Eating Disorders and Veganism: A Recipe for Disaster

17 mins read

Contents Warning: Heavy talk of Eating Disorders

January 2021 is almost over and with it the end of this year’s Veganuary. A popular trend to try going vegan for the month of January to try it out, get a bit healthier and ultimately help the planet. It has made great strides for veganism becoming socially acceptable and common. The new regard of Veganuary resulted in a rise of vegan products in supermarkets which has only increased in recent years. It’s a brilliant cause and a bit of fun if you can’t face Dry January. 

Documentaries such as ‘The Game Changers’ (A Netflix original) also helped the surge in popularity of veganism. They debunked many myths surrounding veganism when it comes to muscle, strength and health. It showed bodybuilders, sportsmen and women and how veganism completely transformed their fitness journey. It also looked at the benefits for the planet but the documentary mainly focused on people and the benefits veganism held for them individually. They even did a slightly bizarre experiment where they showed that veganism can actually affect the length of an erection. If any documentary was going to encourage people to become vegan it was going to be this one. It did with me, that was the problem.

I’m currently recovering from a small atypical Eating Disorder after being diagnosed in March 2019. It wasn’t the most serious mental health illness you’ve ever seen, but it affected me badly and my recovery is far from over. I’d come a long way since my lowest point around 2018/2019 and things had gotten a lot better from a combination of counselling and working on my own mentality and body positivity. I decided to watch Game Changers out of interest, see what the hype was. 

Immediately after I watched it I felt a need to become a vegan. The documentary preyed on and encouraged everything I struggled with. The guilt for eating certain foods, the link between veganism and weight loss, it all immediately formed a plan in my head I believe many have had since the surge of veganism. Go vegan under the guise of helping the planet when in actual fact it would fuel my Eating Disorder and allow me to fall into habits I missed and restrictions I craved. The funny thing about Eating Disorders (if you can call it funny) is the fact when it’s gone you want it back, it’s very common for those in recovery to miss their eating disorder because of the constant structure it used to provide. Once my initial destructive thoughts came in my head I did actually do some research to try and stop myself from deciding to go vegan.

 I instantly found many articles advising me not to do it or consulting a doctor first but nothing hit home quite as much as an academic study by Anna M. Bardone-Cone, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina. The study was actually called ‘The Inter-relationship between Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders among Females’ but a parallel could be easily drawn to Veganism also. From the first paragraph it confirmed  my concerns about my motivations and why it was such a bad idea. They detailed how when someone with a suspected or diagnosed Eating Disorder adopts a vegetarian diet health care professionals often worry that the choice functions as a socially acceptable way to avoid food and restrict. In the study those who had a history of an Eating Disorder were more likely to be a vegetarian for weight loss reasons than those without a history (42 per cent vs 0 per cent). 

This study kept in the back of my mind for months, almost being the only thing preventing me from ‘trying it’ and ‘saving the planet’. I saw myself in all of it, even in  a different study they referenced which showed that 50% of the girls who had Eating Disorders went vegetarian prior to the onset of the eating disorder, which I myself experienced, going vegetarian for eight months right before I started getting very bad. ‘Very bad’ isn’t the most eloquent way to put my spiral into my Eating Disorder but I often try and use very vague terminology when talking about it, trying to make it less uncomfortable. 

So the study and my research stopped me from going vegan all throughout my gap year and lockdown but it finally got to me in October 2020. I presented it to my friends and family as a challenge, just 30 days. Those who were aware of my situation were reassured with this idea it was only a month challenge. My own intentions of course was to indulge my previous habits and to try and lose weight. My circumstances when I decided to try this was all very new to me, I was two months in to my university experience during a pandemic, facing making new friends, completely new subjects to learn not to mention this being online and attempting to navigate it all seven hours away from home in halls with changing lockdown and restrictions almost every two weeks. 

It was a lot to deal with and although I felt like I was coping at the time (I don’t remember feeling like I was at a point of some form of relapse) looking back at all the change I can see why I reverted to familiarity and comfort. It was some form of structure in the ever changing kaleidoscope of 2020. Moving to university is already a big deal. Add the pandemic and the instilled fear of the “freshers 15” (the stereotype that you put on 15 pounds when you first join university) puts a lot of stress on me. With hindsight I can’t see I thought I would be okay considering what was going on around but at the same time I can see why I thought it would help me cope. 

