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Recovering from an eating disorder, being vegetarian can be complicated

Being a mom can make those food choices even more difficult.
Healthy choices from eating disorder recovery can be more complicated.
Healthy choices from eating disorder recovery can be more complicated. [ Shutterstock ]
Published Sep. 28
Updated Oct. 8

As I sank my teeth into my veggie burger, I could sense my 5-year-old daughter’s stare.

“Mommy, why does your burger look different?” she asked in her singsong voice.

“It’s a veggie burger, sweetie. It’s made differently from yours.”

“But Mommy, why is it different from ours?” my 4-year-old son wondered.

“Well,” I said, “it doesn’t have meat.”

“Mommy’s a vegetarian,” my husband declared, exposing our children to a big word that I have tried to keep small in our household. I told them what the word meant, providing an answer as short as a toddler’s attention span, then changed the topic.

Complicated comfort

Vegetarianism has long been a source of complicated comfort for me and a point of intrigue for others. People inevitably ask: So, what made you become a vegetarian? It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot over the years, and my answer has fluctuated with the passage of time. I tell them I don’t like meat, that it’s a matter of animal ethics, that eating a plant-based diet may lower the risk of getting cancer — the disease that killed my mother when she was just 40 years old.

There is truth embedded in each of these answers, but they are a cover-up for the biggest truth of all: Vegetarianism is a remnant of the childhood anorexia I struggled with for many years after my mom died when I was 11. It’s a socially acceptable way of restricting my food intake under the guise of a “healthy diet.” Even though I’ve been in recovery for more than 20 years, I still have restrictive tendencies. They’re a hallmark of my life in “the middle place” — that sticky space between sickness and full recovery, a wilderness that many of us have to navigate as we work toward wellness.

Vegetarianism has always warranted special attention — when I was sick with anorexia as a child and still today as an adult in the middle place. At family gatherings, a relative will inevitably pull me aside and say, “Mallary, I made you a special vegetarian pasta dish that I think you’ll really like.”

Mallary Tenore Tarpley is writing a memoir about her childhood eating disorder.
Mallary Tenore Tarpley is writing a memoir about her childhood eating disorder. [ Mallary Tenore Tarpley ]

As we walk around the potluck table, I inspect the food for meat, knowing that bacon is often hidden in mac and cheese, and casseroles are almost always cooked in chicken broth. So I settle for a serving of salad and a side of the special pasta dish while everyone else enjoys barbecue brisket and hearty casseroles. I leave family gatherings feeling hungry, the outlier among stuffed relatives. “I ate way too much,” my husband will say as I listen to my stomach rumble — the sound of dedication to a diet. But is the dedication to my vegetarianism, or to my eating disorder’s imprints? The honest answer is, both.

I’ve cheated on vegetarianism a few times, but my flirtations with meat have always been fleeting. While eating at Red Mesa Restaurant in St. Petersburg several years ago, my husband gave me a tiny sliver of beef from his enchilada after I made a deal with him. “I know how much you love mushrooms,” I told him sarcastically. “I’ll eat a piece of your meat if you eat one of these mushrooms off my plate.” I wanted to be closer to Troy, to not just be part of his world but to experience it as he does, if only for one bite.

“You won’t try a bite of enchilada,” he said, knowing when people tell me I can’t do something, I usually like to prove that I can.

“Oh yeah?”

I put a mushroom on his plate and he put a small piece of beef on mine. With a look of disgust, I cut off a tiny sliver of the piece, closed my eyes and broke the rules. I expected the beef to taste unfamiliar. Instead, it tasted like home. As I chewed the meat, I was reminded of my dad grilling hamburgers and my mom sticking a fork in one and putting it on my plate.

Hit pause

Mom and Dad were never all that good at cooking meat. We ate our steak well done and topped it with mini mountains of ketchup. We ate terribly dry pork chops and slathered them with applesauce. We avoided barbecue (a culinary sin if you ask my husband and his meat-loving family), but as Bostonians we were fond of lobster.

Whenever our local grocery store advertised deals on lobsters, Mom would let me know it was time. “Alright, let’s go! Lobsters are $4.99 a pound this week. Can’t beat that!” We’d drive to the store in our 1993 bimini blue Ford Tempo and head straight to the seafood section, where we would peer into the lobster tank and ooh and ahh over the biggest ones. We’d bring the lobsters home and Mom would start boiling a big pot of water. Then she’d take the lobsters out of the bag and put them on the kitchen floor next to the washing machine, aka the starting line. Whichever lobster made it to the kitchen table first won.

“On your mark … get set … Gooooooo!” we’d yell in unison.

The lobsters, their claws closed shut with yellow rubber bands, would start meandering. Sometimes, they charged forward in a squiggly line. Other times, they just sat there, as if stunned by a sudden freedom, feigned though it was. After a few minutes, whichever lobster was farthest away from the kitchen table went into the pot first. I can still hear the lobsters’ little screams, can still see their antennae and claws moving around as they sank into the boiling water, slowly submerging. Mom would put the lid on the pot and I would wave goodbye. When the lobsters were ready, we’d eat them with unfettered joy, and I’d always leave the dinner table feeling full.

When I replay these memories in my head (and cringe at the inhumanity of the lobster races), I wish I could fast-forward the past into the present and press pause. As a motherless daughter, I want to abandon my vegetarianism and eat endless plates of butter-laden lobster by my mother’s side. But as a mother in recovery from anorexia, I know how complicated this abandonment would be. Would the separation be too much to bear? Would I equate it with a loss of self-control? Or would I find it freeing?

I explore answers to these questions with my husband, who encourages me to occasionally “eat a bite of lobster!” or “just try a really good piece of salmon or chicken!” He’s one of the few people who understands the nuances of my vegetarianism and the remnants of my anorexia. It’s why he encourages me to break free from the “healthy vegetarian” label, knowing that while vegetarianism may be healthy for my body, it’s not necessarily healthy for my recovery. For many people, vegetarianism is a green light, beckoning them toward a healthier lifestyle. But for recovering anorexics like myself, vegetarianism can be a blinking yellow light, a sign that we must proceed with caution.

At this point in my recovery, the light tends to fluctuate between yellow and green. It’s green when I find myself genuinely enjoying eating vegetarian dishes and discovering new recipes. While cooking vegetarian meals, I’ve found creativity in the kitchen, a place I used to avoid. I’ve found comfort in measuring out food without needing to know the exact calorie contents of every cup I hold. I’ve found freedom in the ability to decide what to make — to explore the multiplicities of foods and flavors and hear anorexia’s admonishments but not let them dictate my every choice. Anorexia glares at me as I cook and eat and enjoy sweet pad Thai, savory saag paneer and salty baked feta pasta. The light turns yellow. At least I’m still a vegetarian, I whisper to myself, to anorexia, in a quiet understanding that we are both compromising.

Partly because of my own complicated relationship with vegetarianism, my husband and I have made a conscious decision to let our children eat meat. I understand and respect families who have religious, cultural, ethical and health-driven motivations for raising their children to be vegetarians, but it’s not a diet I want to impose upon my own kids. I cook vegetarian meals for my children during the week, but on weekends I like watching them enjoy the meaty meals my husband makes: steak quesadillas, smash burgers, barbecue brisket. I want our children to eat a variety of foods, unencumbered by the baggage their mother hauls.

‘Can I be full?’

That night at the dinner table, after my children questioned why my dinner looked different from theirs, I finished all of my veggie burger and french fries. Trying to ignore the guilt that accompanies my own clean plates, I watched my children and hoped they would clean their own. They were close to being done, their round cheeks rosy with ketchup, their tiny fingers coated in crumbs. My meat-loving son, who had eaten all of his burger and seemed uninterested in his remaining french fries, picked one up and started swinging it like a sword.

“Can I be full?” he asked, tilting his head to the side and looking up at me. It’s a question he and my daughter ask at the end of most meals, when their tummies are content before their plates are empty.

“Of course,” I told him, with the hope that my children will always hear and heed their body’s cues. “You can be full, my love.”

If you need help with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline can be reached at 800-931-2237. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Textline.

Mallary Tenore Tarpley teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and is the associate director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. She’s currently writing a memoir about her eating disorder and recovery.