Vegans Shouldn't Ignore the Existence of Eating Disorders
In the fight to dissociate from "clean eating" and spread an ethical message, vegans like myself risk forgetting that disordered eating can exist alongside veganism.
To go vegan is to develop ultimate awareness of what you're putting in your mouth. You find yourself walking supermarket aisles, checking the packets for suspect ingredients. Ahead of going out to dinner with non-vegans you study the menu online. You become hyper-conscious of what you're consuming, exerting a new level of control over what enters your body.
Eating disorders are also about control – not just control over food, but also yourself, your life, something. That's a mantra some patients will be taught in treatment, and one you'll recognise as a horrible truism if you've ever had disordered eating.
Anecdotally, there's another, clearer, link between these two things: some people suffering from eating disorders turn to plant-based diets as part of their recovery, or afterwards, either purposefully or inadvertently – a shift that can bring with it its own new set of challenges.
Jade, 23, had been a vegetarian since she was very young, so, after her recovery from an ED, researched veganism and found it to be the next logical, ethical step. "But, for me, it became a way to hide my eating disorder," she says now. "I was able to say, 'I can't have that because I'm vegan' about almost everything. I wasn't looking for alternatives, like swapping almond milk for milk; I was just cutting it out altogether. Eventually I didn't know what was me being vegan for true, ethical reasons, and me being vegan because of my eating disorder."
Lauren Milici, 24, from Florida, recovered fully from bulimia, and describes subsequently going vegan to appease a vegan boyfriend as like "putting an alcoholic back in a bar".
"I started to get off on the control aspect of it, much like I had with my bulimia," she says. "I was restricting myself, while in actuality I was feeling really euphoric because I was eating next to nothing. I started bingeing, buying meat products and eating them in my car, and then puking again. As long as I was puking up the non-vegan products I wasn't cheating on my new diet."
Within the online vegan community, there's a palpable bristling when eating disorders are mentioned. It's understandable, given that vegans frequently have to fend off comments about faddy eating, have their motives constantly poked at and get asked outright, as I have, by older family members or sceptical friends whether you have an eating problem, while smashing a huge plate of potatoes. For years, weight loss was at the back of most vegans' minds when they made the change, and veganism's association with the dangerous "clean eating" trend is something I pushed back against in a VICE piece in 2016, outlining how much beige vegan junk food and carbs I – and many other vegans – eat continually.
Except veganism doesn't exist in its own weird separatist bubble, as it once did. Society has never been more obsessed with food. The first time I learnt about veganism in-depth was after a friend recommended a book called Skinny Bitch, a hard-talking diet book that essentially tells you if you're vegan and cut out sugar, caffeine and so on, you will be skinny forever. If you search the vegan hashtag on Instagram it's mostly endless rows of skinny, toned bodies and photos of fruit and veg.
These days, people clearly are coming to veganism to lose weight; it would be naive to discredit that fact. And while losing weight and disordered eating are two very, very different things that can never be conflated, in the fight to dissociate from "clean eating" and spread an ethical message, vegans like myself risk forgetting that disordered eating can exist alongside veganism.
A prime example of vegans failing to look outside their own world was an opinion piece run by the Metro last week that attacked another blog, Not Plant Based. NPB is a safe space for people who have or had disordered eating, having followed a diet that removes food groups (such as a plant-based diet). Full disclosure: it's joint-run by my friend Eve Simmons, a 26-year-old who developed an eating disorder after getting wrapped up in wellness culture.
In the Metro piece, the author says the NPB blog name – obviously tongue-in-cheek – "shames" those who follow a plant-based diet; that this name and the blog itself is being run "at the expense of a group of people eating their way to making [sic] a difference in the world", i.e. people following plant-based or vegan diets.
This is demonstrative of the inward-thinking of some vegans that places veganism on an untouchable pedestal, utterly separating it from the existence of other diets and from eating disorders. Throughout the smear piece of an online ED safe space, there is no reference to clean eating or wellness's link to EDs.
As annoying for vegans as it is, if the crossover between vegan diets and "clean eating" has happened, it's important to acknowledge that disordered eating can be a motivation in choosing a vegan lifestyle, and can spontaneously erupt to live uncomfortably well alongside veganism – with or without "clean-eating". A vegan diet is undeniably "restrictive" next to the average Western diet. And do we know that restricting food groups can be a trigger for an eating disorder? Simply put: yes.
"[With] a huge number of the clients, we have found that their disorder was triggered by some form of restricted eating," confirms Emmy Brunner, founder and CEO of The Recover Clinic, over the phone. "Even when you pursue a certain lifestyle choice due to ethical reasons, potentially you can find yourself being more mindful to a point of being triggered by those behaviours." Susan Ramwell from Ellen Mede Centre for Eating Disorders agrees, telling me in an email that while many people can navigate veganism healthily and successfully, "for certain groups of people who already have difficulties with eating, whether that is physical or psychologically, such as an eating disorder, the vegan choice further complicates an already complex problem".
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Not Plant Based receives a lot of private messages from people who are vegan or used to be, but had to stop because they got an eating disorder after restricting. "Making a big change to your diet that is difficult to uphold is, by its very nature, going to attract a certain type of person," Eve says. "Whenever a restrictive diet becomes trendy – as veganism has – that's great for people who want a rulebook to keep their weight down."
Emmy says that many eating disorder clinics won't take vegans. This is due to the fact that so many sufferers follow a vegan or near-vegan diet. "The first thing someone with an ED will often do is restrict their carbohydrates and fat content. That can mirror very closely what a bad vegan diet looks like," she explains. "Because of the environment we're living in, someone presenting with an anorexic diet and someone presenting with a certain type of vegan diet could be misconstrued as one and the same."
It's difficult, therefore, for both patient and mental health professionals to work out a treatment plan. Emmy's clinic does take vegan patients, however, recognising the importance of supporting a patient's moral views. "For us it's important that we unpick the motives behind why someone has made those lifestyle choices to begin with," she says. "Was it because they've got a strong ethical view, or was it motivated by having a socially acceptable way of restricting food? If people say in treatment that they want to become vegan, however, we're quite firm about that."
The vast majority of vegans will never get triggered by the lifestyle change. In actual fact, any uncomfortable feelings I had around food dissipated after going vegan – it was a relief to shift my relationship with food to being about the outside world rather than my own body, to consider the environment, the animals I wasn't harming. I'm not alone in having such a positive mental response to going vegan.
Vegans can help potential vegans by showing compassion. Don't get indignant if others are slowly making the transition by cutting out one animal product at a time, or if people fail and slip back to vegetarian, saying it's the right choice for them. It's so common to see vegans be black-and-white about how people make the change to veganism, or paint their transitional experience as the universal one. If I'm honest, it's an understandable knee-jerk reaction to think: don't be a baby; if you believe, believe; if you're in, you're in. But for some people – especially women who have been most affected by diet culture – it's extremely important to take it at a comfortable pace.
I asked Emmy what advice she'd give to people wanting to go vegan safely from a mental health perspective. She said to get as much advice as possible on how to be a healthy vegan, and to focus on supplementing animal products with alternatives. Mind you, the shift isn't always the best idea, no matter how you mitigate it.
When Jade had to quit veganism because of her eating disorder, she told a friend that she felt wracked with guilt: "It's so difficult – I feel like I failed because my morals and my ethics completely agree with this lifestyle, yet because of my eating disorder I can't do veganism 'right'."
Sometimes the best thing for your mental health is to not be vegan, and that's a sour pill for any vegan to grapple with – but it's something we should all acknowledge.
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