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Veganism and eating disorders: a diet in disguise4 min read

As Veganuray comes to an end, here’s a little reflection on whether veganism is appropriate for everyone.

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains content about eating disorders.

There are many reasons behind someone’s decision to go vegan, the main ones often circulate fighting climate change, personal health or putting a stop to animal cruelty. For most people this decision is dictated by a strong will to make an impact on the world and the decision has been made with a clear mind.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. 

Veganism is by definition categorised as a diet, in the way that it follows a specific set of dietary rules. This shouldn’t necessarily give a negative connotation to veganism, as in reality the decision of becoming vegan is often dictated by ethical choices, led by positive intentions. However, it can turn into something harmful for those individuals who come from a background of troubled relationships with food and diets. 

Indeed, many people who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating often use veganism as an excuse to control what they eat. It is perceived as extreme as the ketogenic, raw paleo and juice diets. Disorders often enforce sets of rules of what they are allowed to eat, those rules may vary from person to person. Therefore, labelling themselves as vegans allows sufferers to hide behind the restrictive rules of the diet and lifestyle. They cut out all those foods that they consider intimidating or wrong, stuck in an endless cycle.

Beetroot smash on toast with hummus, onions and hazelnuts. Photo: Olivia Rafferty.

According to a study from 2018, conducted by researchers at the University of Dusseldorf, people following a vegan and vegetarian diet scored higher in orthorexic behaviours than those consuming meat. Although orthorexia has not been officially recognised as an eating disorder, it can be equally dangerous as it is the unhealthy obsession with ‘clean’ eating. Its symptoms and behaviours can be similar to anorexia, but those affected may disguise their disorder as a healthy lifestyle.

Overall, it’s still difficult to state the exact number of those who use veganism as an excuse to fuel their disorder, as it is often difficult for sufferers to admit so. However, there are many cases where people have revealed to have started a vegan diet for the wrong reasons, but then managed to turn it into something positive once their mental health improved.

If you truly want to make an impact, but you don’t think you are in the best headspace to commit to veganism, there are many other ways through which you can contribute in saving the planet. Simple actions like recycling, buying second-hand clothes or decreasing your usage of plastic, can help you conduct an environmentally conscious lifestyle without compromising your wellbeing.

During the recovery from an eating disorder, having such a limited diet can be very dangerous both mentally and physically. Often, nutritionists and physiologists don’t recommend vegan and vegetarian diets, because their patients’ body is usually lacking many nutrients that are harder to replace when excluding dairy and meat. However, that’s not the only reason. In order to engage in an active recovery it is really important to break free from all rules related to the consumption of food. 

When someone has been cutting out specific foods due to their disorder, it’s important that they start by reintroducing them into their diet. Only then can they follow another regime, no matter how noble the reasons behind their choices are. If you don’t fully let go of those rules that you have been holding onto, you may never learn to trust yourself and your body again.

I do believe that a vegan diet can be sustained by those who have struggled in the past. However, it is more ideal if they are in a better mental state, and they have already worked on overcoming their fears of food. 

Before making any decision or giving your eating habits another label, ask yourself where is this thought coming from. Am I in the right place both physically and mentally to follow a food regime? Am I respecting myself and the world, or is just another way to harm myself and a failed attempt to temporarily ease the pain? 

The harsh truth is: you cannot pretend to be vegan for a greater good, if you are not able to love and respect yourself first. 

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