The Healing Power of a Plant-Based Diet

Overcoming anorexia, easing anxiety and redefining perceptions through adoption of a vegan diet

Artwork by Elizabeth Vogt

Artwork by Elizabeth Vogt

By Lexi Vollero

***DISCLAIMER: Out of love and respect for our readers and whatever they are going through, I feel it necessary to precede my story of healing with a warning that my story contains content relating to anxiety, broken families, negative self-image and disordered eating. Please redirect yourself to our other amazing and compelling content in our 2019 Culture Guide Healing if you have a history of or struggle with these sensitive subjects***

“Love your neighbor as yourself” - Matthew 22:39

A fairly simple command that still manages to carry so much weight. I’ve meditated on this for most of my life, yet it seems as though I’ve mastered the art of loving my neighbor, loving others, yet struggle with the latter part of this two-fold statement. I have never been able to love myself.

From the moment we leave the womb, it feels as though we are constantly conditioned to prize selfless love above all else. However, I learned the hard way that selflessness does not entail a lack of self-esteem. Learning to distinguish the two was never natural for me but these lines were harshly blurred when my junior year of high school brought on the toughest season of my life.

Just like the command we opened with, my story is twofold:

  1. Brokenness

I wish I had known that our last family dinner in our home on an average fall school night would be our last. I would've sat at that table for hours just soaking up the genuine smiles and seamless conversations that effortlessly flowed from the four of us: my mom, my dad, my little brother and me.

But alas, the impending pressure of school and sports and viola sonatas pulled me away from the round wooden table of my childhood far too soon.

Later that night, there was screaming, weeping and shattered hearts littering the floor as years worth of truths finally came out–the unforgivable actions that ended my parents marriage. Suddenly, the chaos of varsity cheer and swim, ACT prep, AP classes, college searching and the strains of adolescent life all paled in comparison to the new challenges in front of me. I assumed the role of third parent and drove myself crazy comforting my depressed family, playing chef and chauffeur and outpouring the little energy I had left to spare into taking care of everyone.  Meanwhile, I forgot to take care of myself.

A naturally anxious disposition aggravated by the insurmountable stressors of home wore me down to the brink of depression. I held it all in: the state of my family, my resulting emotions and added burdens,  even the truth about my parents’ separation to my friends in order to save face for my family in the intimate social circles that come with attending the same private school your whole life. Then, as I started comparing myself to my teammates on the sidelines and the pool deck, I began to notice my forming curves and despise the way they began to change my appearance, so I took matters into my own hands. Seeking to fill the hole left by the lack of attention and acceptance, I saw myself as some vile, bloated, unlovable beast fed by the negative words said amidst suffering. I refused the urge to eat, the weight fell off--20 pounds in a year until I was a human coat rack, when there was no excess weight to lose in the first place.

I demonized food as the one factor standing between me and legitimate love and acceptance. It got to the point where mealtimes brought on crippling anxiety and in some cases, panic attacks. It’s true: my biggest fear became eating, since my biggest fear --losing the people I love most -- felt like it had already been realized. And the saddest part is that I accepted this lack of love because I felt as if I didn’t deserve any better.

2. Healing

When I finally reached rock bottom in the physical sense -- when the color drained from my face, when my skin became problematic, when the hair on my head began to fall out and I started developing lanugo on my arms -- I still didn’t see it. Concerned comments from friends and pleas to get help fell on deaf ears because I had no idea what they were talking about. I was fine; I was finally healthy. The first moment I began to grasp the seriousness of the situation was when I was on my way out to the beach and went to say goodbye to my mom. Upon seeing me in a bikini top and shorts she burst into tears.

Flash forward a few weeks to a nutritionist’s office: at my doctor’s request, they were discussing meal plans, calorie counts, serving sizes, essential nutrients I was lacking as a clinically malnourished patient. But my only takeaway was this: “We are going to force calories into your system, whether you like it or not (and we know you do not).” And I was petrified. My mental list of no-go foods was longer than the ones that got the green light and I saw no way of overcoming my discomfort and un-shrinking my stomach that was used to living off the bare minimum.

At this point, I legitimately wanted to change my trajectory and heal my body and mind—mainly for the people I was hurting around me rather than for myself. But it was a step in the right direction. So, just as everyone says you’re not supposed to, I took to the Internet in a desperate search for answers. I truly don’t know what I was hoping to find, but a few rabbit holes later, I ended up on a page of YouTube videos titled “My Eating Disorder Story”, which were mostly beautiful teenage and young adult women chronicling their descent into the world I had come to know and their heroic, hopeful journeys in the opposite direction. None of them were perfect, straight paths that promised a full recovery and the eternal banishment of body dysmorphia, but one thing that all of the successful stories had in common were a change in mindset that healed the way they see food and the way they see themselves.

Although I cannot remember every video I watched at the time, one of the first videos that resonated with me was How I Healed My Acne, Poor Digestion, and Anorexia by Ellen Fisher, a Maui-based vegan food blogger/YouTube influencer and mother-of-three who focuses raising a family on a healthy, plant-based lifestyle. Not gonna lie—when I reluctantly clicked into the video, I thought it was going to feature some hippie trying to convince me to cut back on showering and devote myself to solely consuming fruit. But it didn't, and she caught my full attention with a single sentence: “It’s such a wonderful feeling to eat as much as I desire and to continually maintain my optimal weight.”

