Anorexia nervosa, the most commonly known and deadliest eating disorder, often involves restrictive eating. Those with the illness may sometimes cut entire food groups out of their diet, so that they only consume foods they feel are “safe” (usually meaning low in calories and fat).
The clean eating fad often mirrors this restrictive behavior as well, and can lead to a more recently discovered eating disorder, orthorexia. In fact, completely avoiding one food group in the interest of being healthy isn’t actually healthy at all.
When orthorexia is discussed, only diets such as paleo/caveman, gluten-free, low-fat, and low-carb are usually mentioned. But what about a vegan diet? By not eating any animal-products, vegans forgo almost two entire food groups. And while many people who make the switch to veganism have never had any history of disordered eating, there are survivors of eating disorders who become vegan while recovering. Is a vegan diet just a guise that allows a recovering individual to perpetuate their disordered eating habits? Is it truly ‘for the animals’, or are recovered vegan individuals still struggling or in danger?
This is in no way meant to be an attack on anyone who has decided to become vegan after recovery. When I first began recovery from anorexia, I wanted to become a vegetarian and toyed with the idea of veganism. I had started an animal rights advocacy group at my school, and felt like a hypocritical traitor for still consuming meat. However, my parents were extremely suspicious of my motives, and refused to allow it.
I know many of those who have cut out meat and dairy must face speculation about their diets every day. It’s hard to get those who have watched you suffer to understand that you are in a healthy place and can make your own decisions without hurting your body. I also know that even eating vegan in recovery isn’t always easy. No matter how someone who has been through an eating disorder eats, there are going to be challenging foods.
That being said, I wanted to get an expert opinion. So, I asked a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders, Marci Evans, how she would respond if a recovering client was interested in pursuing a vegan diet. She responded with:
“Very few treatment facilities will accommodate a vegan dietary pattern. If my client was looking to pursue veganism, I would encourage them to explore their motivations for veganism as it does exclude many foods from the diet and requires a fair degree of extra food planning and vigilance to maintain. It also makes social eating with friends and out at restaurants more challenging. If my client was committed to a vegan lifestyle, I would make sure that I educate them [on] appropriate intake, balanced nutrition, and also explore their willingness to be flexible and eat foods that are “fun foods” (i.e. foods that are enjoyable, satisfying, but not particularly nutritious like Oreo cookies).”
This addresses my point about veganism being much like disordered eating in that there can be little room for flexibility, and presents challenges when it comes to eating with others. However, as Dr. Evans mentions, you can convert to veganism in a healthy way if you push yourself to eat a wide range of foods.
Ultimately, the choice is yours, but from my experience, I’d advise anyone considering veganism after recovery to wait. I’d say, return to the diet you had before the eating disorder ever entered your life, and eat every single thing the disorder ever made you fear. Eat at the restaurants you’ve always loved with your favorite people, before voices in your head ever showed up uninvited and turned the dinner table into a battlefield. Eat anything and everything from every food group and try new foods you never dared to eat before. Indulge in cake and ice cream or even over-the-top milkshakes that have both at 2 AM just because you can. Live and eat without guilt, because you’ve been bullied by your mind for far too long, and you deserve to be free.
Then, after some time, when your mind and body are back in a healthy place, start thinking about change. If you still decide that veganism is the best choice for yourself, and that making the lifestyle change won’t restrict you, go ahead and take the plunge.
It’s been four years since I officially ended treatment for my eating disorder, and I’ve only recently been able to seriously consider working towards a plant-based diet. That being said, everyone is different. You may feel ready a year or two into your recovery, or you may change your mind and decide veganism isn’t for you after all. Either way, it’s okay. You are the only one who can choose how to nourish your body. But whatever you decide, I hope you make your choice with your health and happiness in mind.