Veganism in eating disorders is constantly cautioned, with many professionals, relatives and even sufferers themselves fearing veganism as a barrier to recovery, ‘another excuse for restriction’ or even a new eating disorder itself.
Though I do agree that there are many crossovers, I see a far more nuanced picture than the face value appearance of restriction. The conversation around veganism and eating disorders always stops frustratingly short, omitting the wider picture and doing a disservice to veganism and mental illness both. Rather than avoiding their intersection as a sign of incompatibility, surely the intersections between veganism and eating disorders are a sign of common issues, common reactions and therefore common resolutions?
From within veganism, its obsession with the health argument often diverts the conversation into sensationalised accounts of veganism as a promise of recovery in itself; whilst from outside, sufferers are disbelieved and untrusted, promoting recovery via a return to 'normality'.
From my experience it is far more complicated than either. Neither veganism nor eating disorders are simple, single issue whims, but are intermingled within us and within society. Our pursuit of health via a fixated pin up of recovery feels shallow, constrained by the societal norms and power structures that produce it.
Instead of thrashing out the pros and cons of different diets, I’m far more interested in exploring beyond both veganism and eating disorders’ obsessions with food to find their common issues in the bigger picture. By zooming out to see our dietary choices within the entangled social context they respond to, the impacts of carnism and ableism in particular, I hope to find more diverse, sustainable and deeper ways to care for each other fully - the non-human animals we aim to detach from the food system, the mentally unwell and us ourselves.
This post is dedicated to Sushi Phillips, who gave me so much from her gorgeous brain, her insight and from sharing her experience. We wanted to collaborate on this post and she would have enriched it so much.
Her experience of both anorexia and veganism was different to mine. Among the most important messages I carry from her was the voice we need to bring to those living with mental illness. The entrenched ableism that devalues and ignores chronic eating disorders in its glorification of a very fixed idea of health and 'recovery'.
Sushi wasn’t born vegan and she died in acceptance of her enduring time with anorexia. She must have had a very different experience with veganism, with mental health services and a different insight into veganism and eating. I wish we could have written this together and she could have told her story here, but I know she told it so many times in so many ways elsewhere. She has already changed many worlds x
In my experience...
Personally, I struggle with anorexia, so I relate to the restrictive aspects of disordered eating more than the many other difficulties eating disorders can manifest in. Other eating disorders are no less entangled with veganism and are certainly no less valid, but given my lived experience and insight, I write at the moment in exploration of an ongoing struggle with anorexia, a constant introspection and curiosity into my personal and societal experiences and the pursuit of better health and recovery.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been raised vegan from birth. I am very grateful that I grew up with values that counter carnism, a deeper connection to animality and a strong understanding of ethical veganism. The fact that I was vegan even before illness has also been extra useful in persuading professionals of my validity. Unfortunately, this deep understanding of veganism has also been majorly important, providing my own knowledge of plant-based nutrition to fill the gap in public and professional knowledge. This reliance on vegans to produce a fully fledged solution to our rejected status quo is something I think has massively impacted my care, both helping and hindering my recovery in different ways.
I have had various forms of care and independence in relation to my ED over the past ten years and I have seen big changes over this period of time. There is certainly a lot more awareness of veganism and how to follow a vegan diet now than ten years ago. Nevertheless, it remains starkly clear to me how veganism still has to operate as a second to carnism, an ‘alternative’ to the normalised rather than a system and lifestyle in its own right. At times I have had to form my own meal plan for inpatient units – something incredibly hard to do healthfully from an eating disorder – at others I have had no input at all and instead had to follow the limited, repetitive offerings of veganised versions of a meat eater’s construction of a diet (shout out to Mrs Crimble).
