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How Veganism Can Both Help and Hinder Eating Disorder Recovery

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Within the community of people whose lives have been impacted by the tight grip of an eating disorder, veganism runs rampant—both as a diet and as point of contentious conversation. Among social media platforms in particular, many of us who have made it out of the darkest of waters, when our eating disorders were the most laden on our joy and livelihood, have shared with our small or large communities about the role of veganism in our recovery. For as many individuals who share the abundance and vibrancy veganism has brought to their recovery, there is an equal counterweight of individuals who somberly reflect on how veganism was yet another means for their eating disorder to thrive and flourish in secrecy.

In April 2017, three months after I discharged myself from an intensive outpatient program (IOP), feeling hopeless and alone in my ever growing struggles with binge eating and desperate to return to veganism, I created an Instagram post in efforts navigate the conflicting narratives I had received about veganism and eating disorders since I entered treatment for anorexia nervosa a year prior. Underneath a picture of dairy cows from my university’s campus farm, I wrote a list of six bullets that outlined the contentious relationship among my eating disorder, my recovery and veganism. In the caption I wrote:

I originally went vegan because I saw a video that said you could go vegan, eat whatever you want and lose weight.

This is the crux of the eating disorder recovery and veganism dilemma.

The thin ideal is embedded in vegan culture, with the diet often cited for its health benefits, energy boosting effects and, for the eating disorder, ability to stimulate effortless weight loss. Plant-based foods, especially whole foods, are promoted with orthorexic language, with a sanctified purity. Animal-derived foods, on the other hand, receive negative labels not to describe the morale quandary of consuming and capitalizing upon the suffering and slaughtering animals as sentient beings, but to denounce the nutritional components of these foods—cholesterol dense, fat laden and so on. To someone in the midst of an eating disorder, or what may become an eating disorder, veganism is an easy distinction between “good” and “bad” foods. A list of foods that will make me fat is quickly formed.

Yet, at the core of vegan culture is also abundance, which is what makes it so appealing to people with eating disorders who are desperate to escape the restriction and deprivation that governed not only their food choices but their every waking decision. Veganism feels like the miracle cure. The food is limitless and bountiful. It challenges the all-carbs are bad notion that dominated diet culture since the Atkins diet. And the best part, for those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired but still desperately needing the security of thinness, you can stay thin while eating. Maybe not your lowest weight thin, but thin enough to tolerate some weight gain, the weight gain that is necessary to survival and no more.

While I have painted a very black white picture of veganism’s role in eating disorders, I only do so in efforts to provide context to the gray area that exists between these two ends of the spectrum. These are the ways I have seen veganism discussed and acknowledge by those with eating disorders. Each story is different, and I do not intend to discredit the ways in which veganism may have saved a life. However, as yet another vegan who is recovering from an eating disorder, I am unafraid to look critically at how veganism can become distorted by mental illness and how it can be a lifeline to recovery.

In my own story, I found vegan culture as toxic despite a deep resonation with the animal rights movement. In 2015, when I went vegan, a variety of fad vegan diets were circulating social media. High carb, low fat veganism became my holy grail, but calorie counting was my eating disorder’s first love. No matter how many thin white women on YouTube told me that potatoes could be eaten by the sack without fear of weight gain, the intensity of my own inadequacy, loneliness and shame prevented me from indulging in any more than a handful of vegan foods with caloric contents that I knew by heart.

Being forced to abandon veganism while in formal treatment for my eating disorder was soul-crushing and fear-inducing. I felt guilt for the foods I ate, not only because I knew of the weight that I needed to gain, but also of the lives that were not mine for the taking. I was envious of the girls who chose veganism as a way to recover independently, who got to stay thin as they did what I always wanted to do all along—eat in abundance, without fear, without feeling fat. They got to be happy.

