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Eating Meat To Recover from Anorexia: Asking Who Benefits

Who or what benefits from your decision to forgo meat and animal products?

Key points

  • Vegetarianism/veganism benefits eating disorders in numerous ways.
  • Asking “who or what benefits?” can be a useful rule of thumb for sceptically assessing the reasons for and effects of our choices.
  • Doing something different and seeing what happens is the only way to test the hypotheses generated by asking and answering this question.

We’ve now had a good look at how eating disorders and vegetarianism/veganism (V/V) get and stay entangled (see Part 2). The outcome of the cost/benefit calculation seems obvious: The ethics of meat-eating are complex, the potential for V/V to keep an eating disorder entrenched is clear, and the costs of at least trying out a different way of eating seem minimal. “Well, come on, just have a burger, then”, is easy to say. Why is it less easily done? Not least because aside from the ethical disguise, V/V offers all kinds of other “benefits” to the eating disorder. It’s a simple way to, in one fell swoop:

  • Reduce fat intake
  • Reduce choice and hence the cognitive load of decision-making (and if the anorexia gets really lucky it might even prevent you from eating at all, e.g. in a restaurant with no veggie/vegan options except something you refuse to eat for some other reason)
  • Reduce money spent on food
  • Increase moral superiority and a sense of social difference
  • Reduce the sensory intensity of eating experiences
  • Avoid having to acknowledge you’re just a boring old evolved animal

And so on. For you, all these benefits are equivocal at best, outright detrimental at worst. For your eating disorder, they’re all fantastic. And anything that benefits the eating disorder is doing harm to you, whether or not you realize or care right now.

In the case of those effects that do have some kind of benefit-to-you component, like reducing overwhelming decisions, the benefit can typically be achieved in other ways that do far less collateral damage. For example, we can all do with help reducing the overwhelm that comes from excess choice. But the decision-making cost reduction route that V/V provides is easy to find alternatives to, once we realize what’s going on: for example, finding other criteria to reduce the available options (e.g. price or convenience), or, in the longer term, caring less about your food decisions and so investing less energy in them (which comes along for free with the end of malnutrition). And of course, like every other type of “simplicity” promised by an eating disorder, the “V/V makes shopping/eating-out simpler” argument is actually pretty dodgy. As noted in The Katie Chronicles blog post "Why I wish I hadn't gone vegan", “there is a huge amount of label reading and planning needed just so you don’t ‘slip up’ and accidentally eat something which, for example, uses milk powder for no apparent reason (salt and vinegar pringles, I’m looking at you). This can form the perfect excuse to sneak a look at calorie content or the rest of the ingredients list”.

Maybe at this point you’ll say sure, maybe, but these drawbacks are all pretty minimal, aren’t they? Well, yes, taken individually, some of them are. Lots also aren’t: Inadequate dietary fat, for instance, is a major contributor to the systemic biological damage done by a restrictive eating disorder). But let’s not mess about arguing about just how big a deal any of these specific benefits/drawbacks (or the many more I haven’t listed) are. Because they’re all benefiting the eating disorder, they’re all reducing your chance of getting fully better, and the odds of you doing that were already poor. You need to be taking all the help you can get, not to be making your chances even poorer.

"Who or what benefits?" can be a useful question to ask of any potential change like starting or stopping eating meat. Are you or your eating disorder going to benefit? With you versus your eating disorder, the situation is largely zero-sum: Any advantage to the disorder is a loss to you. The science of cultural evolution tries to explain how ideas, institutions, and other human practices evolve. One of the key differences between conventional theory and the memes-based approach is the set of potential answers to the question “who or what benefits?”. In mainstream theory, the three options are 1) the genes, 2) the organism, and 3) the group. Memetics adds a fourth option: the memes (Blackmore, 1999, 2019). Memes, as a second replicator, are now shaping the evolutionary process because they can be copied, varied, and selected far quicker than the genes can. This means that we need to take seriously the fact that just like the genes, the memes will get themselves copied just because they can, regardless of the benefits or damage done to the individual organism (or wider group).

