Cutting out meat out of compassion doesn’t cause disordered eating any more than cutting out gluten to treat an intolerance does. But there’s still a correlation between plant-based diets and eating disorders that’s worth discussing.
So, hi. Let’s chat.
Is Veganism Just An Eating Disorder Dressed Up in Kale?
One day we’re gonna talk about how some of y’alls “clean eating” and “veganism” is actually just a good old fashioned eating disorder.
— Amy McCarthy (@aemccarthy) September 11, 2018
Naturally, vegans don’t tend to love the conflation of veganism and disordered eating. And, of course, there will always be vegans out there whose eating is quite ~orderly~. But for me – a vegetarian years into eating disorder recovery – well, the whole thing is a bit more complicated.
Let’s start at the beginning. I cut out red meat when I was 8 years old:
- because I was uncomfortable with the idea of cows dying so I could eat a Happy Meal and
- because I was uncomfortable with my body and I thought eating more salads would help
By the summer I turned 11, I had started dieting and working out to lose weight. I cut out fried foods, orange sherbet, sugar cereal, you know, “kid food”. I started making sandwiches with one slice of bread, instead of two. It worked. I lost 10 pounds, and I felt confident I could lose more. Dieting made sense. It made me feel capable and in control. Like school, it came easy to me. I was good at it.
A few months later, “dieting” didn’t feel carefree or comfortable anymore.
Each day felt like a challenge to eat less than I had the day before, and I considered the whole day a waste if I hadn’t succeeded in getting any smaller. I cooked dinner for my family almost nightly but never ate.
Here is a list of the only foods I would eat (in progressively humble doses):
- Raw mushrooms with ranch
- Plain romaine lettuce
- Plain tuna fish from the can
- Pre-packaged grilled chicken strips
- Chocolate chip cookies, but just the chocolate chips (I would bake cookies from scratch, then rip the chocolate chips out of the cookie and throw the rest away)
I wanted, as always, to lose more weight and I was still ethically uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat, so it seemed like the perfect time to go vegetarian. I cut out chicken, then fish and was left with raw vegetables and chocolate chips in my increasingly narrowing repertoire of “safe foods”.
Pretty soon, I started going days without food.
I once had a full-scale meltdown when I chewed a piece of 50-calorie gum. When I did eat, I forced myself to throw up afterward. I discovered I could make a “soup” with hot water and a cube of vegetable bouillon. I chased it with a few ice cubes for dessert. I read advice on the most effective ways to starve myself online. I planned to kill myself once I was “skinny enough”.
To put it lightly, it was not a good time.
Recovery is Weird
I wish I had a clean-cut story to tell you about how I got from there to where I’m at now – 4 years free from ED hell, miraculously in love with my body, and working patiently through whatever hang-ups I have leftover from a decade of disordered eating.
It took time – a lot of time. I never went to a treatment center, saw a therapist, or talked to my pediatrician about it. An observant dentist never noted the enamel damage from purging during a routine check-up. There were no interventions. I wanted to get better, so I quietly bought self-help books and ate Cold Stone, scared to death of the calories and fat I was putting in my body, but keeping the food down, anyway.
I was scared to get better, so I slipped up, purging sometimes or skipping meals, holding onto the only thing that felt like home. I cried. A lot. I got on anti-depressants. I got off anti-depressants without medical supervision. I started cutting. I started getting black-out drunk every night. I ate regularly.
I put myself together in some ways and broke myself in new ways.
Sometimes, I’ve tried to do better, and sometimes, I’ve let myself slip into the comfort of old harmful habits. The whole time, weirdly enough, the vegetarian thing has stayed.
Can You (Actually) Recover From An Eating Disorder – And Still Eat Plant-Based?
As a child, cutting out meat 100% served as a catalyst for restriction as I tightened my list of “safe foods” to a blank piece of paper. And I know I’m not the only one who’s had this experience.
I once had a dance teacher, a former ballerina, who shared her story about recovering from anorexia. For her, introducing animal products back into her diet was part of her path to sustaining her eating disorder recovery. Ethically, she did what she had to to cope with eating meat in the service of her health and wellbeing.
For me, embracing the hell out of vegetarianism has been a huge part of my recovery. I’ve been a vegetarian for 14 years now and despite strangers’ (frankly weird) insistence that I must miss eating bacon at least, I don’t find vegetarianism restrictive at all.
I’m learning to love making messes (and mistakes) in the kitchen. I’m kind of amazing at the whole intuitive eating game now (and, trust me, that has taken a lot of work). And I’m making an effort to learn more about the crazy-wide array of plant-based options out there. I never would have said this ten years ago, but it’s been fun.
At the End of the Day, Follow Your Path (Plant-Based Or Not)
I think what this whole debate comes down to is this: Follow your own path. Do as little harm as possible – to others and to yourself. A plant-based lifestyle might be a healthy part of your life, or it might not be, depending on your individual experiences and idiosyncrasies.
But please expand your compassion to other people’s choices. In general, everyone’s just out there doing their best with what they’ve got.
Play nice out there,