Veganism and diet recovery… can you do both? I get this question a lot from clients and people on Instagram who have adopted a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle and are nervous about starting diet recovery. I also get this question from vegans online who get mad at me for saying that SOME people’s veganism can be disordered. Let’s address this aspect first so we can get this out of the way and then I’ll discuss my professional approach to veganism in recovery.

What is veganism?

There are many different styles of eating that could fall under titles like, “plant-based” “pescetarian” “vegetarian” and other classifications that I don’t feel like looking up. These styles of eating are not vegan. Veganism, by definition, is the abstinence from all animal products, including leather, honey, gelatin, and dairy (in case that isn’t obvious). It’s more than just a way of eating, it’s a lifestyle built on compassion for animals.

The word compassion is exactly why the vegans who follow me have clearly expressed to me (I hear you!) that they don’t want me saying that all veganism is disordered, and trust me, I get it. Veganism at its core is a social justice movement and vegans don’t want the word associated disordered eating, just like I wish intuitive eating and mindful eating weren’t associated with weight loss. But hey, we can’t control the Internet (or weight watchers), all we can control is our own message.

I’d also like to quickly clarify that I never once said that all veganism is disordered. I absolutely do not believe that and have more than enough examples of that in my life. But I do have an obligation to post information that might help someone who doesn’t realize that their version of veganism is disordered, which is exactly why I’m writing this.

One of my best friends Brigitte has been vegan for 5 or so years and she helped me navigate my thoughts on this topic in a way that would respect the vegan community while also respecting my clients. She pointed out that this word compassion is critical. To be vegan for a lot of people means to be compassionate in all areas of life, not just in your eating. This ALWAYS has to extend to compassion for yourself and others, regardless of their eating style and where they are at in their journey.

At this point, if you’re like WTF is Whitney talking about, then just stick with me for a minute. I promise I’ll explain in a minute.

 

Veganism & Diet Recovery: Can You Do Both?

99% of the time, my answer to this is no, although there is always that 1% of people whose veganism and disordered eating are separate enough that it works (if you’re wondering which one you are, err on the side of “no”). I’ve found that the people who usually don’t need to give up veganism for recovery are the people who have been vegetarian or vegan for most of their lives, way before the disorder ever developed.

Here’s the thing about veganism.

Even if you did have ethical and compassionate motivations for this lifestyle choice, at the end of the day, veganism is a restrictive diet. No, it is not just a restrictive diet, and like I said before, at its core it is a social justice movement more than it is a restrictive diet, but it is still very restrictive.

For MOST PEOPLE, there is absolutely no room for restriction in diet recovery. Recovery is too important and too big of a life change to try to navigate while you are still holding on to restriction.

And again, for most people who struggle with disordered eating or ED, veganism is usually tied up in that. I’ve had clients discover throughout their recovery that their veganism was a socially-acceptable way for them to restrict without raising any red flags. This is especially true as veganism and “plant-based” eating become more popular ways of dieting.

When is veganism disordered?

  • When it is an excuse to restrict dairy for aesthetic reasons or because it is considered “bad”
  • When it is used to avoid “bad” foods containing saturated fat (like dairy and meat) (which by the way, saturated fat is not bad for you and does not need to be avoided)
  • When it is a cover-up that allows you to avoid eating in social situations
  • When it is a reason to obsess over nutrient labels without raising any red flags (any well-seasoned vegan will tell you that it doesn’t take long or even that much focus to figure out if something is vegan)
  • When it is used in any fashion as a way to control food or calories

These are the primary ways that my clients have used veganism as a mask for their disordered eating. I am including these in case anyone reading this has similar behaviors around food (I can help you!).

And again, I am not in any way saying that all vegans are disordered, so please don’t come for me.

What if veganism is compassionate and disordered?

This is one of those gray areas I run into a LOT in my practice. This is also where my previous note about compassion comes into the conversation.

As my friend Brigitte pointed out, veganism is not veganism if it is not compassionate in every sense of the word. No, you can’t always be perfectly compassionate and loving all the time, but making a commitment to veganism is also making a commitment to trying. And if you’re not putting the compassion component first, then you’re not going to be able to sustain a lifestyle oriented towards social justice.

This is true with every single social justice movement, from Black Lives Matter to LGBTQ+ rights to feminism to mental health advocacy and everything in between. If you are not taking care of yourself, you are not helping the movement. Social justice movements are so much more than just a single protest or ballot measure. They are best advanced through a lifetime of commitment to the issues and commitment to using your voice and your power for the justice of all bodies.

You cannot keep up the fight if you are not taking care of yourself. In this particular conversation, that means that your recovery has to take priority over veganism, at least for the time being. Does that mean you can never go back to eating in a way that feels compassionate and aligned for you? Not at all! If anything, prioritizing your recovery will enable you to be honest with yourself sooner so you can establish your values and work towards your goals in a healthy way.

Final Thoughts

I want to also quickly point out that this conversation is also an incredibly nuanced conversation around what it means to be an anti-diet dietitian.

As an anti-diet dietitian, I do not believe in diets for weight loss because the evidence is just not there. 95% of diets fail, meaning that 95% of dieters regain the weight lost within 3-5 years, and anywhere from one to two-thirds of those people regain more weight than they initially lost. I think that using weight loss as the north star of health is irresponsible and stigmatizes people in bigger bodies for not being able to control something that they statistically and physiologically have no control over (weight).

All of that being said, it doesn’t mean that I don’t support individualized eating styles for someone’s specific body, allergies, sensitivities, or disease. It also doesn’t mean that I have any right to tell someone that they have to go against their ethics. But my job is to always put your health first and help you figure out if breaking veganism is something that you need to do for an effective recovery.

If you’d like to work with me, you can learn more about my coaching program here. I also have an email support service for anyone who needs a low-cost option that will help you get through areas you might be stuck in your recovery.

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