I often visualise my eating disorder as a sort of venn diagram, overlapping the ‘real’ parts of me that I cherish and find healthy with unhealthy thoughts or behaviours that manifest into fears and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Although there are many very ugly and shameful parts of my disorder, competitive, needy, attention-seeking; there are many parts (the one’s I’ll focus on sharing!) that I feel are inseparable from who I am and who I want to be. Parts that, whilst they have become extreme, I do think are valid and sane reactions to a mad world
Whilst, luckily, I feel I have managed to avoid getting too drawn in by an overemphasis on the ‘health argument’ for veganism or the thin ideal that pervades the movement; I do feel my ED is particularly strong in intersection with my ethical beliefs. A fear of waste, concerns around my impact on the world and what I need to take can become overwhelming and distilled into distorted feelings around food. Sometimes this intersection between my food choices and my ethics can be empowering, a way to embrace food in its wider value beyond my own body. At other times however this power feels overwhelming in itself, leading me instead to feel intense guilt and disempowerment at the scale of the issue. My recovery doesn’t just follow a vegan diet. It builds itself, builds myself, through veganism. I see veganism as an expansive opportunity to build a different relationship with the world and those around us, a counter to exploitative power structures and a way to reconnect humanity with animality. It is a big ask, particularly from within a world that is still so dominated by the status quo, so my recovery has involved a lot of questioning to uncover what it is I find so difficult about me and my experience in today's world. But this reflection and introspection in itself is one of the most valuable and therapeutic processes, a massive part of my internal and external healing and something I think we should all be able to experience.
Society, Veganism and Disorder | a full serving
Neither veganism nor eating disorders sit within the isolated individual but are respective conscious and subconscious responses to the wider society we form, the power structures that shape us. To understand the relationship between veganism and eating disorders we need to move way beyond the simplistic correlation of eating disorders = restriction, veganism = restriction, veganism = eating disorder and include the societal components of eating disorders.
Veganism as a social justice movement that reaches far beyond the diet is a reaction to the dominant system of speciesism, a system that values the lives of some species over others and humanity over animality. It is a counter-movement that rejects carnism - the belief system that naturalises eating certain animals. It rejects the many ways we commodify other animals as objects for human benefit and expands intersectionally to reject the oppression of animality in human animals.
Animals in society
How are we affected by living in a society of dominant power structures? of speciesism, carnism, capitalism, ableism?
As vegans navigating a non-vegan world, we live awakened to the devastating harm of speciesism; yet it continues around us at an uncontrollable rate. We have had to unlearn what carnism teaches us, often in a traumatising way – watching footage of animals in factory farms, seeing lorries packed with animals going to slaughter, hearing mothers cry for their stolen calves. Even for those who don’t identify as vegan, we all practice ways to desensitise ourselves to the violence and exploitation of animals in today's society.
We are faced with a constant battle of what we can fight to prevent and what will be beyond our control, the violence we will be forced to accept and what we will have to suppress and ignore. Carnism and speciesism are so naturalised within our society and food systems that we are still finding the language to manage and process our reactions. It makes perfect sense to me that our mental health takes an increased toll, and that more vegans struggle with food.
Carnism under neoliberal capitalism adds an overwhelming commodification to our domination of other animals, producing animal products in vast quantities of excess and waste. In a society that is expanding beyond our control, creating both mountains of abundance and simultaneous deserts of scarcity, we react with restriction, attempts to regain control. Our own dietary intake and bodies become an outlet for the helplessness and disempowerment we feel.
Our environments are set up to facilitate the smooth functioning of carnism, so to choose veganism means forging our own path through an environment that doesn’t care for us. Food systems are designed around animal agriculture, centring animal products and ensuring they are unrealistically available, cheap and culturally accepted. To practice veganism, we have to plan and eat far more consciously. Dietary advice, labelling and nutrition is all built around a meat-based diet, warning of the calorie content, the saturated fat and the ingredient lists of consuming animal products. The trauma, stress and internalised anger, together with a necessitated focus on food and its contents make a non-vegan world an intense environment to navigate for anyone already pre-disposed to, or struggling with, an eating disorder.
But although eating disorders are a damaging reaction, unproductive and harmful, they are a symptom in reaction to a genuine sickness. Rather than segregating disease and cure within the individual who is reacting, we need to recognise the madness that surrounds us.
We fear mental illness and madness as uncontrollable and unpredictable. It is animalistic, primal and jarring against our neat and ordered humanity. But what if we break down this binary between illness and health? Between uncontrolled animality and controlled humanity? Just as we live desensitised to the oppression of other animals, our society divorces us from ourselves as animals. We cherish humanity and disable, segregate and conceal sickness - mental illness in particular - to build society instead around the productive, the rational and the conforming.
Despite the madness that fuels eating disorders, so far as mental illness goes they are probably one of the most conforming, particularly anorexia. Disordered eating is so prevalent in society that it has become normalised or even celebrated, with weight loss, restriction and 'healthy eating' rewarded even deep into an eating disorder. With no space for wildness, we suppress and dismiss the animals we are, managing our distress, contorting our primal emotions into a societally accepted form – a diet, a restraint.
