Vegetarian diets have been gaining popularity in recent years for a variety of reasons including health, ethics and sustainability. Typically, someone following a vegetarian diet will exclude meat and seafood when eating, with some following even stricter guidelines to exclude all animal products including dairy and eggs.
For people who have a neutral relationship with food, becoming a vegetarian may be a simple decision made with good intentions, one that doesn’t greatly affect the quality of their day-to-day life. However, for those who have struggled with an eating disorder, becoming vegetarian may be a way for the disorder to place further restrictions and increase anxieties around food. Is it possible to go through eating disorder recovery and become a vegetarian without triggering past mindset and behaviors?
Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders
Letting go of rigid rules around food is an important part of eating disorder recovery. For those who are already vegetarian prior to entering treatment, it will be crucial to discuss the intentions and reasons for that decision with the treatment team. There tends to be an increased correlation between vegetarian eating styles and disordered behaviors, particularly in adolescents and young adults. If it’s determined that this is the case, it may be advisable to discontinue a vegetarian lifestyle while in treatment to truly allow yourself permission to include all foods back into your life without fear or judgment. This is highly individualized and dependent on where the person is in the progression of their eating disorder and stage of recovery.
After treatment is completed and people are using the tools they’ve learned to help with recovery, it is possible to adopt vegetarian eating habits in a recovery-minded way. However, the reality of doing this is that the disordered thoughts may be triggered into action at the thought of some type of restriction on eating. It’s important to recognize this and to take steps to ensure the old, disordered voice isn’t the one making the choice and setting the rules. It must be coming from you, with clear motivations that are separate from any past disordered thoughts.
Consider some of these strategies while making the decision to begin a vegetarian lifestyle:
1. Try not to make the decision to become a vegetarian alone
If you’re currently going through treatment for an eating disorder, discuss your desire to make this change with your treatment team. Talk with your therapist or registered dietitian (and if you aren’t currently seeing one, this may be a reason to start) to get objective feedback on how this change in your eating habits might affect your recovery, and whether or not it’s truly in your best interest. Disordered thoughts most often reappear when we’re alone. Talking through this decision with others will be an important tool to help in maintaining your recovery and fighting back any relapse in behaviors.
2. Have a plan to meet your nutritional needs
Eating disorder recovery typically involves following a meal plan developed by a dietitian to meet your needs and help you reconnect with your body’s innate hunger and fullness signals. With the exclusion of animal products in the vegetarian diet, there is a higher likelihood of not meeting your needs with certain nutrients, including protein, vitamins D and B12, calcium and iron. While you’re learning to navigate meeting your needs while excluding non-vegetarian foods, it may be helpful to have a dietitian to work with. Doing your own research may be fine, depending on your phase of recovery. However, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the information or feel urges related to disordered behaviors. In that case, seeking outside help can be highly beneficial.
3. Check and recheck your motives
Why do you want to follow a vegetarian style of eating? What is it about vegetarianism that is important to you? There is no “right” answer to these questions, and the reasons behind this choice will be different for every person. However, a common theme should accompany these responses: a feeling of confidence that you are making the right choice for your mental, emotional and physical self. If any of these answers revolve around weight or body size/shape, it’s time to take a step back and reconsider if this is truly the best decision for you and your recovery.
4. It doesn’t have to be “all or nothing”
Part of living with an All Foods Fit™ mindset is releasing rigid rules that create stress and anxiety around eating. If you try out a vegetarian diet and find yourself becoming more anxious around making meals at home, going out to eat or food-related gatherings, then it may be helpful to allow yourself permission to be flexible with the guidelines. It is okay to state a preference of vegetarian eating, and still consume these animal products when the ingredients or a product are unknown; or the only options available aren’t labeled vegetarian.
Choosing to follow a vegetarian eating style is a personal decision that must be made with your own individual wants and needs in mind. If you don’t allow any disordered voices to provide input, your decision can be one that fully supports your health and recovery.
Madeline Radigan Langham is a registered dietitian with experience in mental health and eating disorder residential treatment. She is passionate about advocating for weight inclusivity and a non-diet approach to help people heal their relationships with food and their bodies. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors and spending time on trails with her family. You can find more of Madeline’s thoughts and work at radnutrition.net or on Instagram at @mradnutrition.
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