Plant-Based Diets, Intuitive Eating and My Diet Story

By Alexandra Caspero on May 12, 2017

My diet story; we’ve all got one, don’t we? At least those of us fortunate enough to be able to restrict and choose food as a choice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my path over the last few weeks, most recently after a conversation with a fellow intuitive eating RD who lamented the fact that she didn’t understand how I could promote a plant-based diet to my clientele. Which, sadly, is a fact that is so dominate in the non-diet/intuitive eating/eating disorder world, it’s suspicious to talk against it. Years ago, after graduating grad school, I was not offered a job at an inpatient facility based on my diet choices alone. I was told that while they thought I would be great at the position, they felt like my choice of being a vegetarian would be triggering for some patients.

So many thoughts race through my mind when these two topics come up; I feel a sudden, urgent need to talk about it. And, in that, comes my own story. About failure, imperfection and how a plant-based diet changed my life.

My Diet Story

I come from a family of fairly healthy eaters; my parents are both European (one Danish, one Italian) so food is our life-blood. The kitchen was is the soul of the home, and we gathered there more than any other room in the house. I have such fond memories of coming from school, throwing my books across the kitchen table and pulling a chair up to the counter to help my mom with dinner. I know this is where my love for food comes from; I was born into it.

While my mom was on so many different diets growing up, food was usually cast in a positive light. We ate relatively normal, though more vegetable-based than my friends. My mom was aware of including lots of vegetables, including both a side and salad at almost every meal. My dad is a big hunter and fisherman, so most of our meat options came from his catches. I have visceral memories of deer, turkey and the fish being butchered in our garage. While it may have made me popular with the boys in the neighborhood who were dying for a glimpse, it planted a very real image of where meat came from at an early age.  It took a while to seep in, but eventually, it did.

The first time I announced I was a vegetarian was high-school. I’m fairly certain I had no idea what a vegetarian was, I just knew that I didn’t like lunch meat and wanted a different option for my school lunch. I invented the weirdest combos to try to weasel my way out of turkey, the most common was wheat bread topped with strawberry jelly and raw oatmeal. I think I ate that with a side of french fries from the school cafeteria for most of Junior and Senior year.

Then, college. Vegetarianism was out and the all-you-can-eat-buffet was in. I fell back into eating hamburgers, pepperoni on midnight pizzas and chicken nuggets. I don’t remember what the transition was, but it wasn’t an event. My friends were eating meat and suddenly, I was too.

Things fell apart sophomore year; a coupling of a tragic breakup and not being able to find my way out of it. My sadness was at an all time high, comforted only with self-destructive behavior. Eating became less and less of a priority, and I quickly dropped 15 pounds in the first few months. Naturally, everyone freaked out. My mom and my work manager threatened me with anything they could think of, and my friends began to comment on how thin I looked.

It’s easy to look at that time and classify it as an eating disorder, but that’s not how I remember it. I wasn’t eating because I was scared of food or wanted to lose weight; I wanted to punish and hurt myself in the process. Thankfully, as time heals all wounds, I bounced out of that phase months later and regained my purpose, worth and appetite in the process. I’ve got so much love for that 19 year old and I hold a kind and understanding space for her; pain has many faces and that was mine.

Fast forward to another year and another breakup (That’s college in a nutshell, right?). This time, as I lay crying in my friends bed, she gave me a copy of Diet for a Small Planet. I have no idea why this was recommended reading during this time, but it clicked. I read it cover to cover and proudly announced that I was going to be a vegan.

No one believed me. My mom swore it was a phase and rolled her eyes anytime I reminded her that I didn’t eat animal products. Which, I didn’t. For a while. I felt truly alive on this diet; I had zero health complaints and I felt like finally, my actions aligned with my beliefs. I was honoring that 6-year-old girl in the garage, bawling over the deer that was being hung by it’s legs. I was honoring what I knew about the sadness of factory farming and environmental destruction and loved that I didn’t need to be part of it. I started a blog (!) sharing my favorite animal-free recipes and things were going pretty great.

