Something that I’ve been contemplating in the back of my mind for several months or so now has come to the forefront within the last week. As I have sought out pro-recovery Instagram accounts and other online sources, I have noticed that there are a good number of people who are “recovered” and vegan. Since finding some of these ED survivors, I can’t help but wonder Are they truly recovered?
Upfront I want to make it clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being vegetarian or vegan. It actually is a highly respectable thing that has come to the forefront of our culture. When it is done for the right reasons I think it can be a great decision. Another disclaimer: although vegans and vegetarians are different, I have grouped them together for this post because for my purposes they are very similar in nature. That being said, at the root of being vegetarian or vegan is the elimination of foods from your diet. (Just to clarify, I am using diet in the way it should be used: defining what we eat, not the limitation of what we eat.) Eliminating foods from my diet is how I became anorexic. While I never was vegetarian or vegan, I still chose not to eat certain types of foods, which is not so different. This makes the line very fuzzy between EDs and vegetarianism/veganism.
This idea came more to the forefront for me after starting this blog. I had a friend open up to me about her ED struggles. She felt like she had recovered through veganism, but recently she has been struggling with ED thoughts and behaviors again. Veganism got her the closest she has been to recovery because it advocates abundance in food and that food is fuel. It’s great that my friend was doing better because of veganism, but ultimately it did not fix her eating disorder. I can remember her mentioning towards the beginning of this year that she went vegan. She talked about it so passionately and it made me interested, but I told myself that it would not be a good choice for me to make at this time of my life. Throughout recovery, eating disorders can change shape as you fight back. That is one thing (of many) that can make them particularly challenging. So going vegan would just change my ED, not fix it. Since then, I now know my friend has struggled with an eating disorder and that she thought going vegan helped, but at this point it has not solved her problems. Of course, there are exceptions such as these, but in general ED recovery should focus on feeling comfortable eating all foods, not restricting to certain foods.
So what is the relationship between going vegetarian/vegan and having an eating disorder? I have really started to ponder this as I’ve transitioned to eating in the cafeteria at college. As much as I know I shouldn’t, I do think about what other people are eating. It is definitely better than it was a year ago, but of course it still happens. Since there are a lot of people at my school who are very aware of important issues, there seems to be a significant amount of people who are at least vegetarian, if not vegan. My guess is most of them do it because of moral issues and maybe some for various health reason. But could some of these people have eating disorders?
Being the nerd I am I looked into it some. This article really helped clear things up for me. (Please ignore the picture that makes it seem like all anorexics are young, white women.) This topic is most certainly a complex issue. There is definitely a correlation between vegetarians and those with eating disorders. About half of those seeking treatment for anorexia are vegetarian. So then the real question becomes, does going vegetarian cause you to develop an eating disorder? Or is it the other way around where having an eating disorder means you are likely to become vegetarian? Based on the research discussed in this article, it seems like there are two important pieces to consider. If someone goes vegetarian/vegan to control their weight, they are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder because of the mentality around their diet. But also, a lot of those with EDs who go vegetarian had ED symptoms before choosing to be vegetarian. Because they are trying to control what they eat, vegetarianism is often a route taken by those struggling with an ED. The two can be very intertwined and it may even depend on the person which develops first. There is no clear answer to one causing the other.
Going vegan can be a socially acceptable way to hide an eating disorder, shown by this article. This article highlights how being vegan can perpetuate an eating disorder. It is a good excuse for not eating something. So if vegans are trying to limit the amount they eat, there may be a problem. Vegans should be focusing on eating enough protein and food in general to compensate and ensure their body stays healthy. Although being vegan isn’t inherently bad, any time people are queenly aware of what they are eating there is a risk for developing an eating disorder.
It’s hard to make sense of all this, I know. Basically the conclusion I have come to is: if you choose to be vegetarian/vegan because you dislike the meat industry and all its negative effects I say more power to ya. But if you are vegetarian/vegan who is choosing this lifestyle because of your weight or feelings of inadequacy, I would say take a step back and really assess what you are doing. I know for me personally, if I went vegan it would become an obsessive thing and I would feel like it was something I had to do, not something I chose to do. Feeling comfortable eating any food is much more important to me at this time in my life. Much easier said than done of course, but I think that I am on a good path.