Navigating Safe Veganism and Vegetarianism While in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Morgan Abercrombie, Intern at HNC

Your relationship with food is important to your overall well-being. Food is used to nourish your whole person, physically, mentally, and spiritually. One lifestyle that has gained much popularity in recent years is veganism, alongside vegetarianism. You may be considering a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle to nourish your body or have already adopted one. These lifestyles can be an important part of someone’s wellbeing and help a person to find peace with food. They also can help you to support your interests in other areas, such as religion or concerns about the environment. However, following a vegan meal plan while in recovery can be challenging. 

Choosing to follow a vegan lifestyle can stem from many reasons, such as health consciousness, animal welfare concerns, sustainability, personal taste preferences, or religious reasons. However, sometimes choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet can mask and camouflage an existing eating disorder. Veganism allows a person to control or cover their restrictive food choices without others asking questions. However, there could still be motivations other than your eating disorder for choosing a vegan diet. The eating disorder can take these motivations and use them as an excuse to restrict important nourishment for your body. 

To determine whether you should continue following a vegan or vegetarian diet while in recovery, you must determine the motivations behind your desire to be vegan and how your diet interacts with your eating disorder. If your motivations come from a desire to change your body size or societal and peer pressure, it may be time to decide whether you need to be a vegan or not. Health as a motivation for becoming a vegan is also a slippery slope, as it can lead to an eating disorder or cause a relapse.

Therefore, here are some questions to figure out your motivations and understand how your eating disorder interacts with your vegan lifestyle. Try journaling the answers! 

Questions to Consider

  • What are your motivations behind starting a vegan diet? 
  • Would a vegetarian diet serve your mental and physical health better?
  • When did your vegetarian or vegan diet start and how does that compare to the start of your eating disorder?
  • Are restricted foods rooted in ethical/environmental reasons or fear of the consequences of consuming them?
  • Does the restriction of non-vegan foods decrease your anxiety around eating due to having food rules in place?
  • Do binge episodes include non-vegan foods, leading to guilt and shame?
  • Are you able to adequately nourish yourself by choosing vegan foods? 
  • Do you genuinely enjoy eating vegan foods?
  • What is your reaction when thinking about consuming non-vegan/vegetarian food products?
  • Do you avoid vegan versions of “fun foods” such as pizza, burgers, ice cream, cheese, or baked goods?
  • What other lifestyle changes have you made to participate in veganism?
  • Did you increase the portions of your vegan meal plan to provide your body with enough nourishment?
  • Are you willing to increase the variety of foods you consume in your vegan meal plan to support the needs of your body? 

Reasons to not Continue Veganism/Vegetarianism while in Recovery

  • Your vegan/vegetarian meal plan allows you to continue in rule-driven eating disorder behaviors
  • You use your vegan/vegetarian diet to create a calorie deficit
  • Your vegan/vegetarian diet causes family conflict and creates more anxiety around food
  • You can’t get adequate nutrients through your meal plan including iron, calcium, and fatty acids
  • You don’t have a support system to help you overcome your dietary rules and work with you to increase eating flexibility

In eating disorder recovery, exposing yourself to “unsafe” foods allows you to better understand the overlap between your eating disorder and your veganism/vegetarianism. It can also help you to understand whether it plays into your restriction or is not tied to eating disorder beliefs at all. 

If you are committed to following a vegan or vegetarian meal plan while in recovery, there are certain things to keep in mind. On a vegan or vegetarian meal plan, you are naturally going to be consuming more low-calorie foods due to cutting out nutrient-dense animal products. This means that to consume the amount of food required for renourishment, a larger volume of food must be consumed than when following a meat-eating diet. This can especially be hard if you have been restricting for a long time. It can also cause you to experience digestive discomfort when trying to get adequate calories. Animal products may be able to provide you more calories in smaller quantities, reducing this discomfort. 

Protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and omega-3 fatty acids are important nutrients to pay attention to as they are essential in recovery to restore health and sustain recovery. These nutrients can be more difficult to get on a vegan diet, as many of the sources of these are animal products. Thus, choosing a variety of food sources will help to make sure that the nutrient needs are met for these. To help you to learn better where you can find these food sources, we will have social media posts highlighting various plant-based food sources that you can easily incorporate into your diet. 

Anemia is one of the risks of eating disorders and can lead to further weakness and fatigue. Thus, eating foods that contain iron and vitamin B12 is important to prevent the development of anemia. To increase iron absorption from plant foods, consume them with vitamin C-rich foods. 

Calcium builds bone and supports muscle health, which is important as those who have struggled with eating disorders are at a greater risk of decreased bone density, which can lead to their bones becoming weak and brittle. Replenishing this mineral is especially important in the process of eating disorder recovery. 

To consume enough calories on a vegan or vegetarian diet for nourishment, you should remember to eat multiple meals and snacks several times throughout the day and include a variety of food and food groups to meet all nutrient needs. 

Becoming a vegan can be fun and exciting! Vegan foods can be used to learn about new cultures, as many cultures have vegan dishes with unique ingredients. You can use becoming vegan as an opportunity to learn about and celebrate food. Food is a celebration of sustenance. It is not meant to cause you shame and guilt. It is nourishment and provides so many things to help you and your body. 

Overall, to recover from your eating disorder, you must overcome dietary rules and increase your eating flexibility. You can do this while being a vegan or vegetarian if you allow variety, spontaneity, relationships, and flexibility back into your eating patterns so that you can nourish your body. 

Check out this colorful guide to Nourishing Yourself as a Vegan: