ethical vegan with anorexia

My Daughter is an “Ethical” Vegan (With Anorexia) … 11

I got the following comment on a post, and I woke up this morning realizing that by trying to be too kind in my response. I had done this women, her daughter, and any other readers an injustice.

Here was the original question:

My daughter is a vegan who is receiving treatment in an Eating Disorders facility. So far, I haven’t found one that will accept my 21 year old daughter into a program. They will not work with her vegan diet, yet strangely said they would if she were vegetarian (also a restrictive diet.) Tabitha, you mostly mention vegans with ED who obviously were not in it for truly ethical reasons, but who used it as a nice mask for their ED. I am sure you will agree that there are indeed those who truly have a moral objection to animal products. My daughter most certainly falls into that category. I actually do understand how a restrictive mindset can send some down the rabbit hole of ED. But to tell an ethical vegan she has to eat animal products is basically like telling her that she needs to sprout wings and fly. Ain’t gonna happen. To me, it seems ironic that most eating disorders clinic would rather turn away a person potentially close to death, rather than try to work with her diet. (Note: I even offered to step in and prepare healthy, “non-starvation” vegan food for her program, but they would not allow that.) One more thought: before my daughter and I became vegan, I most certainly felt that vegetarian and vegan diets were ridiculously restrictive — as do most, if not all, omnivores. But when you are on the other side, eating so much delicious food, you will never think of it as restrictive. I eat more variety now than I did as a SAD [standard American diet] eater. Tabitha: can you give me any direction re: how I can help my daughter if an eating disorders program is not available for her? Maybe a vegan nutritionist?

Here is my full answer to that question:

(I have removed the original comment from the blog it was on in order to protect this person’s identity)

I am going to assume that you love your daughter very much. I also have compassion for you and the fact that this illness will likely challenge your own ethical and moral standpoints. Please read every word here in the knowledge that all I ever want is to help people get into full recovery from Anorexia. I have no other agenda here. I have no personal objection to people being vegan if they do not have a mental illness that means that they should not. I want your daughter to be well and I want to help you get her there.

Okay so first off I will address the treatment facility part. It is no wonder that no treatment facility will accept a vegan and I am actually glad that this is the case for the sake of every other patient in there. A vegan diet is a restrictive diet if done for ethical reasons or otherwise. It could potentially damage patients who are struggling to eat to see one person allowed to be vegan. If that was an option for one, why not all?

I have thought hard about this and I can hand on heart say I do not know anyone who has reached full recovery and is vegan. Full recovery means spontaneously being able to stop and eat at Wendy’s without having a freak out. Full recovery is being relaxed about eating anywhere, anything, at any time. Full recovery is allowing other people to make food for you without worrying about what is in it. Full recovery is eating without rules. All these things are possible on a vegetarian diet for sure, but not on a vegan diet. Hence it doesn’t surprise me that I do not know a vegan who has made a full recovery from an eating disorder.

Anorexia never “goes away.” It is a mental illness and you daughter will always have it. Reaching full recovery only ever really means remission. Those of us who sustain full recovery do so by practicing non-restriction actively. Relapse thrives on complacency. As a fully recovered adult there is not a day that passes when I do not actively check myself. This is a part of my life as much as insulin is for someone with Type One Diabetes.

I have met people who have recovered “enough” but not all the way on a vegan diet. I was one myself for a short while. I wrote a post on what living semi recovered is like here. A half like is a special sort of purgatory. It is not what either of us want for your daughter.

Maybe the knowledge that recovery while on a vegan diet is not realistic is another reason why no treatment facility will accept her? Not only could doing so damage others, but they know that all will happen is that they will weight restore her and she will relapse as soon as she is out as the mental restriction will not have been touched. IP is only a first step in recovery, but if she cannot let go of her vegan diet when her life is at risk, when can she?

Another side to this is that if she is very underweight, your daughter’s body needs saturated fats. There is no amount of vegetables in the world that is going to help her body rebuild in the same way saturated animal fats will. Her poor tiny stomach needs food that it can digest very fast and easy and it can use to rebuild the damage that has been done by starvation. The professionals likely know this is the case. Hence another reason it would not be right for them to accept her.

Secondly I will address the assumption that my posts on vegans and eating disorders were about people who were not really ethical vegans. This is wrong. I actually assume that anyone — eating disorder or not — is vegan for ethical reasons. It makes no difference. If you have an eating disorder you cannot do it. It is a serious mental illness that feeds off food restriction. Additionally, I think that due to the manipulative nature of Anorexia and other eating disorders, nobody can ever truly know. Not the sufferer, and certainly not an outsider. Who am I or anyone else to judge a person’s motivations for being vegan? I’m not so I don’t try. And it doesn’t matter. An eating disorder can kill a person for being vegan regardless of the intention behind it.

