In the Blog
How To Eat Ethically After An Eating Disorder
Illustration by Saul Freedman-Lawson
I tried going vegan for the first and only time in the winter of 2019, which corresponded with the onset of my eating disorder. Within days, I was compulsively restricting my eating – even of non-meat products – and within weeks, I was hardly eating anything at all.
According to Alida Iacobellis, a registered dietitian, research has shown that “52 percent of individuals with a history of disordered eating have also been vegetarian at some point in their lifetime, compared to only 12 percent of those who do not have a history of disordered eating.” (This study included vegans along with vegetarians, but whether vegans are at higher risk for eating disorders remains inconclusive.) It’s a classic chicken and egg problem: are vegetarian diets a risk factor for disordered eating, or – and research strongly favours this option – do those at risk of eating disorders gravitate towards vegetarian diets?
We often assign food positive or negative connotations: salads are “good,” while pizza is “bad.” In vegetarian circles or among those with disordered eating, this idea of food “purity” or food moralism is even more potent. It becomes difficult to separate ethical eating from disordered eating when you focus on food as the source of your “goodness.” This kind of thinking can lead to problematic beliefs, like the idea that overeating is immoral, along with dangerous behaviours, like food restriction.
Looking back, I recognize that my vegan diet did not cause my eating disorder at all; in fact, the opposite was true. My veganism was short-lived, lasting only a week or two. This was partially because my eating disorder included binges, in which I compulsively ate whatever was available without considering whether or not it used to have a face. More importantly, however, my reasons for attempting a vegan diet had little to do with ethics. In truth, I had been routinely restricting food and skipping meals for months, and a vegan diet meant that I could cut calories without drawing suspicion.
Registered dietitian Emily Tam confirms that disordered eating often precedes the choice to go vegetarian. She says, “In my experience, transitioning to a semi-vegetarian or vegetarian diet is a way for people with eating disorders to avoid eating foods that they think are too high in calories and fat. As there are numerous socially acceptable and valid reasons for vegetarianism, it’s easy for someone experiencing an eating disorder to claim that their avoidance of these foods is due to these reasons and hide that they’re actually motivated by a desire to control their intake and their weight.”
Those suffering from eating disorders often feel compelled to exert control over their weight and diet, often through harmful habits such as binging and purging. Vegetarianism works as a valid excuse for micromanaging one’s food choices in public. For myself, veganism allowed me to exert control over my diet in a way that was perceived as laudable rather than dysfunctional.
Consider your motivations
A year after recovery – a long process of unlearning my association between my weight and my worth and relearning normal eating habits – I’m beginning to feel that same urge to cut meat out of my diet. But this time, my motivation is to eat ethically rather than lose weight. A host of factors led me to this, such as the pandemic’s exposure of the horrors within the meat industry, including labour abuses at meat processing facilities and animal rights abuses on factory farms.
As part of this continuing journey, I’ve decided to consume significantly less meat with the hope that one day I’ll be able to go completely vegetarian. I decided that my current model of semi-vegetarianism should be lenient and compassionate. For example, I allow myself social meat-eating on weekends. I am also careful to ensure cutting meat out of a meal doesn’t change the amount I’m eating. Yet, I can already feel my internal alarms going off – because despite my good intentions, I can’t avoid the fact that I’m deliberately restricting my diet.
Part of me remains skeptical of my motivation. Is the eating disordered part of me dormant but lurking, conjuring up a sudden devotion to vegetarianism as an excuse to diet in a socially acceptable way? On the other hand, I believe that the food choices we make daily are essential for enacting social and environmental change – food production accounts for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and more than half of these emissions are caused by animal agriculture. So how can I resolve this tension between truly wanting to eat ethically, but also not wanting to feel triggered at every meatless meal?
Iacobellis reassures me, saying, “It’s possible to find a middle path and strike a balance when it comes to honouring your health and respecting animals and the environment while maintaining some flexibility with eating.”