As my recovery stabilized, I did return to veganism. I challenged myself to have vegan ice cream, donuts, mock meats and vegan meals at restaurants. Veganism did not make me lose weight when I strived for balance and counteracted my urges to restrict. My vegan diet was only a reflection of my ethical decision to no longer contribute to the horrors I saw in the animal agricultural industry. Nothing more. Even though I may still struggle with my relationship with myself, my food and my body, the eating disorder no longer has its teeth sunk in veganism.

I am but one story and one experience. Several other people have spoken publicly about how veganism intersects with their eating disorder recovery journey. Sam Dylan Finch, a digital creator, writer and mental health and LGBTQ+ advocate, wrote about his own realizations, “I was the self-righteous vegan Pilates nut that thought I had it all figured out. Spoiler alert: I had an eating disorder, and a lot of internalized classism and fatphobia.”

Another, Cami Petyn, an indie singer/songwriter formerly known as Supreme Banana online, has been open about her mental health and past eating disorder on her social media. She recently published a video on her YouTube channel reacting to her old “What I Ate Today” videos, in which she was following fad vegan diets. Cami reflects on how veganism allowed her to finally recover from her disorder but also “allowed [her] to metamorphosize [her] eating disorder into just a more palatable form.” Even though she was not actively restricting, Cami states that she still struggled with obsessive and disordered thoughts around food and her body image—something that many who enter into quasi-recovery through veganism can understand.

Among these stories, we see varying shades of gray. Veganism has the capability to both help and hinder eating disorder recovery. While many argue that veganism is innately restrictive and, therefore, has no place in recovery, from my own personal experience, balance in a vegan diet is possible. My veganism does not have food rules or rituals, but there are some behaviors I engage in that would be triggering for some. I still check ingredients list of new foods I haven’t had before to ensure they are vegan. I still have to look up the menu at restaurants when eating out with my friends and family, so I know beforehand that they will have something for me to eat. I still decline to spontaneously eat food brought in by co-workers or classmates because none of the food is vegan. While I choose to make these sacrifices to uphold my veganism, for some these behaviors may be eerily similar to the days lost to their eating disorder. For this reason alone, you are valid to choose recovery over veganism, over the animals and over the planet. You deserve to protect yourself first and foremost.

To me, the most damaging aspect of including veganism in recovery is how it promotes the thin ideal. While there are fat vegans on social media, we rarely see these individuals at the forefront of the vegan movement or eating disorder recovery communities due to fatphobia. Thin women, who have overcome their eating disorder or disordered eating through veganism, oversaturate this space. While in eating disorder recovery, we have to address our internalized fatphobia and let go of the desire to achieve the thin ideal. In my experience, comparing myself to these influencers only induced more shame and guilt—partly because thinness wasn’t a part of my recovery and partly because I knew I wasn’t ready to be vegan again just yet.

Recovery can be a lifelong journey and so can veganism. Veganism and recovery do not have to be black and white. While some may decide at the beginning of their recovery journey that veganism only fueled their eating disorder and stay steadfast in the decision to no longer be vegan, others may adhere to a vegan diet most of the time and still give themselves permission to eat non-vegan foods when they crave them. Some may find vegetarianism to be aligned with both their personal values and their recovery goals. And some, unfortunately, may have to go through periods of trial and error to truly understand how veganism impacts their eating disorder and their relationship with food.

So, how can you know if veganism is right for your recovery? While the answer may not be straightforward or clear, we have to start by taking a hard look at our intentions—a task that may not be easy to do on our own. Ask yourself: what would I get out of going vegan?

Maybe it would provide a sense of control and structure. Maybe it would lessen the guilt and anxiety around eating. Maybe it would align with your personal values. Maybe it would make you feel clean, virtuous and good. Maybe it would keep you at your smallest. Now ask yourself this: Does your reason align with your recovery? Or does it just grow the eating disorder?

Continue to ask yourself these questions throughout your journey. Know it is OK if the answer changes or if your answer differs from that of your treatment team. Recovery is something we have to choose to commit to every day, and veganism may not always align. But when it does, the option is there if you want to take it.

Image via Yoojin/Adobe Stock

Originally published: April 12, 2021
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