Back to the veganism and eating disorders conversation 18


I wrote a post sometime last year now about my opinion on why people who have suffered from an eating disorder such as Anorexia cannot, and should not be vegan.

When I wrote it I assumed that I would get a fair amount of backlash from vegans—I expected criticism and welcome it. My aim is usually to write about these things in order to start a discussion around them, and I’m far too old and cynical to get upset when people don’t agree with me. Sometimes discussing uncomfortable concepts that we don’t really want to talk about gets messy, and that’s okay.

So I’ve thought about it, and I’ve considered other points of view. But I still stand by my original statement: a person who has or has had an eating disorder should not embark on restrictive diets such as veganism.

Because you still have an eating disorder, you’re just camo-clothing it

If a clown walks down the middle of a busy high street at noon, that clown stands out like a sore thumb. If a clown walks around inside a circus tent … not so much.

If a person with an eating disorder is surrounded by other people who eat “normally,” the ED is very noticeable. If a person with an ED surrounds themself with other people who restrict the foods that they eat, then the ED gets hidden. In fact, in that population of people, the behaviour looks normal.

You can even kid yourself that you are recovered because you are eating “like other people.” (Even if those other people only eat vegetables, right?)

You’ve still got an ED, you’re just camouflaging it.veganism and eating disorders

Because veganism can become culture-based, one can immerse oneself in that community and never step out of it—other than to frown with contempt at a person eating a burger, or cheese, or anything that you don’t approve of. You can only go to parties held by other vegans and convince yourself that what you are doing is normal and that the wider population is wrong. And that, is exactly what your eating disorder wants you to do.

Why do some vegans claim that becoming a vegan cured them of their eating disorder?

I’ve had a couple of people write to me and tell me that I am wrong because being vegan has cured them of their eating disorder. So why is that? Why do some people really seem convinced that they are all recovered and that becoming vegan cured them?

(Again, this is my opinion …) Because they can’t see it anymore. Because they surrounded themselves with other people who are displaying massively restrictive and often obsessive food behaviors. Because they have removed themselves from the general population and inserted themselves in a culture where their eating disorder can thrive, be celebrated, and even give them a higher social status within that population.

Veganism did not cure you of an ED, it just allowed you to believe that your ED behaviours are normal.

Does that mean that nobody can be a vegan?

No.

That would be like saying that nobody can drink alcohol because some people are predisposed to alcoholism. Eating disorders are brain-based illnesses, so if you don’t have one and you want to be a vegan, bully for you!

Additonally, if you have not suffered an ED, your body is in a much better place to deal with not eating the nutrient-laden saturated fat found in meats, dairy, and eggs. Not true for someone like me, who’s body dealt with a state of starvation for almost ten years.

I’m not passing judgement on veganism here and frankly if you don’t have an ED I don’t give a shit what you eat or don’t eat. I’m saying, however, that if you have a mental illness that expresses itself by food restriction, food obsession, diet-like behaviours etc, etc, that you can’t jump into a pool of people who don’t eat anything but vegetables and declare yourself “recovered.”

Why do I care?

As I’ve explained in my book, I walked that path. During recovery I latched on to veganism too, and it took a lot of soul searching and truth telling for me to admit that I wasn’t being vegan for the right reasons. No, I was being vegan because it was easier than fighting anorexia for the next level of recovery. I’d got as far as three meals a day, and it had taken me years to get there, wasn’t that enough?

Nope.

It wasn’t easy to start eating dairy and meat again because they are so much higher in fat than vegetables are. Vegetables are so gloriously safe, aren’t they?

It wasn’t easy, but I am so very thankful to whatever it was that gave me the gumption to do it. My body needs all the wonderful nutrients that meat and dairy and FAT contain. My skin, my hair, my period, my life, all came alive when I started eating fat again.

If you have an ED, and you are a vegan, I’m not telling you my opinion on all this simply because I am trying mean. I’m telling you because I have been there, and it felt like a halfway-house for me, and if that is true for you too, I’d love to motivate you to understand why you should fight harder.

Additionally on the physical side of the argument: If you have had an ED, your body has been through a lot, and it needs all the nutrients it can get to recover optimally. Sure, there are tons of nutrients in veggies, and you should eat a lot of veggies, but there are also different nutrients in fat that you need.

 

TL;DR: If you have an eating disorder and you surround yourself with people who severely limit and restrict the food that they consume for one reason or another, you can kid yourself that you are normal.

Compare yourself to the general population, however, and you are not eating normally.

You’re still restricting food, you’re just camouflaging by surrounding yourself with other people who are also restricting food.

 

So yeah. That’s what I think; what’s your take?

 

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About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.