Before committing to any dietary changes, Tam advises that you should consider why you want to be vegetarian. She says, “Are you hoping that eating a vegetarian diet will help you control your weight or shape? Do you think that becoming a vegetarian will make you a more valuable human being? If your answer to either of these questions is ‘yes,’ vegetarianism might not be healthy for you, at least not right now.”
Find your personal ethics
Personally, I have found it useful to reflect on what eating “ethically” means to me. This allows me to explore possible ethical alternatives to vegetarianism so that I can continue to eat some meat. For example, I realized that I don’t believe that eating animals is necessarily unethical, but that I’m strongly opposed to factory farming. In an effort to facilitate this belief, I can seek out butchers who offer meat grown on local, sustainable farms.
I’ve also realized that I’m more interested in supporting human rights within the meat industry than animal rights. This means I can broaden my focus away from simply meat and consider whether the non-meat I consume is produced ethically. Another of my concerns is with the meat industry’s impact on the climate crisis. A non-vegetarian solution could be to switch out meat products linked to high greenhouse gas emissions, like beef, for other, more sustainable meat products, such as kangaroo meat – which I was pleasantly surprised to learn is available at my local butcher. These solutions certainly won’t work for everyone, but it’s important to consider what truly matters to you, and what supports your health and body at this stage of your recovery. If accessible to you, working with a dietitian or nutritionist may be helpful when planning an ethical diet tailored to you, as can speaking to a therapist about your motivations for going vegetarian.
Focus on your health
No matter what dietary choices you’re making, it’s important to prioritize health. Tam emphasizes that vegetarian diets don’t always work for everyone with an eating disorder history. The energy needs of those who are both recovering from an eating disorder and who are still growing are particularly high, for example. Therefore, Tam says, some youth will likely find it “challenging to meet their needs without flexibility, allowing for animal-based foods to be part of their diet.” Similarly, Iacobellis recommends that, especially for youth, “if you are able and willing to include at least one of either dairy, eggs or seafood, it will be easier to maintain health.”
Remember that this maintenance includes your mental health. Choosing a vegetarian, and especially a vegan diet, will require that you carefully plan your meals in order to ensure you’re getting enough protein and calories, which may feel similar to calorie counting. I knew that this might be triggering for me, which is why I chose to take steps to becoming a full vegetarian, at least until I feel more stable in my recovery.
But, I can’t lie: many of my favourite meals are meat-based, and consciously omitting them from my diet feels a lot like restriction. I’ve begun seeking out creative, tasty vegetarian recipes, with the goal of curating a list of vegetarian meals that I genuinely enjoy. Once I learn enough delicious vegetarian recipes, a meatless diet won’t feel like a restriction at all, and soon enough I’ll be craving beans instead of burgers.
Everyone deals differently with eating disorder recovery, however, and while some may find vegetarianism empowering, others may find it impossible. Remember that you can stop at any time, especially if restricting your diet feels triggering or if you notice that you’ve begun to count calories or skip meals. There are plenty of ways to eat ethically and support the causes you’re passionate about without restricting your diet in any way.
That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s easy. The rhetoric of “food purity” in both vegetarian and health discourses is hard to ignore, and I feel the same stab of guilt when I eat meat as when I eat a bag of chips. The fact is, eating meat doesn’t make me “bad” or immoral any more than eating high-calorie foods does. Any food choice I make that improves my mental and physical health – whether it’s choosing to cut down on my meat consumption or to share a turkey dinner with my family at Thanksgiving – is good and ethical. Whereas food-based shame – even if it’s used to support a good cause – is never ethical.
About the Author: Isabel Armiento (she/her) is a writer and student based in Toronto. She is currently working toward her M.A. in English literature at the University of Toronto, and working as a reporter for her school newspaper. Her academic work focuses on representations of the female body and food in literature. In her free time, you can find Isabel writing personal essays and drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate.