Monday, February 29, 2016

Diet and Identity

In the earlier blog post on orthorexia (link) I mentioned an example of orthorexia often used by the media, a woman called Jordan Younger.  She improved her GI symptoms with a raw vegan diet and then started a blog.  But her symptoms came back and she tried a number of cleanses to fix the problem and eventually became fearful that consuming regular raw vegan food would trigger the symptoms, at which point she realised she had a problem.  In hindsight, you can see a number of factors that led to the development of her orthorexia.  I think a contributing factor may have been her blog, as the blog strongly coupled her diet to her personal identity

There are three main arguments that might lead someone to becoming a vegetarian or vegan (veg*n): environmental, ethical and health related concerns of eating meat or animal products.  Jordan Younger was most likely a lot more motivated by the health argument as she adopted a raw vegan diet to manage her GI symptoms, and because she was a raw vegan as opposed to just a regular vegan.  The health argument also seems to be more relevant for the topic of orthorexia

(Just to mention briefly, that there are definitely exceptions to the environmental and ethical arguments, where it would be permissible to eat meat or animal products and might even be the right thing to do.  Shellfish and some forms of sustainable agriculture might count and there are scenarios where someone unknowingly presents a veg*n with the option to consume meat or animal products where the meat or animal product would be consumed or disposed of anyway (such a restaurant, gift, etc).  The later should easily bypass the environmental and ethical arguments, and as a once off would have little health consequence if one accepted the health argument, but generally I’ve seen veg*ns refuse the food (not that this has bothered me) and I’ll will get back to this and offer an explanation as to why I think this happens (in veg*ns and other people)

Of the three veg*n arguments, the health argument in particular doesn’t demand an absolute avoidance of all meat or all animal products.  The outcome of the health argument (health) is relativistic (‘it’s better/worse to do this’), as opposed to a hardcore, all-or-nothing interpretation of the ethical argument (to not kill or exploit any animals) that’s quite absolutist (‘it’s right/wrong to do this’).  Minor lapses in the health argument shouldn’t be a major issue as the only thing it affects is the individual, and not a greater cause (environmental) or the rights/wellbeing of others (ethical).  Even if one holds a view that any amount of meat or animal products is very unhealthy, the absolute avoidance of all meat or all animal products is an extreme position to take.  Will this person also give up all desserts and junk food, never be too sedentary, exercise every day, sleep 8+ hours every night, practice stress management daily, never fly in a plane or look at a screen after dark, etc?  Probably not.  Everyone has behaviours that are conflict with the unattainable goal of perfect health.  This is good thing because health is a means to an end (quality of life) and not the end in and of itself, and pursuing health at all costs will almost certainly compromise quality of life along the way.  Similarly if one is motivated by the veg*n health argument and if health is truly an end, then the health argument of veg*nism should be a means to that end.  But some of time it seems like veg*nism is the end in and of itself, or in other words, being motivated by maintaining and/or promoting the identity of veg*nism.  Unlike the three veg*n arguments, maintaining and/or promoting an identity is truly an absolutist position when done right.  I think this is what explains the position of absolute avoidance of all meat or all animal products even when the individual has antagonistic behaviours to health and environmental goals or in contexts where the veg*n arguments don’t call for it

While I’ve picked on veg*nism a bit here, but the same could be said of any other dietary approach: Paleo, low carb, intermittent fasting or 6 meals a day, calorie counting, etc.  There are probably a few factors that make a dietary approach more likely to become a significant part of a person’s identity.  These may include how much the diet impacts a person’s life, such as how strict the dietary approach is or how strict its adherent makes it out to be, and whether the philosophy behind the diet affects other parts of life; and whether the dietary approach has a label.  There are also personal characteristics that can influence this such as inflexibility and a need to develop a personal identity for yourself or others (think teenagers)

Going back to Jordan Younger, by making her diet such a strong part of her personal identity this may have limited the choices she felt she could make to solve her recurring problems.  Instead of feeling able to eat animal products again, she did only what her identity allowed, which was to just raw vegan harder.  This didn’t improve her situation, as she seemed to be suffering from nutrient deficiencies, and would have likely increased her feelings of powerlessness in managing her GI health, ultimately paving the way for orthorexia to develop