Veganism, Vegetarianism, and Other Food Choices in Eating Disorder Recovery

July 1, 2011 Angela E. Gambrel

A 2008 Harris Interactive study found that about 0.5 percent of Americans are vegan and 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarians. That equals 1 million and 7.3 million respectively.

That's a pretty low number. Why then does it seem that I know so many people with eating disorders who either are vegan, vegetarian, or practice some other type of eating different from the normal population?empty-plateI first encountered vegetarianism anorexia-style when I was hospitalized in August 2008. It was my first hospitalization for anorexia, and unfortunately it did not turn out to be my last. But I digress.

Those of hospitalized for eating disorders sat at the same table for each meal, so we got to know each other habits and quirks quite well. Sometime too well.

Each patient was allowed three dislikes, meaning that she would not be feed those foods. I quickly searched my brain for the most fattening foods I could think of and I chose beef, pizza, and chocolate.

Chocolate??? Anyone who knew me would have laughed hysterically at that. I had been known as a chocolate connoisseur before developing anorexia. But from that moment on, I insisted I did not like chocolate and it would be years before I would again taste it. I chose beef because I equated red meat with being fattening. Pizza was my only true dislike on my list.

Oh, I thought I was being so clever. I didn't want to gain weight while I was in the hospital. But there were many things that I could still eat, and almost every one of the foods both scared me and made me feel liberated from the shackles of anorexia. The food was there and I either had to eat it, or find it in my spot during the next meal and eat not only that meal, but what was left from the last meal (a lovely practice called "tray sitting.")

One young woman was a vegetarian. Now I wouldn't presume to expunge on her motives for being a vegetarian, but I never did learn why she would not eat meat products.

That left her with vegetables, fruit, and dairy. Veganism β€” in which no animal products, even those obtain as by-products and not through slaughter are not eaten β€” was not allowed during treatment.

Oh, the things that can be done with cheese!

This young lady would blot her vegetarian grilled cheese sandwich with about five million napkins to absorb the butter used to cook it. This was not allowed, but of course she did it when the nurses and aides were busy elsewhere. It got to the point that I wanted to scream at her that the bread was dry, and to just eat her sandwich before I lost it completely.

Which I did when I found a surprise cookie on my plate one day. Apparently I hadn't ordered enough calories and the dietician had the kitchen add the cookie to my tray. But, I argued, I didn't like cookies or pies or cakes. I wanted to order fruit or Jell-O or something safe like that. Too bad, I was told, this meal includes a cookie.

What is my point? I know an inordinate amount of people with eating disorders who continue to practice some type of restrictive eating even after they are in recovery. I am not saying that some of them don't truly believe that vegetarianism/veganism is good for the planet/animals/their soul.

But I have seen it get in the way of recovery. A friend will be moving along good in recovery, whipping up some tofu stir fry and green smoothies and then she will get sick and isn't able to eat her regular diet. Most people, meaning those without an eating disorder, will eat a bland diet of bananas, rice, applesauce, and tea (Known as the B.R.A.T. diet. Another variation is B.R.A.T.T.Y.; the second "t' being toast and the "y" being yogurt.)

It's a little trickier for those of us with eating disorders. We have learned to restrict and even if we are restricting for healthy reasons β€”for example, there are some good arguments for not eating meat β€” we have to be careful. For those of us recovering from anorexia, not eating our regular diet can easily turn into not eating at all. For those of us recovering from bulimia, being sick and throwing up could trigger into eating and throwing up when you are no longer are sick.

Food choices are great, food choices are wonderful, whether you make them for health and moral reasons, or simply for taste. I have my own diet, in which I eat very little red meat and avoid a lot of sugar. I tell myself this is healthy, but I sometimes wonder if it is a vestige of ED whispering in my ear that some foods are good and some foods are bad. I think each one of us should be aware that it often takes years to completely recover from an eating disorder, and be sure we are making our own choices and not still listening to the eating disorder voice.

APA Reference
Gambrel, A. (2011, July 1). Veganism, Vegetarianism, and Other Food Choices in Eating Disorder Recovery, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 24 from

Author: Angela E. Gambrel

March, 19 2024 at 4:21 am

Maybe it's because in omnivores vegetarianism is an eating disorder but we don't realize it because civilization has obviated our need to hunt. Civilization gave rise to intraspecies predation (irrational barbarism toward culturally approved ideological outgroups, as well as bias toward and objectification of one's own children) and it is that duplicity and betrayal which gives rise to psychopathology. Vegetarianism is a developmentally immature attempt to resolve the apparent hypocrisy of imposing civilization onto omnivores and is indicative of ineffective parenting much like the other EDs are indicative of chaotic parenting.

February, 27 2013 at 6:25 am

After being at CFC, my views on vegetarianism when it comes to my own diet has changed a lot. I am eating meat again, though I've learned that I don't like red meat very much; it's a taste preference. However, I WILL eat it. I usually just don't like to.
Before, I would cry, purge, or throw a fit if someone was trying to force me to eat meat. I'm trying to accept now that meat isn't unhealthy and is fine for me to eat. I still have my Morningstar patties sometimes, but I'm no longer restricting myself to the point where meat is 100% not an option.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Jessica Hudgens
February, 27 2013 at 2:42 pm

Mckenna -
I was wondering how your views on vegetarianism would come out on the other side of CFC because it is nearly impossible to be vegetarian in the early stages there. I'm glad you've reached the point in your recovery where you refuse to cut out meat as an option altogether. I think those who have the most luck in recovery are those who are able to maintain some flexibility around food, even food preferences. Like you said - you don't care for red meat, but will eat it if that comes up. I think that is such a balanced and recovery-oriented mindset!
Oh, and I'm totally in love with Morningstar patties, too. No shame there. Those things are good, even if you are a huge carnivore!

February, 22 2013 at 12:24 am

Interesting blog. I had an ED as a teenager & was never professionally treated;I was never as ill as some people with anorexia and never sought professional help, acknowledged I had a problem or even understood my illness until I was recovered from it.
Before I made a clear, 'knowing' decision to recover & gain weight, but was in a much better place emotionally, I embarked on vegetarianism as a form of control over my eating. I knowingly removed meat from my diet and knowingly enjoyed the control that came with it.
Needless to say, that when I made the decision to address my eating habits and began to recover, some time later I began to eat meat again & slowly reintroduced it into my diet. Looking back, I can almost see a direct correlation between my physical recovery (my mental recovery happened separately)and the re- introduction of meat into my diet.
Just my personal story, but this is the first time I have seen vegetarianism & anorexia linked/spoken about, even though I know several anorexics who are also vegetarian.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Jessica Hudgens
February, 25 2013 at 5:04 am

The vegan/vegetarian controversy is a huge one in eating disorder recovery. I certainly know that from my personal experience my veganism and vegetarianism was a convenient way to explain my lack of eating. I do eat meat occasionally now, even though I genuinely prefer to eat vegan or vegetarian. However, I had to wait to make that decision until further along in my recovery, so as to be sure this wasn't a "fear food" issue, but a legitimate food preference. I know a friend who is fully recovered now who is vegetarian to this day, but worked very consciously in her recovery about facing other fears such as fats, nuts, etc. to make up for the lack of meat protein in her diet. (She also eats fish, to be fair.) And she also went out to eat a burger at one point in her recovery to again, be sure it was not an eating disordered decision.
Thanks for the comment! I'm glad that eating meat was a helpful decision in your recovery!

July, 11 2012 at 8:43 am

Vegetarians and vegans (especially vegans) diets tend to lack essential vitamins like b12, an absence of which can kill you. There is nothing natural about taking health suppliments.
Vegans who force their eating illogic onto their children have been recorded as having malnutriented and grossly underweight unhealthy children. There have even been vegan baby deaths from lack of essential vitamins due to crazy fanatic militant vegan hipstermom breastfeeding while on her vegan diet. CRFMHMoms care more about their diet than their children. Thankfully they are getting criminal charges and their children taken and put in non-negligent homes where they get real food. We don't need more stupid people raising children.

July, 4 2011 at 5:34 am

This makes a lot of sense to me. I wasn't a vegetarian before my eating disorder, and although I didn't strictly become one, i did cut out almost all red meat from my diet in order to appease the eating disorder. Even in recovery, i try to avoid meat.
im currently relapsing and trying to refocus on recovery, and i've found that i've become really into the idea of going "raw" ie, unprocessed. part of me wants it for "health", but i know that i'm probably attracted to it because it mirrors the restrictive diet i long for. i know that i just want to be able to justify holding onto a restrictive diet.

Angela E. Gambrel Lackey
July, 2 2011 at 4:16 pm

I feel so bad for you. Is there anyway you can see an eating disorders specialist to help you work through your fears? Or another option could be a nutritionist, who could get back on track after years of restriction and other problems.
Please let me know how you are doing!

nicola clune
July, 2 2011 at 12:26 pm

i have a similar yet slightly different experience i began to develop very bad digestive problems was diagnosed with ibs and after years of living with eating disorder told to follow restrictive diet for ibs, i was in early recovery at the time and this food choice and restriction has escalated the e.d to worse it has been in my life...i fear food groups, i fear getting constipated, diarhea, b;loating pain..i associate it all back to food which i then fear..any ideas or input SO GRATEFUL..really struggling

Angela E. Gambrel Lackey
July, 2 2011 at 12:07 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I know that many people are vegetarians or vegan before developing an eating disorder. But I also have seen some people become vegetarian or adopt other special types of diets (gluten-free, macrobiotic, no processed foods, etc.) after their eating disorder kicked in. I wanted to generate some thoughts about the motivations behind continuing to have a more restrictive diet - because vegetarianism is restrictive - while trying to recover from an eating disorder.
I struggle with this myself, because my values lean toward vegetarianism - I don't like the idea of any animal being slaughtered to put food on my plate. Of course, my ED doctor does not encourage this and would prefer that I would eat any and all types of food. I would say I am about 75 to 85 percent vegetarian just by my eating habits, except that I eat seafood such as tuna and shrimp. I understand about adjusting after not eating a certain food - I did not eat red meat for years while struggling with anorexia, and when I was in recovery the first time, I had a hamburger and ended up feeling quite ill. I'm not sure if it was because I was still afraid of red meat, the thought of it being a slaughtered animal made me sick, or that my stomach truly needed to adjust.
Again, I want to be sure it is clear that I realize many people, including those with EDs, are vegetarian or vegan out of moral convictions. But I also want people - including myself - to be very careful and aware that our food choices might not completely be our food choices, but vestiges of ED sneaking in and trying to convince us to continue to restrict. It is something I have to work on myself, because I definitely still stick to safer foods. I will most likely write about EDs and food choices - and the fact that we all do have the right to make choices - in the future.

July, 2 2011 at 9:41 am

I was a vegetarian several years before I started in on anorexia. In assessments for treatment, they always ask for that timeline, presumably because it is more likely that the vegetarianism is real if it came long before the eating disorder. Still, the hospital dietitians liked to decide that my vegetarianism was a symptom. Why ask the question if you are going to ignore the answer?
When I was in hospital, I refused to eat meat. I was perfectly willing to take the "supplement" (aka ensure) in lieu of the meat, but I told them upfront that I absolutely was not going to eat meat. (And really, I don't think it is a good idea for them to be so insistent that I eat something that would inevitably make me ill. When you don't eat meat for so long, there is an adjustment period when you start to eat meat again during which you will be ill.) I was told that there were vegetarian options at every meal during another stint in treatment, but in order to stay within the mealtime rules with the vegetarian options available to me, this would have meant that my meals would alternate between veggie burgers and pizza, with one sandwich every three days. I mentioned to the dietitian that I thought this would teach me to be an IRRESPONSIBLE vegetarian more than anything else. My outpatient dietitian had to talk to the hospital dietitian in order to convince her that I am a "for really real" vegetarian.
I don't think that the only correlation between vegetarianism and eating disorders is the idea that it is a healthier, less fattening diet. For me, diet was an easy aspect of life to manipulate because I was never particularly excited about food. Sure, I had my likes, but they were always less passionate than most people's. So it was easy to cut out meat entirely when I became a vegetarian and it was an easy option for controlling my depressive thoughts (as opposed to drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, etc.). I also think that a lot of people with eating disorders tend to be very thoughtful generally. They think about the consequences of their actions, sometimes too much, which makes a hospitable environment for an eating disorder (i.e. obsessing over all the things that might result in gaining weight). This factor is also hospitable to vegetarianism; if you don't think about the impact your diet has on the world around you, there is no point to vegetarianism. I imagine there are plenty other reasons why vegetarianism would show up more commonly in eating disordered populations than in the overall population.

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