Before I piss off any vegans with this post, let’s get one thing straight: I have nothing against vegans, nor am I saying that nobody can be vegan. I am not attacking veganism—frankly I don’t really give a shit what other people do and don’t eat anymore (and that’s a relief, let me tell you!). This post is about restrictive diets and eating disorders, and how a person with an eating disorder—or such proclivities—will use a veganism as an excuse to not eat certain types of food.
Eating disorders love not eating certain types of food. Believe me, my eating disorder would have been in seventh heaven if I allowed myself to be vegan or vegetarian. That’s because anorexia loves nothing more than obsessing about not eating certain types of food. Vegetarianism, veganism, gluten-free, sugar-free, and all the other ways that one can acceptably restrict food nowadays give an eating disorder room to play and grow—without ever being seen or suspected.
Vegan Diets and eating disorders.
It is my personal, educated, and experienced (unfortunately; yes, I have lived through this) opinion that a person who is suffering from, susceptible to, or has ever suffered from any form of an eating disorder should not embark on any type of restrictive diet whatsoever. Vegan means that certain foods (such as anything from an animal—and that is a pretty major food group) are restricted, therefore it is a restrictive diet no matter how many people attempt to argue that it is not. Veganism is food restriction.
There have been studies that report that vegetarianism in college-age people puts them at a higher risk for having an eating disorder. Others have said that taking on a vegetarian diet is a mask of sorts for eating disorder behaviour, and this I have to agree with because I did it myself once.
It is a tricky area, and is a discussion prone to tumultuous argument. The general population can deal with food restriction, and someone without a genetic predisposition can do quite nicely on a vegan or any other diet. But, for a person affected by an eating disorder, food restriction can be miserably obsessive at best, and deadly at worst.
It is rather like saying that a person who is suffering from or has recovered from lung cancer should not, ever, smoke cigarettes. Not everyone who smokes cigarettes gets lung cancer, and not everyone who eats a vegan diet gets an eating disorder. However, let’s not be stupid about it: if you are a high risk for cancer you shouldn’t smoke, and if you are a high risk for an eating disorder you shouldn’t restrict food or diet.
Veganism doesn’t cause eating disorders. BUT, in a person who is genetically predisposed to having an eating disorder, the restriction of certain food groups can trigger the eating disorder.
Why do I think this? Because I lived it.
When I was in recovery from anorexia, I struggled a lot with restrictive diets. My eating disorder-addled brain told me that being vegan was the correct solution for me, because if I did so, I would have a viable excuse to restrict food. For an eating disorder, being vegan is the next best thing to complete starvation. Here’s why:
- Being vegan is socially acceptable. It might even be considered a superiorly healthy way of eating by some people. Eating disorders can hide behind it.
- When offered any sort of food, being vegan gave me a convenient excuse not to eat it. For example, when one is offered chicken satay hors d’oeuvres at a drinks party, it is much easier to say, “No thank you, I can’t eat those because I am vegan,” than it is to say: “No thank you, I can’t eat that because the thought of eating anything other than carrot sticks causes me so much stress that I start to shake.”
- Being vegan gave me a reason to take my own food with me everywhere—other peoples houses should we be asked over for dinner etc. Another facet of Anorexia is not trusting food made by other people.
- Being vegan gave me an excuse not to eat out.
- Being vegan gave me an excuse not to eat saturated fat. This is a big one. In my case, my body—especially my organs and namely my reproductive system—needed saturated fat to recover and get to optimal health. I did not get my periods back until I had been weight restored and had been eating a full diet with saturated fats in for over a year.
- Being vegan allowed me to obsess over food, meticulously read food labels, and think about food and being vegan all the time. (This is an eating disorder behaviour)
- Being vegan allowed me to find other people who were vegan and indulge in talking about food with them—while never actually eating of course. (Talking and thinking about food obsessively and not eating it are eating disorder behaviours.)
All in all, being vegan allowed me to showcase my eating disorder in public, and it allowed me to indulge in eating disorder behaviours such as those pointed out above. No longer did I have to hide it, I could excuse my food restriction quite nicely behind a vegan shield. I could also kid myself that because I was eating again I was beating Anorexia. Bullshit. Anorexia had just taken a different form.
Unfortunately my sagacity on this subject is a result of my own struggles to overcome the allure of diets in a world where every magazine cover touts them, and every dinner table is host to a guest with a speciality diet. I had to learn to make all that wash over me. I had to learn to not restrict food no matter how fashionable food restriction is, no matter how many of my friends are doing it, and no matter how many sources tell me that it is healthy. The good news, is that if I can do that—and I have—anyone can.
Bottom line: Veganism is not okay for a person who is susceptible to an eating disorder. Veganism is not okay for a person in recovery from an eating disorder. Veganism means that large food groups are restricted—so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that this is not something that a person with an eating disorder should do.