I’ve been vegan for just over three years and one of the catch phrases I’ve heard most often from other vegans trying to offer advice online is ‘make sure you eat enough’. This applies especially to raw foodists, a smaller subset of plant-based eaters. As you know from this post, I am one of them. The reasoning behind the advice is that raw fruit and vegetables are lower in calories, so to avoid a caloric deficit you need to make sure you’re eating enough to meet your body’s needs each day. Not eating enough is cited – anecdotally at least – as one of the main reasons people can’t stick with a raw diet. Meaning, people aren’t eating enough so they crave other foods [ and binge out or fall off the vegan bandwagon altogether ] . I mean, golly, it couldn’t simply be because other foods taste really great and you want to eat them. But I digress…
And to some extent, the advice makes sense, at least on a superficial level. But when you look closely – as I finally did after three years of unsuccessfully adhering to a raw vegan diet in attempts to cure my digestive distresses – you realize the advice might be overamplifying a nonexistent problem. In western cultures, we’re conditioned to overeat as it is. Period. It’s all in the advertising, so much so that eating well over our body’s limit is “the norm”. I could go into the issues surrounding the widespread negative impacts of modern food advertising, but today I want to hone in on one resulting problem. And that is overeating.
Coming from a background of disordered eating, I had no idea what normal, healthy eating looked like. I’m lucky in that I had met Andrew by then, and he has been able to serve as my guide in many, many ways. Growing up, he naturally gravitated toward whole-food plant based eating, and eating in appropriate quantities – habits he attributes to his self-imposed lack of social interaction – but early on I couldn’t believe how little he ate. He claimed to never be hungry while there I was beside him drinking a thirteen-banana smoothie as a single meal. At that point, I had entered the re-feeding stage of my recovery in which your starved and deprived body is finally allowed the chance to eat. And yes, most people in this stage binge out and gain some weight, but then level off after some time. However, for me all this was happening while I was listening to online long-term vegans telling us newbies to ‘eat as much as you want’ and ‘you can’t gain weight eating only fruit’ and, as I said before, ‘make sure you’re eating enough’. Naturally, coming from a past of starving to be thin, I took this to mean ‘you can eat anything you want as long as it’s from plants and you won’t gain weight’. It sounded like a miracle and I couldn’t believe no one had told me about it before – after all, it could’ve saved me 13 years of torturing myself over food.
But, lo and behold, something that sounds too good to be true most likely is. After all, even for vegans, calories in vs calories out still applies when it comes to weight gain and loss [ obviously there are yet deeper and dirtier ramifications for chronic animal product consumption but that’s for another day ] .
Anyway, a year into it I was no better. My digestion was as bad as it had ever been, and I was struggling to lose the weight I’d put on. Sure it was only about ten pounds but I felt awful and heavy and sick every single day. I couldn’t guess why all the miracle-cure promises hadn’t come true for me. So I dug deeper [ a recurring theme during my recover ] only to discover MANY examples of new vegans who had gained a ton of weight and disrupted their digestion from eating too much by listening to this rule rather than their own bodies.
Give it another two years, 20 doctors and specialists, and endless reading later and here we are today, and not one source, not even one, had given me any indication that eating too much could disrupt your digestion. My whole life I’ve been told I’m too skinny, I’m underweight, I exercise too much, with the implication being that I need to eat more and more and more. So I never once guessed I could be eating more than my body needed or could handle.
Then by sheer chance I stumbled upon an article about Ayurveda, and while I don’t necessarily understand or agree with every aspect of it [ just as I don’t agree with every aspect of the online vegan movement, as you can see by this article ] the Ayurvedic approach to eating hit a chord with me. This was the first source to directly mention eating too much as being as big a problem as it is. Just like in many traditional cultures, it is recommended that you only fill the belly to eighty-percent full at any one meal – maybe 500-700 calories worth of food depending on your size. That amounts to about two cupped hands worth of cooked food [ whereas in reality the volume can be more than this for raw fruits and vegetables ] .
As I said, it’s not just in Indian culture where Aurveda originated that this is practiced. I reference the Japanese a great deal on this blog because I love and appreciate it deeply their culture. And yet I failed to recognize this eating habit as common practice among the Japanese as well. In fact, it’s incredibly common to hear people from Asian nations commenting on how gargantuan western – especially American – portions are. And they’re right! Even to an American like me who’s conditioned to the hugeness of food portions [ and frankly everything else ] in this country, I see what most people eat as being grossly supersized.
So, long and short, I tried it. First I checked my BMR [ basal metabolic rate ] and added to that what I burn by working out each day and I swear I could not believe how low that number was. Granted, I’m still very small but I’m barely pushing 2,000 calories a day – and I checked and re-checked my calculations. I’m a long-distance runner after all [ see my book review for more on this ] so I was expecting to be closer to 3,000. That meant I had been overeating by 500-1,000 calories every day!
At first, it was tough cutting back on what I ate, but then after about two weeks it was like cutting out chocolate or salt or coffee, your body reestablishes a new baseline of expectation and it’s not hard any more. Honestly, I feel so, so much better even after just two weeks that I know I’d never go back to eating more just for the sake of eating a lot, for the taste sensation. These days I never feel heavy or full at the end of a meal, only gently satisfied. It definitely feels very different, but in a good way. I’m still eating raw food until my digestion becomes really regular, but I’m seeing improvements and I can tell my body appreciates the change. Now, even if things aren’t working as smoothly as I like, I’m not in crippling, mind-numbing pain as a result. Andrew was right, as always. And I’m grateful to have someone to mimic and refer to for guidance. I think a lot of us could use guiding lights like him to set us on healthful courses.
My hope is that through this blog I can reach even just one other person that I can help. After all, I struggled endlessly for three years trying to figure out why my health was still in the gutter. And it took months of tweaking and eliminating and testing and retesting before I really allowed myself to give in to the process. I wish I’d had someone with some sense or, god forbid, medical training, to point me in the right direction [ though Self-Healing Colitis and Crohn’s by Dr. David Klein, which I’ve mentioned before, was an invaluable resource ] . So for any plant-based eaters – any readers, really – who might be struggling with digestion, try the eighty-percent rule. I guarantee your body will thank you.