If you’ve clicked on this article, you’ve likely done so for one of three reasons: You’re a proud omnivore who gets ticked off by the preachings of vegans; you’re a dedicated vegan, or aspiring to be, who is likely already a bit irritated by the title; or you love a good debate and are simply curious as to how this goes. To clear the air right away, I am not here to egg on those meat and dairy-loving people who continue to patronize veganism and roll their eyes when vegans boast of all the benefits of their way of eating (I’m talking to all my Ron Swansons out there). I’m also not going to engage in the typical points of opposition to veganism. I won’t go on and on about how you can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet or that it’s not sustainable or filling enough.
Where I do take issue is with the religious fanaticism that can be found in the vegan community: when staunch supporters of the philosophy believe this way of eating is best for everyone. The unspoken (or outright spoken) idea that those who eat animal products are less than in some capacity is ignorant and all too quickly dismisses one very real and important truth: Veganism isn’t suitable for, nor does it benefit, everybody. There are going to be people who cannot and should not adopt a vegan diet, because for them, it is likely to do more harm than good to their mental and/or physical health.
Veganism will very rarely be suitable to people who have had restrictive eating disorders. Moreover, “vegan eating disorder recovery” is a dangerous game and there will be very few who can successfully recover while being vegan because the idea of vegan eating disorder recovery is a self-contradictory statement.
Think about it: What would recovery from a restrictive eating disorder entail? It would mean dropping all restrictions and challenging long-held food rules and beliefs in an attempt to rewire established neural pathways. To do this, one would have to actively stimulate this fear response by facing those foods they forbid until the presence of that food or thought of consuming it is no longer interpreted as a threat. Since a central component to veganism is the avoidance of animal products, one’s recovery, if attempted vegan, would not allow them to address these foods they are also restricting.
Of course, the reason for restricting animal products can be more nuanced here. Maybe they are not afraid, per se, of those foods veganism requires they cut out. But they are most certainly deterred from them.
Each person will have to get at the reason why that is. Is it solely out of respect and honor for animal rights? If so, then yes, there is no reason to encourage one to eat animal products if it crosses an ethical boundary they intentionally maintain. But, I would also add, you can always return to veganism because of your ethical values in the future. It may be worth at least taking a break from veganism if and when you are feeling too restrictive and like you may be slipping into the terrain of an eating disorder. This might look like heightened fear and anxiety around the thought of consuming anything animal-based.
For the wing of veganism that truly engages in it as a philosophy rooted in animal rights, I commend you for having such a noble intention. However, I believe there are many who, caught up in our diet and thin-obsessed society (now being obscured under the banner of “health”), choose to become vegan in an attempt to finally frame this restriction as “right” or “healthy.”
Is your dedication to veganism rooted in your belief that it is environmentally friendly? Even this is being debated in recent discourse. Ecologist Allan Savory put forth his compelling argument for “holistic management and planned grazing” in his Ted Talk and his method calls for the use of more livestock to re-green the Earth’s arid lands and significantly reduce atmospheric carbon. The Savory method is undoubtedly in need of more studies to prove if the theory is applicable across different contexts, but my main point is, would you be willing to leave complete veganism if it didn’t do the wonders for the environment you believed it did?
If your dedication to veganism is neither rooted in environmental and or ethical beliefs, I am led to believe you may be clinging to it out of fear and a belief that it is inherently the healthiest way to eat. And if you have rigid food rules forbidding all animal products because you believe they are harmful to your health, I’d encourage you to read more into the diagnostic criteria of orthorexia. In fact, the line separating veganism and orthorexia can be easily blurred and one might go back and forth between the two terrains unknowingly. A study on this connection between restrained eating behaviors and veganism and vegetarianism found that vegans and vegetarians exhibited more orthorexic eating behaviors than those who eat red meat. A 2018 article from The Independent also highlights numerous lived experiences where people hide their eating disorders behind veganism.
In short, that is why recovery from a restrictive eating disorder will have to have zero restraints on any food groups (allergies and intolerances aside). More often than not, allowing restriction to continue in any capacity during recovery attempts, such as by continuing to keep animal products off-limits, will result in the eating disorder voice living on, albeit a bit quieter.
Even when one is post-recovery and feels far-removed from their eating disorder, any restrictive way of eating could be triggering and slowly send them back down a dangerous path. Because it is hard to realize you’re back on that path when already on it, you’re better off not embarking on it in the first place.
Those who have recovered from a restrictive eating disorder, are in the process of doing so or who more generally have a tendency to engage in disordered eating behaviors, are the perfect example of a population who should not be engaging in fully-fledged veganism.
Moving forward, let’s collectively be mindful of the fact that, for some, veganism can be a gateway into an eating disorder and it should not be hailed as the all-curing, omnipotent way of eating it currently is.
Nyla Booras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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