How to go vegan without relapsing and other questions

Disclaimer:  I am not an medical professional or an expert on eating disorders. These recommendations are based on my personal experience and what I’ve read. Please consult your treatment team or gp if you have any concerns.

This January many people will go vegan because of ‘Veganuary’. I will start by saying veganism might not be right for you right now. Be honest and kind to yourself. Is this the right time? I became an ethical vegan during my bulimia and while it wasn’t a smooth journey it was for the right reasons and did help my recovery. Not everyone has this experience though. I understand that. This post is long but contains different questions relating to veganism and eating disorder recovery. I hope you find it helpful.

So why would someone go vegan?

Pretty much every animal can feel. Animal agriculture denies certain animals most rights and freedoms, inflicts pain and uses animals for food, fashion and other human demands. Veganism is an ethical lifestyle based on the principle that animals deserve their own life and aren’t here for us to exploit and use. By being vegan you, are treating all animals (including humans) with compassion. At its core veganism is an animal liberation movement. As animal agriculture plays a big part in climate change you are also helping the environment.

What about health veganism?

While plant based diets are associated with good health outcomes, a vegan diet isn’t the only healthy one. Food, health and body shaming should have no place in veganism. This behaviour is not only hurtful, but also unnecessary as veganism has nothing to do with health. By policing other vegans and being judgmental we are going against the compassion this movement is based on and are making our vegan community feel unsafe for people in larger bodies, people with health conditions and people recovering from eating disorders. Many online vegan groups recently have spoken out against this behaviour and created new rules against shaming and commenting on other peoples food, size or health. I think this is an amazing step forward. Not every online space is the same though. Those recovering should be careful for which group they join and who they follow on social media.

What’s the best way to eat vegan?

Like with anything, there are many ways to eat. While there are particular ‘diets’ in veganism like ‘whole food plant based’, ‘raw’ or ‘vegan paleo’, these have nothing to do with the key aspects of veganism and are more ways diet culture has found its way inside an animal rights movement. From what I’ve read by dieticians, it is important to eat enough and a wide variety of vegan food, including legumes (peanuts/ beans/ lentils/ tofu), foods higher in fat (nuts/seeds/oils), starchy foods (e.g pasta, bread, rice, potatoes),  foods rich in calcium (fortified ‘milks’, tofu etc), fruits and vegetables. It is also important to have a regular source of omega 3’s, vitamin D, B12, and iodine, whether that is through food (fortified or food rich in that nutrient like walnuts for omega 3’s) or supplements. A healthy diet is one which includes balance and is sustainable. There is plenty of space for more ‘processed’ foods like vegan ice cream, cheese and cakes. In my opinion, this is even more essential in eating disorder recovery as it helps create a healthy relationship with food, one based on happiness and enjoyment instead of fear. ‘Processed’ foods play a big part in everyday life. Nutritionally, some ‘processed’ food is fortified with vitamins and minerals, for example Alpro chocolate milk or weetabix. These foods also make being a vegan easier and more practical. They can be eaten on the go and in social settings. We connect over food and, hopefully, enjoy what we eat. Eat your vegan donuts in peace and realize that variety and balance makes a healthy diet, not one based on unnecessary restrictions.

For more information of vegan nutrition:

What are the pitfalls of going vegan and how can I avoid them

I have mentioned this before but be careful who you follow and what media you consume. Avoid watching food and ‘health’ documentaries like ‘what the health’ as these encourage restrictive eating, bad science and food myths. Avoid food blogs which label ‘processed’ food as bad or tell you that you need to eat ‘clean’- whatever that means. At the end of this post I will share some resources including people you might want to follow and blogs with food that is not only tasty but also balanced. There are many people online who see support veganism who aren’t food shaming and appreciate vegans of all backgrounds and bodies. Vegans which use a pro-intersectional approach and talk about other social justice issues as well. Following these people helped in my recovery as food became less about numbers and more of an act of rebellion against animal agriculture and human oppression. I am still not fully recovered but I feel more passionate about eating good tasting food that nurtures my body and mind while helping animals and the environment.

