Contributor Note: Let’s be clear; veganism is not an eating disorder, nor does it cause eating disorders. I refer to veganism and a vegan diet in this piece when perhaps I should use “plant-based.” At times in what I have written, the terms could be interchangeable, but at other points, I am not pointing toward the moral movement of veganism — more so the diet. However, I have used “vegan” in the hope that it causes less confusion. I certainly don’t mean to offend.
There is a mixed bag of evidence when it comes to whether veganism is a trait adopted as part of an individual’s eating disorder, whether it is simply another means of expressing dietary restraint or whether it is simply a choice and is not related whatsoever. The truth is, it depends on the person.
There are many people who are vegan for entirely non-eating disorder-related reasons. For example, maybe they were brought up vegan. I feel for them, and for their battle to convince their care providers of this. Unfortunately, being vegan does exclude a lot of food, which can be similar to eating disorders like anorexia (for example). Unfortunately, there is no screening test, and our carers and care practitioners are likely to feel very dubious that we have suddenly become aware of practices in the food industry that we are morally opposed to, and are more likely to feel this move has its roots in our eating disorder mindsets.
Often we don’t even know or realize ourselves if it does or not.
I’m not a vegan, but do follow a mostly-vegan diet. I choose not the declare myself as vegan because, truthfully, I’m not entirely sure about whether it is an eating disorder-related pursuit or not. I go back and forth. With this in mind, I have come up with a few pros and cons of following a vegan diet/being vegan and simultaneously recovering from an eating disorder.
Pro: It’s a good “step-up” framework.
Even if you know in your heart that you have decided to go vegan as a means of continuing with a restrictive eating pattern indefinitely, it’s not necessarily a negative thing. If you have been very restrictive in the past, a vegan diet gives you a boundaried, safe framework from which to experiment a little… to branch out. I feel like the last year or two has seen a massive explosion in the number of vegan products, restaurants and recipe books and it isn’t such a restrictive choice anymore. However, it is perhaps restrictive enough to help us feel safe. I suppose if it is a step up from more extreme eating disorder behaviors, then it can’t be a bad thing… but perhaps consider it a short-term measure. If this is the case, and if it doesn’t necessarily align with your values, or how you prioritize your values then try to work with your dietitian or GP to gradually introduce more meat, fish and dairy products.
Con: It might be too restrictive for some.
It can be a very uncomfortable feeling when someone you know in eating disorder recovery is a newly proclaimed vegan and is always talking about the not inexpensive and trendy vegan food products they are filling their fridges with. Whatever their reasons, whether they are in a type of pseudo-recovery or not, it’s their own life and their own journey. If you, or the people who care about you, feel it is not right for you to adopt a vegan diet then please, don’t feel you have to. Even if, morally or ethically, you feel it is right to be vegan, eating disorder recovery time is probably not the best time to embark upon a new diet — particularly a vegan diet which can be a very risky thing to do when your recovery is somewhat precarious. Perhaps you are going from inpatient or day patient services where you may have eaten dairy products, so going back to restricting them again may not be the best thing for you. What I am saying, I suppose, is that you don’t have to be vegan right now, if ever. It might not be right for you, regardless of what your peers are doing.
Pro: Meeting your body’s needs.
I truly believe people can have a full and varied diet when vegan. With due care and attention, macro and micronutrients can be consumed to ensure all a person’s nutritional needs are met.
Con: Without proper planning, it can sometimes be hard to meet your body’s needs.
However, I also feel that people rush into becoming vegan without consideration as to how they will meet these needs. For a person with an eating disorder, or recovering from one, paying extra attention to food might not be the right thing to do. It may also be a time when your body is recovering physically from nutrient deficiencies, so cutting out food groups without incorporating other forms of proteins, B-vitamins and fats (for example) can make you more unwell.
Pro: It can make you excited and inspired!
For many people going through eating disorder recovery, the supermarket is a place to be feared. Many of us avoid all things food-related for a long time, ordering the basics online, or having someone else do our food shopping and meal prep. It might be something we rush to get over and done with. Being vegan opens up a wealth of new food products, encourages you to be creative in the kitchen and can get you trying and maybe even enjoying, food once more.
Con: Sometimes it can be an excuse.
Eating disorders like strict rules. A diet such as veganism, has rules. As someone in recovery, it is likely to be a time when your life needs to be opened up again rather than confined. And goodness knows people with eating disorders can become accustomed to rules — and to get better, recovery often requires fewer rules.
Done correctly, vegan eating can be fun, balanced and delicious. Done badly, it can be detrimental and harmful. Be honest with yourself, and your reasons for being vegan. Ask yourself if this truly isn’t about being restrictive, are you prepared to make up the calories needed in your meal plan? Consider whether the timing of starting a new diet, one which is potentially quite a dramatic shift from non-vegetarian or vegan eating, is appropriate. It is likely that during eating disorder recovery, it probably isn’t, at least not as a long-term or permanent diet change. When well, and your brain is being fed and you have cognition and are in a more established recovery, perhaps then would be a better time to consider changing your diet to align more with your values, if this is the case.
Everyone is different. I know… and you are the expert on you. I just wanted to put across some thoughts I have had as someone who follows a (broadly) vegan diet and isn’t sure if it is for the right reasons.