Here we go. Opening a can of worms. I’m joking. Keeping worms in a can would be very Un-Vegan of me. This is a topic that I get asked to write about ALL the time. I find it interesting, mainly because of my own experiences of the pull towards a plant-based diet. A while ago, I came across something which suggested that our desire to eat predominantly vegan foods in recovery was a psychological survival response to famine. Our ancestors would have foraged on plants and berries, when other, more highly caloric food was not abundant. Since I can’t find where I read this, I can’t elaborate, but i’m sure there will be further study on it in the future.
As well as my own experience of it, there is the obvious abundance of people in the recovery community who avoid animal products. What I see on Instagram, is back up by a 2013 study investigating the relationship between vegetarianism and ED’s. It found found that 50% of those with anorexia reported eating some form of vegetarian diet. Comparing this with the 2% of the general UK population who adopt the lifestyle, there is something about the diet that, at some point, draws in many of us who are in recovery.
I know not everybody will share my opinion, but as always, my views come from my experiences.
So, where to start?
Before I give you my opinion, I will begin with 3 facts which I think are important. I like facts. I feel safe, for now, that nobody will read them slide DM’s to tell me I am an animal-hating bitch.
- Veganism rules out certain foods. Therefore undisputably, veganism is a restrictive diet. It restricts you in terms of what you ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ consume. I don’t think there is any possible argument against that.
- Your recovering body benefits from a sustained period of eating a large volume of highly caloric food. It needs a consistently wide range of nutrients to heal.
- The limitations of the diet mean people who are vegan eat differently to 95% of the population, who are omnivores.
Ok, now for my opinion.
In a perfect world, the rise in veganism comes solely from a place of compassion for animals and a personal responsibility towards sustainability and reducing carbon emissions. I am not against veganism as a concept. But, I am against the lifestyle in anorexia recovery. I would probably also extend this to questioning whether it is appropriate to anybody who has recovered from an eating disorder in the past 7 years. But, anyway, back to those ‘in recovery’.
The main reason that I have the opinion that veganism is unsuitable in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder, is that, for me, veganism was a shroud. I gave me a suitable excuse to avoid all of the foods I didn’t want to eat. Veganism and vegetarianism became a convenient disguise to put on, one that wouldn’t be questioned by family, friends or even professionals. My ethical label ‘vegan’ legitimised my restrictive eating habits. It was a secret I held close to me — a loophole in recovery. It was a harmful secret that could have killed me.
When I wrote out my list of fear foods that I needed to face, the only vegan products (on the very lengthy list) was baked beans, nut butter and pasta. (And then, I think about how even non-vegan fresh egg pasta would have been tricker dried pasta.)
This highlights the majority foods my ED was scared of were not vegan products. Thus, if I was vegan, I could eat lots of foods I wasn’t so scared of. Interestingly, most of the foods on my ‘fear-food list’ contained dairy or meat. This is no coincidence. AN is an illness which makes us fear highly caloric, nutrient-dense foods. Facing the fear of these nutrient-dense foods will give a strong, stable and robust recovery. The food I was most scared of was the exact type of food which I need to recover both mentally and physically. I’m confident that introducing full-fat dairy into my diet was one of the best things I have ever done for my mind and body.
Recovery for me means full food freedom, without limitations, boundaries, rules. For me, veganism would impose too many limits. As soon as I stopped fucking around with ruling things out, eating differently to others and substituting things here, there and everywhere, I made improvements. It took time and a lot of honesty for this.
One of my favourite accounts on Instagram (@sweetpotat.hoeee) has an amazing ‘highlight’ saved on her Instagram feed containing her thoughts on veganism, which very much align with mine. Her format of answering some possible disputations of her opinions really sat well with me, so I’ve used it as a template.
“But Han, the animals…”
The complexity of our modern world means that our existence harms countless living creatures. This includes other human beings. Right now, I’m typing on a laptop. My phone is beside me playing music.
Many components in my phone and laptop (and basically every other electronic device) are made from a metallic ore called coltan. This is mined for in one of the worlds poorest countries, by children, who are forced to work long, dangerous hours. From when its dark in the morning, to past when night falls. Do I think of the ethics of this as I type?
No. If it crosses my mind, I push the thought away. It doesn’t stop me.
My clothes, from Zara, Topshop and Asos are all made in factories which invariably force women to work for 16 hours a day, in China or Bangladesh. Do I think of the ethics of this as buy?
I think about it, but it doesn’t stop me.
Then, I think about the absurdly priced vegan yoghurts I used to drive (20 minutes to the only supermarket which sold them) to buy which came in tiny plastic individual pots. Did I think about the fuel or the plastics I was using and how it might end up polluting the environment or laying in landfill millions of miles away for me for several hundred years?
I thought about it, but again it didn’t stop me.
So, ponder this. If you decide that you want to eat animal products (remember, it doesn’t have to be all the time if the environment is what you are worried about) it will have very little effect on the environment.
I am an omnivore. Wherever possible I choose meats where the animals have lived good, free-range lives with empathetic caretakers and stewards. I’m aware, however, that I am privileged in this regard. I have the luxury of choosing local, well bread, organic meats, eggs and dairy products. I have the option handed to me and I do understand this is not a luxury available to everyone.
Really, I see it as priorities. My first and most essential move must be to get myself better. Then I can think about saving the animals. If I was still vegan or vegetarian, I would still be controlled by my eating disorder. I might be reducing my carbon footprint ever so slightly, but I wouldn’t be truly ‘living’ in the world I was helping to conserve.
As they say, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”
“But Han… the environment”
I am a strong believer of everybody doing ‘their bit’ to help with environmental conservation. If you believe reducing your consumption of meat aids with that, do it. But in my opinion, there is no need for labels or taking items off the menu entirely.
