On Veganism, Eating Disorder Recovery, and “No” Foods

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On Thursday of last week, I shared a wonderful Green Recovery post from fellow blogger Kimmy, who is the author of Rock My Vegan Socks. She wrote something that inspired today’s post, which I’ll share with you:

One of the toughest things for me was to not have “no” foods. To not look at food as good or bad, but food/fuel for my body and to eat. When I see foods as “bad” it triggers me to try and avoid them at all costs until I finally break and binge on them. Sure there are foods that are more healthful than others, but I’ve learned that it’s ok to enjoy a variety of things and if I eat a little more of the foods that aren’t quite as healthful, my body naturally starts to crave more healthful things. I’m still trying to figure out balance, it’s definitely a work in progress. 

Kimmy’s experience with “no” foods is not unique. In fact, I’d say that most people who deem certain foods as bad or forbidden end up struggling with the very same bingeing issues that Kimmy describes. When I start working with a new client, I’ll always say that our work is to be a judgment free space. We’re not going to label foods as “good,” “bad,” or—my least favorite expression of all—“clean.” Food is not “dirty.” If a client tells me that he or she was “bad” over the weekend, I’ll gently encourage him or her to rethink the statement. Perhaps it would be more productive, I’ll counter, to say something like “I didn’t choose foods that made me feel my best this weekend.” No moralizing, no confessional. Good/bad terminology only creates angst.

Anyone who has recovered from an ED has probably had to do some work with this issue of forbidden foods. Some people call them “no” foods. I used to call them “fear” foods. No matter what we call them, they present us with the same set of problems. The world will not be a less vast or overwhelming place if you place food into strict categories. Nevertheless, this habit gives us the illusion of control, the sense that we’re somehow in greater command of our lives.

The other problem with no/fear foods is that they serve to reinforce the ED sufferer’s sensation that everything to do with food is a BIG, HUGE deal. When you’re living with an ED, every single food choice is loaded with significance, to the point where even a small decision—avocado or nuts? Olive oil or coconut oil? Sweet potato or quinoa?—can feel crippling. My memories of anorexia and orthorexia involve so many moments spent in a paralysis of indecision over what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat. This tendency still sometimes bubbles up when I get caught choosing between two dinner options or ordering at restaurants. Fortunately, time, therapy, and lots of practice have taught me to snap out of the deadlock quickly, commit to something, and remind myself that no single food choice matters that much. It was one of the hardest parts of my recovery, and it would not have been possible had I not learned to let go of the idea that foods exist on a dramatic spectrum of good and bad, healthy and unhealthy.

For all of these reasons, I see the deconstructing of good/bad categories as a vital part of the recovery process. I don’t think it’s possible to embrace one’s appetite freely so long as one is busy assigning undue significance or false health claims to food. This opens up an interesting question: as a vegan, how do I reconcile my perspective on “no” foods with my choice to eliminate a significant number of foods from my diet?

I have been asked this question by readers who are in ED recovery countless times—so often, in fact, that I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to address it head on. In many ways, this question cuts right to the heart of the Green Recovery concept. My premise for the series, which grew out of my own recovery experience, was that it is possible for people who are recovered or in recovery to maintain discernment with food, all the while letting go of the fears and anxieties that characterize an ED.

When I posted my first Green Recovery submission I suspected that the idea might provoke some pushback, and indeed, in the years since I’ve been publishing Green Recovery stories, I’ve gotten some criticism along with plenty of positive support. One of the earliest pieces of critical feedback I received was from a therapist who asserted to me (respectfully, over email) that it’s really not possible to experience true freedom from the ED while also having a substantial number of off-limits foods. From her perspective, veganism could only serve to underscore a person’s attachment to the ED.

This echoes much of the thinking that surrounds ED treatment. There is an emphasis on breaking down good/bad dichotomies, lifting any limitations or rules that have been imprinted on eating, and letting go of unnecessary emotion surrounding food—specifically, fear, anxiety, self-loathing, judgment. When I was in therapy and working through my ED, my therapist continually pushed me to release my attachment to food. She believed that I wouldn’t be able to experience freedom from the disorder until I could let go of the idea that everything I ate was so meaningful and so important. The work I did with her was valuable, and I’m grateful for it. Today, when I gently counsel clients to let go of the guilt/anxiety that can surround food decisions, and remind them to keep the big picture in mind, I’m channeling that work.

