CAN YOU BE VEGAN AND RECOVER FROM AN EATING DISORDER?
Earlier this year The Economist termed 2019 the ‘Year Of The Vegan’, citing one survey that showed a rise from 0.4% of the American population in 2015, to 25% of 25-34 year olds as vegan or vegetarian in 2019.
Personally I first went vegan back in 2012 at University (notice how I say first, this will be important later). It started alongside my Instagram account and my ‘clean eating’ phase.
Can you be vegan and recover from your eating disorder?
I have thought a lot about this, whether or not to give my honest opinion, or actually to talk about it at all. Because it is a tricky subject, laced in so much more than other ‘diets’ are - plus some people within the vegan community, although compassionate towards animals, can be a little ruthless towards humans, and so even just posing a question or discussion around this can be seen as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.
But my honest answer, can you be vegan and recover?, is in most cases not completely. (The caveat to that being if came to veganism before your eating disorder).
Let’s talk about why.
It’s no coincidence that my journey towards ‘healthy eating’ and veganism went hand in hand - I used ‘healthy’ food as a way to cope with eating as I recovered from anorexia. I had just been diagnosed with osteoporosis and knew I needed to make a change, this made it feel a little more ‘okay’. In hindsight, I can see it wasn’t about food freedom, or even really recovery, but about coping.
This is something reflected within the research also. One study shows that semi-vegetarianism (aka jumping in now and then - think chop/changing diets) correlates with orthorexic tendencies (see below), and others showed that there is a higher ratio of orthorexia in vegans than there is in meat eaters.
What this suggests is that although the reasons behind someone’s veganism might turn into more than a way to control food (ethics etc) it is often grounded in a way to eat ‘better’ - it is another form of eating disorder - a quasi-recovery; coping - but true freedom? Maybe not.
So. How can we asses whether or not a recoverer’s veganism is grounded in this? Let’s talk about Orthorexia.
Orthorexia is a term coined in 1996 by Dr. Steven Bratman. It is when ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’ eating is used to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, or to feel more in control. Someone who suffers from this might find that eating foods deemed ‘unhealthy’ makes them feel extremely anxious or guilty.
Below are some useful questions that you might ask yourself or journal on to help determine your own relationship with food…
Do you avoid certain foods / have ‘forbidden’ foods? Do you get mad at yourself when you eat things that are ‘unhealthy’?
Do you ignore hunger cues? Having rules and parameters and diet plans to take place of listening to your body?
Do you spend more than three hours a day obsessing, thinking, prepping food?
Do you care more about the ‘cleanness’ of your food than enjoying it?
Is your self esteem and happiness centred around how healthy you food intake is?
Can you relax around times of celebration or with your friends/ family? Eating cake at birthdays for instance?
Has your quality of life decreased as your obsession with food has increased?
Consider your answers to these questions. And be honest, I know it sucks to admit, but does this pull up anything?
And so… what now?
You have journaled and had a good think and realise that maybe your veganism is just another branch of restriction. What now?
Well, doing this alone can be scary. So if you can work with a professional I couldn’t recommend it more*. However if you don’t, THIS website by Nicola Hobbs has some really amazing resources.
And please know. I am NOT saying that this means you can never be vegan. Nor that you can't include vegan meals within your day / week. But it's more about removing the black and white thinking, the neat boxes that we try to create in our heads.
But what I am saying is that I do not want you to never fully recover because you always perpetuated and held onto something that is actually part of your disorder. And you never truly found freedom because you kept everything in perfect lines when actually life is a bunch of squiggles.
If you are perpetuating your eating disorder, selecting safety or comfort over freedom - whatever that might look like- how can you ever truly choose?
*seriously. Investing in your mental health can give you back your life. It’s more important than anything. It enables you to live over survive. If you can. Please consider doing so. I know it can be scary. And yes, you are ill enough.