Another pitfall of going vegan is you might be tempted to keep cutting food groups out. You start with not eating animal products then oil then fruit then sugar then…. Well that doesn’t end well. I’ve been there. At first I became an ethical vegan. Then after watching forks over knives  I became a ‘whole food plant based’ vegan, then I cut out oil, then sugar, then salt, then cooked food?? It got quite extreme and my bulimia became anorexia. It was scary and it taught me that you need to be honest with yourself. What are your reasons for not eating something? Do you disagree with the brutality of killing animals and the environmental destruction? Or are you just looking for a way to eat less? For me it became a mix of the two. The way I recovered was through making sure I ate ALL the vegan foods not just the foods my eating disorder said were okay. That means regularly challenging vegan versions of your fear foods like deep fried chips, veggie burgers and white bread. This means not only eating food you’ve made yourself but also eating out and buying pre made food from shops. It is so difficult but also so worth it.

Is it possible to gain weight as a vegan?

I have mentioned about vegan nutrition but I haven’t mentioned gaining weight as a vegan. There is a stereotype that all vegans have smaller bodies but that is definitely not true. Vegans exist in all shapes and sizes. It is possible to gain weight while staying vegan and to become weight restored. Many people with eating disorders aren’t underweight, but some are, and need to gain weight to improve their mental and physical health. While this is only one part of recovery, it is essential. At the start of my recovery from anorexia I had to gain weight.  I did this by incorporating energy and nutrient dense foods into my meal plan. I also ate more calcium-rich foods to protect against refeeding syndrome and limited fibre and bulk to make all this food easier to digest. For example roasting vegetables in oil or drinking smoothies with nut butter added. Added more ‘processed foods’ can help in this stage as they might be lower in fibre while still being rich in energy (e.g. vegan ice cream).

Food options rich in energy/ important nutrients

  • Grains and starchy veg Pasta tossed in oil. White pasta has less fibre and is fortified with nutrients.
    • Bread, preferably white.
    • Roast starchy veg in oil, sugar/syrup or other high energy add ons
    • Granola and higher calorie fortified cereals
    • Pancakes and waffles for breakfast. These can be baked in bulk then frozen for quick, hassle free breakfasts, add syrup for extra energy.
    • Cookies, cakes and other baked goods made from flour, sugar and oil
  • Pulses, peanuts, soy and meat alternativesTofu is rich in protein, fats and calcium. Extra firm tofu can be fried, baked or scrambled for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Silken tofu can be used to make cheesecake and be blended into smoothies
    • Edamame or other pulses roasted in oil for snacks rich in protein, fat and carbohydrates as well as other vital nutrients.
    • Veggie burgers, vegan sausages and other meat alternatives are often higher in energy and take up less bulk than eating pulses.
    • Peanut butter is rich in energy, protein and in my opinion, tastes amazing. Add this to smoothies, porridge, toast etc
  • Nuts and seedsSprinkle nuts and seeds onto meals and snacks
    • Add nuts and seed butters to smoothies, sauces, on toast or porridge.
    • Create energy dense snack bars with nuts/ seeds as a base
  • Fruit and vegetablesAdd to meals
    • Eat enough without filling up on them. For example, Ginny Messina RD recommends 5 servings of non-starchy vegetables and 3 servings of fruit
    • Blend into smoothies for less bulk
    • Add fruits to yogurts and desserts like vegan ice cream
    • Roast fruit or vegetables in oil, sugar/syrup or other high energy dressings
    • Add dried fruit to meals as they take up less bulk than fresh produce
    • Add vegan wine/ alcohol to vegetable sauces to improve the flavour and increase the energy. For example red wine to tomato sauce. The alcohol burns off while you cook it.
  • Calcium rich foodsAdd plant based yogurts/ milks to smoothies and sauces
    • Select plant milks higher in energy for example whole bean soya milk over almond milk.
    • Have plant milks and yogurts with energy dense cereals like granola
    • Add tahini or almond butter to sauces or smoothies
    • Top granola, toast etc with dried figs
    • Roast broccoli, kale and other calcium rich vegetables in oil

How can I go/be vegan without relapsing?