Sometimes, though, the emphasis on breaking attachment to food and razing good/bad thinking can come across as an effort to divest food of meaning. One of the things that a school counselor said to me long ago was that I had to see food as “just food.” I clung to that idea as a defining feature of recovery for a long time—so much so that I even wrote a post with that title, “just food,” early in my blogging days. I was still under the influence of what I had been told about recovery, which was that I had to see food as “fuel.” I was also told that having any “no” foods at all—including those imposed by veganism or vegetarianism—was at odds with recovery, that it would only perpetuate my tendency to invest food with too much importance. From the perspective of someone who works with EDs every day, I understand this position. It’s what works for many people. A good friend once told me that she could never be vegan because she could never again deem any food as off limits or forbidden. Knowing what she’d been through, I empathized completely. But my own story has been very different.

I think that there are a few problems with the idea that recovery resides in never having an off-limits food again. The first is that it feels a little bullying, as if the penance for those of us who used to have EDs is that we surrender the right to ever again exert preferences or harbor strong feelings about what we eat. There is therapeutic importance in leaning into getting over “fear” foods, sure. But I think that people who have had EDs maintain the right to bring active choice to what they eat. In the context of today’s discussion, this may include choices that have an ethical or philosophical origin, like veganism.

I also dislike any suggestion that food should be without meaning or importance, even if it’s offered for the sake of overcoming the anxieties and fears of an ED. For one thing, food isn’t meaningless or without importance. It is profoundly important to all of mankind, because we are creatures with rich inner lives and complex feelings and a tapestry of culture in addition to the fact that we have bodies, and those bodies have nutritional demands. The fact that food is meaningful to us is evidenced in our rich culinary traditions, in the importance we place on gathering at a table and breaking bread, in our rich legacy of cookbooks and recipes. I went on a date once with a man who told me that if there were a fullness pill, he’d take it, because he had a busy life and considered eating to be a strain on his schedule. But such individuals really are few and far between. I challenge most anyone to say that food is just food, or just fuel. And it strikes me as especially unrealistic to think that anyone who has struggled with an ED would be able to make such a claim. For most of us, food is meaningful and important. The question is, can we channel that meaning into positive, healthful, and self-loving directions?

I think the final problem with making unilateral statements about “no” foods is that it fails to take into account the single most important feature (within the context of recovery) of how we eat: motivation. I’ve often said on this blog that one can engage in disordered eating no matter what the diet. It’s true that EDs often hide behind vegan diets, paleo diets, or other specialized diets; of course they do. But if you’re determined to create rules surrounding food, you certainly don’t need to select a special diet in order to accommodate them. I was an anorexic omnivore. The fact that I was ostensibly able to eat anything certainly didn’t stop me from bankrupting my diet. Encouraging a wide array of foods may offer some insurance against disordered habits, but the real issue is always the same: one’s mindset.

If we focus on motivation and mindset rather than labels, we can actually create a nuanced and authentic dialog about our food choices. Once again, I’ll refer to my own experience. There is a world of difference between my feelings about animal foods today and the fears that characterized my food choices in the past. The primary distinction is that I choose not to eat animals for ethical reasons, and not because I think that they’re “bad” for me, or because I think they’ll make me gain weight. Put differently, veganism feels like a moral imperative to me at this point.

I also do everything I can to resist letting fear guide my food choices. I often talk to my clients about fear-based nutrition versus evidence-based nutrition; the former encourages strict rules and guilt, while the latter tends to encourage common sense, balanced eating habits, and moderation. Fear-based thinking ruled my world for a long time, and for me, recovery means refusing to allow fear to guide my choices. I don’t avoid foods because they are too caloric, too high in fat, too rich in carbs, too sugary, etc. I also don’t forbid foods on the grounds that they are “unhealthy,” because a fundamental feature of my present-day health philosophy is an emphasis on the big picture. Of course certain food choices can cause health imbalances over time—I’m not suggesting that diet isn’t a contributor to health. But for the most part, no single food encounter is life-or-death.

Finally, I acknowledge that true nourishment is not just about the nutritional quality of what we eat. A slice of gooey vegan cake, a warm latte with sugar dusted on top, a plate of chickpea fries, hot from the fryer: these foods can nourish us in ways that go beyond the minutiae of micronutrients or protein. They can be comforting. They can constitute a complex sensory experience. They can be fun. They can be communal. The health benefits of food are firmly rooted in the experiences they afford us, as well as in their nutritional offerings.

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 Image courtesy of Allyson Kramer

Of course, it’s possible to claim that one is avoiding a food on ethical or conscientious grounds (for example, choosing to boycott a particular food producer because one doesn’t believe in its business practices), when in fact one is appeasing the fear-based thinking. It’s also possible to mask ED tendencies behind the veil of being a “picky” eater. But I still don’t think that we should make all types of dietary discernment off limits for people in recovery. In so doing, I think we might actually block off approaches to food that, however unorthodox, could prove to be beneficial.

For one thing, it can be deeply healing for a person who has had an ED to be given permission to eat in alignment with his or her values. Allowing compassion for animals to guide my food choices has compelled me to embrace food so much more profoundly than I ever did before. Becoming more sensitively attuned to the ethical issues that surround food production has helped me to shift my focus away from the fear-based thinking; it actually exposes the irrationality and insignificance of calorie obsession and/or orthorexia. Additionally, eating a wide variety of nourishing foods that appeal to me (as opposed to animal flesh, which never did) has helped me to forge a more harmonious relationship with my food. It does not surprise me at all that my only lasting recovery has been as a vegan. And these are experiences that have been echoed again and again and again by the men and women who have submitted Green Recovery stories.

Earlier this year, I reflected in some detail on my own ED history. I mentioned that, in the very early days of my veganism, it’s hard for me to say whether or not my motivations had to do with preserving a sense of safety. At the time, it didn’t feel this way, because veganism encouraged me to eat so many foods that I’d have never allowed myself in the past, from rice to tofu to big, creamy slabs of avocado and gobs of nut butter. But I can’t say for sure whether or not the lifestyle did allow me to preserve some sense of control—the impulse we associate with disordered thinking. I remember feeling, as I transitioned to veganism, a very new and special sense that the food I was eating all had value. Part of this was a response to eating whole foods, things that I knew had grown from the earth. They felt more pleasurable to me than the conventional foods I’d tried so hard to force myself to enjoy in past recoveries, as a part of my effort to “prove” that I was better. Part of it was a sense that veganism—though I didn’t yet identify as an ethical vegan—was intertwined with broader issues of social justice and environmental awareness.

You could certainly look at this—the identification of plant foods as natural and wholesome, anyway—as an attempt to appease the ED quest for purity and superiority. Not long after this period, though, I did genuinely descend into a bout of orthorexia, and it was nothing like my early vegan days. I know this, because it was actually the memory of my first year as a vegan that pulled me back from my foray into the extremism of “detoxing.” I looked back on my early vegan days and remembered how positive and constructive the act of eating had felt. I remembered taking pride in the nutritional richness of the foods I ate. I remembered feeling as though I was using food to nourish myself, rather than allowing it to be an outlet for self-control.

Today, I don’t need to attach quite so much unilateral positivity to everything I eat. Foods don’t have to feel wholly beneficial in order for me to enjoy them, and in many ways this is a mark of my personal growth, my increased detachment from the ED. But back in the days when recovery felt so fragile and so new, veganism gave me a context in which to shift my thinking about food. What was previously frightening and guilty became beneficial and meaningful. I believe that this is what I needed in order to get better: I needed to reframe my understanding of what food was and how it could make me feel. Veganism allowed me to do that. And that’s why it’s impossible for me to believe that veganism is, ipso facto, at odds with recovery. I don’t think I would or could have recovered with out it.

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Veganism isn’t a positive or a beneficial choice for everyone in recovery–especially those for whom the recovery process is very new. You’d be surprised at how often I find myself gently encouraging clients not to commit to vegan diets—not because I don’t want to see everyone go vegan, but because my first responsibility as a nutritionist is to protect clients’ health. If I strongly suspect that the impulse toward veganism is rooted in potentially harmful impulses toward self-control or denial, I think it’s my job to share that suspicion. I’ll respectfully remind my client that veganism isn’t going anywhere, and that he or she has a whole lifetime in which to embrace it heartily and healthily. But committing to veganism for questionable reasons during the tender phases of recovery isn’t likely to benefit the individual or the lifestyle.

And each week, I also encounter men and women who seem to feel—correctly, I think—that veganism is a positive, healing avenue. I don’t think it’s my job to discourage all of those individuals because there are some other individuals who won’t approach veganism that way, who will use it as a way to subvert the ED. This is something that I believe we all need to accept about recovery: different approaches reach different people. Attempting to manage or contain EDs by shutting down every treatment approach that isn’t unilaterally successful will leave us with no approaches at all.

Of course, advocating an approach like veganism puts a great deal of responsibility in the individual who is recovering. It means asking him or her to have open, honest, critical dialogs with the self and with treatment providers about motivations. It means challenging people who do want to maintain a vegan recovery to look deep within themselves, and ask what’s driving their intentions. I think it creates more necessity for therapy, treatment, and support, because it’s easier to analyze one’s motives with the help of an outsider. With the right kind of guidance, though, it’s work that can be done. It’s easy to say that everyone with an ED is so deluded and far gone that they cannot be trusted to ask these difficult questions and make these choices. But frankly, I don’t agree. Many ED sufferers do maintain enough awareness to self-examine, and I think we should work to create a conscious and supportive space in which they can do it.

