Note: a version of this piece was originally published in “Complicating Veganism” (2015) – a compilation zine edited by Nicole Davis and Clementine Morrigan
Content warning: mentions of disordered eating and consumption of animal products
As a vegan who is critical of the vegan movement, I regularly ask and welcome questions that interrogate veganism and challenge its lack of intersectionality or accessibility. Yet when I’m asked the question “Is veganism an eating disorder?”, my initial reaction is to want to get defensive and explain how this assumption is anti-vegan propaganda. However, when I’m honest with myself, I know from personal experience that veganism can sometimes be part of an eating disorder – and I think it’s important for vegans to talk about this.
(Side note: I acknowledge that the term “eating disorder” pathologizes bodies in a way that puts them into a defined box. I use it in order to facilitate contextual dialogue and because it has helped me voice my experiences, but I am open to other suggestions and support those who do not use the term.)
Anything that involves food restriction has the potential to contribute to an existing eating disorder – whether it is veganism, religious dietary restrictions, or food sensitivities. Vegans, along with those who eat an all organic or Paleo diet, are sometimes accused of having “orthorexia” – a lesser-known eating disorder defined as having “an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with otherwise healthy eating“. I disagree with the notion that these dietary choices are inherently eating disorders like orthorexia, but I do think they can sometimes turn into them.
Before I became vegan, I had an eating disorder. I was already vegetarian when it started (though really, eating disorders usually start long before they actually ”start”), so I didn’t question how my dietary choices might have played a part in it. But thinking back, vegetarianism gave me a sense of control and restriction – both elements that are often part of disordered eating. That being said, I also straight up didn’t enjoy the taste of animal flesh; so, in a way, choosing to not eat meat was honouring my body’s desires.
The same couldn’t be said about other animal products: I loved eggs, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. Thus, when I experimented with eliminating some of these, while simultaneously having an eating disorder, the experience was different. I told myself that I was eliminating for important reasons – sustainability, health, animal rights. But control and restriction were also part of my drive. When I started to realize this, I stopped eliminating dairy and eggs, and gave up hope of becoming vegan – for the sake of not letting my eating disorder become even worse.
Flash forward a few years, and my eating disorder was supposedly over (at least in behaviour). I started thinking about exploring veganism again because I was now “healed”. But whenever I thought about it more seriously and logistically, my old eating disorder thought patterns of food restriction and control came back. I realized that attempting veganism at that point in time would have harmed me and that I needed to wait. I couldn’t even spend much time with other vegans, as I felt pressured by them and didn’t feel safe to discuss the taboo and vulnerable topic of eating disorders. So I gave up on veganism for a while, but kept hoping I would get there one day.
Eventually I did come to a place of healing and distance from disordered eating thought patterns, which was facilitated by therapeutic farming and getting involved in the food justice movement. I felt I was finally psychologically in a place to try veganism. In fact, I found my body asking for it. I was so satisfied and fulfilled by the local, seasonal, organic produce from the farm I was working at, that I stopped craving dairy and eggs. So I knew it was time: I simply stopped buying animal products to see what would happen, and I actually felt more comfortable in my body and ended up having a happier relationship with food. This process of listening to my body even helped me realize that I still had remnants of my childhood dairy allergy, which I didn’t know before experimenting with veganism.
Thus, in the end, veganism – what had initially heightened my eating disorder – helped me in my continued journey of healing. But I know if I had tried it sooner, I would not have been ready, and veganism could have thrown me right back into my eating disorder. And who knows – since my relationship with my body and food is an ongoing journey with ups and downs, maybe there will come a time when I need a break from veganism.
Eating disorders are just one of many reasons why sometimes vegans stop being vegan. Rather than shaming those who leave veganism, we need to have open dialogue and create safer spaces for everyone (vegans, non-vegans and former-vegans) to talk about these issues. We need to support each other regardless of our current or former diets.
If you’re interested in veganism but you’re concerned it may worsen your disordered eating, my advice is to first find vegan community and try eating vegan food in these spaces to test the waters and see how the food affects you. If it goes well, you could try to transition very slowly with support from the community – giving yourself permission to stop or slow down at any point. Trying to immediately go 100% vegan on your own is difficult and unrealistic for many people – let alone for those with disordered eating tendencies. And keep in mind that everyone’s journey is different. For some, veganism can contribute to healing, especially when practiced in supportive community and in celebration of delicious food. In my case, I wasn’t able to become vegan until a certain amount of healing had occurred first.
Also, it doesn’t have to be an either/or. If you are drawn to veganism but feel legalism may harm you (as it does many!), ignore the vegan police and figure out what works for you! You can still reduce your meat consumption, socialize with vegans, and be involved in animal rights activism without being a strict vegan. Some folks are vegan at home, but eat animal products in social settings (which I’ve done at times while travelling or when I’m a guest). Others choose to use a different label/framework to describe how they eat: vegetarian, pescetarian, flexitarian, freegan, social meat-eater, conscious omnivore – some of which I’ve used to describe myself at different points in my life. Others don’t use any label or specific framework, or their labels shift over time, and that’s ok, too!
Veganism isn’t accessible to everyone. So instead of shaming non-vegans and promoting the classist “vote-with-your-dollar” mentality, we need to have an intersectional approach to food and acknowledge that choosing what you eat is a privilege. In any case, your individual diet is not going to end factory farming. Changing our food system happens through collective efforts and policy change, so let’s focus on that and on making vegan food more accessible – rather than policing what people eat.