Recovery isn’t linear and you are likely going to have lapses on the way. But how do you stop these relapse from becoming a full blown relapse and how do you stay on track? How can you be vegan and not relapse into an eating disorder? My answer is, it can be difficult, but it is possible. I have covered some pitfalls of being vegan and how to stay clear of them earlier. Now I hope to cover some general and more specific ways you can keep on the path of recovery while embracing your ethics.

  • Firstly, eat regular meals. Eating regular meals is not just important to maintain a weight which is healthy for you, but is also important to reduce the chance you’ll binge. Not eating fuels the ‘restrict-binge’ cycle that many eating disorder sufferers, including me, get stuck in. Not eating regular meals can also escalate into further restriction like fearing eating lunch, breakfast or at certain times of the day.

 

  • Drink plenty of water (or other liquid). Keeping fluids up is important for your mental and physical wellbeing. It helps with digestion something many of us in recovery struggle with due to binging, purging or restricting our food.

 

  • Have a good sleep routine. Again this improves our mental and physical wellbeing which makes it easier to recover. It also regulates hunger cues in our body.

 

  • Spend quality time with others. We humans are social animals. Whether you need less or more time with others you still need to be somewhat social. If you can, pick the people you socialise with wisely, you don’t need people who body/ health/ food shame around you, especially not while you are recovering. Many people don’t realise they are doing this as it has become so commonplace in our society. Try to have a conversation with them about it explaining how it affects you.

 

  • Treat yourself and have some time for yourself. While being social is good, so is being alone. Again, how much time you need is personal but it may be beneficial to regularly set aside time for yourself to relax and renew your energy levels.

 

  • Regular movement in a way that you enjoy and isn’t obsessive. Now this ones tricky and from experience it depends on where you are in recovery. Eating disorders put a huge strain on your body, from your heart to your bones. Allowing yourself rest is difficult but vital. Exercising a lot in recovery may also result in exercise obsession and addiction. However, if you are further along in your recovery and you get the go ahead from your doctor, some movement is beneficial. This may be walking with friends or joining a yoga group. Exercise has been shown to help with mental health and is important for physical health as well in the long term.

 

  • Meet your nutritional needs (enough macro/micro nutrients and energy). I have mentioned this earlier. If you don’t meet your needs and don’t eat enough, not only will you have side effects such as hair, bone and muscle loss but you are also setting yourself up to binge.

 

  • Be aware of what triggers you. We all have personal triggers. Be aware (maybe write a list of what triggers you) and let your close family/ friends know. Especially early on in recovery you need to make recovering as easy as possible. Not all triggers are avoidable but some can be lessened due to who you follow and what media you consume. See next point…

 

  • Surround yourself with media which makes you feel good about yourself and your body. Media has a big effect on our mental health. Above I have mentioned the fatphobia and elitism that sometimes occurs in the vegan community. Do not follow anyone who feeds into those eating disorder thoughts. Follow people who make you feel good.

 

  • Eat food you enjoy. Food is not just nutrition, it is also a way to be social, to have fun and to enjoy ourselves. Find vegan alternatives to your old favourites and explore new recipes which taste good. Not only will it keep you motivated to stay vegan but it will also help in your relationship with food.

 

  • Include processed foods into your diet. Again I mention this. It is that important. It is normal and 100% okay to eat ‘processed’ food. The term ‘processed’ is so vague and unhelpful. Tofu is processed and so is orange juice but both are very nutritious. Eat all the vegan foods you can eat, try them in many ways with different flavours. Learn to be flexible and adventurous with your food.

 

  • Eat a variety of different foods. This is very similar to the last point but by eating a variety you are not only challenging your eating disorder but you are also more likely to get the nutrients you need on a vegan way of life.

 

  • Avoid ‘diet talk’ when possible. Avoid talking about numbers and ways you are going to engage in your eating disorder. This is not helpful. Replace these conversations with talks about what food you love, your favourite music pr what you feel at the moment.

 

  • Have fun with food, it doesn’t have to be serious (cook/bake). My eating disorder made me so controlling and uptight. Learning to be around food without measuring everything so precisely is beneficial in many ways.

 

  • Take part in some non-food related activities (cinema, reading etc). Food plays a big part in our lives but it isn’t everything. Eating disorders can make you obsessed with food and can become your identity. You are more than what you eat. Get involved with clubs and groups in your area, go ice skating, read a fiction book.