I certainly didn’t intend to write a novel tonight, but this is a big, complex topic. If you’re still reading, you have my gratitude, and I certainly hope you’ll share your thoughts.

xo

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    51 Comments
  1. Dear Gena,

    I’ve been recovering from my ED for over 2 years now. I recently started living alone and cooking for myself. I experimented with adopting a plant-based lifestyle, but I quickly realized that this was becoming an excuse for me to under-nourish myself.

    I’ve been watching videos and reading articles about the possibility of adopting a plant-based diet in recovery and this particular quote from your post resonated with me: “I mentioned that, in the very early days of my veganism, it’s hard for me to say whether or not my motivations had to do with preserving a sense of safety.” Wow. That hits home for me because when I ask myself what my motivation is, it’s definitely NOT for the animals (I do not share the same sympathies as vegans when it comes consuming animal products – I personally don’t see anything wrong with raising animals for the purpose of consuming eggs, milk, etc. so long as it’s done in a humane manner).

    And so, I realize I am using this “plant-based” diet as a means for me to become “clean,” “pure,” and to “feel light” and take pride in describing my diet. I am now in the process of asking myself: what is wrong with an omnivore diet? In fact – it’s possible that an omnivore could be healthier than a vegan! Yet I still find myself gravitating towards these labels, and if I stay within said label I’m “safe.” Any suggestions for helping me become confident in a diet that does not have a label?

  2. Hi…
    My daughter has anorexia and has been for the last four years. As a mother who sees the pain everyday, with every meal my daughter has to consume to fuel her body , I am always trying to find something that will finally help her recover . She is only 16, so me and her father have pretty much been the food police. I know she is tired and wanting to kick this ED to the curb. We take steps forward and then something triggers a set back . She is physically in an ok state but not emotionally able to battle this and live a healthy life without the fears of food. I guess I’m just looking for how did u transition to veganism without becoming orthorexic?
    I’m a mom who just wants my daughter back .

  3. My daughter is a vegan with anorexia. She has gone through treatment once a couple of years ago but unfortunately recent stresses have her back in the struggle and rapidly losing weight. Now processed foods are unhealthy and off her list of foods she will eat, no olive oil, no pasta, no dressing. We can not find a treatment center that is vegan friendly and she won’t go back to the first place because she felt they were angry about her being vegan. Do you know of one?

    • Hi Worried Mama,

      I’m so sorry to hear that your daughter is suffering, and I wish you and your family much strength and well-being as you navigate these complex waters.

      To answer your question, most treatment centers accomodate vegetarian diets, but it’s trickier with vegan diets. I believe that The Emily Program in Ohio and Center for Hope of the Sierras will accommodate vegan diets. Needless to say, the stance about all processed foods, oils, pasta, dressing, etc. is likely not going to be greeted as conducive to recovery, but I believe that you can find places that will respect the stance of no animal foods. I wish you much luck in finding the right program for her.

      G

  4. A very insightful article 🙂
    I always worry about people using veganism to recover because it seems like simply another restrictive diet. As a recovering anorexic I know that I could personally never do something that restricted my food choices in the way veganism does because it would be impetus to cut more and more out under the guise of health and ethics. I’m glad it’s worked out for you, but I do believe that anyone with an ED should carefully evaluate their motivation for going vegetarian or vegan. If it’s to be ‘clean, healthy, green,’ or simply to control weight then it’s just disordered eating with a different label. But if someone believes in the ethics and can be very sure that they want to be vegan and not their eating disorder, then it’s worth trying. Of course it would have to be monitored. I wish you luck and health ❤️

  5. Very informative article. Veganism can be the first step to your recovery. However, i would suggest that you don’t put any food restriction to yourself. If you do want to recover from your eating disorder just enjoy life. Accept your body and eat what you want to eat.

  6. Personally, I believe that some people with ED or other conditions (anxiety, depression) actually could be even more qualified to dig deep inside themselves and ask these questions because they have reached another, deeper part of themselves that need to be heard and can help them in answering them and learn more about themselves.

  7. May I ask a question? I am not vegan,I am recovering from restricted eating following an illness.I understand some of veganism,what I would like to know more about is why eggs and dairy products from a local source are not consumed? I have chickens and goats and they are family members and treated as such.I totally understand not wanting to consume products where the animals producing them are treated badly.But mine are happy and loved.There is nothing more satisfying than finding a fresh egg or milking my goats and enjoying what they have provided for me.I am thinking perhaps you feel milk products and eggs are not healthy?I would really like to understand,not asking to be rude.

