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To Eat with Joy: Healing Myself and Finding Compassion (BONUS: Kale Salad Recipe), by Gena Hamshaw

By Visiting Animal — January 28, 2013

Gena Hamshaw has appeared on our podcast more than once (most recently, she chatted with us about a study she is helping to conduct involving finding vegan solutions to GI disease). We adore everything this woman stands for, and are devoted followers of her extremely popular and prolific blog, Choosing Raw. One of about a thousand reasons we adore Choosing Raw is because it is home to the Green Recovery Series, which highlights stories of people who have moved beyond disordered eating, and, in the process, embraced a healthy vegan diet and lifestyle. Gena, who is one of the most brilliant people we know, has gone down that path herself — moving from a person struggling with anorexia, to finding her way back to health, eventually winding up as a pre-medical post-baccalaureate student working hard to devote her life to helping both humans and animals alike. Her story, which she has agreed to share with Our Hen House readers today, is full of inspiration and — if you’re like us — familiarity. If Gena is not already a hero to you, she will be soon. Oh, and because we can’t get enough of Gena’s recipes, she is sharing one of her favorites (and ours), which you’ll find beneath her story. Lastly, stay tuned for some very exciting news regarding a collaboration between Gena and Our Hen House (egad!). For now, however, you really must read on…

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To Eat with Joy: Healing Myself and Finding Compassion

By Gena Hamshaw

Gena Hamshaw

Gena Hamshaw

When people ask me why I’m vegan, I say that I went vegan for my health, and I remain vegan for animals. I first explored a vegan diet seven years ago. I was in my early 20s, suffering from chronic digestive problems and still haunted by the eating disorder that had shadowed my teen years. I was run-down and looking for health answers. When veganism delivered these answers, I became convinced that it was the only healthy diet out there, and for a while health evangelism was the cornerstone of my lifestyle.

Today, I believe that plant-centric eating is essential to good health, and that vegan diets can afford energy, vitality, and protection from chronic disease. That said, I no longer believe that there is one single dietary route to health. What keeps me vegan, then, is not my former zealotry about its health benefits, but the fact that at some crucial point along my vegan journey, the animal rights movement took hold in my consciousness, and a love of animals entered my heart. I had stopped eating red meat (for the most part) in childhood because I was traumatized by Bambi, so it would be unfair to say that I didn’t care at all about animals when I first explored a vegan diet. But animals did not factor prominently into the decision. When at last they did, my consideration of their well-being redefined my relationship with food.

My eating disorder spanned 13 years, during which it varied in severity. There were times when I barely ate, and longer periods during which I did eat, but only in a highly controlled, obsessive, and guilty fashion. The only criteria that mattered to me when I selected food were (a) was it low calorie, and (b) was it free of any of the things that reflexively frightened me – carbs, fat, oils, and so on? I would have tried any diet, so long as it might result in weight loss: low fat, high protein, low carb/grain free. I took no joy in eating, and I certainly didn’t think about the way my food choices might stretch beyond my own plate.

My choice to explore veganism came at the suggestion of a GI doctor who thought dairy might be exacerbating my terrible case of IBS (he was right). For the first few months, I was actually terrified of the diet, because I was eating so many more grains and beans and starches than I’d ever allowed myself before. It felt odd to be eating not for weight loss or fitness, but for the sake of my health. I tried to put my food choices into the context of doing something generous and nourishing for my body, rather than trying to control it.

Even with this new approach, however, I was still prone to obsessiveness. What was previously a fixation on thinness became an obsession with healthiness; though I deemed the word absurd at the time (how could the desire to be healthy ever be a bad thing, I reasoned), I was clearly flirting with orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating so strong that it is classified as an eating disorder. Fortunately, I was older and had been around the eating disorder block when this happened, so I was soon able to rein in my behaviors. The overall interest in health remained (in a good way), but the zealotry quieted. I began enjoying foods that had no health advantage to offer me, simply because they tasted delicious. And I was much happier.

At some point in all of this, I visited the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in upstate New York. I was volunteering at an event, and I heard the founder of the sanctuary, Jenny Brown, giving a speech. At one point she said (and I quote), “It’s not all about having a perfect bowel movement.” I had just spent the day staring into the soulful eyes of the animals at the farm, and Jenny’s words hit home. I spent a lot of time that week thinking about the way I’d almost deliberately blocked animals out of the personal calculus I’d done when I became vegan. And for the first time, I sat down to eat thinking not about how the food on my plate was going to make me more vibrant or “glowy” or help me live longer, but about the role it might play in preventing unnecessary suffering.

Slowly, I began to read about animal rights, and with every passing day my commitment to helping animals grew. This commitment extended beyond food choices, naturally – it also meant not purchasing products tested on animals, or supporting the leather industry – but the most significant thing I did for animals was to frame my vegan diet in a compassionate context. Along the way, I could feel my uneasy relationship with food shifting. For as long as I could remember, hunger had felt shameful, and eating had felt weak. My most valiant recovery efforts had not eradicated my tendency to feel disappointed in myself after a big meal, to swear I’d eat less the next night. Placing my focus on compassion changed all of this; after eating a meal that had prevented unnecessary suffering and that had also nourished me deeply, I felt a sense of peace. There were more things in heaven and earth, I realized, than me, my body anxieties, and my need to define myself through restraint.

