Veganism and eating disorders can be a complicated mix. Which is why I have written this article to separate fact from fiction.
January marks Veganuary in the UK, which is a month pledge to try out veganism. Veganuary continues to rise in popularity every year. The sign up numbers for Veganuary this year (Jan 2022) were 850,000. This is up from last year, which was 500,000.
I want to state here that I have nothing against people who chose to be vegan, or to not be. I think it’s important to state my bias, so I will do that here too. I have recovered from disordered eating, and somewhere during that time I was vegan for 5 years. On top of that, I was also vegetarian on and off for around 5 years. Veganism was not a cause of my disordered eating, but for me it added fuel to the fire.
Veganism might have some positive impacts on the environment and health outcomes. But the jury is still out on this, there are no black and white answers here... Those with eating disorders and disordered eating may not be suited to a vegan diet. This is because any type of eating that’s restrictive by nature can be difficult during recovery. After recovery, it doesn't feel good to have heightened awareness of what you eat.
I am asked so many questions about veganism and eating disorders. The most common questions are:
Does veganism increase someone’s risk of an eating disorder?
Can you be vegan when you’re recovering from an eating disorder?
How do you know if veganism is a result of an eating disorder?
These are all big questions. And there is no one answer that will suit everyone. Unfortunately I’m not able to give personalised advice here, so please do enquire if you’re interested in working with me.
Before we dive into it, let’s cover the basics…
What is veganism?
Vegan is a term that’s thrown around quite a bit. It's a way of living that is not simply removing animal products from your diet. Veganism extends to ensuring animals are not used for entertainment. Or in things like clothing and skincare. This is different to plant-based, which excludes or limits animal products. Plant-based does not relate to animal rights or environmental concerns.
What are the benefits of veganism?
While veganism is proclaimed to be one of the best ways to eat, there’s not really much evidence to back this up. The Vegan Society states that a “well-planned” vegan diet can meet nutritional needs. It’s often said that vegans are healthier than non-vegans, but there’s really not enough research to say this.
What we do know is that the more varied someone’s diet is, the better. But food is only a tiny part of someone’s health. So the way someone eats can’t make or break health.
How are veganism and eating disorders linked?
Adopting “healthy habits” with food might not seem like a problem. But restricting foods in your diet can lead to socially acceptable restrictions. For some people, a “restrictive” diet like veganism can be a slippery slope into an eating disorder.
Does veganism cause eating disorders?
Simply being vegan does not cause eating disorders. Eating disorders are multifactorial conditions. They are not caused by avoiding certain foods. It’s commonly said that eating disorders are caused by social media - this also isn’t the case. Eating disorders are not caused by one thing - veganism for some may be the cause of the “loaded gun” being triggered.
The research into veganism and eating disorders is not clear enough for conclusions.
One study found that 50% of people in treatment for Anorexia Nervosa were some form of vegetarian. Including vegan. In fact, 61% of people in this study believed their drive to be vegetarian came from their eating disorder.
A brand-new study titled “is orthorexia the new anorexia?” aptly describes our culture's obsession with clean eating and healthism. I have a whole article here on Orthorexia Nervosa which will give more insight.
Am I vegan because of my eating disorder?
People with eating disorders may become vegan, and claim it’s about animal rights. But in reality it’s because of their eating disorder. Many with eating disorders have tried many diets. Like keto, low-carb, low-fat, sugar free, vegetarian, or gluten-free. Veganism might be another diet. What makes it hard is that someone may genuinely believe in veganism, and want to be vegan. But their eating disorder makes it a sticky situation by also making it about weight-loss. It may even be a way to "keep" some aspects of their eating disorder.
One question that might be helpful is: did your desire to be vegan come before your eating disorder? Think way before your eating disorder.
Another question to ask yourself is: would you be vegan if it made you gain weight? Or if it made you less healthy?
I’m vegan - how do I know if I have an eating disorder!?
This is not an exhaustive list. If you would like more examples of eating disorder and disordered eating signs, check out this article.
A few things that come to my mind are:
You are avoiding foods that are vegan - like burgers, cookies, ice cream, crisps, chips, ready meals.
You started off eating vegan and making “swaps”. But now you have a list of foods that you avoid because they aren’t healthy enough, including vegan foods.
You have to force yourself to eat vegan. You sometimes crave non-vegan foods, and feel guilt.
You have other eating disorder symptoms. Including restriction, purging, binging, fear of foods, and fear of weight gain.
You’re thinking about food and eating a lot - as in, most of your brain is taken up.
You feel a sense of control when you are vegan, and you feel you would lose control if you were no longer vegan.
Can you be vegan in recovery?
There are reasons why veganism and recovery don’t mix for some people. But, it’s very important to note that some people can recover from their eating disorder and be vegan. This is something you should chat with your treatment team about.
Here are some of the reasons why veganism and recovery might not mix.
Veganism may allow certain foods to be avoided. Being vegan means you can avoid foods that might be fear/avoided foods. Including butter, pastries, dairy, eggs, fresh pasta, fresh pizza, burgers, hot dogs.
Veganism can maintain your eating disorder. People who have recovered speak about how veganism allowed them to “keep” their eating disorder. Including the control that comes with it. Veganism is an acceptable form of restriction, so they were able to keep past behaviours.
You might miss out on foods you love. A joyous thing about eating disorder recovery is discovering the pleasure of food. If you have whole food groups that are “off-limits”, you aren’t having the same experience.
You need to check food labels. Checking ingredients might be unhelpful while recovering from an eating disorder.
You might miss out on eating socially, which is a key in recovery.
That being said, there’s no right or no way to recover. People have recovered from eating disorders while being vegan. Your eating disorder nutritionist or dietitian will be able to support you with this.
What you can do other than go vegan If you decide now isn't the right time to be vegan - for any reason - there are other ways to make a positive impact on animals and the environment. Here are some I have come up with, can you think of any more?
Buy second hand clothes from charity shops or Depop. Or swap clothes with friends or family. There are also plus-size clothing swaps in places like London.
Try to use reusable items, like coffee cups, water bottles, and shopping bags.
Opt for fruits, vegetables, and bakery items that aren’t in plastic.
Take part in litter picks at the beach or parks. The Marine Conservation Society organises monthly beach cleans in the UK.
Buy vegan-friendly beauty products.
I want to note that veganism is often praised as being a super healthy diet. That's filled with fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. But when in eating disorder recovery, "optimum health" (whatever that means!) is not really a top priority. Remind yourself that when you're in a better place with food and your body, you can add more vegetables into your diet. Or you can do that without labelling yourself vegan.
I hope this was helpful. Please do let me know if you have any questions or comments. I love to chat, so you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.