Something i get asked frequently is, “how did I recover from anorexia via veganism?” or “how did veganism help me recover?” and third, “would I recommend a vegan diet to someone recovering from an eating disorder?”
I want to start off by pointing out a few things which is…
Veganism (or a plant based diet) isn’t restrictive unless you make it restrictive. Of course, if you suffer from different allergies, a plant based diet can be too restrictive. But if you can eat all foods and don’t have allergies to soy, gluten, legumes or different nuts or fruits then a plant based diet shouldn’t be restrictive.
However, if you suffer from an eating disorder that has roots in restricting food and you are scared of different foods or food groups, then a plant based diet can be too restrictive. A plant based diet can just be a way for a person to say no to food and have an actual reason that isn’t just, “I am scared of this food.”
When you are vegan, you may need to say no to food when it is offered because it isn’t vegan. You may need to pack with you your own food and have snacks with you just incase there isn’t vegan food available. Also when you first go vegan you need to read food labels and ingredients. You may need to prepare your own food at home if your family don’t eat vegan. Not to mention, if you are just eating salad and fruit and just say “Oh I am vegan”, people might be like, “Oh, that’s ok… because all vegans eat is salad.”
In recovery from an eating disorder you don’t want to have any restrictions, and you want to move away from controlling food. I.e if you want to eat the cookie you are offered, eat it… doesn’t matter if it had butter and egg. You shouldn’t have to read food labels or feel like you are restricting yourself or missing out.
Maybe you eat 90% plant based even in recovery, but you sometimes eat yoghurt or cheese or baked goods just because that is what you want and that is ok. Sure, there are cookies and baked goods that are vegan, but my tip is to not have any limitations or restrictions when recovering.
The main problem is that many who have an eating disorder say they are vegan just so that they can restrict. So that they can say no to foods, so that they can just eat fruit and veggies and not be questioned.
Of course, there are people who were vegan before they got an eating disorder and want to continue a vegan diet.
My advice is to ask yourself, “why do you want to eat plantbased/be vegan?” Because deep down you know the reason why. Of course I would hope that everyone would answer for the sake of the animals and to not contribute to animal suffering. But I am sure there are many out there who know that they only want to eat vegan to restrict food or because they think that is how to be skinny. So the best thing is to be honest to yourself.
You can of course gain weight and recover from an eating disorder while being vegan. As long as you eat enough and varied and eat carbs, fiber, protein, healthy fats you can gain weight. An eating disorder isn’t really about the food, so the main thing of course is to work on your actual problems and root cause of the disorder, while also nourishing your brain and body so that they can recover properly and you can think clearly.
However, one problem is that the nutrients in animal products – mostly iron and protein are better absorbed in meat than in vegetarian products. Also the fact that you need to eat a lot bigger portions which might be tough both physically and mentally in recovery. (I remember one day when I had permission home from Mando and my mum had made a lentil soup for lunch and I had to eat 3 bowls of lentil soup to reach the same amount of energy and calories as my normal meal at Mando, and I couldn’t physically stomach that much, not to mention that I also had to eat bread with the soup and I was so incredibly scared of bread so I couldn’t eat that either. Meaning that for the tiny little lentil soup I ate with no bread I didn’t get a lot of energy or nutrients, not to mention no complete protein source or healthy fats. So this is just a little something to think about!!)
When your body has been malnourished it is in desperate need of energy and nutrients, and you might have digestive issues making it hard for your body to actually absorb nutrients which is why it is even more important to have good source of nutrition so your body can repair itself. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to eat red meat and dairy every meal everyday. However eating just a little bit of meat can infact help increase your iron and protein which are two important nutrients you need when your body is recovering.
This may sound anti-veganism, however from a nutrition point of view a predominantly whole food vegan diet is perfectly healthy for those who are adults and have a healthy body. Or even those who need to lower blood pressure or cholesterol or those with diabetes type 2. However for those who are sick or have different illnesses or lot of food allergies or intolerance, then a vegan diet may not be the healthiest for them. Because maybe they can’t eat the right portion sizes or get enough calories, or maybe their body doesn’t absorb the nutrients as well as it should. (Of course, you can still have allergies or illnesses and be healthy on a vegan diet. Take myself for an example, I have digestive issues meaning that my body doesn’t absorb all the nutrients in my food and certain nutrients such as fats and fat soluble vitamins. So my dietitian didn’t think a vegan diet would be good for me, however a vegan diet actually works a lot better for me both with less stomach issues and all my blood tests are fine.)
This is a long post, but I felt I needed to write it and share my thoughts.
Yes, you can be vegan/eat plant based and recover from an eating disorder. However, don’t expect that a plant based diet will magically make your eating disorder go away. It can help you to nourish yourself and eat a lot so that you can eat enough energy and nourish your body and mind to think clearly. Which is a key aspect in recovery. However it is also important to be honest to yourself about why you want to be vegan…. If the answer is to restrict, avoid food or try to stay slim, then maybe you should rethink your reasons to eat plantbased.
This is my thoughts on the topic anyway. And like mentioned, yes you can recover/gain weight while eating plantbased… but many use it as a way to hold onto their disorder (especially those who eat only raw food or low fat or just fruits) and that is why it is not so recommended to eat plant based while recovering from an eating disorder.