• Alyssa Fontaine, RD
  • Feb 07, 2024

Vegan and Eating Disorder

Eating disorders (EDs) are often misunderstood as a personal choice, but they are far from it. An eating disorder is a serious mental health condition that affects a person’s eating habits, emotions, and related thoughts. 

It’s essential to recognize that anyone can be impacted by EDs, regardless of age, race, gender, or body type. These disorders are not simply about eating too much or too little; they encompass a range of behaviours linked to food consumption.

Veganism, on the other hand, is a lifestyle choice where individuals avoid all animal-based foods and products. Due to its restrictive nature, some argue that following a vegan diet might lead to the development of an eating disorder. Conversely, others contend that veganism can aid in ED recovery by introducing individuals to diverse food choices.

In this article, we’ll explore the connection between veganism and eating disorders, debunking myths and shedding light on veganism’s potential role in ED recovery.

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Is Veganism an Eating Disorder?

Veganism is not an eating disorder. Instead, it’s a dietary choice that many adopt for various reasons, including the potential health benefits of a plant-based diet and its environmentally-friendly nature.

Furthermore, eating a vegan diet would not cause ED and there is no single cause for ED. Some vegans may exhibit obsessive or restrictive behaviours, but it’s crucial to understand that these behaviours could stem from concerns about body image or a desire to control calorie intake, rather than the vegan lifestyle itself.

Meanwhile, it’s essential to be aware of the motives behind adopting a vegan diet. For individuals with eating disorders, the vegan diet might be one of many they’ve tried, often due to its generally lower calorie content. In such cases, choosing a vegan diet can be an expression of their ED, rather than a genuine commitment to the lifestyle.

Does a plant-based diet help recovery from eating disorders?

The question of whether a vegan diet can assist in recovering from an eating disorder doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. 

Your position in the recovery journey also determines whether transitioning to a vegan diet is beneficial. For those well into their recovery, adopting a vegan lifestyle can offer a fresh perspective and the excitement of exploring new foods. 

However, if you’re just beginning to heal, it might be more important to focus on nourishing your body and ensuring all nutritional needs are met, following a vegan diet is less favourable at that stage.

How do you know if you have an eating disorder?

Eating disorders encompass a wide range of conditions, each with its own unique symptoms and behavioural patterns.  Before working on recovery, it’s key to figure out the specific type someone might be dealing with. That way, we can create a plan that’s just right for them.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa, often just called anorexia, is what many people picture when they think of eating disorders. It involves eating much less than the body needs, being underweight, a fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of body shape.  

The common signs and symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual cycle for women who are of reproductive age
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Preoccupation with food 
  • Many other symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder where individuals might limit their food intake but then have episodes of binge eating. After these binges, they often try “purging” or getting rid of the food they’ve consumed. 

People with bulimia often experience these restrict-binge-purge cycles at least once a week for three months. Alongside this, they typically struggle with negative feelings about their weight and body shape.

The common signs and symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Weight change can be both weight loss and weight gain
  • Tooth pain
  • Swelling in cheeks or jaw
  • Bloating
  • Dehydration
  • Many other symptoms  of Bulimia Nervosa

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge eating disorder involves repeated episodes of consuming unusually large amounts of food in a short period. While many of us might overeat from time to time, binge eating is different. Those with this disorder often feel they can’t control their eating, even when they’re full or not even hungry. 

They might eat so much that it’s painful, and afterward, feelings of guilt or shame might set in. Because of the amount they eat, they might choose to eat alone, embarrassed by the quantities they consume. The symptoms of binge eating disorder include weight change and others. 

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

ARFID, often emerging in childhood, is an eating disorder where individuals might avoid or limit foods based on their colours, textures, or past traumatic associations with certain foods. Unlike some other eating disorders, those with ARFID aren’t focused on body weight or shape concerns. 

However, the disorder can lead to noticeable weight loss, lack of essential nutrients, and a decline in both physical health and emotional well-being. Let’s delve into the common symptoms of ARFID:

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Can you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet during the recovery from ED?

Absolutely, the answer is a resounding yes. If your motivation for choosing a specific diet isn’t rooted in calorie counting, a plant-based approach can open up a world of new foods and cooking methods. Before diving in, it’s beneficial to understand the differences between various vegetarian diets

  • Lacto-vegetarian: Allows dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt, but excludes meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and foods containing them.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Includes eggs but excludes meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Includes dairy products and eggs, but excludes meat, fish, and poultry.
  • Pescatarian: Excludes meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, but fish is allowed.
  • Vegan: No meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, or any foods containing these items.
  • Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian: Primarily plant-based but might occasionally eat or limit certain meats, especially red meat.

Start your journey of recovery

Beginning a recovery journey from an eating disorder is both a pivotal and courageous decision. As we delve into this topic, keep in mind that everyone’s experience is distinct and personal. However, you can use the following as a guide to initiate your trip.

Step 1. Fueling Yourself 

While diving into the emotional and social aspects of treatment, it’s crucial to prioritize physical nourishment. Embrace a balanced diet filled with diverse foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, plant-based proteins, and whole grains. 

Prioritizing smaller, regular meals and snacks ensures you’re meeting your nutritional needs. It’s worth the effort to establish and maintain these consistent eating patterns.

Celebrate every step, even if it’s just adding one more meal to your day. Tracking your progress can be an empowering reminder of your journey.

Step 2. Changing Your Mindset and Behaviour

Fixing your relationship with food can be your second step, however, it requires a multifaceted approach.

The approach will vary depending on the eating disorder. We recommend that you first analyze your own behaviour around food. For example:

  • Are you skipping meals and deep down thinking it’s a good thing?
  • Are you having coffee to push back your hunger and not honour your appetite?
  • Are you not eating all day and arriving at home and having huge cravings and eating mindlessly?

You can consider the following techniques that best align with your needs.

  1. Seek professional support: Always start by consulting with professionals. Psychologists, particularly those specializing in eating disorders, along with registered dietitians, can provide valuable guidance tailored to individual needs.
  2. Mindful Eating: Mindful eating involves fully focusing on the food you eat, savouring each bite, and recognizing the flavours, textures, and sensations. It teaches you to eat without distractions and to appreciate meals. This practice can be particularly helpful for those wanting to rebuild a positive relationship with food or address emotional eating habits.
  3. Intuitive Eating: Learn to tune into your body’s cues. Understand when you’re genuinely hungry or full, rather than eating due to emotional reasons or out of habit. You can learn more about intuitive eating as a vegan from here. 
    NOTE: Some intuitive eating principles can be incorporated to manage ED, but it’s not a treatment for eating disorders.
  4. Mechanical Eating: Mechanical eating is like having a supportive friend remind you when it’s time to nourish your body. By eating on a set schedule, it takes away some of the stress and uncertainty, helping individuals rebuild a consistent and positive relationship with food. For those in the early stages of ED recovery, especially if they’re grappling with behaviours like skipping meals, mechanical eating can be a valuable tool.
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Start Today!

You can initiate your journey by booking a discovery call with our plant-based dietitians specializing in eating disorders. Our team of vegan dietitians can provide you with professional support in:

  • Meeting your nutritional needs
  • Restoring your physical functioning
  • Correcting nutrient deficiencies
  • Identifying emotional eating and ED voice
  • Repairing your relationship with food 
  • Guiding you on mindful and intuitive eating

Don’t wait any longer, take your action today!

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