    • No worries, Jaclyn, I appreciate your thoughtful question! I don’t think that these are necessarily unhealthy foods, no. I take a wholehearted stance to not include any animal foods in my diet because I object to any scenario in which animals are commodified for food. I certainly appreciate that small farming operations in which animals are treated with humane consideration are far better than conventional farming, but I still don’t feel comfortable knowing that an animal was bred and held captive for the sake of producing a food that I don’t need to survive. Because animal products aren’t necessary for health, I’d rather model a lifestyle in which we don’t consume them at all, rather than support selective animal farming operations. To some degree, I feel that supporting any animal farming reinforces a cultural reliance on animal foods in our diets, and I’d like to demonstrate through my choices that there is another way.

      I hope this makes sense. Thanks for reading and asking.

  8. mmm, love when you dive deep 🙂 makes me feel not alone in the complex web of thoughts and emotions I have on these issues. I still get the choosing-food-paralysis not infrequently. I 100% agree that those in ED recovery should be permitted choices about diet style, assuming that diet style permits a healthy pattern of eating/range of foods, like veganism. I fully agree that the person in recovery should be encouraged to find a food:meaning mapping that relates to true health and connection, whether it’s inner health or outward treatment of animals and humans. A pivotal moment in my recovery came when I read that low iron from dieting might hurt IQ, and I started eating raisins daily. This was one of my first (dim) insights into how particular foods play particular roles in mood, health, and cognition. Later, a more stable relationship with food came when I was able to think of a given food as supporting physiological processes such as my immune system and brain, rather than growing or shrinking my body. I also derive a lot of meaning from where I buy my food and how eco-friendly and social-justice-friendly that food is. It does become slippery as I feel guilty for the many times I buy “regular” food, but I try to keep it in perspective and be self-congratulatory for often making environmental choices so that I don’t slip into black and white thinking. I planted a garden plot for the first time this year and the joy in tending to growing vegetables and the pride in harvesting them is a new layer of meaning and connection to my food. I think of my food choices now as more connected to my other values and choices- connection to the earth and to human and animal rights, and my eating choices as an expression of the sacredness of life (foods that support my wellness).

  9. I am neither vegan nor suffering/recovering from an ED, but this post still resonates with me–like most of your deeper writing does.
    I think it can sometimes be a tough call and a fine line for a counselor when dealing with somebody who has a history of restriction and then finds a vegan diet. For some, it can be a slippery slope, but I think your story and many, many others prove that adopting a plant-based diet, especially one borne out of compassion and ethics, can be incredibly healing. It’s unfair to assume that somebody passionately living a vegan lifestyle is missing out, and it can hinder the recovery process to deny them something that they find empowering and healing. There are many roads to recovery.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts so eloquently. You never come across as pushy or inconsiderate of other views, and your passion is clear to anybody who reads your words.

  10. This was so beautifully written, as always, Gena. What struck me the most was the idea of how “fear foods” have become “off-limits foods” for me in recovery. The vernacular has changed, the concept behind it has not. Though I’ve been in solid recovery from Anorexia for a few years now, and I’m in a place where I really enjoy food and don’t ever deprive myself of a meal or chance to eat, I also do struggle with remnants of my ED past especially as it relates to the “health and fitness world” and the world of veganism. I was a vegan when I first entered recovery, but have found that there are a few dairy products and eggs that I really enjoy from time to time. It almost made me feel like a traitor, fraud, or “bad” vegan to say that those things are what my body and mind wanted. I’ve since come to realize that honoring my body and truth are more important than hard-and-fast labels, and I can eat those things and still love animals. During my ED, I worked out as a form of punishment, solely to lose weight and burn calories, but in recovery I found types of exercise that I enjoy, and my motivation is more mental and emotional (increasing my confidence, feeling strong, positive, and happy). However, I’ve also wondered if I’m “allowed” to enjoy being fit while maintaining my own guidelines for recovery. I often feel like I can’t (and possibly shouldn’t) commit to being a true part of the fitness world (because I just discovered a love for bagels and know my body needs starch-heavy meals for dinner) nor do I identify with being eating disordered nor am I true vegan. I hope this has made some sort of sense! Thank you for yet another thought-provoking and sincere post! <3

  11. I love this blog post and how deep it is. Its beautifully written and real, and I think a lot of girls would benefit from reading this. I think a lot of people I know, including myself relate to this. Thanks for the beautiful words X

  12. I truly wish I had something more intelligent to say other than “I totally agree with you” – but alas, I do not. This was so well thought out and perfectly articulated. <3