Animalised bodies have no place in centred society and we police each other and ourselves into endless cycles of dieting, restriction and disorder in attempts to conform to the human ideal. The curved booty of a Black woman, the non-conforming bodies of intersex people, the sexualised female form and the dysphoric bodies that defy gender constructs are all subjected to increased pressure to change appearance. Eating disorders become a sort of accepted, humanised form of madness that society can tolerate, until severe.
Severe eating disorders, out of control, mad and sick, are suddenly disempowered as we empower and humanise the 'well' and remove agency from the 'sick'. Those labelled as disordered are disabled by those who are well, passed into pre-determined treatment systems that function to 'normalise' eating behaviours, 'restructure' thought patterns and shape relationships into something more societally fitting. We are disabled into a position of dependency and vulnerablity; seeking health once again through conformity to a speciesist society.
It makes sense to me that veganism and eating disorders intersect so much. Both react to common sicknesses in the way we structure society, the injustices we experience and impose upon animals and animality. As vegans we live in compassion with the oppression of animality, as ‘disordered’ we live in uncompassionate suppression of our own animality. Rather than distancing animality in an attempt to purify humanity, we need to live in compassion with animals, ourselves and others.
Veganism in society
And how are we affected by veganism under dominant power structures? By its struggle (or not) to find a counter-culture, against capitalism, ableism...?
Veganism as a social justice movement builds a counter-system against the hegemony of speciesism. Yet constructed as it is, within a capitalist, hierarchical society, both the constant competition with the dominance of speciesist carnism and its absorption and recreation of other systems of power are still very evident within the vegan movement today.
Veganism is posited in comparison to the normalised status quo, never existing in its own right. We struggle to create on our own terms, eating ‘cheddar style’ cheeses and drinking soya ‘alternatives to milk’. The widespread assumption of animal agriculture as 'natural', 'healthy' and 'complete' is not afforded to veganism, instead requiring us to constantly disprove the 'right' to eat meat and prove the feasibility of veganism. This existence as a secondary, with no assumed space at the table, is a danger zone to an illness that thrives on feelings of undeservedness, restriction and smallness.
There is a hyper focus on what vegans eat. Whilst meat eaters are rarely quizzed on the nutritional profile of their day, the trope of "but where do you get your protein?" is not an unrealistic stereotype. We must become experts on the nutritional breakdown of our diets and then educate everyone else too. For someone trying to move away from a detail focused obsession with food it is a triggering request to list the nutritional benefits, or lack of, in each plate of food.
But importantly, by recognising veganism’s status as a comparison, an alternative to the centred, we also contextualise our reactions of restriction and elimination. The dietary restrictions, the complications of following a vegan diet in a non-vegan world, are only restrictions because of their comparison to the status quo. We are forced into restriction by rejecting a system that constantly offers unacceptable options.
As we compete to offer a valid, palatable and even 'easy alternative' to the status quo, any new vegan will quickly become aware that veganism is far from an alternative to capitalism. Instead, veganism today is often incredibly food-focused and commodity-based rather than holistic and inclusive. An influx of ‘accidentally vegan’ products to buy, brands to support and food to consume is the first topic of conversation in many vegan rooms, making it a hard space to navigate for someone trying to recover from or minimise food obsession.
Sadly, it is also still far from an alternative to disabling power structures, often marketed heavily around ableist health arguments with little nuance or inclusivity. The vegan health argument is too often caught up in diet culture, easily fixated around a limited idea of a healthy body, diet and lifestyle. Fat bodies, sick bodies, any body that differs to a glowing young White woman bending backwards doing yoga is excluded. Despite its roots in compassion with other animals, the health pursued by veganism still feels shaped by a rejection of animality, separating 'man' from 'nature' and instead hailing nature's commodified form as 'natural' ingredients, pure food and the false order of our own nutritional health.
Eating disorders too are hard to accept for an ableist veganism. Disorders that lead to weight gain, the relationship with food and the fat bodies that can come with them, are shamed; whilst those that lead to weight loss are often unrecognised and celebrated, or otherwise assumed as proof of 'not doing veganism right'. There is a tendency to ignore the wider picture of our relationships with food and instead categorise ourselves and each other based upon the way we eat - 'junk food vegans', 'whole-foods vegans', 'raw vegans'.