20 firms are responsible for 1/3 of all carbon emissions. The atmosphere (along with the ocean) is one of 5 ‘global commons’. These are area’s which have no governance. No ownership. Therefore, large companies have no obligation to protect them. Because the atmosphere is unowned, organisations lack the incentive to conserve it. Capitalism and imperialism will always over-exploit the natural world.
Again, I see it as priorities. A weak and feeble girl struggling entrenched in food rules and restriction cannot save the world. My first and most essential move must be to get myself better. Then, I can think about doing my bit.
“But Han, I know it is not the disorder speaking. It is an ethical choice.”
You cannot trust your perception in recovery. I truly, 100%, would have sworn on my life that it was an ethical choice. Eating disorders warp your emotions.
The quote I always come back to is “veganism is not ethical if it means you are harming yourself”.
“But Han, vegan food and substitutes taste amazing”
I know they do. I eat them. I like them. I am an omnivore and I can still eat these yummy vegan foods if I so choose. I have a choice because there are no rules. I am not obligated to pick them or confined by boundaries. These vegan subs aren’t off-limits just because they are labelled vegan. It does not say ‘no omnivores to touch this product please”.
Because its ‘Veganuary’, everywhere I look, new vegan products are coming out. Cool, if they intrigue you, try them. But that doesn’t mean you have to do Veganuary, confining yourself to solely this way of eating for a month. (Just a side note: I was listening to a discussion on the radio today about the irony of veganuary being in January, with all of the fruits and veggies out of season, having to travel huge distances to meet our demands. The air miles calculated were unbelievable!)
Not labelling myself as vegan gives me to the ability to pick what I want. To have food freedom and to make choices based on my cravings. To be honest, I am sick and tired of having alternative foods to everybody around me. Being an omnivore doesn’t mean I eat meat every day. I do, however, eat animal products every day. The nutrients within these, which are lacking in vegan alternatives, have been extremely influential in my mental and physical healing.
“But Han, most places cater for vegans now”
Yep, you’re right. Most places do. But suppose my mum and I take a trip into an independent cafe and they don’t. Do we leave? Do we ask if they can make me a special Han meal? Suppose the vegan options that are on offer aren’t great. Do we search for somewhere else and let my energy levels drop?
Another example: a friend, not knowing I am vegan (I’m not), bakes me a birthday cake full of eggs, milk chocolate and cream. The eggs in the cake and butter in the icing mean I can’t eat it. I am therefore 1) avoiding engaging in spontaneity and social eating and 2) restricting cake.
One last one: my family and I are on holiday in a less developed country. We pass a wonderful looking ice cream stall. Do I, somebody with the previous history of restriction of icecream, watch as my family all choose and eat?
For somebody who doesn’t have a past of restriction, that might be fine. But turning down food is not something that you should be practising in recovery. It is sending the absolute wrong messages to your brain.
“But Han, I like eating in abundance”
So do I. But, that screams “I want to eat a lot of food, but don’t believe that I can eat non-vegan food’s in abundance because that would be unhealthy.” I’ll tell you what’s more unhealthy- orthorexia.
It’s important to remember that eating disorders the public perception of what anorexia is: a skinny white teenager pushing food around her plate isn’t accurate. Even when I was restricting heavily, I consumed a fair amount… of fucking salad. I was eating in abundance, and filling myself up… but it was incredibly physically and mentally harmful.
“But Han, I was vegan Pre-Ed”
Firstly, what does Pre-Ed mean? Pre-physical signs? If so, remember that judging the morality of foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is socially normalised disordered behaviour. Also remember, that ED’s are a mental illness that sometimes never manifest in an individual’s physical appearance. If somebody in a naturally bigger body drops below their optimal weight, they may ‘look’ normal, but they will have activated the ED gene if its present.
I went vegan pre-ed. It was as my eating disorder was just hatching. Like a dragon. I truly, honestly believed it was a dietary preference. A couple of months down the line and there wasn’t a moment that went by that disordered thoughts swirled my brain.
Here’s Dr Andrew Hill, Head of Medical Psychology at Leeds University, on investigating the link between Veganism and Eating disorder recovery:
For other people, it may be sustainable, for me, it is not. For me, Veganism requires restrictive controlled eating. Anorexia nervosa is characterised by restrictive eating, and these behaviours are too similar to enable veganism to be part of a psychologically healthy recovery. It is a fact that those more likely to enter full remission from an eating disorder embrace omnivorism. I don’t share these thoughts to criticize anybody. I share these thoughts to address a question I always get asked, “have you considered veganism?”.
Yes, I have considered it. It’s not for me. I certainly can’t be the judge of whether it’s appropriate for you.
2 thoughts on “#63: Veganism in recovery”
Spot on xx
This is so concise, so well thought out and in my opinion, very true. Ever since primary school I have found ‘discreet’ methods of limiting my food variety; veganism, vegetarianism, fruitarianism, low carb, low FODMAP, low salicylate. You name it, I’ve tried it. With each different diet I’ve truly believed I had invested in it for just and true reasons. I was on a ‘quest’ for good health and virtuosity. Now when I look back I have realised that I’ve restricted food since I was around 3 years of age. There’s always been one reason or another for not consuming the food I truly wanted, whether it be fear related to food trauma, trying to be virtuous, avoiding calorie dense foods, trying to control body size, etc.
Of course I care a huge amount for nature, animals and other people but firstly, there are so many ways that we can generously project our care without involving food restrictions and secondly, as humans we are inherently omnivore (whether we like it or not) and our bodies generally rely on animal products for vitality and ultimate health. We can’t avoid creating harm to each and every creature but we can do our own little part in our own little way, WITHOUT sacrificing our health simultaneously.
Thanks again for writing this article. Definitely needed to be said publicly.