Identity is powerful. It informs our sense of belonging, both within ourselves and outside in community. Feeling that we belong is fundamental to health and happiness. It can bring great peace and happiness, but what happens when our place of belonging no longer fits, or becomes harmful to us?
Identity comes from all sorts of places -- like gender, religion, region -- and how we eat.
There's only one problem with making declarative statements about your diet, like "I'm a raw vegan", or "I'm paleo" - holding onto these statements can make you rigid in a world, a body, and an identity that is actually constantly changing. Identity takes a strong hold to declarative statements that sound simple and suggest that we're part of something bigger. Statement like, "I'm paleo," or "I'm raw vegan" can be tricky to let go of after we've stated them to ourselves - and even harder after we've declared them to others.
Self-imposed dietary restrictions inevitably come and go, just as seasons change, the body ages, and our psychology matures. It's a lot harder to smoothly let go of way of eating and let another in if you've based your sense of identity around it.
Identifying with your diet can make it hard to listen to your body's cues about what it needs. Imagine that you have been eating a raw diet for six months and feel fantastic. But life brings change -- things get stressful, a nutrient deficiency develops, access to good quality raw produce dries up... or your body just wants to consume something else. The ability to adapt to the changing needs of your body, mind, and community is healthier than any type of constant, restricted diet.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for raw vegan diets. There's nothing wrong with eating under strict diet guidelines if that is your jam right now. There's nothing wrong with identifying with that kind of diet, either... But it helps to be aware that strong identity adds rigidity, and it may become an ethos. Having an ethos implies that there are ethics behind your actions. If you're going to become rigid, you may as well do it for ethos that reflects your values.
Wait, isn't this a pro-vegan blog? What about veganism? Isn't that an identity?
It sure is, and it's an identity built around ethics rather than food choices. The "restriction" in a vegan diet is a result, not the foundation; the foundation of veganism is an ethical choice often based on values of compassion, authenticity, service and gentleness (among many others, these are just my favs because they encompass the four virtues for life as described by Laozi). Ethics are integral to our growth as fully formed people in this world; to have an established set of ethics and to act with integrity is a mark of maturity that can fill us with a sense of peace, meaning, and belonging.
Identity is where veganism is different to plant-based diets. A plant-based diet is more flexible than strict veganism because it's less identity-driven, and therefore less rigid. This is great if you are just eating plant-based for your own personal health -- it leaves plenty of room for switching it up as your circumstances change. Plant-based diets are good for your health and for the health of the planet -- but embracing a vegan identity can give you much more than physical health.
But what about the rigidity. Isn't it bad?
Rigidity helps to maintain a lifestyle built around your ethics. The rigidity of a vegan identity reflects how much it matters to be a vegan in this world right now. Identity can help keep you on course. Think about it as a foundation that you're building your day around. The rigidity of a vegan identity helps strengthen the resolve to stick to a plant-based diet -- and to treat all beings with kindness (even those stinkin' omnivores). The rigidity of a restrictive diet based on no ethics is only "bad" or risky because it stops you from listening to clear signals from your body.
Okay but won't a rigid vegan identity stop me from listening to my body too?
Here's a nutritionist faux pas I love to make: A vegan diet is not restrictive. There are no nutrients missing. It has been shown time and time again to be the most effective way to eat for longevity and health. It can accommodate every way of eating -- raw, cooked, deep fried, re-fried, sugar-coated, whole food. You can restrict a vegan diet (vegan keto dieters do exist!) but the vegan part isn't restrictive in and of itself. It might feel that way when you first kick the cheese addiction, but trust us -- you'll cope. Your body doesn't need cheese. All diets are tricky to get adequate levels of essential nutrients all the time; every type of diet needs some tweaking to meet our physical needs as our bodies grow, change, and transition -- and vegan diets are much easier to balance than others.
Your body will communicate with your mind, no matter what you're eating, when it needs more or less of certain foods, nutrients. It's up to you how to interpret those signals, and how to meet those needs.
Friends and clients have told me that transitioning to a vegan diet was the first time they heard their body -- for some, that came as loud cravings for cheese during the transition period; others described feeling as though their body was "grateful" for the shift. Both the "negative" cravings and the "positive" feelings of gratitude are feelings; feelings are temporary and transient, but these experiences can serve to reconnect communication between mind and body. Use the time of change to listen and respond to yourself, with compassion.
Embrace rigidity based on your ethics and values. Let it strengthen your character and mature you, so that you can take care of yourself and others. Pay attention to your body's communication, and if you need it, I'm here to help you meet what it's asking for.