I remember my very first McDonald's cheeseburger. Vividly. I was around seven or eight years old, in the back of my babysitter's car. I have no clue where we were off to but I do remember driving through the drive through and picking up a happy meal. Up until this point, I didn't care much for food. To say I was a picky eater is an understatement. My mother constantly struggled to get me to eat. I was the kid who was always forced to sit at the table until I ate my dinner, and whether by tears or by making my meal inedible by dousing it in too much ketchup, I'd eventually find a way to free myself without ever really touching my food. So when I bit into that cheesy, salty, fatty flavor bomb of a cheeseburger, I felt something that I had never felt before while eating: pleasure.
I would spend the next decade and a half constantly seeking that same feeling, and I would always find it. Bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, gigantic, greasy slices of pizza, french fries covered in mysterious cheese-like substances, sweet & spicy general tso's chicken - I spent my adolescent and young adult years indulging and overindulging in all the junk food that New York City had to offer. By my sophomore year of college, I'd eaten myself up to 242 pounds, and despite all the pleasure I was deriving from food, I was more depressed and anxious than ever.
It would take a couple more years for me to realize that I had quite a destructive relationship with food. I constantly sought pleasure from food because it was the only way I knew to soothe myself. Since that fateful day during my childhood, food had been the answer to the worst of my emotions. Rather than dealing with them directly, I would stuff them further and further down until I no longer had to contend with them. I would binge on food until I was stuffed and uncomfortable, and though it was a fleeting moment of pleasure that would subside all too soon, I was glad to feel even the slightest bit better. I was a junkie, and food was my drug.
A week after graduating from college, I ended up in the hospital with what would turn out to be a panic attack. I had spent years pushing my feelings to the side and covering them up with food so that I could cope long enough to get shit done. But I eventually learned that it's impossible to avoid these feelings forever. I realized that I needed to focus on my health and well-being, and I eventually embarked on a journey of health and wellness.
Within a few years, I'd lost 60 pounds, I was powerlifting to deal with my mental health, I was fitter than ever, and I'd even become a certified personal trainer. Everything was going great, until a series of triggers plunged me into a deep depression. Of course, my instinctual response was to seek comfort in food, and the more indulgent the better. My weight was steadily creeping back up, old ailments were starting to rear their nasty head, and new ones were beginning to appear. I was terribly unhappy, caught in a web of despair that seemed to have no end. My unhealthy relationship with food was a symptom of problems that were much bigger than I wanted to admit. At the urging of my husband, I sought therapy.
I don't know if I would have adopted a vegan diet were it not for therapy. Months of working through my problems allowed me to settle into a more rational head space. Rather than running from my problems, I was tackling them head on. One of these problems was my health. I didn't feel healthy and I had to take a deep, honest look at myself. Despite all my book knowledge, despite all my knowledge of health, nutrition, and fitness, I wasn't taking care of myself. Because honestly, I just didn't give a fuck.
In an attempt to clean up my diet and improve my health, I did tons of research that eventually led me to a vegan diet. I'd tried it briefly many years before, but I did not have the nutritional or culinary knowledge that I do now, so I fell off that wagon all too quickly. This time, however, there was much conviction behind my decision to adopt a plant-based diet. I was tired of feeling like shit, and I was tired of treating myself like shit.
I did not expect, however, that going vegan would drastically change my relationship with food. I no longer seek pleasure from food because honestly, I don't feel the desire to. Nourishing myself with nutrient-rich foods has done wonders for my mental health. I now know what it's like to experience sadness and anger without being entirely consumed by it. I couldn't believe that it was possible until I read the same testimony from others. My depression, which has been with me since childhood, has totally disappeared. Further research into the relationship between mental health and nutrition has confirmed for me that yes, plant-based diets can greatly improve depression. I now realize that food is not only fuel, it is medicine.
Now that I no longer eat my feelings, I am able to look at my food in a more objective and rational way. Most of the time, I am eating to nourish myself. I'm now in tune with what my body needs to thrive, not what my mind needs to feel better for a brief moment in time. I eat to fuel my newfound love of running, I eat for boundless amounts of energy, I eat to look good, feel good, and most importantly, I eat to thrive. With all this as a foundation, the occasional plant-based indulgence becomes all the more decadent, and best of all, I no longer feel guilty about what I'm putting into my mouth.
Even greater than all of this is that I've also been able to take a good honest look at myself and realize that the food I eat has an effect on so much more than just me. From the sentient beings whose lives are lost, to factory workers toiling in unsafe conditions, to poor communities that are being sickened by living near unhygienic factory farms, there are countless lives that are affected by the food I put into my mouth. The notion that I can contribute to suffering by helping to create a market for "food" that I don't actually need no longer sits well with me. Not to mention the environmental impacts of carbon & methane emissions, deforestation and overfishing.
I am not at all deprived, I eat lots of delicious food, and I'm a bigger foodie than ever. I now take pleasure in knowing that my actions match up with my values and convictions. I no longer eat out of emptiness, but from a place of love. Love for myself, love for animals, love for my people, and love for my environment. Veganism has helped instill in me a sense of responsibility for the Earth that I live on and all the beings that I share it with. And that is the most pleasurable thing of all.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. I'm an independent Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness Coach hailing from the Bronx, NY.