Guest Post: 3 Strategies for Maintaining a Vegan Lifestyle in Eating Disorder Recovery

Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN of Whole Green Wellness is a non-diet dietitian who, like me, teaches others to ditch restrictive diets and learn to eat intuitively. But unlike me, she is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to veganism. She suggested we swap blog posts, and since the topic of remaining vegetarian or vegan during ED recovery has come up a few times in the online spaces where I hang out, I thought we could all learn something from her approach. Enjoy!  -Glenys

avocado public domain image
A vegan diet MUST include fat!

Hello, Dare to Not Diet readers! I am so delighted to swap guest posts with Glenys. The community of non-diet dietitians is growing and the more we can spread positive messages about food and bodies, the better! My areas of expertise include vegan nutrition as well as a non-diet approach to sustainable wellness. I help clients focus less on weight and body size and more on enjoyable lifestyle behaviors that help them feel happy and healthy. I’ve been vegan for 8 years and have been counseling vegan (and non-vegan) clients for nearly 4 years.

Unfortunately, some people wrongly assume that veganism equates to restrictive eating. I’m here to show you that veganism is about compassion, not about restriction, and that it is possible to eat intuitively without eating animals or their byproducts. It also is possible to recover from disordered eating and eating disorders while vegan. Did you know vegans who do not eat animals for ethical reasons are no more likely to have eating disorders than non-vegans? While some people with eating disorders may abstain from eating animal products as a method of restriction, veganism is not automatically a precursor for eating disorders.

To bring you feasible and effective strategies for maintaining veganism while recovering from an eating disorder, I interviewed Caitlin Martin-Wagar, MA, an eating disorder researcher and clinician who also happens to be vegan. She holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and also is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at The University of Akron.

Be honest with yourself. When I first meet with vegan clients, I ask them about their journey to becoming vegan and their motivations for doing so. This helps me understand potential restrictive mindsets and also helps clients self-reflect on their own behaviors. “Make a list with two columns: one with the ethical reasons you are vegan and one with potentially eating disordered reasons you are vegan (if there are any). If you discover there are eating disordered reasons for your veganism, find ways to challenge those reasons and refocus on the ethical reasons you are vegan if you want to maintain a vegan lifestyle. For example, you can make sure you are including a wide variety of foods in your diet, including the vegan versions of non-vegan foods, like macaroni and cheese, pizza, and cupcakes,” Caitlin advises.

Have a plan. Eating disorder or not, having a general plan for eating, especially when traveling or attending events when you aren’t certain about food availability, is one of my key tips for vegan clients. Figure out your favorite packable snacks and keep them in your bag, car, desk, etc. so you don’t find yourself without food when you’re hungry. Caitlin says, “For people not in recovery, going a few extra hours without food because of a lack of availability won’t necessarily impact them psychologically. But for vegans recovering from eating disorders, accidental restriction can trigger eating disorder urges like bingeing, purging and further restriction.”

Challenge restrictive thoughts. I like to ask my clients about their favorite vegan foods and where they can get them. This helps them realize how many options they have. I also like to see if there are any foods clients may be restricting for whatever reason, such as oils, desserts and plant-based meats and cheeses. “If you notice restriction urges are triggered from not having certain foods that are not included in vegan lifestyles, remind yourself that you are not excluding these foods due to eating disordered reasons. Challenge these thoughts and show yourself you are willing to have high-fat vegan foods at times—this can help squash any concerns that you are restricting for eating disordered reasons,” Caitlin advises.

One more thing to consider: work toward becoming more accepting of diverse body shapes. Both Caitlin and I are passionate about challenging myths related to body size and health conditions in the vegan community. Having weight stigma or an attitude of health elitism is not only damaging, it strays from the compassionate core of what veganism is all about.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or need support through eating disorder recovery, please work with a therapist and eating disorder dietitian. Everyone’s journey is different and no blog post can substitute for individualized therapy and guidance.

You can find Taylor at Whole Green Wellness.

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post: 3 Strategies for Maintaining a Vegan Lifestyle in Eating Disorder Recovery

  1. Amy Dye Taylor, RDN, May 1, 2017 / 3:12 pm

    I thought that I was the only HAES Dietitian who was also vegan. Thank you so much for this. It’s a tricky position to be in to explain to people that being vegan is an ethical stance and has nothing to do with restrictive eating or health. Thank you 💕

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    • GlenysO May 1, 2017 / 4:03 pm

      Or at least it *shouldn’t* have anything to do with being restrictive…unfortunately, anyone can turn anything into a diet! I learned a lot from this post. Thanks for reading!

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      • Amy Dye Taylor, RDN May 1, 2017 / 4:11 pm

        Yeah, I guess I mean that the word “vegan” doesn’t say anything about health in the definition.

        The Vegan Society coined the term in the 1940’s: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

        I know what you mean though 😊 It’s really hard to get that across to people, especially as an HAES dietitian. Thanks again!

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  2. Laney Park May 1, 2017 / 7:37 pm

    As a parent who saw my daughter’s weight, heart rate, and body temperature fall to dangerously low levels and once slept beside her on a hospital cot while she was being fed by a tube, it is my strong belief that veganism is an irresponsible and dangerous risk for someone in recovery. Restrictive anorexia is a mental illness that has stolen way too many lives.

    Please do not encourage a patient to subscribe to an ethical system that requires them to question the ingredients to every baked good and homemade or restaurant meal that they are offered. This encourages eating disorder behaviors and is counter to full recovery. Being free of restrictive anorexia nervous means being free of food rules. A diet without rules feeds the patient, not their eating disorder.

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    • GlenysO May 2, 2017 / 2:57 pm

      I’m sorry you and your daughter went through that. I certainly wouldn’t “encourage” anyone to choose any sort of eating lifestyle. However, for those people who want to remain vegan for ethical reasons but DO want to recover, I would not want to ask them to make the choice between their veganism and recovery, because they may choose the former and never get the chance to recover. Those who are vegan for reasons other than ethics (another way to restrict, etc.) should be discouraged to continue this lifestyle. Thanks for your comment.

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