Is It Okay to Stop Being Vegetarian or Vegan in Recovery?

vegetarian - image of female sitting at table, gazing down out the window with hands clasped at chin

I’m standing in front of the canned tuna section in the supermarket, hesitating. I know there are a myriad of good reasons why I should be eating fish right now. I am malnourished. My body desperately needs something as nutritious as fish. But most importantly: I simply feel like eating it and my eating disorder voice currently isn’t screaming me into the ground with reasons why I shouldn’t eat. 

But there are plenty of other doubts in my head. I know that tuna is overfished. I know that fishing methods are unethical. In the ocean, nets scoop up masses of “undesirable” fish and simply throw them back dead, and in fish farms the fish often have no space and are fed with antibiotics. While fish is not the worst environmentally speaking (on a scale from “bad” to “less bad”), they contribute to antibiotic resistance.

These thoughts almost make me turn back from the fish sections and say “screw it” to getting better from my eating disorder.

Being a vegetarian

I had been vegetarian / pescatarian for close to 20 years. The vegetarian community, in my opinion, is fairly chill. Concerned about animal welfare, the environment and a healthy lifestyle, but not up in arms the minute someone says they enjoy eating meat. This is of course anecdotal and other people may see this differently. But I generally found the community to be supportive of those who try to reduce meat consumption rather than criticizing those who don’t. 

My experience with veganism

In more recent years, I decided to become vegan and my experience with that community has been a little different. Which is why I feel more comfortable among the plant-based community. I always felt (passively or actively) pressured by some members to “do better” (in fact, people have said those very words to me about my vegetarianism). And I can’t say that they don’t have a point. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to feel a sense of urgency about how we choose to eat and I agree, at large, with vegans on that. 

But this sense of urgency in the argumentation turns out to be detrimental when it comes to recovering from my eating disorder.

The dangers of being vegetarian or vegan in recovery

I feel a constant sense of nervousness about not living up to the vegan ideals. About being “found out” and policed around my eating habits. The dreaded question: “Aren’t you a vegan? Why are you eating that?” (A question, that in all fairness, most frequently comes from non-vegans trying to reveal you as fraud. While they, metaphorically speaking, devour a steak and some chicken nuggets in front you).

This sense of being policed in itself is obviously not ideal for recovery. Because most sufferers of an eating disorder are already stuck with the disordered voice in their head that criticizes what they eat constantly. Adding another “policing voice” to the mix can only be harmful.

Our brains are already filled with countless rules around eating. Veganism comes in itself with a set of fairly complex rules and restrictions.

Dancing around what my eating disorder expects me to eat and what I am allowed on a vegan diet almost leaves me with nothing left.

When we are trying to get better, we often need to learn how to enjoy food again. We have spent months or years eating the same shitty restriction foods and suddenly are met with needing to learn how to eat all these other dishes again without having a crisis. 

A new approach

So, when I saw a fish recipe online and my brain happily requested fish, it was like a miracle. This was the first time in months I felt the genuine impulse to try something new. Neural rewiring is key in eating disorder recovery and any impulse to eat needs to be supported. You need to train your brain that it is okay to try different foods.

But guess what happens when you deny yourself a food because you deny it for ethical reasons? You are using the same neural pathways for restriction that you use when you engage in eating disordered behaviours. You are reinforcing the behavioural reflex that says “no” to every food.

Maybe this time you are saying “no” because you think the food is unethical. Maybe you think that is different from saying “no” because of the disordered reflex to shed weight at all costs. But both are restrictive. Both result in the same for your body. Both suggest to your brain to stick with the old (restriction) foods and to always question (and reject) new dishes.

Vegan / Vegetarian in Recovery

What I am saying here is strictly aimed at people who have problems with disordered eating. I don’t think that veganism/vegetarianism gives you an eating disorder. If you want to stick to your specific diet while recovering, you should probably get a dietician (which you might need to do in any case). And always question your motives for not eating a specific food. Is this really because it is more ethical, or is this my eating disorder trying to trick me into not eating?

I always try to remind myself that I am no good to the planet sick or dead.

Of course, that is fraught as well… Dying is probably the most environmentally friendly thing I could do. (I apologize for my dark sense of humor). But I doubt anyone in the vegan community would go so far to suggest this is a reasonable course of action. 

So, in the end I bought the damn can of tuna. I didn’t feel great about it, to be honest. And maybe I will cut out fish again once it is appropriate for me.

But if a silly can of tuna can help me rewire my brain, so be it. 

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