Now let us look back at the original documentation we have for Anorexia: Anorexia Mirabilis.

Anorexia Mirabilis was the term used to describe the women in the middle ages who starved themselves to death in the name of god. Now, ask any one of these woman about their intentions? I think that their intentions were 100 percent solidly Christian in their minds. But they still died.

So when a person has Anorexia, intentions need not be considered too heavily. The outcome would be the same if your daughter was vegan due to “true moral objections” or otherwise. Not worth taking the risk, is it? We can argue about you daughter’s intentions until the cows come home, but this illness could kill her in the meantime.  Let’s focus on what is best for her — and that is not going to be the same as what she thinks is best for her right now. 

Now the part where you say that eating vegan is not as restrictive as eating the Standard American Diet. It interests me that many vegan people refer to the SAD as if it is a binary question. One either eats the SAD or one eats vegan. It is not. No matter what you buy, how creatively you cook, or where you live, it is not possible that by cutting out all products made with animal products that you have more choice then if you were able to eat a diet made with animal products as well as plant-based. Not possible. That is math.

All foods = 100%

All foods minus foods made from animal products = < 100%

There are ethical ways to eat animal products. When I made the decision to start eating eggs again I gave up my yard and turned it into a home for my free range chickens. I love their eggs, they are happy as clowns.

Not being vegan doesn’t mean that you HAVE to eat burgers from McDonalds every mealtime. But it might mean that you do it every now and then. It means that you have not closed your mind down to eating meat and animal products; and here is where the importance of not being vegan lies for a person with an eating disorder. In the mind.

Finally: I was vegan (and believe me, it was for ethical reasons,) but I realized that it was something I could not do due to the mental illness — Anorexia — that I have. I cannot imagine being able to come to that conclusion for myself if my family had been vegan. Nope. It would have been too hard.

I would never have been able to do it even when I knew that coming off my vegan diet was my only shot at full recovery. Luckily for me, I was married to a man who supported my decision to eat meat with him and encouraged it. Fighting my eating disorder’s attempts to tell me that what I was doing was wrong was hard enough. I would not have been able to get there if I had been surrounded with friends and family who were vegan too. That would have been like trying to overcome alcoholism while living in a pub.

I want finish with this simple truth: “What is more important to you?”

My intention here is not to question that you love your daughter. I know you love your daughter. I am trying to be as kind as I know how to be whilst still getting across the importance of this. I do not believe that your daughter can make a full recovery on a vegan diet. In order to get there, she will need as much help as she can get — and mostly yours.

Won’t you consider not being vegan along with her as she makes the recovery journey?

Surely, that would be the most powerful thing that you could do as her mother right now. Take the journey with her every step of the way. Eat her into health together. 

So what can you do? I would suggest coming away from the vegan diet now. Getting her into IP and backing the treatment team there up when they ask her to eat meat. Then, when she comes home, continue her care with family-based treatment at home. Eat non-vegan foods with her. Share this recovery journey with her.

With love, Tabs


New Online (Global) Meal Support Service


I am excited to announce that this week we launched Active Eating Disorder Recovery for Adults (AEDRA) Meal Support Service.

This is a worldwide service where any person can receive support at a mealtime to help overcome anxiety. We also have post meal support slots available for people who struggle with purging and post-meal anxiety. Binge Eating Disorder is also supported!

You can find out more about AEDRA here, and in the video below:

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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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11 thoughts on “My Daughter is an “Ethical” Vegan (With Anorexia) …

  • Susan

    I appreciate your honesty, Tabitha, and thank you for such a detailed response. I was going to respond to each of your points, but I realize that ultimately all that matters is this: my daughter will NOT voluntarily eat animal products. My eating them will not persuade her, but would infuriate and disappoint her. I did find a facility in CT that will work with vegans — Silver Hill in New Canaan, CT. She has resisted going into a residential program, but we may have to force her — by getting conservatorship if need be. Animal lives matter, but my daughter’s life matters, too. If I felt eating animal products would save her life, I would try to encourage her (though it would be in vain.) So we will take this first step and go from there. Thank you again. You have given me much to think about.

    • B

      Although i was not vegetarian while struggling with my eating disorder, there were some concerns that came up when I made the switch due to ethical reasons. I don’t view this as a restrictive way of your daughter coping with her eating disorder but as something both you and her have decided is best for the environment.
      The misconception that people are unable to gain weight back or to recover while eating a vegan diet is absurd. I personally gained weight easier while not eating meat for the simple fact that by not eating meat that has added growth hormones among other different hormones, your body easily digests it. If she were forced to eat animal by-products this could create even more issues within her recovery.