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18 thoughts on “Back to the veganism and eating disorders conversation

  • Lee

    Dear Tabitha,
    Thank you for addressing this. Disordered eating since the beginning of my time, full on Anorexia and exercise bulimic in teens, diagnosed with Anorexia mid 20s, had been a vegetarian since late teens, hid my anorexia in disordered eating, fad very restrictive diets and eating rituals, mostly stayed vegetarian, non-stop crazy marathon runner and caridio stuff. Always returning to anorexia then started anorexia with some binging, still vegetarian, then went vegan cause hid among other vegans, raw foodists, clean eaters, blah, blah, blah and this actually helped me see that I was using this orthorexia to hide my anorexia as were the majority, yes the majority of them or at least trying to hide their fear of fat in our weight obsessed culture. I am new to The Moderating Movement, Intuitive Eating (scary and I don’t get it, yet), competent eating. No longer vegan, but still almost exclusively vegetarian, and feeling okay about it because it is really just my preference. I do not like the smell, consistency, the taste of meat, and I will not touch it if it looks anything like what it came from. lol, but I refuse to count calories, carbs, watch my glycemic index, etc., etc. because they definitely allow me to hide in my anorexia. Add trauma: I am now a fat anorexic, so doctors are always trying to put me on a diet, as is everyone else in one way or another. Can not go there even for those supposed health reasons.

    • Tabitha Farrar Post author

      Hi Lee

      Firstly, thanks for reading my book!

      Secondly. Wow, we have a lot in common eh? You’ve been on one hell of a journey. I am interested that you describe yourself as a “fat anorexic” and think that this must be incredibly difficult to manage. I think that you are right on the money by telling anyone who tries to make you diet “no way!” because you know the hell that could provoke is simply not worth it.

      I also wonder about the supposed “health reasons” for not being overweight. Last time I checked the science was saying that a little overweight could actually be a benefit in terms of life expectancy. In the end, other peoples and our own perceptions of ourselves are all filtered by the societal idea of what we should be. If you can work out how to define your own ideal of you, I think that is a great place to start. It comes down to more about where your body wants you to be rather than where society wants you to be.

  • Rachael

    Hi Tabitha.
    I totally agree. After reading your book and studying nutrition myself, I understand your argument and I even believe that the vegan diet is quite dangerous. Certainly a bad idea for anyone with ED and even the general public. Our bodies need fat and a whole range of nutrients from a variety of foods. Vegans believe in a so called “natural existence” however they need a lot of supplements and processed foods in order to get the proper nutrients. Even then, they can experience health problems and the processed foods that they eat are not good for them in the long term, nor do they satisfy the ethics behind veganism.
    I am in recovery and am not even slightly interested in taking up any diet fad or trend. After 9 years of starvation, my body and my taste buds are enjoying all the glorious fatty foods that I deprived myself of while I was ill. Sure, moderation is they key with fat. A little each day is what I aim for and I love the benefits of eating dairy and meat for my health. My skin and hair are healthier, my muscles are reforming and I just bloody love the taste of butter, cheese and eggs. No more do I restrict fat and certain foods from my diet just because they are considered bad. In fact, dairy, meat and eggs are a lot less processed than anything pre packaged and flavoured with sugar. I would much prefer to eat a piece of cheese than lollies and chocolate. Although I do love white chocolate. Probably because it is made with butter!
    Thanks again for your insights. I am a little lost now that I have finished reading your book. It was such a great tool for me as I still fight this illness.
    Thanks again.
    Rachael.

  • James Purcell

    Someone should tell Tim Shief, Torre Washington, Patrick Baboumian and Jon Venus that they should be eating more then “just vegetables.”

  • cat

    veganism is NOT A DIET it is a stance against animal abuse and exploitation. It is horribly disrespectful of the billions of animals who are enslaved, slaughtered and abused every day to write this article. You are ignorant and need to open your eyes to the world of animal abuse. There is plenty of fat and variety in a vegan diet how dare you be so naive? im disgusted by your words.

  • Marie

    Thank you. My daughter is going through it now and wants to be vegan. We are saying no but this point of view helps explain it.

  • Brit

    I think this ultimately depends on the person. One thing to remember is that not everyone has suffered from an ED in the same way. In other words, some who have dealt with milder EDs haven’t had the condition take the same physical toll, if any at all, on their bodies as say maybe someone with moderate or severe anorexia or bulimia. One part of ED recovery is learning to eat what makes your body feel good and nourished, and these thoughts aren’t always necessarily tied to obsessiveness in every ED patient, since some some choose this diet for more personal reasons. I definitely agree that it should be approached with caution and perhaps later on in the recovery process, but we have to remember that not every ED sufferer sees food/eating in the same way.

  • Maria

    Hi! I just wanted to thank you for putting this out there. I have been simultaneously vegan and struggling in recovery for years, and reading this yesterday finally helped me to realize that I was still just as disordered as I had began. Though it gives me barrel fills of anxiety to begin eating without restricted foods, I know that only means I am on the right path. Thank you for waking me up from that fantasy world.