 

  • Be gentle with yourself. Recovery takes time, try not to compare your recovery with someone else’s. Just because I am further into my recovery doesn’t mean you are wrong for just starting yours. I used to be there too and it’s taken me time to get to where I am now. I hope in the future I am even further along. We are often our own worst critic. Veganism is about being kind to all animals. Humans are animals and I think we forget that. Try to be compassionate to yourself. You deserve it just as much as anybody else, no matter what your brain tells you.

 

  • Create a support network. We can do it alone but we don’t need to. There are people out there who can help us, whether that is professionals, family, friends or an online community. Or all of the above. I strongly recommend seeking professional help if you are struggling with your eating, but I also know that the right help is often not available to us and when it is, the waiting times can be long. Charities like Beat are good as they offer online support and information. Mind is also helpful. I will add their links below under resources.

 

  • Get help and look after your mental/ physical health. This may include taking medication as prescribed, going to therapy or regularly getting check ups from your gp. If the helps available for you, use it. Mental illnesses like depression can cause or worsen eating disorders. Eating disorders themselves are mental illnesses that need treatment to support recovery.

Conclusion

Overall veganism is an amazing movement to be involved in. It might help in your recovery, however it may not be possible for you, especially if you need a feeding tube or you don’t have a choice over what you eat due to poverty, hospitalisation or living at home. Whatever your choice, recovery is a process not perfection. It is more difficult than I can articulate but, for me, it is one of the most worthwhile decisions I have made. I myself am not fully recovered. I sometimes struggle to restrict and binge/ purge. Recovery is something I work towards everyday. It takes a lot of effort but it is a thousand times better than living with an eating disorder. If you have any questions please feel free contact me via my other social media. Thank you for reading this. I wish you the best in your recovery.

Resources to check out:

 

 

 

 

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Mental illness vs medication

I know I am exceptionally lucky that I can afford medication and have access to a doctor who can prescribe medication for me. I am lucky that my struggles are taken seriously, though for a time they weren’t.

I often don’t want to take my meds. I think I can not just cope but flourish without them. That I could feel on top of the world without the psychosis or racing thoughts. That I will never become depressed again. My illness sometimes feels strange and unreal. Like it was a nightmare. Maybe thats my brain separating those foggy memories so I can live a normal life. How I acted in my episodes was so different to who I am, it’s like it never even happened. I idealise the person I am without the slight fatigue I feel, without my mood stabiliser or antipsychotic.

Recently I have found myself blaming my medication for everything. Tired, must be the meds. I am shaking, must be the meds. Hungry, must be the meds. Not hungry, must be the meds. It doesn’t matter that i’ve had barely any side effects off the medication I am on, when something crops up I automatically blame the medication I take. A lot of the time these problems are caused by my mental illness, like the shaking is caused by my anxiety etc. But to blame my mental illness would be to accept there is something wrong with me. That I am not perfect. You might think because I write about my mental health that I fully accepted it. Not yet. I guess I don’t like taking medication because it makes me feel abnormal and its effort to take it every morning and night. It’s a reminder of the insanity I’ve been through and that I haven’t got my life together… not yet anyway.

I don’t want to romanticise bipolar. I miss the creativity, the energy, the intense feelings of love. But with creativity comes chaos. The thoughts are too fast, the feelings too intense. If you are like me you spiral into psychosis and nothing productive is done. I don’t remember all of it but I do remember the pacing so bad my foot got infected. I remember burning my arm as I was so agitated. I remember ringing up universities to tell them of my amazing plans to cure illness with the chemicals in my brain. It was a blur but not a fun one. I was dangerous, reckless and rude. With my bipolar I also get the lows. The deep dark hole where I prayed for help for something to slightly ease my pain. I don’t want any of this back so I keep taking the pills. Each and every day.

There is a reason you have been prescribed medication. Whether you agree with it or not, work with your doctor (if you have one) to find a treatment plan which works for you. Consider the pros and cons of opting out of treatment. I love that medication and other things have helped me. I am now able to volunteer and have better relationships with friends and family. I can’t predict the future but I plan to keep taking the medication as long as I need to. It’s frustrating but also helpful.