      There are a variety of different naturalpathic doctors as well as nutritionists that will be able to aid in helping with a vegan diet. I personally was never put into a specific program. I spoke to different doctors such as therapists and nutritionists separately. I also did this while I was switching to a vegetarian diet.

      if you are knowledge enough to make meals that follow a nutritionists plan for what she needs in order to recover, there should be no issue with her following her vegan lifestyle.

    • A

      Good on you. I fervently disagree with tabitha, you can certainly recover on a vegan diet and successfully gain weight – I have to say animal proteins/ fats are harder on the body to digest anyway and plant proteins and fats easier. I think it’s disgusting her suggestion that you should forgo your moral/ ethical stance to encourage your daughter to do the same? Tbh I also think it would do the opposite and would be more likely to be traumatic for the both of you – worsening her situation! I’m thankful you found somewhere that would accomodate her vegan diet in the end – after a big struggle with my treatment team last year, they finally respected my ethical stance and allowed me to be given a vegan meal plan. I wish you both all the best. Anorexia is a horrific disease 🙁

      • Bri

        Same, A. It is entirely possible to recover on a vegan diet. It makes me sick to see that some people automatically label it as “restrictive,” when that is not correct. Anyone can follow a restrictive diet. It doesn’t matter whether they eat meat or not. It was annoying to read that basically, if you have an eating disorder, you’re not really vegan for ethical reasons. I have struggled with eating disorders when I ate meat, when I was a pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan. I am vegan for ethical reasons, and will not give that up. I am working on being happier and healthier, without consuming animal flesh.

  • Jen Haken

    As a mother of an adult sufferer who claims to be vegan for ethical reasons, I absolutely love this! You cannot fully recover on a vegan diet. She is currently staying with me, and I am enjoying my meat, eggs and dairy in front of her with total abandon (I used to be vegetarian … for ethical reasons!). I adore eggs – they are my comfort food! Poached eggs on toast at lunchtime … yum! So after a few months of my adult daughter staying with me and watching me eat “everything in moderation” (my mantra), today we discussed how she never did like eggs in their naked form, because of the risk of “jelly” bits. You know, that part of the white that may never quite solidify. But she used to LOVE my quiches! And she remembered that today. Ohhhh …. the day I can get her to eat some quiche will be the day I dance naked in Leicester Square! Well, for the sake of everyone else, I may just dance fully clothed. But I’ll dance. In Leicester Square. In front of complete and utter strangers.

  • Joanne

    Saturated fats. Really?
    There is a ton of saturated fat in vegetable oils (oreos anyone? think of palm oil), so it is not a real excuse. And in my experience animal proteins are SO HARD to digest! I tried, I wanted to eat animal product in refeeding, because I thought this is the right thing for me to do, but actually my stomach felt horrible. Not because of refeeding in itself but because I have eaten almost only animal products, some rice, nuts and oils. And it was weird. My hormons were messed up even more, while I was eating bacon and cheese and eggs and butter and yogurt all the time…… And even on top of it, I didn’t gain weight. No matter how much animal products I have eaten, even if I was over the recommendations, I didn’t gain weight. Only after I give it up – because it made me miserable and I was leaning down even more – and started to eat all of natures carb godness did it happen. Because I was not starved of “fat” only but carbohydrate. And our bodies need quick energy in recovery and what is quicker and most effective than processed carbs which turn into sugar in minutes in your mouth? Animal protein and fat require far more energy from the body to use it up, even if it is higher in calories. But you can find other fatty energy sources in plant based food on the market. Especially in processed food which I think is the heaven of quick energy fix and most easier to digest in a currently suppressed metabolism.
    After I take back on animal products and increase vegan options in my meals did my health improve and I was healing for sure. But it took me a whole year to understand that I was restricting carbs due to the overload of meat,milk stuff and eggs so my body was working on digesting these hard energy forms desperately all the time, which made me feel sick, tired (even more,yeaay) and awful because I thought it was not helping.
    After a few years I decided to go vegan and my body responded to all the carbohydrates with MASSIVE WATER RETENTION because it was clearly so starved without it! I was craving fruits, dried fruits and all starches, baked good for half of a year it is crazy. I was eating carbs before as well, but after I decided to give into my real fear of carbs (which was holding me back of following a plant based lifestyle actually) and the majority (70-80% for a while) of my intake came from carbohydrates did my body started to heal the damage and put on mass, fat and healed my nervous system as well. I felt so energized after years and years of struggling I wouldn’t aim back for animal products again! I wanted to skip animals out of options when I first heared a pig crying under slaughter from our neighbourhood. It was my biggest desire to not be forced to eat animals, but I was used to it in our society and I didn’t know yet vegetarianism is even an option. It sucks.
    Just so you know. I respect your view and opinion on veganism related to ED, but I know people, who have reached full remission as a vegan, because it gave them hope and unconditional permission to eat. And you can live without animal fat, but you cannot live without letting ed fears go away for good and have faith that this gonna make you thrive. And there are people out there who does still much better on the vegan diet, and even stay healthy and feel amazing than they did before as an omnivore. And it is all mental, I’m sure.