    • Tabitha Farrar Post author

      Hi Maria,

      Wow. I didn’t expect that I have to admit. Usually the ED rebels so much when reading something that hits too close to the truth that people really cannot see beneath it all. That must have been a really difficult thing for you to admit, and believe me when I tell you I have been there, had the same horrid realization, but that it took me a lot longer to really be prepared to acknowledge it.

      You are very strong. I hope you can get over the anxiety and you know what you have to do. It will be rough and stressful initially but you will get past it. I think that you know the only path to real and complete recovery is a life without restriction, and I know you can get there!

      • Adult anon

        After reading this, I know I need to give in to the disordered patterns too. I have been restricting ‘fattier’ foods I used to enjoy for a while now. I was a pescatarian before my ED took over and I still am now. Through all the disordered eating, I have eaten some fats, like eggs and cheese, but I became more restrictive going from full fat to lower fat to extra low etc, weighing fats etc. Now, while admitting my behaviours and eating more, I am still resisting all fats and still being rigid in the types of food snd the times I allow myself to eat and give in. So, I suppose this is where it becomes more complicated: I allow icecream but only on certain days. This then shows how we need to push the ED so it cannot be rigid. That way, we can truly say we are recovering. I am fooling myself aren’t I if I think I am recovering. I might be on a better path but not giving the fingers up to the ED. Thanks for slapping me in the face again. I definitely need it!

  • Kathleen

    Dear Tabitha!

    I’m learning so much of your articles and podcasts. I was wondering a lot if my veganism is a result of my eating disorder or being a vegetarian was my deepest desire as a child living in a very meat-eater society. Actually, when I was physically very underweight with a bmi lower than I should admit to anyone (because I know how triggering it was to find out other’s) I was first on a meal plan with a low carb high fat version of diet or whatever, eating heaps of olive and coconut oil, eggs, fatty meat and all protein but ridiculously low amount of carbs and I was not gaining weight! I guess my body was starving for carbohydrates for years, and in the first year of refeeding I was still restricting carbs. I had leaned down even more, my weight has not really increased yet I looked worse. BUT on the other hand I got rid of my fear of fats (because obviously it didn’t get me forward in recovery). The interesting part is that only after I finally gave into my desire for trying veganism has started my weight and menthal state improved. Because I was eating carbs. All the processed carbs with no fat. Then I got feared of nuts and even a tiny teaspoon of oil….. but carbs was still a huge step into my recovery and my still responds to it in a weird way. I’ve got rashes along my skin of the volume and amount I was eating of real food (and not just cheese, yogurt and oil) it was horrible actually! I’m already “vegan” for 2 years and still afraid of carbs. It is ridiculous after all this time but eating all the plantbased foods teach how not to be afraid of bigger volume meals and carbohydrates. I wasn’t eating fruits for years because… and then I was mostly eating fruits for months when I switched to the plantbased diet. I have eaten crates of freshly picked apricots and ripe bananas and watermelons etc. and it felt so good! So sad that I know now it was still all restricted, and I’ve been underweight for the last 5 years and what I’m eating is still less than I should aim for.
    I am not labeling myself as a vegan, because I don’t want to stay in a strict box. Being vegan would mean I shall not be able to order pizza at all in my town because they put a little milk product in there. And if I want pizza, I don’t ask if they do it or not, I order one I like. Without cheese but still. Being vegan is strict, restricted and yes, I agree with you that no one should switch to this lifestyle until they are weight restored and mentally healed of ed thought. Reading all the labels and the negotiation with waitresses/family members is very triggering and exhausting. But I wanted to be vegetarian since I first met someone vegetarian as a child. I’ve hated myself for eating the animals as a child, I couldn’t bear the shame of eating another living creature just because we’re used to it and I should have.
    Just wanted to let you know that veganism – even if my ed is channeling itself through it – gets me to face my fears and change me for the better. Yes, it ruins my social life and relationship with others (family,eh?) but at least I’ve experienced that carbs are nothing to be afraid of. It is quick energy and fuel to my brain xx

  • Lennie

    I do understand your point, especially rgards veganism as oppose to vegetarianism in recovery..and all of your other posts are incredibly useful and so well written..and sure some ED sufferers could put thier own health before the health of an animal, that is what their families would want, and dairy would surely help them gain weight quicker if they ate it…but really, vegans don’t just eat vegetables! avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds, poatoes, olive oil, bread carbs carbs carbs.. it is offensive to vegans to keep saying they ‘only eat vegetables’…also, having breast fed babies myself, its not easy and I would not have liked to have had my babies taken away from me and been machine milked for the rest of my ‘productive’ life before being taken off to the slaughter house when too old.. thats my only problem with any of your posts…but thanks and keep up the good work otherwise.