It sounded like an impossible dream, like the way they market miracle weight-loss formulas or tie the loose ends together in fairy tales. But still her testimony continued into statements that I felt must be calling me out personally when she said, “Any diet that calorie-restricts is not long-term sustainable.” Having failed my weigh-in at the doctor’s office for a third time in tracking my progress, I was at a loss for words. I looked down at myself and shuddered in acceptance. This could only end one of two ways. It was up to me to choose the happy ending to my story, because it couldn’t carry on like this forever. So I decided to pursue this fantasyland of worry-free food consumption.

Initially, the idea was absurd to me. How could man live off vegetables alone? Why would anyone not in a pinch, like myself, do this willingly? Like any true Southern-Californian, my favorite junk food for as long as I could remember had been an In-N-Out burger, and growing up with an extensive German family, I grew up with the gospel truth that no meal is complete without meat. Whole food inputs meant optimal outputs of essential nutrients with no processed sugars or excess fats to fear. I knew I’d have to get over my fears of those along the way, but this was the best starting point for me to learn how to view food as fuel and the building blocks of a healthy, happy life for myself. Through prominent voices like Dr. John McDougall and his Ted Talks, Mr. & Mrs. Vegan and the Forks Over Knives documentary  website, I was able to explore what it meant to be vegan and get a sense of how to do it correctly. In fact, Forks Over Knives directly confronted my doubts about whole-food, plant-based eating when it said, “What it isn’t: a diet of vegetables only”.

When I eventually presented my findings to my nutritionist and proposed that I temporarily adopt this lifestyle until I regained a general sense of comfort with eating healthy portions again, she supported it with the condition that she would monitor all of my meals through photos,  and daily communication with my vigilant parents. She also recommended I start out going vegetarian since I needed to up my protein intake to make up for the deficit I had incurred and that between meals, I supplement with two protein shakes a day.

As I saw gradual progress, and began experimenting with recipes and seeing results, I found freedom and even fun in meals where I used to find only fear. My world opened up from a narrow scope of smoothies, soups and salads to enchiladas, pasta dishes and plant-based burgers. A whole-food, plant nutrients based diet no longer inspired feelings of guilt and shame, but instead presented possibilities to create food and to enjoy knowing that I was putting nutrients I trust and calories I can use into my body.

I began this vegetarian-to-vegan transition in May 2015 and when I adopted a full vegan diet that September, I had never felt better. I began to get excited about the prospects of gaining lean muscle and curves in all the right places.  I found fulfillment and victory over anxiety at meal times through eating for fullness and function, rather than a number on the scale. Consuming such clean, nourishing foods showed me that I can control my figure in a healthy way and reassured me that I can best utilize my body and mind when I am at my natural weight, which taught me to begin embracing the skin I’m in (resulting stretch marks and all).

When what started as a temporary tool for healing became an appealing, sustainable lifestyle, I decided to research the ethics and statistics behind veganism and was floored by the reports on the sustainability of the lifestyle. For example, The Guardian published that, according to a 2018 Oxford University study conducted by Joseph Poore, the single biggest way to reduce human impact on the Earth is to avoid meat and dairy, since animal farming monopolizes up 83% of our farmland yet only yields 18% of calories on a global scale. Additionally, The Guardian advocated for Poore’s findings, noting that“A plant-based diet cuts the use of land by 76% and halves the greenhouse gases and other pollution that are caused by food production.”  So, if everyone were to sacrifice eating meat for a plant-based entree just one meal a week, we could create a significant impact on sustaining the planet’s resources. It was a win-win situation! Not only was doing my own little part to show the world, its people and its animals some love, but I felt better than I had in years, inside and out!

And if you don’t believe me, listen to The Queen: even Beyoncé adopts a vegan lifestyle for a period of intense show preparation when she plans to look and feel her best. So, we can both tell you that the results are real and achieved without unhealthy restriction!

I’m not saying everyone needs to be vegan. In fact, I think anyone looking into a vegan diet should carefully consider if they have access to the proper range of nutrient-dense whole foods first and if so, check their own nutrient levels to decide if it’s feasible and if so, what to supplement. Through talking with nutritionists and naturopaths, I learned that my A-positive blood type makes a plant-based diet possible as long as I supplement B12 (which we all need to supplement, as it doesn’t occur in abundance in nature), Iron ( which I have always had a hard time balancing) and Vitamin D (which is attained through sunlight. Thanks, Chicago). I encourage everyone to listen to their body, their wallet and their medical professionals to establish a lifestyle that best suits you on every level. Veganism just happens to be the path I’m on (and if that changes, I won’t beat myself up over it)!

Don’t get me wrong, starting a plant-based diet was still a process. In fact, almost four years later it continues to be a process. My body image is still skewed, some days more than others, and certain foods give me more pause than they should. But I’ve found that moderation, rather than restriction, has been an incredible tool to establishing consistency and comfort with my eating habits, like following an 80/20 ratio of fuel-to-fun foods (80% of the time, eating to fuel my body and 20% of the time, eating whatever I crave with less attention to health benefits. To quote Marie Kondo: “Does it spark joy?” (lol). However, in all honesty, sometimes it’s a 90/10 ratio, other times it’s a 70/30 and some days, it’s way worse–but the amazing part is that I now trust and love myself enough to follow intuition and indulge my cravings. Self-love has been and I think always will be a work-in-progress for me, but there are so many voices that, from a place of love, are screaming at me to treat myself (and my body) with the same love I show others.