’t futile but it is difficult, changing your diet to one that isn’t supported by the dominant cultures around you will be hard and cannot be done in a day. It might take months or even years to get yourself used to and able to manage the kind of diet you think you should follow. It will take time and effort and planning – not measuring your worth as a human being against what you eat. Using that metric you will initially always find yourself lacking and that’s just not good for you.

I know you’re doing this because you want to minimise suffering. I just ask of you to consider the suffering of one more animal: YOU. The stress of constantly measuring yourself against a perfect ideal of what you should eat and what you should *want* to eat will hurt you. You can’t go from one diet to a much more restricted one in one step without slipping up at least sometimes. Accept that you won’t do it perfectly straight away and stop beating yourself up when you do. You’re not a terrible person. You’re a human being trying to do something very difficult, trying to unlearn years of messages about what is and isn’t food. You’re only human and that’s okay.

To end: it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. If you want to, try to cut down on what animal products / otherwise unethical foods you eat. Maybe you’ll never quite get to vegan (I didn’t yet!) but trying is still something. Meat only occasionally is still something. Pizza in an otherwise dairy-free diet is still something.
Look after yourself, take things slowly if you need to. This is difficult but it gets easier. No one would begrudge you eating animal products if you had to for your physical health – let’s take your mental health just as seriously.

EDITED TO ADD: there’s now a follow-up post here