Don’t judge me for eating meat. Or sugar. Or carbs

Knife and fork on plate with petals

I accidentally became embroiled in a fight on social media over the weekend. Normally I don’t engage with people who are clearly trying to start an argument, as this woman was, but this comment, posted on a Facebook spiritual group page, enraged me:

“We’re all vegans here, right?”

Look, I know I shouldn’t have taken the bait, but these sort of sanctimonious statements really give me the shits (to borrow an Aussie colloquialism). I have no beef (sorry, couldn't resist that pun) with vegans or vegetarians – in fact, I admire them for the courage of their convictions – but I do have an issue with people who pass judgement on anyone whose beliefs don’t align with their own. I shot back:

“Would it be a problem for you if we weren’t?”

She replied with an attacking comment that was poorly worded and poorly punctuated (if you’re going to go shoving your opinions down people’s throats you might at least learn how to express them clearly and correctly!), basically saying that meat is murder. I wrote back:

Woman with megaphone telling off other woman
I know you mean well but it’s only fair that you respect me, and others, for my decision not to be vegan just as much as I respect your decision TO be vegan.”

Her reply called into question the extent that I could rightly call myself spiritual if I do not shun animal products. Oh boy. I wanted to reply that being spiritual is not a competition, and that if she needed to take down other people she had probably missed the point of spirituality entirely. I wanted to tell her that there is no merit in professing kindness towards animals if she is going to dish out contempt to humans who don’t meet her standards of kindness.

Instead I gently reminded her that what other people believe, or eat, is none of her business, and no one has the right to judge others for their choices. Several vegans and vegetarians weighed into this debate and complained that this woman was giving them a bad name. Which is very unfair, as the vast majority of vegans and vegetarians I've met are secure enough in themselves that they don’t need to preach or convert other people to their cause.

The thing this exchange highlighted for me is the way some people are assessing the worth of people based on what they eat.

I’m seeing this food judgement a lot lately. Look at your Instagram feed and you’ll see what I mean: there are people shunning sugar, carbs and cooked foods who think their nutrition choices make them morally superior. People who are using what they put on their plate – or, more to the point, what they don’t – to make some sort of religious statement. And they think this means they are doing life better than you are.

This deeply concerns me. Not only because the last thing we need is another reason to judge each other, but because it fosters a climate where orthorexia is more difficult to detect and, more worryingly, celebrated.

Orthorexia*, if you haven’t heard of it, is an emerging eating disorder where sufferers become obsessed with eating only pure foods. This psychological condition is very serious. Not only because eliminating anything – never mind a whole litany of things – from your diet is going to make you unhealthy and nutritionally deficient, but because orthorexia is a gateway to anorexia, which can be fatal. 

Orthorexics think about food every single minute of every day. They experience anxiety if they can’t eat foods that conform to their rigid standards. They punish themselves if they break their own rules. The only experiences that matter in their lives are tied to the integrity of what they are eating. This is the tipping point where very healthy becomes very unhealthy, and it’s an extremely destructive way to live – emotionally, mentally and physically.

Obviously, orthorexia isn’t the same as choosing to live a vegan, paleo or sugar-free lifestyle, but when nutrition choices lead people to judge others who don’t share their vision, there’s a danger that they may be taking their food philosophy too seriously. And if a commitment to a restrictive diet becomes extreme, that’s a problem.

I’d like to see us all become more accepting of what other people choose to eat. I actually can’t believe I just wrote that – like, I can’t believe I needed to write that. I dont care whether you chow down on a dirty street pie or you reach for an organic, cold-pressed smoothie. Just don’t judge me for going with the pie. Your smoothie doesn’t make you better than me.

This shows a feature I wrote about orthorexia, published in NEXT magazine (New Zealand), October 2014