To fit into today’s vegan community we conceal our madness, our eating disorders, into a perfect knowledge of nutrition without feeling triggered. We must navigate conversations about how much weight someone lost upon going vegan, their toying with raw veganism, their insistence on trying every new food place that comes up and we must have constant joy in vegan food as the answer to all ills. With little acknowledgement of eating disorders from within vegan culture, it feels shameful to admit to a difficult relationship with food and difficult to be included socially, to contribute.
This distraction from holistic veganism and exclusion of mental health from the picture perpetuates the idea of veganism as a diet, a simple tool we choose to control. In overlooking the complex, emotional, animal responses to food that reveal our distress at a non-vegan food system, we instead recreate diet culture's internalised guilt, an ordered facade to hide behind, a coping mechanism to clutch onto, and that societally accepted tool that can conceal an eating disorder.
Without building veganism intersectionally and inclusively, we try to build a utopic picture of veganism as an already perfected answer to all ills. We fail to identify our animal reactions to a sick society, missing the opportunity to understand, support and care for our animality as we navigate a non-vegan world. Rather than a movement of individual action we can all take 'easily and comfortably', by including mental illness into a caring and inclusive veganism we are more realistic about what building a counter-culture could really be. We go as animals together, madly navigating an unbalanced world.
Rejecting the idea that vegans have eating disorders does just as much damage as rejecting that eating disorder sufferers can be vegan. A sustainable veganism must move past its fear of being destabilised by sickness and learn to value it, care for it and embrace what we can learn from differing experiences.
Veganism extracted from a world of carnism, when animals are not contemplated as products but as persons, is nothing to do with restriction but is a new, exciting and abundant creation. Veganism and recovery from disordered eating can be an expansive exploration of what our health could be, the health we can create and nurture through a more inclusive, collective model of health.
Any counter-movement is an opportunity to reject what isn't serving us and rebuild afresh. Veganism doesn’t need to revolve so much around food and bodies. We don't need to accept fatphobia's offer of a diet to hide behind as a false promise of self-control but can use it as an opportunity to reconnect with our wild sides, to highlight just how out of control our world is.
Veganism in Health | a full helping
Whilst I don’t believe eating disorders are simplistic enough to be caused by restrictive versions of vegan diets, I do see a restricted version of veganism as unsupportive of eating disorder recovery. However, I don't see a sustainable solution in avoiding and fearing veganism for ED sufferers, but in curiously exploring why there are so many common threads, what we could learn and how we can support more fully.
A fundamental aspect of living with mental illness or going through recovery is reconnecting with what illness severs us from. Our ethical beliefs are deep aspects of our identities and can be incredibly empowering, engaging parts within us. Our ethics relate us to our environments, to each other. to ourselves and to a sense of purpose – to reasons to live. We need to work as professionals, sufferers, support networks and societies to uncover and support healthy ways to access our compassion.
As we learn more about veganism, speciesism and our suppression of animality in its many forms, how do we move from 'allowing' people with eating disorders be vegan (under warnings of "well, that's your decision", "you'll be full") to supporting a healthy relationship with both veganism and sickness as core parts of an active, empowered life in the world?
Supportive treatment structures
Eating disorder treatment is designed under the same dominant power structures as the society it sits within, developing meal plans according to the status quo of a Western, animal-based diet. The ‘eatwell plate’ is commonly taught, dividing food into five categories - protein, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals and one especially reserved for dairy (now with ‘or dairy alternatives’ added onto the end), a guide unsurprisingly formulated with heavy funding from the dairy industry.
Meal planning and portion guidelines are taught via components, dividing food into singular macronutrients and allocating them to a food group. What goes with what, how much to eat and how often is then derived from these categories to formulate a ‘normal’ diet of a 'protein topping', x number of ‘fist sized’ potatoes, ...g of fats and so many spoons of steamed veg. Whilst this provides a method for ensuring we include a range of nutrient groups, it does so by dividing food into binary constructs of segregrated, physical qualities. It dismisses the more blurred reality - that all foods carry varying combinations of nutrients, emotional nourishment, flavours, textures and memories. For disordered thinking, this separation and isolation of macronutrients is breeding ground for further disorder, inviting binaries of good/bad, for moderation/eat plentifully and to be combined/to be separated.
