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Vegan Eating Disorder Recovery

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Vegan eating disorder recovery is possible.  However, this is not the right decision for everyone. The decision to pursue a vegan eating disorder recovery journey should include: 

  • Your doctor
  • Your dietitian 
  • Your therapist

For someone in eating disorder recovery, it is very important to first identify why that person chose to have a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. 

When the eating disorder and the vegan or vegetarian diet started hand in hand, a vegan plan in recovery is not appropriate.  

It’s important to ask yourself a few questions when you’re thinking about why you choose not to eat animal products. These include: 

  • Why did you become vegan/vegetarian? 
  • Does eating meat products create a sense of fear and panic? 
  • Would you consider modifying your vegan/vegetarian lifestyle if the choice felt ethical for you (for example eating eggs or honey from beings you knew were never harmed?)
  • How did meat FEEL in your body the last time you chose it 
  • Do you find yourself with strong emotional reactions to data about animals or the environment that might not be research based? 

There is no one right path to whether someone who is currently following a vegan/vegetarian plan should remain that way in recovery. This appropriate treatment approach will vary from person to person. 

Let’s explore some things to consider when we think about being vegan in eating disorder recovery.

Does Being Vegan Cause Eating Disorders? 

No.  However, there is certainly a link between identifying as vegetarian and having an eating disorder. In fact, 50% of those that are diagnosed with eating disorders follow some type of vegetarian diet. 

Does being a vegetarian or vegan ensure that someone will develop an eating disorder? Absolutely not.  

To explore the relationship of the vegan/vegetarian diet to the eating disorder we need to examine: 

  • Reasons for vegan/vegetarianism
  • Length of time someone has cut out animal products from the diet 

Becoming vegan CAN cause an eating disorder. Likewise, an eating disorder CAN result in adopting a vegetarian/veganism lifestyle. It’s sometimes difficult which one influences the other, or if they are connected at all. 

Veganism is a socially acceptable way for a person to 

  • Restrict food
  • Openly discuss food rituals
  • Create off-limits foods or fear foods that are socially appropriate 
  • Tie in ethics to restrictive practices 

Can I Be Vegan In Recovery? 

Yes. You can be successful with eating disorder recovery and still maintain a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. 

A vegan eating disorder recovery journey may be appropriate if your decision to be plant based came long before the eating disorder started.  If your reasons behind going plant-based include

  • Ethics (compassion for animals)
  • Religious practices

Then it might be appropriate for you to maintain a plant-based lifestyle in recovery.

It is important to note however that each residential or outpatient program has its own criteria in which types of foods will be mandatory in the recovery process.  

The decision to choose a vegan eating disorder recovery journey should not be taken lightly. Your healthcare team including a HAES dietitian should be part of the decision-making process. 

Some key indicators that veganism is PART OF  the eating disorder include: 

  • Adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle to change the body weight/shape or size
  • Additional restrictions outside of the plant-based diet (for example someone choosing a keto vegan diet). 
  • An obsession with the vegetarian or vegan diet for health reasons rather than ethical reasons
  • A vegan/vegetarian diet is associated with rapid weight loss, restrictive eating, excessive exercise or other harmful behaviors 
  • You feel an urgency to eat clean or prep meals/snacks at home to control what goes into them
  • You’re focused on choosing organic foods 

If this is the case for you or your loved one, and you are in eating disorder recovery, the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle should not be part of the recovery journey.

Vegan Eating Disorder Recovery

What will vegan eating disorder recovery look like? 

This will be different for everyone. Vegans in eating disorder recovery will receive support 

  • In outpatient settings 
  • In residential treatment centers
  • In hospital settings 

The journey of someone that is vegan/vegetarian recovering from an eating disorder will be similar to others with eating disorders. 

The main difference will be the types of protein in the meal plan. 

For those who are vegans in eating disorder recovery, your dietitian should prescribe a meal plan: 

  • That meets your energy including needs for weight restoration 
  • Uses plant proteins instead of animal proteins
  • Has a similar protein composition to someone who is consuming animal products

If you are in eating disorder recovery and you are vegan or vegetarian, your meal plan will NOT be lower in calories or protein.  

