Can You Go Vegan in Eating Disorder Recovery?

I am more than five years into eating disorder recovery – so you can imagine how scary it was when I thought to myself the other day, “Maybe I’ll just go vegan again.”

To provide some background, I have been eating on the low FODMAP diet for IBS for the past several months. I’ve discovered a (genuine, medical) lactose and gluten intolerance that already makes it difficult for me to sustain my eating disorder recovery. And I recently started being vegetarian again after six months of eating whatever I wanted without question. So, when I recently ran out of lactase pills and thought “Hmmm, maybe I’ll just stop eating animal products altogether,” it brought my day to a screeching halt.

Surely, a radical statement that calls for cutting out entire food groups deserves some curious self-examination on my part. But does it warrant saying I’ve “relapsed” and seeking treatment for my eating disorder once again?

I did some research – for my own sake, and for my future clients’ – to find out what the answer was. Unsurprisingly, I found that there isn’t really a textbook, one-size-fits-all approach to going vegan in ED recovery.

Based on what I’ve read as well as my own experiences, here’s my take on going vegan in eating disorder recovery. I hope this helps you find peace in your own decision “to be or not to be” vegan – whatever that choice may be!

My Story

black and white dairy cow on green grasses during daytimeI first tried going vegan my senior year of high school, after watching the documentary Cowspiracy with my best friend and learning what a profound impact raising livestock has on our environment.  Before that, I had been vegetarian for six years, beginning when I was thirteen.

At those points in my life, my choice not to eat meat or animal products had nothing to do with my eating disorder. When I was fifteen, I adhered to a strict diet in an attempt to get down to my “goal weight” of 105 lbs. I cycled between orthorexic periods of restriction and “cheat days” where I would binge until my stomach hurt.

But I never questioned my decision to eat meat or not to eat meat: my love for animals was a part of who I was, and I thought my decision to be vegetarian/vegan said a lot about who I was.

In college, I quit the vegan diet, only to start it again my second semester of freshman year. My decision to go vegan the second time was deeply linked to my lactose intolerance and my GI symptoms, which you can read more about in my health update here.

You see, I also developed IBS sometime in high school, around the same time that I was dealing with my eating disorder and my decision to be vegetarian/vegan. However, my symptoms would not become intolerable until earlier this year, my third and final year of college, when I would finally see a GI doctor and get diagnosed.

After keeping a food diary, I discovered that a lot of my stomach issues were tied to my decision to start eating meat again as a second-year college student. So, I became vegetarian again, occasionally breaking with that choice at restaurants or family dinners, and found that it helped my IBS symptoms tremendously.

However, I still struggled with my lactose intolerance. Lactase pills helped with the maldigestion and symptoms I experienced when eating dairy products, but they were expensive and made me feel limited in my food choices. I felt like if I went somewhere without my Lactaid, I wasn’t “allowed” to have dairy.

And that’s when the thought popped into my head: “What if I just went vegan again?” I’d save the hassle of buying Lactaid pills every month – and feel like my avoidance of dairy was my “choice,” rather than a product of my IBS. Which is exactly how I ended up starting a vegan diet again – and exactly how I wound up writing this article!

The Facts

As I mentioned previously, I was honestly a little bit frightened when I found myself considering a vegan diet again. After all, I was already worried that eating low FODMAP was causing me to fall into restrictive eating patterns – and I didn’t want veganism to be a “sign” that I was relapsing.

So, to make sure what I was doing was safe, healthy and, above all, right for me, I embarked on a little bit of research about being vegan in eating disorder recovery. In that process, I found that as with anything else, there are both pros and cons to going vegan in eating disorder recovery. Namely….

Pros

  • When done right, veganism is a moral and ethical lifestyle choice, NOT a fad diet. Almost 3x the number of people who go vegan for “health reasons” go vegan for moral concerns about animal rights, according to a global survey conducted in 2019. And it’s no wonder, given the dire living conditions of livestock raised for slaughter in the meat industry!
  • An additional 10% do it for the environment, according to the same survey – which makes sense when you think about it. If you’re passionate about the environment, a vegan diet offers reduced land and water consumption and a smaller carbon footprint. In fact, one medical study shows the vegan diet’s environmental impact is 40-80% smaller than a traditional, omnivorous diet.
  • “Vegan” is NOT a synonym for “healthy” or “low-fat” or “low-calorie.” Duncan Hynes chocolate frosting, Oreo cookies, Fruit by the Foot, Lays Original potato chips, Sour Patch Kids and Ritz crackers are all vegan foods, but not exactly nutritious. Thus, you can still challenge yourself with “fear foods” by seeking out vegan versions of your favorite junk foods or “accidentally vegan” products you already love.
  • For those of us whose eating disorders have been linked to eating vegan in the past, embarking on a vegan diet again, under the advisement of a therapist, can be a way of shunning false “comforts” and ceasing to correlate veganism with your ED. With a little soul searching and a lot of hard work, you can break your mental association between a vegan diet and a restrictive eating pattern, so that veganism is no longer viewed solely as a means of controlling your weight.