The separation and isolation of food reflects the commodification and alienation of our disordered food system as a whole. Instead of focusing on the products a vegan diet rejects, eating disorder treatment could embrace veganism as a counter-system that decommodifies compartmentalised animal products and reconnects food within its wider context. Plant-based diets lend themselves brilliantly to combinations and mix and match style eating. Where animal-based products are held up as ‘complete proteins’, collections of nutrients already processed for the animal before; plants provide our bodies abundance through variety and combination, mixing beans with grains to get all essential amino acids and ‘eating the rainbow’ to find the vitamins and minerals we need.
Vegan nutrition questions the assumptions of normalised diets. Eating disorder treatment has to question normalised ideas of health. We have an opportunity to move away from the generalised, fatphobic and population-wide dietary advice that targets obesity and physical illness via calorie control, sugar reduction and sat fat warnings and adopt a more explorative approach to nutrition, supporting mental health, flexibility, trust in our bodies.
Vegan meal plans are increasingly supported as alternatives become more available and accessible. However, there is still a way to go that I would love us to engage with in excitement of its promise, rather than resignation to increasing veganism within eating disorders. Options remain limited, derived as alternatives to the animal-based norm at best. The warnings of “you’ll have to eat more if you’re vegan” are followed through in inpatient settings, simply swapping out the animal-based meal plan for soya alternatives, doubling portions or adding extra bits on the side wherever soya falls short on its numbers. The increased quantities and odd combinations (I’ll never forget the double soya dessert with cup of stewed rhubarb or the 20 apricots per day…) makes it harder to get through the physical process of refeeding, but it also doesn’t make for a sustainable and authentic relationship with food. There is still no fully vegan feed available, so anyone needing an NG treatment plan still does not have access to a vegan diet at all, whilst medications and supplements that are standard prescriptions at low weights similarly are not yet vegan.
It feels like professional input is still stopping short, merely achieving the numbers needed and missing the full picture of what vegan diets can include. Recovery work needs external support for inclusion of and exposure to a full range of fear foods. Cooking with tahini sauces, nut butters, creaminess and vegan baking are underexplored, instead just removing/substituting animal products and then blaming veganism or patients themselves for restriction.
As we know, neither eating disorders nor veganism are really about the food. As wider therapeutic teams, I think our treatment practices need to work harder than just asking how long someone has been vegan to decide whether or not to see it as valid. Treatment should be guiding us to uncover the nuances of our veganism beyond the eating disorder, to find what it is and what it could be for us.
Veganism as a social justice movement must go hand in hand with the extraction of care and treatment pathways from the power structures of the status quo. Practising from an understanding of the societal factors that influence our health, therapy can acknowledge and address the trauma we experience beyond individualised incidents to include the traumas of navigating an unjust world, an unbalanced society, an unjust food system.
A treatment system informed by intersectional veganism will acknowledge and address the impacts of racism, gender norms, heteronormativity, and it will extend to explore the oppression of animality. We can approach madness not in fear, internalising and concealing our anger and sadness into the humanised expressions of guilt and shame, but by encountering, exploring and accepting our animality. The raw screams in distress, the uncivilised and non-conforming thoughts, the changeable, responsive bodies and the uncontrolled bursts of desire.
By accepting, even embracing our animality, our madnesses, our fluctuating health, reactions and feelings; we reconsider the ableist division that separates the sick and the well, the chronic from the recovered/recovering, the deluded from the sane. We can bring respect and validity to those labelled ill, valuing and empowering them just as much as those empowered with wellness.
Supportive community structures
By accepting animality, vulnerability, sickness and care within all of us, we can reduce the externalisation and othering of care to specialised treatment structures and integrate practices of care that benefit our whole community. As well as accepting veganism as compatible with eating disorder treatment, we need to acknowledge and accommodate sickness within veganism.
There is an obsession with food within the vegan community that can be very hard for anyone with an eating disorder. On a practical level it makes it hard to access social events, but at a deeper level it can become a barrier for some to access the core of their veganism at all. If our connection to veganism and other vegans are always made through something so wrapped in powerful emotions, fears and distracting thought patterns, it becomes hard to extricate our core ethical decisions from our food-based, fearful ones.
To be inclusive and accessible for those with disordered eating, we must make sure veganism divorces itself from diet culture. Most people are not raised vegan but will go through a period of transition. This continued process of unlearning carnism and discovering how to build a new diet is both exciting and destabilising. We owe it to veganism to counter the torrents of misinformation, conflicting advice and scaremongering there is around nutrition and begin to decommodify health, food, our bodies and our choices.
