Veganism and Eating Disorders

Before I get into the nitty-gritties of everything, I just want to disclose that I am no psychologist, eating disorder specialist, dietitian, or medical professional. Please do not use my content as medical advice for eating disorder recovery. ALSO, this is a super lengthy post. If you read this entire article, thank you so so much for your support and I hope you enjoy it!

When you dive deeper into the vegan community on social media, you will notice that a lot of users have had experience with food restriction or binging, and many others have had a full-blown eating disorder with the two most common being anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder, though I am sure more than plenty of vegans have had bulimia nervosa as well. But anyways, long story short, quite a lot of ED patients found light with veganism. In fact, a big deal of them state that veganism actually cured their eating disorders. However, can you really take their word for it?

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To be fair, I don’t know these people, so I am pretty certain that they are being 100% honest when they say that veganism enabled them to break out of their unhealthy relationship with food. When one discovers the true meaning behind being vegan—practicing compassion and respect towards sentient non-human beings, the environment, one’s health, and in some cases, the economy—he or she develops a strong sense of purpose as being an activist. This is how veganism can actually benefit recovery; it shifts the focus from eating out of restriction to eating out of compassion. You DON’T want to eat animal products because you don’t view them as food. At least that’s how I began to view animal products—items that aren’t food.
Even I have found some help from adopting a plant-based diet: I no longer restrict my carbohydrate intake and I don’t obsess over protein like I used to, and I freely enjoy indulgent foods when I can. Food is nourishment and fuel for my workouts and everyday routine. I’ve been eating a lot more since going vegan and I’ve never felt better. However, like anything, there’s a catch.

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Sometimes, you can trade an eating disorder with another one. I notice that a lot of individuals in the vegan community (at least online) have this stigma against fat (ESPECIALLY oil), salt, mock meats, and vegan junk food. The high carb low fat (“HCLF”) vegan diet used to be extremely popular, and it was almost a disservice if you didn’t follow this kind of diet if you were a vegan. Thankfully, this high carb low fat craze has died down since the last two years or so, hence you’ll see more online vegan users/influencers incorporating larger amounts of fat into their meals (because avocados). Same with the whole foods plant based diet (WFPB). More people are embracing meat alternatives, cereals, tofu, bread, and even different kinds of junk food (because sweet potato fries).

The prevalence of “cleaner” vegan recipes is incredible, which is why a lot of plant-based meals are useful for dieting. You will notice that many vegan recipes are labeled oil free, fat free, and salt free. The only caveat is that most plant-based dishes are higher in carbs and sugar than their non-vegan counterparts, but at least they’re not lacking. In addition, they are also sometimes higher in calories because of the higher carbohydrate and/or sugar quantity. However, the emphasis on eliminating oils and salts when possible isn’t entirely healthy in terms of mental relations with food, let alone how veganism is viewed as a whole. It can be seen as bland, restrictive, and boring.

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My last point concerns the obsession of physical composition in the vegan community because veganism is often touted as a weight loss diet. A few years ago when “thinspo” ruled the Internet, the vegan community took serious advantage of this trend and praised the extremely lean figure with protruding abs and, for ladies, a thigh gap. If you were curvy, plus-size, or even just a little chubby, people wouldn’t believe you were vegan. However, just like any other trend, this “thinspo” era transitioned into the “fitspo” era, and more vegans now aim to gain muscle. While there are more health benefits in terms of becoming fit versus thin, it is easy to become obsessed with a certain body ideal and feel insecure if your body doesn’t fit into that category. Just recently, actually, more and more people are pushing a movement of “body positivity” where you need to accept yourself at any size. In my opinion, this is the most ideal embodiment of physical diversity. We NEED fit vegans, smaller-built vegans, curvy vegans, plus-size vegans, and average-Joe/plain-Jane vegans.

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Say you’ve experienced anorexia or any form of food restriction in the past and try veganism. At first, it’s incredible and you only seem to progress forward. However, you come across a few triggering elements in your journey, whether it be a new vegan “diet” that heavily reduces certain food groups or a vegan Facebook group dedicated to water fasting (yet ANOTHER fad diet that I won’t go into much detail about because it speaks for itself). Maybe you find it extremely triggering to pick “safe” foods/restaurants or to refuse food from family/friends because you’re not sure if it’s vegan. Maybe it’s hard to feel satisfied and you lack a sense of control or rationale while eating–you go through a box of veggie patties, a pound of salad greens, a single bundle of bananas, and a jar of peanut butter until you FINALLY feel so stuffed that you want to die.