Cons

  • Being vegetarian or vegan is a socially acceptable reason to turn down “fear foods.” Alternatively, openly choosing to starve oneself may raise concern from friends and relatives. There is some evidence to show that some people with EDs may adopt vegetarian or vegan labels as a way to avoid certain foods offered to them in social situations.
  • There is a community of researchers who think vegetarian and vegan diets may “mask” ED behaviors, though it is hard to say if they are objectively “right.” One study found that self-reported vegetarianism in college-aged women is a marker for restrictive eating behaviors.
  • The vegan community can be triggering for people recovering from EDs. Jordan Younger, author of Breaking Vegan (who is vegan again, by the way), puts it perfectly when she calls it “vegan bullying, elitism and judgment” as well as “radicalism.” If you “slip up” or leave the lifestyle for any reason, the PETA worshipers will always be there, ready to chew your ass out.
  • It’s difficult to gain weight on a vegan diet, which tends to be high in carbs and low in protein in fat – which is why I DO NOT endorse a vegan diet for anyone who is underweight, in residential treatment or hospitalized for an eating disorder. In those initial steps of recovery, your focus needs to be on your physical state. You can worry about saving the animals when YOUR life is saved!
  • Many residential treatment programs will not allow you to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet, so it may be difficult to find a professional who will work with your restrictions. Usually, this is not because your vegetarianism or veganism causes an eating disorder, per say, but because the restrictive nature of a vegetarian or vegan diet may be triggering for some of the other individuals utilizing that program. Still other patients may ask why your restricted eating patterns are tolerated, but theirs are not – thus hindering their own recovery process while in treatment.

My Advice

adult golden retriever taking a bathAfter hours of research, my conclusion about whether or not you can go vegan in eating disorder recovery is….it depends. “On what?” you might be thinking. Well, I’m no doctor – but here’s my take on when you should (and shouldn’t) consider a vegan lifestyle in ED recovery:

  • DO have a clear reason for going vegan. If you’re feeling a strong urge to go vegan, but can’t clearly articulate your reasons for doing so, it might be fueled by an unconscious ED mindset. Alternatively, if you have a clear reason for going vegan that isn’t motivated by weight or body image control – for example, ethical concerns for animals or the environment – focusing on that goal will prevent you from spiraling out of control and into a restrictive eating pattern.
  • DON’T go vegan if you’re not in remission, or if you’ve had a recent relapse. Unfortunately, the opinion of many experts is that you should not embark on a restrictive eating pattern until you have been stable in your recovery for many months, or even years.
  • DO allow yourself flexibility on a vegan diet. In my opinion, there’s nothing worse for ED recovery than hard-and-fast food rules. That’s why many recovery warriors turned vegans shy away from the “vegan” label, and instead choose to call themselves “plant-based” or “vegan-ish.” In other words, I believe that if you’re craving a Wendy’s Baconater, the healthiest option for your mental state is to eat the damn Baconater and move on with your life – and your vegan diet – the next day!
  • DON’T engage with radical veganism. Basically, stay away from animal rights marches, PETA events and the comments section of literally any vegan YouTube video or social media post ever. There is a small, yet significant subset of the vegan community dedicated to tearing apart anyone who questions or “cheats on” their vegan lifestyle. As someone in ED recovery, you may be more vulnerable to this type of radical language – so instead of training yourself not to fall for it, I say just avoid the “vegan shaming” altogether. After all, most people who love animals or care about the environment aren’t willing to go vegan – so you’re already making more of an effort than most by eating vegan 80-90% of the time! (And vegan or not, you certainly don’t deserve to be cyberbullied.)
  • DO keep a food and mood journal like this one, at least for the first few weeks of your vegan transition. Keep a careful watch on how selecting vegan foods affects your mindset. If you begin to notice old thoughts or behaviors cropping up as you transition to a vegan diet, it may be a sign that you’re not at a good point in your recovery to go vegan, or that going vegan may be too triggering for you to undertake at this point in time.
  • DON’T go vegan without telling your doctor or therapist. Finally, you should always make your healthcare team aware of any choices you decide to make in your diet – especially if you are in recovery. Your therapist and doctor can both help you decide if a vegan diet is right for you at this point in your ED treatment. Plus, they can hold you accountable by paying attention to your thought patterns and weight respectively, in order to alert you if they feel your vegan diet may be triggering a relapse.

What are your thoughts on adopting a vegan diet in eating disorder recovery? Tweet me your thoughts @cozycounselor!

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