I started off with the best intentions. On the 1st of October I ordered a big online Tesco food shop with a variety of foods; fruits and veggies, vegan snacks as well as meat substitutes to try. I was excited. It’s hard looking back to see if I was excited to be trying this challenge and trying to help the planet and better myself or if I was just relieved to be able to wallow in the comfort of control. I want to believe there was some genuine excitement in there as I was unpacking it all, I’d hate to think my mental health controlled that much of my emotions.

So it began. I was good at first, I cooked my veggie chillis and my fake chicken. I provided Linda Mccartney with half her revenue for the year with the variety of sausage rolls, burgers and other fake meat I consumed. I even spent my entire food budget on vegan Ben and Jerry’s (not worth it I’d like to say) but the first thing I found was it was it didn’t make it enjoyable. I enjoyed feeling better than everyone else for saving all the little chickens and cows, I enjoyed having control over myself once again and I enjoyed the feeling of restrictions. I barely enjoyed anything I ate. 

Now before all the true vegans attack me, I’m not saying vegan food is disgusting or awful. For me as a student the whole cooking solely for myself all day everyday was very new. This was already made harder for me with the addition of my little problem, adding cooking a whole new style was extremely difficult for me to adjust to. I wasn’t good at cooking vegan food because of all the new flavours and substitutes I was trying. I was exhausted, cooking foods that I didn’t feel comfortable or used to was very stressful. 

The fallout of the experiment didn’t impact massively initially. I didn’t continue to restrict or continue to further relapse. My habits got better and I was eating a wide variety of food again, essential for recovery. The issue transpired to the fact whenever I ate any animal products I felt an enormous amount of guilt. I started feeling like I shouldn’t be eating it which quickly became lodged in my head that I shouldn’t be eating anything full stop. By the time it was time for me to return home for Christmas I was so tired. Forcing myself to keep going, eating, being healthy, being body positive as well as being social and achieving academically was too much and I was desperate for a break. Luckily my mother is an amazing cook and the few weeks at home did help greatly set me back on track. 

I try to be an environmentally conscious person. It’s a common trait for many people in my generation. We’ve grown up with a constant talk of the end of the world and us destroying the planet. Many of us had climate change protests inspired by Greta Thunberg and many of my friends make environmentally friendly decisions in day to day life whether that be milk alternatives, limiting their meat or shopping mainly second hand. This does come with constant comparisons and guilt of not doing enough. There is a new stereotype of the modern day vegan that guilts others for not being vegan. I’m sure you’ve been walking through a city and seen a group of vegans either with horrifying images complete with fake blood and animal masks or something similar. Some of these are accompanied with aggressive speakers condemning people to vegan hell for going near dairy milk. 

Look the sentiment is there and it can’t be questioned that going vegan is the one massive difference you can make for the planet. That is scientific fact. Quite frankly it isn’t viable for everyone. My circumstances and those with Eating Disorders are just once group of people which veganism isn’t feasible for. Articles and studies could be written about  how veganism is difficult for students, low income families or those with underlying health conditions. Programs like Game Changers project the idea it’s achievable for everyone and benefits everyone in life changing ways. They do this by showing such a variety of vegans you can’t help but feeling guilty for not achieving what they make look effortless. 

There are alternatives to help the planet. Veganism is not the only option to help the planet or to be more sustainably conscious. Making a cut in the amount of fast fashion you involve yourself in, signing petitions, protesting political change are just a few options on how you can help save the planet that isn’t going to drain you mentally and physically.

Veganism is amazing, it truly is; the focus on animal wellbeing as well benefiting the planet and your health are amazing things to concentrate on in life. There are other focuses however. You need to prioritise yourself. Individual change is key yes, but until large oil companies, fast fashion companies and other large corporations make change, the planet won’t change either. The focus environmentalists have on the little person puts too much strain and pressure on people to change every aspect of their life and make themselves miserable. If you have an eating disorder and are looking into veganism, or you’ve already started it please look at yourself and really think why you’re doing it. I don’t want to believe you can’t recover from an eating disorder and go vegan but the bottom line is it is a coping mechanism and it is a form of restriction you can control. A ticking time bomb if you will. It’s true the spectrum of eating disorders is wide and you can’t cast a sweeping statement over them all but you don’t need to go vegan.

You can’t look after the planet if you can’t look after yourself. So do your piece, drink that almond milk, go charity shopping, take the bus. Just don’t hurt yourself on account of trying to save everyone else. You’re worth more than that I promise.

Featured image credit – Medium

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Film, Media and Journalism student who writes about things that catch her interest. Instagram @charlsutcliffe

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