Depending on your triggers, your approaches will differ:

  1. If there are certain vegan resources online who may entice the desire to restrict or binge, unfollow immediately. You may even have to block these websites or users. Do whatever you need to do to remove any triggers from your virtual environment.
  2. As for sticking to “safe” foods that are automatically vegan (i.e. steamed vegetables, salad greens, potatoes, tomato soup, a side of beans, etc.) or restaurants that will provide you with your “safe” foods, force yourself into a situation where you don’t have control. I know this sounds extremely terrifying, but you cannot conquer your fears if you don’t face them. Go out with your friends to this new restaurant, don’t ask any questions to the servers, eat whatever you think is the closest item to being vegan, and don’t give a FLY about whether or not the dish you  ordered is vegan (unless you experience an unpleasant physical symptom, which in that case, yes, please ensure that your food is plant-based!).
  3. When you feel like binging, evaluate your current diet and your mindset towards food. Do you restrict any foods, food groups, or macronutrients? Are you not consuming enough nutrient-dense food? Have any cravings for animal products such as eggs, cheese, and/or chicken? Is there another void in your personal life that you’re attempting to stuff with food?

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Now, I’ve never been diagnosed by a professional, but I have experienced disordered eating patterns that I have spoken with psychologists and therapists about (I was with them for other purposes dealing with my personal well-being, but my relationship with food was discussed). If you’re curious about my personal experience, I have dealt some problems with my obsessive behaviors around food. My relationship with food is healthy overall, but there are days where I still hesitate on eating certain foods at certain times because of the presence of refined carbs, saturated fat, oil, too many calories, or heavy amounts of salt. Sometimes I tell myself, “Now’s not the time”, “You don’t really need that”, or “Wait until another day when you haven’t eaten as much”. Other days, I will finally have the time to buy myself vegan junk food and I’ll overeat past the feeling of fullness, only to hate myself for the rest of the day. It’s not as easy as pie.

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Truth be told, some people will seriously, seriously struggle with going vegan because their eating disorder is just not yet solved or even acknowledged. As my unpopular opinion would say: don’t turn to veganism. It is not a cure nor is it a priority. If you have a serious issue with restricting food, please seek professional help and do not try to become vegan right away. Your mental health and happiness always come first. You can conquer your fears of cream cheese bagels, red meat, and frozen yogurt with plant-based alternatives, but you may need to eat the real deals to truly understand and cope with your fears. Who knows? Maybe you will turn back to veganism when you are mentally and emotionally ready to eat for the animals, the environment, and your health.

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At the end of the day, everyone’s recovery journey is very different. What may work for someone else may not work for you. Read everything with a grain of salt and experiment for yourself. Here are just some of my summarized thoughts about what recovering ED patients should expect with veganism:

  1. Do not expect to be cured the moment you go vegan.
  2. Don’t go vegan if you will use it to mask an eating disorder.
  3. You will experience benefits from veganism, but you may run into some triggers.
  4. Always ensure that you are sufficing your nutrients and maintaining a healthy weight range.
  5. The ideal diet for you may be high in carbs, low in fat, high in protein, high in fat, low in carbs, mostly raw, mostly cooked, or whole-foods-plant-based by default. But, do not legitimately tell yourself to avoid anything that may not seem the healthiest.
  6. Focus on nutrient-dense food, but embrace more refined vegan foods such as meat alternatives, non-dairy milks, fortified cereals, etc. as often as you believe you need to.
  7. Seek professional guidance and social support.
  8. Channel your energy in other areas of veganism not pertaining to food. Great examples: animal activism, fast fashion, environmental sustainability, spiritual enlightenment, and more.
  9. When you experience a craving for a non-vegan food, you can do one of two things: consume a viable substitute, or eat it and move on.
  10. Again, PLEASE remember that everybody’s recovery path is individualized. Experiment with all kinds of recovery methods and see what works best for YOU.
  11. If all else fails, don’t be afraid to take a break from veganism. But reconsider it as soon as you are mentally and emotionally ready, because it truly IS a wonderful lifestyle change!

What are your thoughts about the connections between veganism and eating disorders?


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