Today, I still experience lingering struggles from my eating disorder, but I’m equipped to handle them, and I consider myself fully recovered. I delight in food, and I do not pick apart the nutrient benefits and health advantages of everything I eat. Life is not an endless race to be thinner, fitter, leaner, and more energetic. Most significantly, eating no longer feels like a failure of willpower. It feels like an act of joy. Because I realize that my food choices exist in a complex web, wherein the purchases I make have an impact on other living beings, eating also feels like a form of activism.

Anyone who has had an eating disorder knows what it’s like to eat alone, in a vacuum – to regard food simply as a vehicle by which one might gain or lose, succeed or fail. Veganism showed me that eating is not a solitary act. It is a personal act, of course – an act of nourishment, sustenance, and pleasure. But it is also a social act. The foods we eat impact not only our lives, but the lives of the animals (human and non-human) with whom we share this world. It’s important that we learn to look beyond our own fixations on physical self-improvement when we sit down to a meal, and consider the broader consequences of our food choices.

If you’re trapped in an eating disorder, my most sincere hope for you is that you’ll ultimately come to appreciate food’s power to do good – for you, for animals, and for our world. I hope that you’ll seek out the help you need, and that you’ll approach the recovery process with courage and optimism. I hope that you’ll start to appreciate food not only as fuel, but also as a form of pleasure and a form of activism. And I hope that this appreciation will save your life, and many others.

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How much do I love thee?

How much do I love thee?

Kale salad changed my life. It was one of the raw recipes I first discovered, and it was love at first bite. Kale salads sing when dressed with a lot of acid and fat. Use lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, avocado, almond butter, and flax, hemp, or olive oil, and be sure to throw in as many colorful vegetables as you can possibly manage. I eat this salad all the time, and never get tired of it. As I eat, I’m always grateful both for its taste and its nutritional richness. 

Everyone could use a massage (even kale).

Everyone could use a massage (even kale).

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Gena Hamshaw is a certified clinical nutritionist and the author of Choosing Raw, a blog devoted to vegan and raw recipes, animal rights, the promotion of positive body image, and a mindful approach to health. Her work has been published in O Magazine, VegNews Magazine, Food52,and Whole Living Daily. In her old life, Gena was a book editor. In her current life, she is a pre-medical post-baccalaureate student, and plans to apply to medical schools this coming spring. Having spent many years of her life battling an eating disorder and a host of digestive problems, Gena is particularly interested the mind/body connection and its role in the healing process. She hopes to bring a compassionate and intuitive, yet evidence-based approach to a career in health care.


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(16) Readers Comments

  1. January 28, 2013 at 8:11 am

    As I am currently going through another health struggle myself, this was a very timely post. I'm not surrounded by many doctors who understand the roots of a vegan lifestyle, so this reinforces my belief that I can heal without causing harm to anyone or anything else (as was suggested by adding in eggs or dairy again.) It's a challenge and I'm struggling, but at least my struggle affects only me--no need to cause unnecessary suffering for others. Thank you again for the reminder that healing can happen. It might take a lot of mental work and support, but it can be done. Love you, Gena!

  2. January 28, 2013 at 9:15 am

    What a great article, thanks so much for sharing Gena! I'm an avid reader of Choosing Raw- the posts are always informative, thought-provoking and optimistic, not least there are some fabulous recipes shared too :) I can relate so much to Gena's story having come to veganism probably for "health" reasons- or in my case this probably disguised eating disordered motivations. But on the way discovered the much wider importance of veganism and how it is a way of life not just a dietary choice and the animals are at the heart of that.

  3. January 28, 2013 at 10:21 am

    I wish people didn't self-diagnose orthorexia.

    • January 28, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      A few years later, Lauren, my therapist called it "orthorexia," too. It was self-diagnosis at first, but I agree with you entirely that clinical diagnosis is often crucial and helpful.

  4. January 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Love you, too, Abby! And yes, you can overcome this challenge without animal foods. As always, reach out to me as needed. xo

  5. January 29, 2013 at 8:24 am

    As familiar as I am with your story, my friend, I never tire of reading your eloquent retelling, as new details always seem to surface that bring me to new insights applicable to my own healing journey. And of course, I love sharing in your love affair with Kale salad, which to me has become symbolic for true nourishment - and a joy to behold! You are a marvel, dear Gena. :) xo

  6. Jodi Garland
    January 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Agreed with all of the above! I am constantly learning new concepts (and food combinations!) via your site. Thank you for sharing your personal growth! I wish I could've read this article 20 years ago! Completely identify with it, including the IBS..and the frustrations of having caused it myself. At least, it was the beginning of real change! :)

  7. January 29, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    'Life is not an endless race to be thinner, fitter, leaner, and more energetic. Most significantly, eating no longer feels like a failure of willpower. It feels like an act of joy. Because I realize that my food choices exist in a complex web, wherein the purchases I make have an impact on other living beings, eating also feels like a form of activism.' -- What a beautiful statement. I really feel this embodies my feelings towards being a vegan and recovering from anorexia. Thank-you for sharing your beautiful story Gena, you're an inspiration!

  8. January 30, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    "Inspiriation" is always the first word I think of when I think of Gena. Thank you for this. :-)

  9. July 17, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    I love this. I already know about your story Gena but everytime I read it, it inspires me even more to help myself become to the stage of full recovery without the need of hurting harmless animals!

  10. July 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    This is another amazing piece, Gena. You truly are an inspiration to those of us who battle with eating disorders yet strive to be 'good' vegans. I, too, have been struggling with an eating disorder for more than half of my life, but the only refuge I've found has been veganism. Focusing on my values and my devotion to animals, vegan and animal rights is my biggest motivation to recover. I continue to thrive for a healthy relationship with food, and you give me hope that it is possible.

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