    And a question for you: what if someone was raised on a vegetarian diet then the eating disorder happened in his adolescence? Would you treat him in recovery as meat eaters? Would you force him to eat meat even if he has never tasted it? Would you force him anyway even if he hasn’t got the enzyms to break it down in the gut cause he never had to do so? It is the same as if you would treat someone who was raised on an omnivore “diet” and you force them to recover as a vegetarian. You cannot do that. And what happens when someone was raised as a vegan? Should he gave it up because others find it triggering? Does it mean he won’t recieve treatment? Because they’re different? Would you force for examples buddhists or a jewish to eat whatever they were forbidden? Because it is till only ‘ehtical’, right? This is very interesting in my opinion. Brings up a ton of questions about ed recovery treatment and how to handle patients rights.

  • Shyann

    What a load of absolute bs. As a vegan and A TYPE 1 DIABETIC(thanks for comparing my auto immune disease which could easily kill me in situations that could be completely out of my control to a mental/ physical disorder that a person chooses to continue) and a RECOVERED DIABULIMIC/ BINGE EATER I can say basically everything this lady wrote is inaccurate. My ex anorexic friend beat her ED with my support after I told her my story and with a vegan diet. I DO EAT OUT WITHOUT GUILT and I eat every thing from vegan pizza/ doughnuts to healthy salads. I had to change my relationship with food and my body to recover but being a vegan does not set you back in the slightest. And as far as rapid weight gain for recovering anorexics I suggest they follow a diet similar to many vegan athletes which would be high carb( from whole grains beans starches fruits and veggies), high fat( lots of nuts and seeds plus moderate amounts of plant based oils and tons of avocado), and low in processed foods and added sugars. The above is just a great example of a lady who thinks she knows every thing about everyone talking out of her bum. “There are no fully recovered vegan ED patients” my butt.

    • Bri

      I completely agree, Shyann. That is not true at all that there aren’t any fully recovered vegan patients with eating disorders. Also, having an eating disorder when you are vegan or vegetarian, does not mean that those type of diets are always restrictive. People with anorexia are restrictive regardless. Also, having an eating disorder when vegan does not automatically mean you aren’t vegan for ethical reasons. I am appalled to hear that.

  • julie turner

    hi iam julie turner and ive constantlyhave food thoughts in my head red meats like bacon burgers steak pie i was vegeterian but i was ill with eating qourn i went to asda bought a chicken ive been eating chicken for 2 months my stomuch feels little better but i feel sick all the time i eat cadburys milk choclote buttons and bars makes me feel better can you help me why iam like this

  • Laura

    I am an ethical vegan. As an abuse survivor of a parent with a mental illness, animals have provided me some of the most consistent behavior I’ve experienced in life. When I am nice, they are nice. Much of the joy I feel in life is from spending time with animals. I don’t desire to eat them and I’ve watched too many documentaries on farming and health.

    I also find the diet not-restricting. I eat more types of foods than most people I know. For me and my family, it is very easy to see if I am having a problem with anorexia. When I’m healthy, I eat “regular” types of food: lentil shepards pie, large bowls of nice cream, smooothies, veggie burritos, cocounut ice cream, etc. I laugh more often, listen better, sleep better, call friends more often, am more flexible, and am generally more present. When I am deep in anorexia, there are many warning signs. I go from enjoying a smoothie to being terrified of a piece of fruit. I act anxious. I start missing meals. I isolate. I’m spacey. I weigh myself often. Eating a healthy vegan diet isn’t bad – it can really help with excess brain/body inflammation (present in trauma survivors), mood, general wellness, and a sense of purpose (who doesn’t want to help animals?). Just keep an eye out for changes in behavior, especially during stressful times.

    Emily Program (multiple states and are levels) will work with a vegan diet and so will Center for Hope of the Sierras (NV).

    • Bri

      It annoys me when people say a vegan diet is restricting. That is not true in most cases. People with eating disorders tend to have issues with restricting whether they eat met or not. All of the vegans that I know are not on restrictive diets. This article is pretty one-sided. I’m glad not everyone agrees with it.