  13. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post because it explains so well why I have encountered so many problems with traditional recovery views over the years.  Firstly, and very simply, the idea that one must eat all foods in order to recover does not work for me because I have an INSANE number of very serious food allergies.  While no one would explicitly tell me to eat something that could send me into anaphylactic shock, I have often felt very uncomfortable in recovery groups where they attempt to pound into our brains the importance of not having a limited diet.  It made me feel incredibly discouraged and doubtful of my ability to recover on my necessarily limited diet.  Those are medically necessary limitations, but I do not feel that my veganism is any less necessary to my health and wellbeing.  How can I possibly make peace with food while eating things that I feel in the very core of my being are against everything I believe in?  It’s not an arbitrary judgment born out of my eating disorder (I was raised vegetarian).  It is a verifiable fact that factory farming harms animals and the environment in ways that cannot not be ignored or downplayed.  Being a vegan gives me a great sense of pride and feeling of connection to the world.  It is an incredibly spiritual path that I am very passionate about.  I celebrate veganism in a way that I could never get excited about “just food,” as you put it, and the desire to be a healthy example of veganism has helped to motivate my recovery.  Traditional recovery programs that do not acknowledge these aspects of veganism do a great injustice.  Vegans deserve recovery just as much as everyone else and we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our fundamental values to get it.  In fact, I would say for me it would be impossible to recover that way.  Thank you so much for this post and your Green Recovery series.  This is a very important dialogue that you have started and I wish this information had been available decades ago when I first began the recovery process.  P.S.  A vegan diet isn’t even limited anyway.  Show me any omnivorous food and I will show you how to make a kick-ass vegan version!

     

    • Love this comment!
      “Vegans deserve recovery just as much as everyone else and we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our fundamental values to get it.” – Bang on. That’s a great way of putting it!

      • I love it too. Thanks for your passion and insight, Heather! You are so clearly embodying everything that Green Recovery is all about.

  14. I think a lot of people approach the “no” foods from an anorexia/orthorexia perspective. I’m a former bulimic and I definitely have “no” foods — my favorite binge foods. Avoiding these isn’t the gateway to more and more restrictions and avoiding everything — I avoid pizza, cake, and ice cream because I can’t stop myself, and they were my favorite binge/purge foods. They’re like drugs to me. For me trying to eat one piece of pizza is like an alcoholic going to wine tasting. I won’t eat one piece, I’ll eat like 10 pieces, and then end up purging.
    Maybe that means I’m not totally recovered but for me avoiding a lot of foods was integral in the first year or so of recovery. I was able to reintroduce a lot of foods, but there are a few I still need to avoid.

    • Katie,

      Such a good point, and such a great contribution to the discussion. It’s definitely the case that a lot of people need to create boundaries with food that are for the sake of creating more space for recovery, rather than as an attempt to perpetuate the disorder. I’d suggest that this is the case for a huge range of ED sufferers — bulimics, anorexics, binge eaters, EDNOS — because so many folks experience a constellation of behaviors that fall into all of these diagnostic categories. It had not occurred to me to bring up the issue of triggering foods, but it’s important, and I’m glad you raised it.

      G

  15. Another beautifully candid and nuanced post, Gena.
    I also agree that a vegan diet is not at odds with ED recovery. As you said, with a little introspection – which I agree many people with EDs will be capable of, despite common assumptions – it is easy to separate the compulsive need for control for ethical or philosophical considerations. One point I would have raised would be that of religion; if a Muslim, say, was recovering from an ED, would their therapist have any right to suggest that they begin eating pork or non-halal meat? I would hate to compare veganism to a religion, but the ethical or philosophical roots of the motivations for avoiding certain products are similar. Likewise, what about individuals boycotting certain food brands?
    If anything, I’d speculate that respecting and working with these restrictions could build a firmer recovery, which I believe is what you were getting at saying that you felt stronger in your recovery enjoying a variety of vegan foods than you did forcing down all foods indiscriminately for the sake of appearing “better”. Rather than see-sawing in the opposite direction – which, like an extended bungee cord, threatens to pull back just as hard – exploring thought processes step-by-step and establishing a unique recovery process for each individual seems to me a much healthier long-term approach. Slow and steady wins the race.
    For me, going vegan was a critical first step in recognising and combatting my disordered relationship with foods – like you, I was generally eager to embrace foods to maximise my wellbeing on a plant-based diet as well as to prove to the world that it can be a fun and healthy lifestyle, but it also helped highlight those moments when I found myself avoiding a new vegan product that intrigued me (e.g. vegan cake or cookies, vegan cheese) on the grounds that it was not “good” or “healthy” or (ack!) “clean” enough.
    Thank you for another thoughtful and balanced post. Keep ’em coming!

    • Comparing veganism to religion is something I do often, since many religions have rules of showing compassion to animals, and some restrict how animals are treated for consumptions, or calls for vegetarianism, and there is one religion that calls for veganism. If you are vegan for the animals and the environment, sometimes the vegan option is one that isn’t healthy. If I go into McDonalds my vegan option could be french fries. Many fast food places or nice restaurants the vegan option is often deep friend vegetables. And sometimes that is the only option because salad dressing options have dairy.

