Ethics & Eating - The Complicated Discussion of Veganism/Vegetarianism in Recovery

When an individual is recovering from an eating disorder, it often requires rooting through connections where morality (a sense of “good” and “bad”) is linked to food. This is culturally influenced, but moral judgments connected to food also exist on an individual level and become infinitely more complicated when we are looking at dietary practices such as vegetarianism and/or veganism in recovery from an eating disorder.

I want to recognize that the following is a complicated discussion best-suited for individuals who may be farther along in their recovery or self-reflective practice. I know this topic is a passionate one for people and discussion is welcome so long as it’s supportive and respectful towards others. (The last thing anyone needs in recovery is more food policing.) I want to recognize that I am not an expert in nutrition and I personally believe that it’s important for us to explore our beliefs around food (which is the core of what I want to communicate here), but this is best done with an experienced professional. I also need to note my own biases towards ethical/environmental concerns. However, I am of the personal belief that it is very risky to introduce any sort of restriction to our relationship with food if we’re in recovery from an eating disorder. My hope with this post is to explore this topic and encourage self-reflection.

Vegetarianism or veganism are dietary practices, or lifestyle choices, that are fairly common in those recovering from an eating disorder and it is a complicated task for dietitians and individuals to assess where those motivations are coming from - whether they are ethically motivated, motivated by an individual’s eating disorder, or (as often is the case) a complex interaction of motivations.

Often in treatment settings and early recovery, a registered dietitian will have to balance respecting an individual’s personal beliefs with poking at the underlying factors in those beliefs. Some dietitians strongly encourage clients who are vegetarian or vegan to try new foods in recovery (such as dairy or meat) as a way of challenging their current food beliefs: it doesn’t have to be an ongoing or regular practice in the person’s life, but might present an important opportunity to explore nutrition and push at food boundaries which may exist for a number of reasons.

Challenging food boundaries and our assumptions/beliefs around food (especially when it comes to a sense of morality) is a critical part of our recovery. It’s also entirely individual, as only we can truly assess where our motivations are coming from (although sometimes we need some professional support to help sort through these layers of motivation.) Some people held certain practices before they developed an eating disorder, other times, they begin a lifestyle choice during or after recovery. In any circumstance where we’re attaching morality to food, it’s important we dig deep into how those labels affect us and where they are coming from. Many times, people in recovery transform their disorder into more socially acceptable outlets such as fitness, “clean” eating (or orthorexic tendencies), or dietary practices such vegetarianism/veganism. People can be very vocal about how this changes their life for the better and is a way that they have found food freedom and this might be the case. Other times, it is simply a way of transmuting disordered tendencies, rigid food practices, and a sense of ethics around nutrition and health into more socially acceptable outlets, but it may still be a very unhealthy focus for the person. That said, there are other ethical motivations, entirely unrelated to an individual’s eating disorder that may be behind their vegetarianism/veganism and align with their own personal values. Vegetarianism and veganism can be motivated by concern for animal ethics and environmental practices and as such, they can be very close to a person’s heart. Sometimes we are better aligning ourselves and our lives to our values by pursuing a dietary/lifestyle choice that involves implementing changes to what and how we eat. However, that may not be safe or possible for individuals in recovery and that does not make those persons any less passionate or true to their values around animal rights and environmental issues. It is suggested by many professionals and persons with lived experience that we need to be fully recovered before implementing and restrictiveness on our food choices.

There are other ways to focus on ethics and environmentalism related to food or lifestyle without necessarily ascribing to specific labels. Knowing where our food comes from and how it gets from field to table, is an important point where we can try to make some choices that align with our values depending on our level of privilege (financial and geographical) and where we are at in recovery. Buying local, researching how a farmer raises or grows a crop, and supporting businesses whose values we believe in, are some ways in which we can introduce ethical and environmental concerns into our food practices without necessarily restricting ourselves in recovery. We can also make these choices with other aspects of daily life (things we buy and use) that are not food related. Looking into where our clothing, daily use items, electronics, etc. come from, how they are made, if there are other options that respect our ethical and environmental concerns are all other ways we can try to live out our values without impacting food choices.

If you’re someone who is very sensitive to the wider world and trying to help support our planet and the beings that depend on it, concern for the environment can quickly spiral into feeling guilt for existing in any way. It’s important to remember that while our individual choices can and do make a difference, the whole weight of the world is not ours to bear as many of the causes of environmental and ethical issues affecting our planet arise from factors way beyond our individual control and are a collective responsibility (by business and government) to address.

If you can make small changes in some ways, but not others, that’s okay. If you need to explore food options outside of the vegetarian or vegan beliefs you hold (or have held) or others tell you to hold, for the sake of your recovery, that’s okay. If you cannot afford to always make greener or what are deemed ethical dietary choices, that’s okay.

The task that recovery asks of us is to challenge ourselves to live our lives in accordance with our values, to discern our motivations, as well as challenge labels of “good” and “bad” when it comes to food and our bodies. This takes time, practice, and support. It’s complicated and individual and only we truly know what is right for us (although we may need support in determining what our motivations are).

What are your thoughts?

-S. Ritchey

Resources for Further Exploration: