Are Vegans Eating Disordered?

From juicing to “going raw,” what is considered going overboard?

Posted Jun 27, 2016

I recall the first time I ever heard of a vegan.  I was in college and one of my classmates, a very bright, pretty, and slender girl declined my offer for a snack after she fainted from low blood sugar at work, stating, “I can’t have honey.  I’m vegan.”  I remember later having dinner at a Mexican place on campus with this same friend and another who herself had struggled with an eating disorder.  As soon as she heard the other girl order her meal and ask for no cheese, she later said to me, “she’s definitely got an eating disorder.”  Something about the eating disorder community and how saying good-bye to cheese is a telltale sign.  Something else about veganism being the perfect cover-up for a disordered eating style. 

Since then, I’ve worked with many eating disorder clients on quite the range of the spectrum.  From binge eaters to those who restrict and purge.  Those flirting with being on the verge of a disorder through calorie counting and restriction, and those requiring inpatient treatment and hospitalization.  It was years later though that I started hearing more and more about vegans and their hardcore way of life.  My husband shared on our third date going raw vegan for 7 months, doing Iyengar daily and “living the high vibe life.”  Instagram celebrities tout the magical power of their green juices and smoothies.  And now there is a category of apparel called “athleisure” for those of us in between a yoga class and lounging around blending our kale. 

Through social media I learned about Angela Liddon, best-selling author of the cookbook Oh She Glows who has a blog of the same moniker.  There is no doubt the author herself radiates glow on her photos and her veganism is largely credited for this (cue me purchasing chia seeds, hemp seeds, and anything else she attributes to the glow).  What struck me the most about her story though is her sharing the tale of growing up battling an eating disorder which led to her trying every diet in the book.  In the end, she returned to natural plant-based foods which one can never really binge on, and found her equilibrium. 

Having experimented with veganism on and off for the last year, I can say I do see the appeal.  Once you manage to avoid processed vegan garbage (there is really no such thing as natural vegan butter unless your definition is very generous), you do start to see the benefits.  No sugar crashes, feeling weighed down after a large pancake breakfast at a restaurant, or wariness about the origins of ingredients when eating out.  At the same time, there is hunger.  Much much hunger.  That is, unless you eat bread all day or devote a large amount of time to food prep.  As in sometimes entire parts of days.  Even with beans and grains, you still have to consume a good amount of food.  This is not particularly problematic unless you have the type of job that allows for constant eating breaks and have the requisite time to prepare said meals. 

All this to say, veganism certainly promotes a certain heightened awareness of food.  Which for those with eating disorders or prone to them may not be ideal.  Of course, awareness of what we put into our bodies is critical.  And too often we are just plain disrespectful of what we dump into our bodies.  Processed foods, caffeinated and sugary beverages just to keep going.  Then we don’t feel so well and wonder why.  However, staunch adherence to a dietary regimen can also further obsessions.  I’ve read about vegan food bloggers who cart ice boxes full of prepared foods onto airplanes for when they travel (I’ll admit, in Indiana people thought I was crazy for buying the organic ketchup).   Others travel and are acutely on the lookout for vegan restaurants and finds even when options are exceedingly limited.  I tried it myself here in Oregon, which many consider to be fairly vegan-friendly.  Simple pasta dish?  Nope, egg noodles.  Quinoa with vegetables?  Sorry, it’s cooked with chicken stock.  Many times the options left me angry and resentful as I tried adhering to a vegan diet.

My conclusion:  unless I devote myself to controlling every meal and situation that involves eating out, I’m left with almond milk lattes, raisins, nuts, some granola bars and fruits.  But maybe I didn’t/haven’t tried hard enough.  Certainly the experiment enhanced my own eating practices significantly for the better.  At the end of the day though, I like cookbook author Mark Bittman’s approach in his VB6 approach.  He calls is “vegan before 6pm.”  The idea being that by eating plant-based all day long you are giving your body the nutrients it needs while allowing you to be flexible for a meal out with friends without worrying about a dusting of parmesan on the salad. 

In a society where our waistlines are either bursting at the seams or on the verge of malnourishment, there is always room to find peace in the middle.  So, if you’re a diehard meat-eater, consider adding plant-based meals.  If you’re already a vegan and not for strict health or ethical reasons, allow yourself to indulge on occasion.  An ice cream cone will not kill you.  Finding a happy medium that works for your body without adding any extra anxiety or troubles is key.  So does veganism equate with disordered eating?  Not necessarily.  Statistics show the majority of vegans are female as are those with eating disorders.  But also not all vegans adhere to the diet for life.  Yes, a vegan diet can lead to certain B12 vitamin deficiencies which some vegans take supplements to accommodate.  In the end there are no hard and fast rules, but it is important that no dietary guideline lead to emotional distress and difficulty. 

Follow me on Twitter at Millenial Media where I won’t be posting recipes might share my love of black bean brownies.