For a few years, living by myself, I was what you’d call a “proper” vegan. With the exception of trips home (my mum is a northerner, meat is essential at our table) and the occasional holiday (where it was hard to find vegan eats), I ate a plant-based diet.
There were a number of reasons for this. The first reason was allergies and intolerances. I grew up allergic to cow’s milk and eggs, and even after growing out of my allergies I’m still mildly lactose intolerant. I’ve honestly never drunk cow’s milk in my living memory, and cheese and I don’t get along. So giving up dairy was never a big thing, it was just common sense to me.
The second reason, related to the first, was taste preference. I’ve been eating dairy-free substitute foods for as long as I can remember. Other kids grew up with Smarties and Dairy Milk, I grew up with Whizzers – dark, bitter chocolate buttons. My friends had Victoria sponge for their birthdays, I had oil-based carrot cake. They had custard creams and jammy dodgers, I had bourbons and gingerbread. Back in the day, to get these dairy-free alternatives you had to go to health food stores. Visiting these stores exposed me to all sorts of flavours I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced: halva and tofu and liquorice and lentils. My taste preferences were naturally skewed away from mainstream dairy and meat produce and remain that way today.
The third and final reason was ethics. Studying A-level Philosophy made me think, a lot, about everything. I learned about animal rights and environmental responsibility. It became clear to me that our current consumerist food culture, compounded by a hyper-inflated demand for cheap meat and dairy, has an intense cost for our planet and the animals that share it with us. I couldn’t justify contributing to a culture that is, literally, destroying our home.
You may be thinking, “but I thought this was a blog about NOT being vegan?”. It is. But I wanted to make absolutely clear that for many reasons, I am drawn to and believe in the basic philosophy of veganism.
All this being said: I am no longer vegan. Here’s why.
As a teenager, I developed anorexia. To my disordered mind, meat was a source of fat and therefore weight gain. It had to be avoided. I began cutting it out wherever possible. Vegetarian and vegan options felt safe. Amidst my mental turmoil about my body and the world around me, I clung to the sense of safety that cutting out meat gave me.
When I started recovering from anorexia, veganism was a big NO. Any kind of restrictions on what I ate only fuelled the eating disorder and made it harder for me to get to a safe, stable weight and free myself from disordered thinking patterns. So I gave up restricting myself from meat and some dairy.
A few years later, I was living away from home for the first time and I was what you might call “quasi-recovered”. I could cook and eat all my meals independently, without too much restriction or other disordered behaviours, and my mental health was in a much better place. I decided to try going vegan again, since I still believed in the ethical principles behind it.
Spoiler alert: this was a BIG mistake. If you know anything about anorexia, you’ll know that it never really goes away; it can be managed and whittled away until it’s a teeny tiny itch in the back of your head that you can ignore 99% of the time, but it’s always waiting for its chance to shine again. Going vegan was a huge trigger for me. The focus on food was back and I found myself obsessing constantly about what I was eating. The list of things I allowed myself to eat got smaller and smaller, until I was only allowing myself to eat the same two meals over and over again.
It took a huge toll on my life. I couldn’t concentrate at work, I didn’t have the energy to see my friends, and I became so anxious I became incapable of sitting still. Anorexia had once again taken my good intentions and turned them into an opportunity to control me and grind me into the dirt.
Eventually, I realised that being properly, full-time vegan was not going to work for me. When I moved back home with my family, I decided I wouldn’t try and pursue a totally vegan diet again. My priority had to be my mental and physical health, and I just wasn’t in a place where I could pursue a vegan diet with all the variety and choice that a fully healthy person could.
Now, I eat meat and fish sometimes. I also have the occasional egg (though you’ll never catch me drinking cow’s milk because, ew!). For the first time in my life, I prioritise my body’s health and needs and it’s enabled me to break out of the destructive cycle of anorexic thinking and behaviours. It’s this shift that has enabled me to pursue my masters, recommit to my friendships, and to be creative and have the courage to share what I create.
I still believe that, as a nation and as the human race, we need to eat less meat and dairy. We need to be less reliant on water- and land-intensive forms of agriculture. We need to be more ethical in our treatment of animals. But I also believe that mental health is very, very important, and I’m not going to neglect mine any longer.