So naturally I often find myself in the situation where I'm chatting with somebody who is very keen to heal their troubled relationship with food... but they don't want to budge on their vegan ideals.
This person may have been through the psychological hell that is a full blown eating disorder...
... OR they may fall into the spectrum of disordered eating on the end of the continuum that wouldn't be classified as a clinical eating disorder, but disordered eating and disordered body image - an issue that faces a significant number of women in Australia.
OFTEN, they've experienced both.
The big question here is, "If I'm actively recovering from a clinical eating disorder - or any other form of disordered eating - can I be vegan and still get better?"
And my answer is...
And I don't say that offhandedly. As someone with a lived experience of extremely disordered eating (now recovered), and who was vegetarian for 10 years and vegan for two or three of those years... I get why you want to remain staunchly vegan.
Believe me, I get it.
And still I say, NO. You can't remain vegan if you want to fully recover from this thing.
If you don't have an eating disorder, disordered eating, or a troubled relationship with food... then jolly good! By all means, knock yourself out. Go vegan...
(... or keto, or paleo, or raw, if that's what you want to do. Although these intrinsically restrictive diets can actually trigger an eating disorder. So maybe think twice about that if you're prone to perfectionism, OCD, and basically have the genes for developing an eating disorder.)
But if you're in recovery from being anywhere on the disordered eating continuum, remaining on such an intrinsically restrictive diet will be a barrier to your progress. At least in my personal and professional experience.
Yes, you read that right:
Staying vegan is a barrier to fully healing from disordered eating.
I see it in clients who very much want to recover but choose to stay on a vegan diet, for environmental, ethical, or other reasons. Staying vegan stops their progress, and no matter how much internalised weight bias they obliterate, how vigilantly they've developed their mindful and intuitive eating skills, and even how hard they've worked on their body image... remaining vegan is a massive glass ceiling on their progress. It's not fair. But it's what I've observed.
I saw it in myself in my early 20's. After being vegetarian for years, and slowly but surely partaking in more and more disordered eating behaviours over that time, I decided to go vegan "for the animals and the environment." I was a veterinary student and as part of my practicum I had to spend weeks in abattoirs, processing plants, and on farms witnessing the frankly, atrocious conditions that many food producing animals in conventional systems endure. So the decision was easy for me.
What I did NOT admit to myself at the time was that another BIG reason I decided to go vegan was because it sounded "healthier" (code word for "it will make me skinnier"). I read all the books that presented the research backing the purported health benefits of veganism, and NONE of the books and evidence that suggested otherwise. A fantastically unbalanced approach.
The ED voice in my head also found the fact that veganism cut a whole bunch of foods out of my diet irresistible.
Unfortunately, my decision to go vegan not only perpetuated and justified my already restrictive and disordered eating habits... it made them WORSE.
When you're trying to recover from disordered eating, ANY food rules of ANY kind are going to impinge on your efforts to get better. No matter how "ethical" they seem.
This doesn't mean you're never allowed to have a vegetarian meal again. It just means that ideally, your eating choices are not dictated by restrictive food rules e.g. "no dairy, no meat."
So for instance, if you're eating out and the bean nachos are what sounds most delicious and satisfying to you and it's a complete meal, then go for it. Your choices can be shaped by preference and taste (and if applicable, any guidelines set by your dietitian e.g. ensuring all three macronutrients are in each meal). But your food choices should not be founded on restrictive diet rules.
This is really, really important.
WHAT ABOUT THE ANIMALS? And the environment?
I'm not about to try to convince you whether or not animals and the environment need to be treated better. Given my time as a vet student, then veterinarian and environmental researcher, I think that in many situations involving food-producing animals the welfare of those animals is horrendous, as is the environmental impact of mainstream animal agriculture (and conventional agriculture at large). And if you're reading this, you probably agree.
But going vegan isn't the only way one can amend this dilemma. And if you're recovering from an ED, being vegan isn't really an option IMO. That said, I know how very difficult it is to shift one's fundamental core beliefs and values.
So the question becomes, how can a person in recovery satisfy their ethical requirements and still eat meat?
Firstly, having been on both sides I truly believe that it IS possible to make environmentally and ethically sound choices without being vegan. But you need to be open-minded and willing to do some research and deep thinking. And drop the dogma.
There are many ways of making ethical and sustainable food choices that do not involve eliminating an entire food group. There are plenty of philosophical explorations of how we can solve our planet's food crisis in regard to global climate change, without trying to convince every person on the planet to go vegan (which, let's be real, is just not gonna happen.)
Instead, think of the other areas in your life where you can make changes that could impact the environment and welfare of animals that have nothing to do with being vegan.
- Source biodynamic or organically farmed produce (both plant and animal products). These systems are a world away from the overgrazing and chronic monocropping that deplete soil microbiota and nutrient levels, and contribute to erosion: problems that apply to both conventionally grown plant foods and animals.
- Buy locally produced food. In doing so, you take away many of the negative aspects of our food system, such as having to put animals through long-distance travel.
- Find alternatives to mainstream agricultural practices that employ chemical pest eradication strategies that indiscriminately kill larger animals like birds and wildlife - again, locally and sustainably grown by spray-free farmers, permaculture, biodynamic and organic are options here.
- Refrain from using pesticides in your garden that damage bee populations.
- Know how the different food-producing animals are raised. Not all animals are raised in feedlots and sheds. In Australia, pigs and chickens tend to be intensely farmed indoors, whilst beef and lamb spend most of their lives grazing outdoors. As someone who has worked with animals in both of these settings, I can tell you that animals allowed to graze on grass at a lower stocking rate are a lot healthier (and arguably happier) than animals who are shoved into concentrated feeding sheds, where - due to high stocking rates - require that antibiotics be constantly fed to them through their water (in the case of non-organic chickens).
- Understand the difference between pastureland and cropland and that it's not so simple as saying "the land used for raising animals could be used to grow vegetables instead." Two-thirds of the surface land in the world is not suitable for vegetable production. Case in point: in western Queensland, dry and arid pastureland is used for raising beef cattle. If you do not utilise the pastureland for grazing animals, you lose the pastureland i.e. it’s going to turn into dust.
- Eat less meat. I know, this sounds contradictory to the rest of the points here, but hear me out. No one says that the only two options are veganism, OR eating tonnes of poor-quality meat in the form of Big Macs. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities when it comes to eating meat, and that includes sustainable, humanely-produced, and non-grazing animal options. Sourcing sustainably caught fish is also an option for those looking to cut down or even avoid eating meat.
- Source wild herbivore meat that is kinder to the environment than grazing animals. A good example of this in Australia is kangaroo meat instead of beef. Kangaroos are not farmed, but harvested in the wild. Properly harvested kangaroos are head-shot by professional hunters (a few of which I know personally). As kangaroo numbers increase there are certainly welfare issues surrounding the use of less skilled harvesters, and of farmers turning to less humane eradication methods such as poisoning water holes.
- Plant foods carry a "karmic burden" too. Do you eat bananas, quinoa, chocolate or drink coffee? Many animals - and people - are harmed in the production of some of our favourite and mostly trendy plant foods. A good example of this is the palm oil industry which impacts orangutan populations terribly, yet palm oil is a key ingredient used in many vegetarian products. Fake meats made from GMO soy and wheat also require large amounts of water and resources for their production. And of course, the growing of plant foods does not mean that no animals are killed: pests like rabbits and deer often have to be shot and poisoned to prevent fields of crops being obliterated overnight.
- Join a local CSA (community-supported agriculture). A CSA is a direct relationship between farmers and eaters: people buy shares in a farm's projected harvest in advance and for a set period (a season, or a year, for example) and receive regular deliveries. This way, many complicated food system corporate structures are by-passed. Also, you know where your food is coming from, have a better idea of the animal welfare and environmental ethics of the individual farmer, and have an opportunity to learn about the complex interrelationships between food production and environment.
- Raise or grow your own. E.g. keeping pet chickens or ducks for their eggs. This is the ultimate way of building a relationship with the animals and the land, ensuring they are treated well, and knowing where your food comes from.
It is not my intent to explain the many intricate environmental and ethical arguments for eating meat; that stuff is better explained in the links I will leave at the end of this article.
I am well aware of the issues surrounding the consumption of animals and animal products, and vegans I hear your cries. But by opting out of the system entirely, and not eating meat at all, are you really changing how meat is produced?
Factory farming is not the answer, but IMHO if we all had more exposure to sustainable food production there would be far less confusion about what is "right".
I truly believe that the future of sustainable food production lies in local and small scale production. If everyone had the experience of working or living on both large scale industrial monocultures and small scale organic farms that integrate pasture-based animals (like I have) then I reckon the answers to these questions would be much more clear.
My main point is that there are other options for people who wish to stay true to their animal and environmental ethics besides being vegan, which becomes particularly pertinent in the case of people suffering with eating disorders. So back to that...
Is it really ethics?
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that women suffering from eating disorders are four times more likely to be vegetarian than women without eating disorders. More than half (52 percent) of women with a history of eating disorders have been vegetarians at one point in their lives. Other studies have found similar associations.
Basically, a difficult question one has to ask themselves is "am I going vegan for ethical reasons? Or is this just another cover up for my disordered eating behaviours?"
A tough question, I know. Maybe it's one or the other. Maybe it's a bit of both. It was for me.
What is your motivation for becoming vegetarian or vegan? If weight loss is even a tiny part of your motivation, this may be a red flag for disordered eating.
And once I'm recovered?
Even for the most recovered among us, I believe that something as restrictive as veganism is a big no go. I know that might sound harsh. But that's my opinion and others are free to disagree.
Even though I recovered from orthorexia (clean eating and exercise obsession) years ago, I know that imposing any kind of restrictive food rules on myself could potentially re-trigger obsessive thoughts around food and my body. And that shit is not worth it.
Also... I've seen enough in this field to not kid myself with the "but it's not dieting - it's for health reasons!" spiel.
The only two reasons I would impose any food restrictions on myself are:
- if it were for purely medical reasons, e.g. I was diagnosed with coeliac disease or kidney disease. OR
- if my body gave me clear signs that eating gluten or lettuce or eggs or some other food truly made me feel physically (not emotionally) uncomfortable. This can be difficult to discern for someone with a disordered eating voice in their head, because when you believe that a certain food is bad for you, the anxiety that belief generates will often lead to indigestion and other physical signs that are of course blamed on the "problem food" rather than the anxiety surrounding eating said food. And you also tend to start blaming any physical malady (unrelated skin rashes, headaches etc) on the "culprit food". So as you can see, it can get tricky.
Until either of these two things happen, I'm going to continue to eat in the intuitive, compassionate way that I know from personal experience makes me a kinder, healthier and more balanced person. And for me, that means eating all the foods.
In the end
But the number of recovering or ex-bulimics, ex-anorexics, and ex-chronic dieters I see proudly proclaiming their veganism (or ketogenic diet, or love of paleo) through blogs, small businesses and the like, worries me, and leads me to wonder whether or not their fixation on food is well and truly over.
I feel that there are potential dangers of veganism for those recovering from disordered eating. These dangers include the murky waters a recovering person enters considering the massive co-optation by healthism that currently surrounds veganism. That's my opinion, and whether you agree with me or not, I'd like to hear from you! If you have something to say on this topic, please leave a comment below or drop me a message.