    • Thanks for this insightful comment, Claire! Your comment brings up so many relevant and important questions about the methodology we bring to recovery. I agree that granting the ED sufferer a certain amount of freedom to make conscious choices about how he or she wants to relate to food can be a part of a more active, slow, and carefully considered recovery process (as opposed to a recovery that’s focused quite primarily on quick weight restoration).

      Of course, this is not to say that such a focus isn’t often necessary — physical restoration is a huge part of the process. But I wonder if it’s possible to emphasize empowerment and self-reflection more often than is the norm now.

      Anyway, thank you for your thoughts, and for reading.

      G

  16. This was really lovely; the quality of your writing makes it such a treat to read,

    I’ve experienced both sides of this with my journey to Veganism. But being vegan inherently eliminates less micronutrient-dense foods and those I don’t find filling (cheese, ahem). It slso takes the edge off my anxiety knowing that – even if I didn’t reach all my controlling goals related to food for a day – I was still doing something for the ilk of my puppies. It started to feel hypocritical to eat other animals and things they’re forced to make for us when I treat my dogs like humans.

    Anyway, your blog is always a breath of fresh air. Much love!

    • Much love back! I love hearing how your relationship continues to evolve, and I’m glad that it seems to be giving you a strong, beneficial, and meaningful framework. <3

  17. This is so wonderfully written. I’m neither a vegan nor someone with an ED history, but you’ve articulated your thoughts in such an understandable way. These types of posts are one of the reasons I continually visit your blog. And perhaps I’m missing something, but I did not sense a tone of superiority or hypocrisy at all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; ED recovery and how one approaches his/her diet (in the basic sense of the word) is quite complex, but you’re right that food is truly important to us all (culturally and such).

    • Thank you so much for your thoughts, Catherine. I always appreciate how sensitively you respond to posts, and love hearing from you.

  18. Lovely piece – thank you for it. From an outside perspective I think that the difference I see is that your choices made through the lens of ED were very self-directed – how does this food choice affect ME and my body. Your language changes when you talk about the choices you make today – you are much more outwardly focused – how do my choices affect the world, how do I want to be in the world, how do I want to be as a part of a community. That is a huge paradigm shift and, for me at least (coming to this as a Mom to several daughters) seems to make the difference between disordered eating and conscious eating.

    • Dear Leslie,

      Oh, I always like hearing from moms! Your experience with young women gives you unique and valuable insight. Thank you so much for your comment, which underscores a distinction that had not actually occurred to me — at least not so directly. My feelings about food are indeed directed outward these days. One of the questions that veganism has compelled me to ask myself, again and again, is “what sort of person do I want to be? What impact do I want to leave on the world around me?” These are not questions that I had space to consider during the disorder, and I am grateful that I have the health and stability to be asking them.

      Gena

  19. I resent your underlying sentiment that the only true vegans (not motivated by disordered eating issues) are those that have moral/ethical justifications for avoiding animal products. I take great issue with this personal bias of yours, which seeps into most of your writing. It seems hypocritcal to me to on one hand, ask for no judgement from the mental health community on your own dietary choices, and yet on the other, you refuse to allow that persons with ED histories are capable of making a thoughtful/well researched health inspired decision re. abstaining from animal products; After reading your position pieces, your sense of superiority – as “moral” vegan – overwhelms you otherwise nuanced, balanced writing.

    • I absolutely do not see the judgemental bias you are referring to in this blog. While it’s clear that Gena’s personal reason for being vegan is not wanting to participate in any harm to animals, I definitely do not see her projecting that as the sole valid reason to select veganism. Actually, I find her approach to eating to be generously inclusive of individual needs and choices.

      Just sayin’.

  20. I found Veganism right at the same time as I decided that I wanted to recover from my ED. I will admit I am not as tied to the ethical reasons for being Vegan as I am with how being a this lifestyle makes me feel. I am convinced that being a Vegan has liberated me from my ED and given me a new sense of empowerment and ease with my food choices. I no longer have the “no” foods that I used to, as long as it is Vegan, and this is something that has eliminated most of the anxieties I used to have with food. I know my Veganism has evolved over the past 3 years, but I feel that it has been a vital part of my recovery. Recovery is definitely an ongoing process and I have an occasional bad day, but I never let a bad day turn into more than an isolated incident.

    I really enjoy your blog posts because they are always so thoughtful and it is obvious that a lot of time goes into them. I also want to thank you for talking about EDs as a gender neutral topic because it is nice to know that us men who get them are not forgotten.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Houston, and I’m so happy to hear that your recovery continues to march forward. As for gender neutrality, of course — EDs don’t discriminate by gender, and we as a community are all affected.

