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Veganism, Bulimia and Anorexia: Everything You Need to Know

veganism and anorexia
10 min reading time

Veganism, Bulimia, and Anorexia: Everything You Need to Know

 

Alright, this is a big subject to discuss, so here we go. This article will dive into vegan anorexia recovery and vegan bulimia recovery.

 

As a plant-based dietitian, I work with many clients who experience a wide range of eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia. I often get questions like:

 

  • Is veganism the cause of my eating disorder?
  • Can I stay vegan during my eating disorder recovery?

 

My answer is, it really depends. And it’s complicated. 

 

Veganism is a movement that aims to eliminate animal exploitation and suffering. Ethical vegans – vegans that choose to follow this diet for ethical reasons instead of health reasons – do so out of compassion and social justice. 

 

However, it is not uncommon to see people turn to veganism to gain “more control” over their diet.

Veganism can often serve as a manifestation of an eating disorder. These can sometimes be red flags for vegan anorexia recovery and vegan bulimia recovery.

Considering that veganism is a lifestyle that severely impacts food choices, it can be interpreted as disordered eating. Sometimes this interpretation is wrong, while sometimes it might be correct. 

 

Let’s make the distinction.

veganism and bulimia

Anorexia vs Bulimia

Despite both being eating disorders, there are many differences between anorexia and bulimia.

 

Though they are different eating disorders, both anorexia and bulimia are serious, potentially life-threatening, and worthy of support.

 

Let’s look at anorexia vs bulimia.

Vegan anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight, and, in many, distorted body image.

 

People with anorexia generally restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat. Some people with the disorder also exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eat.

 

Those suffering with vegan anorexia often have an intense fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat, or persistent behaviour that interferes with weight gain, even though they may have a significantly low weight.

 

They experience disturbances in the way in which their body weight or shape is experienced and are in denial of the seriousness of their current low body weight.

Vegan bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.

 

Those with vegan bulimia binge on large amounts of food and experience a loss of control over overeating during the episode. They then engage in compensatory behaviours to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications, fasting, or excessive exercise.

 

To meet the official diagnosis, the binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviours both must have had to occur, on average, at least once a week for 3 months or twice a week for 6 months.

 

There are varying levels of severity of bulimia from mild to extreme.

veganism and anorexia

Does veganism cause anorexia or bulimia?

The brief answer to this complex question is no. There is never just one reason why someone is affected by an eating disorder.

 

Nonetheless, there is a relationship between veganism and anorexia and veganism and bulimia

 

Sometimes, people will engage in veganism as a way to mask their eating disorder and belong to a community in which dietary restriction is accepted.

 

Some people also report choosing veganism as a way to feel “more in control”. Most people with eating disorders have tried different ways of eating (low carb, keto, gluten- or sugar-free, etc). Veganism is often just another manifestation of the eating disorder, but that certainly doesn’t make it the cause.

 

Note, however, that this isn’t the case for everyone. Each person’s reasons for being vegan are unique. All in all, you need to reflect deeply and honestly about your reasons for following a vegan diet. If you are doing so exclusively for the animals, then you can certainly fully recover from your eating disorder on a vegan diet.

 

But if your veganism is intertwined with some desire to lose weight, change your appearance, and exude control over your life, I suggest you consider putting veganism on the back burner during your recovery.

 

There is no easy answer to this complex question – you need to do the work and reflect on your values. It’s totally okay to prioritize yourself and put yourself first in this challenging time. 

 

vegan bulimia

Vegan anorexia recovery

Recovery from anorexia is possible. It is not easy – but it is so worth it.

 

Once free from vegan anorexia, you’ll be able to experience food and mealtimes as pleasurable experiences. Your brain will notice taste, fullness, and satisfaction.

 

The noisy brain

A person with vegan anorexia can experience food and mealtimes as stressful. A lot of my patients describe having a “noisy brain” while eating. This noisy brain is characterized by a rush of disjointed words and degrading thoughts.

  • “I can’t believe you are eating that”
  • “If you eat that, you will get fat”
  • “If you get fat, no one will love you”
  • “You’re disgusting”

Acknowledging these painful, attention-demanding thoughts is fundamental to recovery from vegan anorexia.

Instead of judging and criticizing yourself all the time, what if you were kind and loving to yourself?

 

Self-compassion involves showing warmth and caring towards yourself when you are having a difficult time or fail. Instead of just ignoring your pain and being harsh, you stop to tell yourself, “this is really difficult right now,” and ask “how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”

 

Research has shown that practicing self-compassion is an important part of eating disorder recovery and can alleviate suffering.

 

Meal support

People with vegan anorexia often have a hard time making and trusting their decisions around food.

