Vegan Orthorexia: Everything You Need to Know
Vegan Orthorexia: Everything You Need to KnowIf you are vegan or plant-based, chances are you’re into nutrition. Surely, you’ve heard the words “clean”, “detox”, or “cleanse”. The society we live in gives value to thinness, discipline, and fitness. The rise of miracle cure-alls, fad diets, and superfoods is leading us to become food perfectionists. It seems that everyone is on a gluten-free, paleo, or dairy-free diet – whatever it is. This has all been normalized. In a perfect world, the rise in veganism comes from a place of compassion for animals and a personal responsibility towards sustainability. But in truth, for some, veganism is also being used as a mask for disordered eating. Orthorexia is more prevalent than ever. Orthorexia includes perfectionism related to food quality, irrational guilt for eating “bad” foods and an overall unrealistic dietary pattern that is deeply linked to personal self-esteem and self-worth. Let’s talk about orthorexia and veganism.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia is a distinct pattern of disordered eating characterized by a fixation on “healthy” eating.
Orthorexia may or may not coincide with a preoccupation with body weight and is not identifiable from a physical examination alone. Orthorexia is caused by many overlapping factors.
Orthorexia can include behaviors like tracking macros, or any form of food manipulation or elimination to achieve the “perfect diet”. Orthorexia makes someone completely food obsessed.
For some, following a vegan diet can be a manifestation of orthorexia.
Orthorexia symptoms and warning signs
Some orthorexia symptoms include :
- Compulsive checking of nutritional labels
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups
- Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
- Obsessive following of food blogs on social media
Do you see yourself in any of these? If so, you might be experiencing vegan orthorexia.
Does veganism promote orthorexia?
Research has shown that orthorexia and veganism are indeed linked.
Research from John Hopkins University shows that many women with disordered eating use veganism, vegetarianism, or other “largely named lifestyles or diets” as a socially acceptable way to hide vegan orthorexia.
This Washington Post article explains that “Orthorexia… is a disorder distinct from anorexia or bulimia. It’s not the diet that’s the problem — it’s the obsession that accompanies it. And unlike most other eating disorders, the orthorexic’s objective isn’t weight loss. It’s purity.” Orthorexia and veganism may be linked due to a vegan person’s desire to manipulate and control the food they eat.
A 2017 study done by a group of scientists in Poland showed that 68% of the women with eating disorders who were currently or had ever been vegetarian or vegan believed their avoidance of meat was related to their disorder. About half said they became vegetarian to lose weight.
Now let me be clear: none of this is saying that veganism – or any diet – causes orthorexia, nor does it say that a person who uses these diets has an eating disorder.
The disordered eating lies in the motivation for using the diets. People with vegan orthorexia are found to utilize the diet as a tool for enabling their disorder in socially acceptable means.
This means veganism is not orthorexia alone, but that eating disorders use veganism to further the agenda because they eliminate food.
I’d like to note, however, that people who utilize veganism for cultural or religious reasons are not at a greater risk for an eating disorder. This is a different story.
Treatment for orthorexia
If you crave perfection and exert obsessive control over the food you eat, know that you are not alone. Vegan orthorexia is all too common.
You should also know that as a vegan dietitian, I believe you can recover from an eating disorder and continue being vegan. In fact, you can eat in whatever way you want, as long as that eating pattern is not the sole manifestation of your eating disorder.
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 vegan orthorexia on a plant-based 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.
Seek out professional support
The earlier you get treatment for orthorexia, the earlier you can reach recovery. It’s important to know the warning signs of vegan orthorexia and to seek help as early as possible.
A dietitian specialized in vegan eating disorder recovery can help demystify nutrition myths that would otherwise be entangled in your recovery from vegan orthorexia.
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 regard to veganism.
They can also help you honestly assess your motivations for following a vegan diet and can work with you to personalize your recovery.
For some, letting go of veganism will open them up to not only a less restrictive diet, but also to a less restrictive lifestyle. For others who are vegan out of purely ethical reasons, recovery might be totally separate from veganism.
A registered dietitian can help you make this distinction.
Recovery is possible and seeking an eating disorder treatment is a step in the right direction. Trust me when I say I know the obsession of eating healthy can be debilitating. An eating disorder nutritionist will help improve your relationship with food and support you along the way.