Protein during vegan eating disorder recovery will likely include: 

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Textured vegetable protein
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Faux meats
  • Nuts/Seeds

For those following a vegetarian diet, dairy products will be included in the meal plan in addition to these items. 

Vegan Anorexia Recovery Meal Plan 

Anorexia recovery typically involves the need for weight restoration. 

Those following a vegan meal plan will likely need to consume a higher volume of food than those consuming animal products.  

The difference in the volume of food in a vegan anorexia eating disorder recovery meal plan might cause both physical and mental distress for patients.  

It’s important to consider that for some people, the weight restoration process can result in hypermetabolism in anorexia. This will significantly increase nutrient needs 3-5x what is usual in anorexia recovery. If this happens, it will likely be very difficult to meet your nutrition needs on a plant-based diet.

Sometimes, resuming animal products can be beneficial for the duration of recovery.  The healthcare team and the patient can determine if some or all animal products are best to incorporate during recovery. 

It can be important to consider that food guilt around meat and dairy products may be especially triggering if a former vegan is put onto a recovery meal plan that includes animal-based products.

Is Veganism a Form of Orthorexia? 

When “quality” of food is a person’s fixation rather than  “quantity” we typically see the emergence of orthorexia.  

Vegan and Vegetarian diets are appealing to someone with fixations about food quality as they are promoted to be: 

  • Heart healthy
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Geared to increase longevity
  • Antioxidant rich
  • Promoting weight loss 
  • Ethical
  • Clean

Veganism is not in itself a form of orthorexia. However, if someone with orthorexia has adopted the vegan lifestyle as one which is highly restrictive and emphasizes health above all else it is likely a form of orthorexia. 

Vegan Binge Eating Disorder Recovery

Someone who identifies as being vegan may experience binge eating. 

This may be related to: 

  • Intentionally restricting food intake on a vegan diet
  • Unintentional food restrictions resulting from a lack of familiarity with vegan foods 
  • The natural restrictive nature of a vegan lifestyle

Regardless of the reasons we are choosing to be vegan, it is inevitable for most that we are restricting access to foods that we once enjoyed. 

This can cause a vicious binge restrict cycle.

Before you think of pursuing a vegan eating disorder recovery while suffering from binge eating disorder it’s important to consider: 

  • Reasons behind going vegans
  • When the binge behavior started
  • If you desire to shrink your body size
  • Your relationship with the scale (are you fearful of the scale)
  • Your relationship with animal products (for example are there other things that feel scary about these rather than them just being animal-based)
  • Food restrictions and rituals that do not involve animal products

If you began noticing binge eating behavior around the time you became vegan, it might be best NOT to pursue a vegan eating disorder recovery journey. 

However, if you have been a long-standing vegan, a vegan eating disorder recovery journey may be important. 

It is also important to consider your reasons for going vegan. For those that use veganism as a form of “healthism”  an eating disorder recovery plan that is vegan is probably not appropriate. 

The Facts About Recovering From An Eating Disorder As A Vegan/Vegetarian 

It can be difficult if not impossible for a person with an eating disorder to separate out if their desire to not consume animal products comes from a place of compassion for animals or is fueled by an eating disorder. 

If you would like to remain vegan/vegetarian in recovery it’s important to: 

  • Fact check the current knowledge you have related to animal-based products
  • Examine your relationship with why you became plant-based 
  • Be honest with yourself and your healthcare team when it comes to foods you restrict and why

Choosing to be plant-based as a result of having compassion for animals goes both ways.  

What I mean by this is: You are an animal too.  You deserve the same love and compassion you feel for the animals you protect. Sometimes this means resuming eating animal-based foods for a span of time or permanently for your emotional and physical wellbeing. 

I also remind my patients that at some point in the food chain, living organisms MUST be consumed.  I say this from a place of someone who IS vegan and runs a nonprofit animal rescue.  

What I mean by this is that the dogs and cats I rescue must consume other animals to stay alive.  To deprive them of this would be to cause extreme harm or death to the very animals I rescue.  

Nothing is black and white when it comes to the choice to consume animal products or not, especially when it comes to recovery from an eating disorder.  We need to take all variables into consideration.

© 2022 Peace and Nutrition

 
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Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!