  21. Dear Gena,
    I’m not a vegan (and have no desire to be), I’m lucky enough to never had had an eating disorder, and only make the occasional recipe from your site that looks yummy and easy, mostly because I really struggle to digest legumes and soy. I also live in Australia where many of the ingredients you work with are simply unavailable, or prohibitively expensive.
    However, I’ve read your blog regularly for years simply because your writing is outstanding. Your posts are just so beautifully articulated that I keep coming back for more. I don’t particularly identify with many of the issues you raise, but I find your writing to be thoughtful, insightful and bold. It is so rare to find a truly gifted writer these days. I would give my right arm to read a fiction piece written by you! Until then, I will content myself with your blog 🙂
    All the best
    Miranda

    • Miranda,

      Thank you so much for this exceptionally kind comment. I’m so glad that my blog gives you recipe inspiration, and I’m particularly delighted to hear that the writing draws you in. No plans for fiction, I’m afraid — it isn’t my forte! But you honor me by reading, and I hope you’ll continue to do so.

      Warmly,

      Gena 🙂

  22. Wow, Gena…I think I’ll have to read this one again to fully digest it! My immediate thoughts are two things that hadn’t occurred to me before. The first is this backlash against attaching morality to food as though it’s something new and something only vegans do. As far back as we have recorded history, we have had connected the two things. I suppose this is why vegans are accused of being religious zealots, but it is not only religion that has prescribed moral attachments to food. Some cultures, for instance, have moral prescriptions around giving certain foods to women or children. I hate the argument from tradition – and I recognise it’s a logical fallacy – but the thought just occurred to me that we don’t tend to tell ED sufferers that they have to discard all moral traditions around food. Veganism becomes a lightening rod, but unfairly so – it is not the only moral choice people make around food.

    The second thought relates to food choices driven by environmental ethics. This, too, is attaching morality to food, and one could just as easily argue that it could hinder the recovery process for ED sufferers. But as an environmental scientist who does indeed connect my food choices to those ethics, I have never been told that I should not do this because of my ED history. Environmentalism was not the only reason for my going vegan, but it was the first and foremost one. People accepted that (though they usually are quick to point out that they only eat sustainable meat from marginal lands that couldn’t grow crops – I’m never sure how they have done a land capability study for all of the meat they consume, but that’s a conversation for another time). Maybe it’s just because people don’t want to argue with me about something within my realm of expertise, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a matter of those mental shortcuts that people like Tversy and Khaneman have written so much about. We put things into categories so we can use heuristics/take mental shortcuts. Veganism has been put in the ‘restrictive’ category. Making sustainable food choices has been put in another category (I’m not sure what – maybe just ‘priorities’?). So while the former is viewed as off limits for former ED sufferers; the latter is okay, particularly in this time when environment is in the national conversation…even if we’re not doing all that much about it.

    • Love your insights, Sarah, especially the second, regarding how your environmentalism (and the fact that you are a professional expert in that domain) shifts the way people greet your veganism.

      I also agree with your first point. I sometimes describe veganism as a “non-religious world view,” by which I hope to imply that it creates a set of moral beliefs around food, and should be granted a similar respect as food traditions that do emanate directly from religious faith. It is interesting to me that so many ethical positions surrounding food and the way it is sourced/produced are embraced, but veganism still is still greeted (I think) with a fair amount of suspicion.

  23. Gena,
    You put a great deal of time and effort into having valid arguments for everything. I wonder if it might have just been easier to say “my “no” foods these days are anything that causes animal suffering/cruelty rather than calorie overload. As a kosher person would not go into the “why”s and “wherefore’s” of kosher (it just “is”, and “is” acceptedly, sans argument), nor a Hindu vegetarian, nor a Muslim regarding their forbidden foods. Every culture has them after all, so it’s plainly facile to discount that fact (as your therapist9s) etc have done). You don’t need to say “why” you don’t drink rat’s milk any more than you need to say “why” you don’t eat meat.

    • You can make the page bigger. I believe hitting keys CTRL + should do it. (On an Apple computer, it’s CMD, not CTRL) If the keyboard shortcut doesn’t work, there should be a menu option as well.

      • I’m sorry, Winston! As Jalyth notes, you can usually enlarge screen size. I hope that works and helps.

  24. Totally agree! Why should veganism necessarily belong to the ideology of eds? It depends on the individual of course, and I think that’s what’s wrong with the way society deals witness. Everyone is unique, and if that were maybe celebrated more in our general culture perhaps there would be less of the kind of illness that eds belong to.

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