Like any millennial woman who grew up with low-rise jeans and SlimFasts for breakfast, I struggle with eating disorders. But unlike many of the beautiful, multi-talented women I know who have a variety of interests, food has always been my number one favorite hobby. This puzzled me because every time I tried to lose weight I was alarmed at the prospect of cutting out the one thing in life that has always been a reliable source of joy for me: eating as much as I want.
So it’s no wonder that I, like so many others, fell victim to the bizarre raw-food craze on the internet in the mid-2010s. This diet (which was billed as definitely not a diet) involved eating large amounts of raw plant foods. Carbs were fine as long as they were consumed in the form of bunches of bananas or raw carrots, but fat of any kind was a no-go (although the occasional avocado — my favorite — was allowed). Proponents of this diet claimed that this way you could eat as much as you wanted without gaining weight. Perfect! A disorderly eater’s dream come true.
My entry into the world of raw veganism started with the YouTuber FullyRawKristina, who, in retrospect, made some highly dubious health claims from the start, one of which was that her eye color changed because she only ate raw fruits and vegetables. While I knew that claim was almost certainly bullshit, I still believed in the aesthetic of their massive, colorful salads and smoothies, which were packed with enough sugar to turn anyone into a diabetic. She sold not just a diet, but a “healthy” lifestyle that included eating large amounts of watermelon and exploring tropical locations, a supposedly “cleaner” iteration of the era’s digital nomad craze.
FullyRawKristina certainly sold a toxic lifestyle, but she was by far the worst character in the raw vegan YouTube space Freelee the Banana Girl, who famously advocated eating 30 bananas a day. Her Raw Till 4 diet mercifully included potatoes and sometimes even pasta (which inexplicably wasn’t eaten until after 4 p.m.), but her videos chronicling her eating habits also often included intense weight framing and outright bullying. Often a corner of the video was dedicated to a video of Freelee doing squats, implying that I, the viewer, should also get my ass up and do something with my life to get “fit,” ie, get skinny.
Freelee and other content creators like her flocked to Chiang Mai, Thailand, a hub for digital nomads, in the mid-2010s to eat fruit, go on vigorous daily bike rides, and broadcast their insufferable, largely uneducated views on nutrition to their audiences to impressive teenagers and young adult viewers, mainly women, who began to copy their unsustainable and, frankly, not enjoyable diets in order to achieve sophisticated lifestyles. Many of these influencers claimed that eating this way cured their eating disorders, but to me, at least, these super-strict rules about what is and isn’t “clean” were damaging and distorting.
Of course, not every vegan YouTuber of the time went to the extremes of Freelee or Kristina, but a high-carb, low-fat vegan diet was a common thread connecting many of these influencers. But in 2019, that particular corner of the vegan YouTube community began to crumble. Popular influencers Stella Rae, Bonny Rebecca, and Yovana Mendoza started incorporating animal products back into their diets, likely because their high-carb, low-fat vegan diets were incredibly difficult to sustain. They faced fierce online backlash, with critics questioning their ethics. But I wonder how much ethics had to do with it at all; from my point of view, the focus actually seemed to be on the aesthetics. I can’t help but think that a movement more based on ethics might have had a different outcome — although it might not have been quite as appealing if wealthy, thin white women hadn’t promoted it.
I’ve never been very successful at maintaining a raw vegan diet or anything like that. There are only so many times you can wrap a date in a lettuce leaf or munch on a ten-banana smoothie in one sitting before realizing that eating this way takes a lot out of life. Not to mention the extreme bloating and even weight gain that many followers of this type of diet have suffered from. Overall it just wasn’t worth it for me. Despite staying vegan for several years, I learned that eating olive oil or a Beyond Burger wouldn’t destroy my health.
I wish I could say that I learned important lessons about body acceptance and fashionable dieting during this experience, but like most women, I think food and nutrition is something I will always grapple with. What I’ve learned is that I’ll never try to convince myself of that again oil free raw vegan lasagna is as good as the original and I will never be denied that again. I think that’s growth.