An eating disorder is a set of physiological disturbances, but it is also a “memeplex”: a group of memes that are better are getting passed on when they hang out together than they would be individually. The anorexic memeplex includes: the “thinner is better” meme (always a winner these days), the “ignoring hunger means being in control” meme, all the memes for specific dietary and exercise tricks that support getting/staying thin, the “ana” identity bundle, etc. These memes get passed on through imitation, and they strengthen each other by association.

Think of an Instagram post that includes an image of extreme thigh gap plus the “anabuddy” and “legspo” hashtags and maybe a high-arousal bit of copy-me messaging. The combination makes the package more likely to get passed on and to encourage other actions, like changed diet or exercise habits, more so than does a leg shot or an “eat less” instruction would on its own.

The successful copying may give a brief hedonic hit to the person whose post is shared and liked and/or the person who performs the instructed action, but primarily it benefits the anorexic memeplex. The same thing is playing out all the time offline, and wherever anorexia is benefiting, it’s fairly safe to say that you are not—at least beyond the timescale of minutes. Asking the question “who or what benefits?”, therefore, can sharpen your attention to the flows of reward and its costs, and help you turn a more sceptical lens even on murky issues like whether eating meat really makes sense.

There’s a limit, though, to how much we can learn just by thinking. More can always be learned by acting. I don’t have much good to say about 12-step programmes, in any context let alone eating disorder recovery, but I do really like one thing I came across in their documentation. This is a quote from “Sobriety is surrender” (2013), where being “sober” means not engaging in eating-disordered habits:

In order to get sober it is usually best to let go of vegetarianism, at least for a while, simply because our disease is so tricky and can easily masquerade as something ethical or sacred, and we can be fully deceived by it. About half our vegetarian members who let go and ate meat in early sobriety discovered that vegetarianism had been a way to feel in control of their bodies and/or their feelings, even though they didn’t think so before they surrendered. The other half learned that it truly had nothing to do with controlling their bodies, just as they had suspected prior to letting go of their restrictions. The problem was that there was no way to determine beforehand which half a given individual would fall into!

I think the invitation to perform the test, to be sceptical of your own self-talk, is as spot-on here as it usually is: You learn something whatever happens. You could say you’re not willing to give yourself a chance to learn because the poor animals or the poor planet matter too much, but if you make the effort to get the most expensive meat you can find, the animal probably had a much happier life than yours is, and the planet is robust enough to absorb your burger. Is it really the animals/planet you cared about, or is it the eating-disordered part of yourself? What happens to the eating-disordered part of you when something that may or may not be supporting it is taken away? Only one way to find out!

Taking the action that will provide an answer is a powerful way to follow up on the cognitive question-asking and -answering. If you like, the answers you may generate to the "who or what benefits?" question are hypotheses (e.g. "I think I benefit because I feel good about being ethically responsible, and I think my eating disorder doesn't benefit because wanting to be ethically responsible has nothing to do with wanting to be thin or in control"). The only way to test the hypotheses is to adjust one variable and observe the results (e.g. either you feel sick every time you eat meat and your restrictive impulses remain unchanged, or on the third try it tastes better and you realize you have more energy and that you're now also experimenting with some other energy-dense foods you hadn't eaten for ages). An experiment in letting-go is needed to find out.

In the next installment we’ll consider the next step in this train of reasoning, which is the importance of asking whether you really care enough to find out.

References

Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous. (2013). "Sobriety is surrender." What does THAT mean? Full text here.

Blackmore, S.J. (1999). The meme machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Books preview here.

Blackmore, S. (2019). Gene and meme. In: Choe, J.C. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of animal behavior (2nd ed.). vol. 1, pp. 67–74. Elsevier, Academic Press. Complete Google Books preview here.

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