My experience with bulimia – a poem

When I’m stressed

When I’m depressed

When I’m overwhelmed

When I’m tired

When I’m wired

Used to hide

Now back by my side

Evil surrounds it

The devil from within

Begging me to sin

Now I’ve had a bite must finish the rest

I think this whole thing was a test

I have definitely failed

Why can’t I rewind time

If I made a different decision now i’d be fine

What’s the harm in throwing up a chocolate bar

Forget about the teeth decay and knuckle scars

Now my chest is in constant pain

Filled with shame

I’m playing a dangerous game

I just want a quick fix

Lose weight fast, like you see on instagram pics

Something for a smaller waistline

Tried every diet under the sun

These fat loss plans aren’t any fun

It’s not just about appearances though

I’ve had low self esteem from the word go

Just want to feel some self control

Manage my nervousness

But I do it with foolishness

Don’t judge me for the way I deal with life

This constant stress cuts me with it’s knife

I can’t undo the actions I have done

I hate all the stigma that comes along

Kick that back to where it belongs

But I have got to take a different path

I’m done with the cleaning up and the aftermath

It’s never worth the harm

That short relief doesn’t last

Got to put this behaviour in the past

Anxiety… a poem

Its frazzled me

Anxiety

Why can’t I breathe

Air should relieve

The tightness in my chest

When will I rest

Its dizzying

My heart pounding

Chaos within my brain

Intrusive thoughts driving me insane

Can I not be left alone

My worry has grown

It’s taken over my anatomy

When will I be free

Nothing is working

Trapped between being frozen or deserting

The place in which I stand

Get me out of this dangerous land

I’m covered in aches and pains

Trying to escape the panic chains

I think I am going to die

Might as well try

Relaxation techniques loosley

Why am I sweating profusely

Nothing fixes this but to get away

But I have so much to do today

This reaction is often unnecessary

Does not match the circumstances and is very

Extreme and intense

Nothing I think of makes any sense

Phobias come big and small

I might scream near spiders, crowds, people or nothing at all

The thing they have all in common is dread

If you need me I am hiding in the shed

A letter to someone thinking of suicide

I wasn’t sure what to write for mental health awareness day. I decided to write a letter to someone, struggling with suicidal urges, thoughts or even plans. I hope this reaches you if you need it. I know it won’t cure anyone but I want you to know that you matter and you are never alone even if you feel like it.

Dear Friend,

I know you are struggling. I can see you are not yourself. You are acting strangely. Your smile seems artificial, you seem lost, withdrawn. I know because you have told me and I believe you. I trust that you are not lying or being dramatic when you say you want to die. That you have used all the resources you own. That telling you to ‘just take a bath’ won’t wash away the suffering that you hold within.

I have been there, not exactly the same place, but a similar one. I know how horrible it is and that you shouldn’t have to feel like this, but you do. I know right now you need a friend. Not someone to tell you what to do, unless you ask specifically, but instead someone to sit with you, to lean on when you can’t take the weight of your body anymore. I know that empty pain, that feeling like things won’t improve, that right now everything is unbearable. Even one more moment is too long. You need help now. Some kind of progress. You might have visited A&E or called the crisis team. You may have had a positive experience or have been turned away feeling more helpless than ever.

Maybe you might start hating yourself, believing you aren’t good enough, that you are a burden or you are toxic to the people you care about. None of those thoughts are true, you will probably disagree with me, but they are lies your brain is telling you. You are amazing and worthy, so worthy of great times and fun experiences. Whatever you have gone through is in the past and it has also shaped you. You have got through everyday of your life and can get through this. I believe in you.

Please don’t give up on yourself. Death is so final and your life is precious, not only will you be missed but you will miss out on so much. You are needed in this world. One day, with help, you’ll see how beautiful this earth is, how kind most people can be and how exciting opportunities are. Hopefully you will find happiness… even if it is just small glimpses in a tough day.

Sending you a hug,

Alice

Anxiety, paranoia and leaving the house

This post is less a factual post about anxiety and more about my experience with it.

It’s strange the place I am in at the moment. I often feel anxiety when my mood is low but at the present my mood is stable. I am okay; but at the same time I am not. I worry constantly. My thoughts are not rapid and I am not jumping from one idea to another. This is not mania. My thoughts are not slow and weighed down with self hatred. This is not depression. This is different. My thoughts are constant at a regular pace but are unwavering. Even when I try to distract myself they are still there. Once I deal with one worrisome thought another one replaces it. No matter how hard I try I rarely get breaks from this anxiety. Recently I have been trying mindfulness, and not in a half hearted way, in a fully-throwing-myself-into-it way where I apply it throughout the day to many circumstances. It is helping. I find ‘one-mindfully’ doing a engrossing task helpful as it helps me only think about what I have to do. However, soon after that task is done the worry is back. I struggle to just sit with it and do nothing. My mind refuses to go blank.

Sometimes I feel so exhausted and overwhelmed with my mind. I find a way to scare myself at any time of day. I fear that the shelves will fall on me, that I have left the hob on or someone has climbed through one of the windows (that I am sure I have closed). It’s a weird world inside our heads isn’t it. I often find myself dazed and stuck inside my head, losing minutes to hours at a time.

Another way anxiety affects my life is by isolating me. This time last year I was unable to leave the house alone without paralysing anxiety. I was scared of being attacked or being hit by a car or anything horrible that could happen (but isn’t likely).  None of those things have happened to me but even typing them makes me nervous as if I am tempting fate. It is important to face our fears so that is what I have been doing. It’s called graded exposure. I can go out on my own now, even catch a bus and walk around town. I still worry but I don’t have panic attacks like I used to and I sometimes even feel confident (I am working on that). It is a step in the right direction but I still get set backs. I try to leave the house everyday but sometimes this isn’t possible, for example if I am really depressed and can’t get out of bed. I often get the feeling like I am being watched and this gets really bad and I become very paranoid when I am depressed and start believing some of the lies my brain tells me. It is that paranoia that makes me never want to step foot in the outside world again. But I do, I keep ignoring those thoughts and getting on with my life and soon (hopefully) I will be able to get a train on my own without panicking and live a bigger more adventurous life. For now I am happy getting to places with people and gradually exploring the edges of my comfort zone until I am not terrified anymore.

Mood vs Emotion

The words mood and emotion are sometimes used interchangeably but mean different things.

Emotions are short term feelings which last around 6 seconds, but can seem to last longer if they keep being triggered. Emotions are often reactions to circumstances or thoughts. So you might be walking alone and get lost, this may prompt the emotion fear. While moods tend to be more generalised (for example positive, negative or mixed), there are many specific emotions. Some say we have 5 main emotions, others say 10 or more. This depends on the person you ask. In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) 10 emotions are listed: Anger, Disgust, Envy, Fear, Happiness, Jealousy, Love, Sadness, Shame and Guilt. Different people will experience each emotion differently. One person may cry when they get angry others may clench their fists and go red in the face. We are all individuals and this may make working out someone else’s emotions difficult. We are not mind readers so it is best to just ask what is causing them to feel this way and how we can help.

Moods, like I said before, are more general feelings and are caused by a mix of factors including our environment, our brain chemistry, our physical health and our mental state. Unlike emotions, moods stay longer, lasting anything from minutes, to days, to even months. We may feel emotions on top of moods. For example we may have a low mood but feel the emotion happiness at times, likewise we can have a high mood but still have fleeting feelings of sadness. Often, however, our emotions match or are similar to the mood we are in. So we are more likely to feel fear instead of excitement in a low mood. This may be because we interpret our circumstances partly based on the mood we are in. E.g a good mood is sometimes called having ‘rose tinted glasses’ as we see everything in a positive light.

The intensity of the moods or emotions we feel differ from person to person. We may be more susceptible to intense emotions or moods due to not looking after our physical or mental health fully. Having a mental illness may also cause us to have more extreme emotions or moods. With bipolar disorder, people have more intense (elevated, low or mixed) moods which last longer than most people, often weeks to months. Different to this is borderline personality disorder which is also called emotionally unstable personality disorder. One key symptom of borderline personality disorder is having intense emotions which affect their lives greatly and change often. Anxiety Disorders are linked closely to the emotion fear and people often experience constant or extreme feelings of worry or dread.

Sources: