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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