Meal support is a great tool for supporting behaviour change and overcoming fears. The goal of meal support is to stabilize and normalize eating behaviours. It is to encourage someone with vegan anorexia to finish their meals.

Having a loved one present at mealtimes can help redirect attention, coach someone through a meal, and provide a sense of calm.

Veganism can sometimes isolate someone with anorexia as their loved ones may not support this way of eating. In this way, veganism can sometimes pose a challenge in recovery.

For guidance on how to achieve the best meal support, and for more information on supported eating, a registered dietitian specialized in eating disorders is a great person to talk to. 

Vegan anorexia recovery meal plan

A vegan anorexia recovery meal plan is an important tool to structure eating and guide the initial steps towards anorexia recovery.

A strong meal plan should be created alongside a registered dietitian. Meal expectations, as well as the types of food that the person can expect to eat should be included. A meal plan can ensure that veganism and anorexia recovery are done safely and in a balanced way.  

Planning for safe places to eat and for having supportive people around can also help.

The idea of meal support and a vegan anorexia recovery meal plan can be absolutely terrifying. Someone with vegan anorexia should try to face feared foods 3-6 times per day! Many emotions will come up.

Remember that recovery is possible, but it is not going to be easy.

vegan anorexia

Vegan bulimia recovery

If you have vegan bulimia, here are some suggestions for how to achieve vegan bulimia recovery.

 

This is not easy work; be kind to yourself throughout the recovery process. And remember that these tips are not one-size-fits-all. You can take what works and leave what doesn’t.

 

Stopping the binge-purge cycle

One of the key features of vegan bulimia is a pattern of bingeing on food and then purging, either through inducing vomiting, restricting/dieting, exercising, or using substances to compensate for having eaten food.

This painful cycle can feel impossible to break. Learning the causes of this pattern can help you break free from it with help from a registered dietitian.

Food restriction often provides brief relief from certain anxieties.  Maybe it feels like you are “good” because you are “following the rules.” Some of the common food rules that my patients tell me they try to follow include:

 

  • “I can’t eat past 8pm”
  • “I can’t go for second servings”
  • “I need to avoid white bread and pasta”
  • “I need to avoid all processed sugar”

 

Sound familiar?

 

These food rules can often serve as relief from the shame or guilt from a previous binge. They also help distract from stress or other emotions.  They may actually calm you for a brief time.

 

But that thrill phase just won’t last. And it is not a failure within you – you are not the problem. Eventually, this restriction leads to a hyper fixation on food.

After even just a few hours of restriction, you become emotionally and physically depleted. Physically, your body is desperate for food and wants fast energy. It wants food that it can break down quickly. And your mind wants a pleasurable reward. 

Oftentimes, this is why binges usually occur on fun foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt that activate reward centers in the brain and are palatable to the tastebuds.

One of the major (albeit very difficult) steps for how to recover from bulimia is letting go of these food rules. A registered dietitian can help you discover other causes of your vegan bulimia.

Structure

A balanced recovery eating plan should include regular meals and a variety of foods to meet your body’s nutritional needs.

While it might be tempting to restrict calories or certain foods, this is ineffective and counterproductive to your recovery. For vegan bulimia in particular, regular eating is one of the best tools to prevent bingeing. Veganism and bulimia recovery is possible with structure.

Studies have shown that individuals who consume three meals per day engage in less bingeing and compensatory behaviours than those who neglect one or more meals per day. You can do this on a vegan diet as long as you eliminate the desire to restrict for “health” purposes. 

It can also help to combine planning with flexibility in eating during recovery. I recognize that vegan diets require more planning than do omnivore diets, which can be helpful in avoiding impulsive eating choices.

For some, creating a loose vegan meal plan can support bulimia recovery.

But it is also important to allow yourself some flexibility. It’s okay to give yourself the freedom from time-to-time to eat the foods your body is craving.

One-on-one nutrition counselling for vegan anorexia recovery and vegan bulimia recovery.

 

An ideal complete treatment team for vegan anorexia and vegan bulimia is composed of family/caregivers, a medical doctor, a therapist, and a registered dietitian. Despite the difference between anorexia and bulimia, both are worthy of support from a complete treatment team.

A dietitian specialized in vegan eating disorder recovery can help demystify nutrition myths that would otherwise be entangled in your recovery from anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

They can also help you explore your experiences around hunger, fullness, metabolism, feared foods, nutrition messages, body image, and more while guiding you along a healthy journey in regards to veganism.

 

Veganism and Anorexia & Bulimia

 

The bottom line is – in your fight to end exploitation of animals and strive for ethical treatment of all beings – remember to take care of yourself. It’s okay to do what you need to prioritize your mental health and your recovery. 

In your efforts to be compassionate towards all, let your compassion motivate you in your journey towards recovery.