Until, I started sneaking bits of cheese. Then yogurt. Then eggs. I wanted these foods so badly and felt like a fraud that I was eating them behind closed doors. I had spent a long time being proud in my diet and wrestled for a while about what these cravings meant. By now, I had completed graduate school and been working as an intuitive dietitian for a bit. I knew the heaviness in my decision and what it meant for my mental health, so I dropped the label.

Peace, at last.

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Today, I’m a plant-based maven. Plant-based doesn’t mean the absence of, it’s the inclusion of and that’s why I feel so good using it. I eat plants! A shit-ton of plants! And sometimes I eat cheese. Somedays I’ll have an egg burrito and it’s all OK. I choose food that makes me feel good and I honor my body. I haven’t had a craving for meat since that second turn and don’t anticipate that I ever will. Of course, if one day I wake up and can’t imagine life without it, then I’ll have to address that need then.

To me, eating this way is such a positive place of being, even if I had a few set-backs in getting here. Eating plants is the most nourishing thing we can give to our bodies; the association between a plant-based diet and longevity, a decrease in chronic disease, and the health of the planet is as strong as we’ve got.

This is the beauty in the term plant-based; it doesn’t discriminate and it’s inclusive to all. It says, hey! Let’s fill our bodies with more plant-foods. That’s my mission. I don’t care what the rest of your plate looks like, but I think we could all benefit from more vegetables, fruits and legumes.

So, yes, you can be an intuitive eater and plant-based. You can be an intuitive eating and vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or whatever else you want. Being an intuitive eater doesn’t mean you have to eat all available foods, it just means the option is there. For me, I don’t eat meat not because I can’t or am scared to do so, I choose not to for many ethical reasons. Choosing is power.

Intuitive eating is about choosing what foods feel best to you, regardless of labels, rules and sometimes, nutrition. As long as your reason for choosing a pattern of eating feels authentic to you and your beliefs, you can have it both ways.

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P.S.- In the next few weeks, I’m tackling the topic of intuitive eating and eating healthy. 

The Ultimate Plant-Based Protein Cookbook + Course

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Meet Alex Caspero

Alex Caspero is a Registered Dietitian, New York Times Bestselling Chef, and mom of two. She aims to cut through the nutrition noise by providing real-life, nourishing tips for body and mind. Learn more about Alex.

(16 comments) leave a comment

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    1. Amy
      December 27, 2018 AT 10:58 am

      Wonderful, balanced, freeing article! Thank you.

    2. Nora
      August 21, 2017 AT 11:57 am

      Hi Alex! I’m so happy I stumbled upon your story. 🙂

      I’m plant based, and am just recently exploring my own history of disordered eating, and trying to become more “body positive” and an intuitive eater. I’ve been reading a lot about it, and while it makes a lot of sense, I’m also trying to figure out how it works with the fact that I’m plant based.

      What’s coming to me is that, at least for me, this way of eating is about ABUNDANCE, not restriction. I love eating plant based and am never bored with it. Restriction to me at this point would be cutting out all sugars completely, or all carbs, or all fat, or something like that (all of which I’ve been tempted to do).

      It’s so nice to know there are others out there like me, so thank you for sharing.

    3. Deborah Raphael
      July 29, 2017 AT 10:13 am

      I love this article! I am a vegetarian and do intuitive eating. It works for me, so I’m happy to see that I’m in good company. I ended up sharing this article on my FB business page (My Mind My Body) because I want others to hear our similar message.

      1. Alex
        August 1, 2017 AT 12:48 pm

        Awesome- thanks for the share Deborah!

    4. Tam May
      July 29, 2017 AT 9:45 am

      I really appreciate this post, as a vegetarian who recently started intuitive eating and who very well might move to veganism sometime in the future.

      However, I think it’s worth pointing out that the term “plant-based” should be used with caution. It’s become a buzz word in the diet world to refer to a very specific and restrictive breed of veganism – the whole foods, no-oil plant-based diet (like McDougall, Barnard, The China Study, etc). I spent 9 years trying to be vegan and fell into these whole food plant-based diets, reading a lot of their books, before starting to eat intuitively. To me, these diets are not conducive to intuitive eating because they demonize certain vegan foods (like oils, and some restrict also whole plant-based fats and sugars that don’t come from whole sources) and followers can be quite fanatical about it. I remember a thread in one of these WFPB forums a while back were someone asked if unsweetened organic applesauce was OK to eat and she got attacked for eating a processed food rather than the whole food (i.e., the whole apple). I don’t consider putting an organic apple in a blender with a little salt and water in the same category of processed foods like Oreos and Lay’s Potato Chips and I don’t think that’s a concept conducive to IE.

      Sorry to be so wordy :-).


      1. Alex
        August 1, 2017 AT 12:55 pm

        Hi Tam! Thanks so much for your comment. And, you’re right- the term plant-based has a different meaning depending on who is using it. I like using the term because it shows that my diet is filled with plants, but I have no problem adding in french fries, ice cream and cheese from time to time. However, you make great points on how this is perceived. I’ve been thinking a lot lately on labels and how I can showcase the type of recipes I offer, under the largest, inclusive umbrella possible. Unfortunately, I’m seeing more and more of this vilification around certain foods, and the “plant-based” movement is certainly the culprit of much of this. While I appreciate all of the work that McDougall and Barnard (and others) do, I think there are various paths to optimal health and will continue to use (and recommend) fats and oils to my clients. There is also so much negative focus on “processed” and “clean” eating, with perfect being the goal instead of do-able. Hm, I feel another article coming up! 🙂

    5. Caitlin J
      May 15, 2017 AT 1:04 pm

      As a plant-based RD myself, I could not have put my feelings any better! I often feel that people don’t fully understand what I mean by plant-based and feel somewhat pressured to fit into a box. Like you, I feel best to have flexibility in my diet, it makes meals times less stressful too.
      I have been meaning to learn more about intuitive eating for a while now, and just recently purchased a book to read along with a pt of mine. Looking forward to your up coming posts!

      1. Alexandra
        May 17, 2017 AT 3:04 am

        Awesome! Thanks for your comment! I think whatever your diet is, as long as you feel like you are the one “choosing” the foods, then it works!

    6. Casey the College Celiac
      May 12, 2017 AT 7:21 pm

      Thank you for this. I think plant-based best describes my own dietary choices right now. At first, I felt pressured to be 100% vegan…I think there’s such an expectation of hearing “yes” when someone sees you posting pictures of vegan food on your blog/instagram and asks if you’re vegan. Now, though, I’m striving instead of listen to my body and see where it takes me. Most days, that means lots of veggies, avocado and black bean chili. Some days, it means a burger. And I’m learning to be OK with both 🙂

      1. Alex
        May 13, 2017 AT 12:00 am

        Hi Casey, I love your comment so much- thanks for sharing your story. I think that’s the message I wanted to get across in sharing mine, sometimes labels do more game than good. I felt really good with a vegan diet… until I didn’t. Until the label felt like a trap that I had to conform to. Now, though I eat 80%ish vegan, I don’t feel any pressure to do so. It’s what feels best to me and I don’t wrestle with anyone else’s definition of what’s right but my own. Listening to our own bodies is one of the most powerful messages we’ve got. Thanks again for the comment! Alex

    7. Sönne
      May 12, 2017 AT 11:57 am

      Loved this post! I’m really looking forward to your upcoming posts about intuitive eating – something I still struggle to do in a way.

      1. Alex
        May 13, 2017 AT 12:01 am

        Hi Sönne, so glad you enjoyed it, thank you. Yes, stay tuned- I’ve got a few more posts around this topic coming soon.

    8. Rosey M
      May 12, 2017 AT 10:48 am

      Great post! I saw a lot of similarities to my story as well. Can’t wait to read more

      1. Alex
        May 13, 2017 AT 12:01 am

        Thanks Rosey!

    9. Molly
      May 12, 2017 AT 7:42 am

      This was such a great post with lots of really, really good points. Thank you. 🙂

      1. Alex
        May 13, 2017 AT 12:02 am

        Thank you Molly!