An inclusive veganism needs to deconstruct the normalised ideas that divorce an ordered humanity from a disordered animality to recognise and value all bodies, minds and snapshots of health. The ‘child-bearing’ hips of a mother, the full figure of a Black woman, the ‘out of control’ comfort eater and the smallness of the underweight all have a place within veganism.
A care-full veganism recognises social justice movements as a struggle, filled with hurdles, trauma, unlearning and consistent deconstruction of the normalised. We expect reactions in distress and sickness as we try to navigate these hurdles and curiously explore what they reveal to us, where, how and with whom we can overcome them. It actively challenges the ideas that plant-based diets are easy, accessible and bring automatic health to all and destigmatises ongoing chronic illness, creating a place to value all types of body-minds – the fat bodies, the disabled, the vegans who don’t feel excitement at the latest ‘accidentally vegan’ biscuit on the market.
Our families and chosen families can be pillars of support through illness. By embracing the combination of veganism and eating disorders, we stop flipping between fear of restrictive diets or the promise of ‘health food’ as a cure. By understanding both veganism and recovery far beyond the diet, we can contextualise the role of food to navigate through our food obsessions to a more holistic view of health.
If family members are going vegan, we mustn't expect them to suddenly be an expert on nutritional science. We should resist following every morsel they eat, asking them to describe every dish they prepare and every recipe they use. It is not normal to be so accountable for every decision around food and makes an intuitive relationship very hard to uncover or maintain.
Many new vegans will be supported by families who are more familiar with the eating disorder than with veganism. If you are worried about someone with an existing eating disorder going vegan, rather than focussing upon their struggles why not approach it as a chance for discovery? Shaking up the normalised routine can be a great chance to discover other relationships with food, ways to eat, flavours and combinations. Information on vegan nutrition is increasingly available that can ease the pressure from vegans to educate and allow us to learn, unlearn and explore excitedly together. For anyone with disordered eating, this relief of pressure from the individual is particularly crucial, removing some of the identity and isolation around food.
It is realistic to worry about disordered reasons to be vegan. I'm sure an eating disorder factors into anyone's veganism to a greater or lesser extent, as it factors into all parts of life. But by excitedly believing in their conviction, giving more time to the non-disordered aspects of their agency, we can only strengthen the connection to these healthy sides giving less space for the eating disorder to complicate things.
Rather than obessessing over our concerns with dietary change, we must also engage with the many other aspects of veganism that are easier to access away from the eating disorder. The clothes we wear, the conversations we have, the entertainment we seek. Our changing feelings towards animals, animality and humanity, our increasing compassion and desire for change.
As a social justice movement built upon a call for change, movement and adaptation, the vegan community and the families within it can hold the health of excitement, exploration and connectivity food can bring. As we carefully decommodify food and veganism, let go of diet culture or new product hyping and navigate the difficulties these can impose for eating disorders, we can create a different health, a different type of movement, a different relationship to bodies and a longing rather than a fear for change.
The most enduring, most sustainable and most empowering support we can achieve is the chance to explore ourselves, our belief and compassion we extend to ourselves. I strongly believe that veganism should be accessible to anyone, regardless of any diagnosis. However, the current status of veganism means there are a number of aspects we need to be wary of as vegans who struggle with food.
Plant-based diets are generally lower in many of the macronutrients we are constantly warned against via the big red labels and anti-obesity campaigns designed from a carnivorous diet; yet the labelling and the one-size-fits-all messaging does nothing to reflect this. It is normal and absolutely ok for a vegan diet to look more voluminous in comparison to a non-vegan’s, to structure meals differently throughout the day or find satiety different in a vegan diet.
Unfortunately this can make underportioning common from those who are not so familiar with plant-based nutrition, or are even marketing things as plant-based because they are lower in those nutrients our society fears. It is common to veganise recipes through omission rather than replacement or creating from scratch, so be wary when eating out at friend’s, at restaurants or even the temptation for yourself to have pasta without the cheese, or the salad without the chicken on the side. Instead of removing ingredients, we can build meals afresh, using tahini dressings, avocado slices, sprinkles of seeds, falafel or veggie sausages with that superfood salad that everyone puts on the menu.
People will be more interested in what we are eating for a while which can sometimes be hard. Whilst we can gently remind them when it is unhelpful or difficult, we can also prepare to accept it as an aspect beyond our control. We are likely to have to do more educating, feel surer of our principles against diet culture, to constantly explain or defend our reasons for going vegan. Whether we agree with that or not, rather than letting it shake our convictions it can be an opportunity to ask ourselves these questions, to strengthen our self-awareness, our motivations and our internal learning.
We will probably have to work harder than non-vegans to find abundance in recovery, to define what letting go of restriction means for us and side-step the constraints of a carnist society. But the fact we are taking a different path from the formulaic model of recovery can make it far more genuine, personal and sustainable. Something to own and make our own.
Rejection is not restriction and whilst they cross over a lot, defining how we differentiate them can be incredibly empowering, allowing us to recognise where our agency lies and where the issue is not our fault. To restrict is to passively avoid, to limit pleasure or constrain something that could be, to reject is to take an active stand against something imposed upon us that we are unwilling to accept.
Veganism is not just about diet, there are so many ways we practice veganism through the clothes we wear, the activities we engage in, the morals we hold, the literature we read and the conversations we have. If changes around eating feel inaccessible right now, veganism doesn’t have to be. There is no one way to become vegan, no one veganism to get to, just like there is no one way to recover, to be healthy.
Tackling an eating disorder can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world around us. We have the opportunity to explore things that others less threatened by ill health remain blinded to. Navigating illness, therapy and introspection lets us explore the sources of our reactions, uncover what it is that is traumatising enough to make us starve or stuff ourselves. From a society that has individualised illness and recovery, sought the cause of illness within families and personalities rather than power structures and collectives, veganism can be an alternative that brings us back to the pack. Our self-support can nurture the animals within ourselves. In time perhaps we can unlearn the constraints of a humanised society and learn to love those animalistic cravings, honour our hunger pangs, allow our anger to run through us.
There is a lot of power in a wounded animal and we can turn our vulnerability and concern into a fighting advocacy and activism. However our activism looks, if we can access our veganism and advocate for vulnerable animals, we will advocate for and empower our own change.
The question I think we really need to be asking is not whether there are crossovers between veganism and eating disorders, but what these commonalities actually are beyond the surface behaviours of restriction. Why are more eating disorder sufferers choosing veganism, what does this highlight to us and how can we move forwards to a fuller picture of care?
Eating disorders can and will latch onto any excuse to restrict and I am sure there are many elements of safety in veganism for eating disorders. Some aspects of veganism may come from 'the wrong reasons' for anyone struggling with an eating disorder and for many these aspects may still be overwhelming. But we are not our eating disorders. The decisions we make have a fuller story and a fuller person behind them and we deserve the time and support to access, unpick and honour that fullness.
Instead of seeking a pre-determined notion of health, telling ourselves we cannot be trusted with veganism yet, let's give ourselves the chance to explore the fuller picture together – our sick and our well responses to the world. Rather than trying to dismiss and eradicate anything 'spoken from the eating disorder', lets hear its back story, acknowledge its purpose and build healing from there.
Whilst acceptance and integration can be aspects of recovery, learning to assimilate and cope with normalised society feels like a band-aid fix, a compromised solution to a much more holistic issue. We must all care for ourselves by learning to accept the reality of what we cannot control, make choices that compromise our ideals as part of participating in our wider community, but care also needs to connect us with our true selfs. Whilst sometimes care can look like conforming to the normalised, shaving our legs to feel sexy, wooing over Brad Pitt with a group of girlfiriends, learning to brunch on a (vegan) full English at a high street chain; we also need a care that accepts us as we are. That empowers us to radically question what is normalised and embrace our animal hairiness, our queer attractions and our desire to eat three bagels in a row.
Veganism is a rejection of the mainstream, but it is also the construction of something new. It is an opportunity to find different relationships with food, with those who produce it and the way we consume it. Not only do I think it is important for individual wellness to stay connected with our ethical identities, I think our collective wellness depends upon it.
Instead of dismissing veganism in eating disorders, reserving it for the privilege of the recovered, the sane; we need to support veganism to become a constructive and empowered alternative to the destructive, disempowering reactions of mental illness. Rather than internalising and contorting our experiences of madness into the false order of a mad diet; we need to make space for the insane, recognise that the controlled, normalised world may in fact already be insane.
a bunch of thoughts that I'm sure will continue to grow