For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a vegetarian. Both of my parents are pescatarian, so I grew up eating very little meat. I cut meat out altogether when I was seven, mostly for ethical reasons, then fish at age twelve, and I’ve never gone back. Being a vegetarian is all I’ve ever known, so you can imagine my surprise when my lifestyle was met with skepticism and disapproval by the doctors who treated me for my eating disorder.
When I was at my worst, I cut out most food groups and basically lived off fruits and vegetables. This is not uncommon for people who have my disorder. In fact, restricting certain foods, always needing to eat healthy, and avoiding sweets, fat, and the likes are signs that someone might have anorexia, as was the case for me. It just so happens that adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet is also common—and oftentimes done for the wrong reasons.
I vividly remember during my first night at an eating disorder ward in New York when a nurse presented me with my dinner: beef lasagna. I refused to eat the lasagna and desperately tried to convince her that my choice to be a vegetarian wasn’t because of my eating disorder while the other patients looked on. Eventually, she caved and replaced my dinner with something else—pasta maybe, I don’t really recall—but the experience left me shaken and upset. This wasn’t the first time something like that had happened either. In fact, most of the treatment programs and facilities I’d been admitted to had challenged my vegetarianism in one way or another. I was getting tired of convincing my doctors that, no, I wasn’t deliberately depriving myself of meat or following some diet trend; I just really, really loved animals.
While constantly defending my lifestyle was frustrating, now that I’m in a better headspace, I can understand my doctors’ concerns. According to statistics, about half of people being treated for anorexia report practicing some form of vegetarianism. Most weren’t vegetarian before their eating disorder. This, combined with the fact that the third most popular reason for becoming a vegetarian for the general public is weight loss, has made healthcare professionals in the ED field increasingly wary of vegetarianism.
I’ve known several eating disorder sufferers who had to take a “holiday” from their vegetarian lifestyle while they were in treatment. I’m lucky I didn’t. My reasons for why I’m a vegetarian, as well as how young I was when I become one, were justifiable enough for doctors to accept. I worked with my nutritionists, not against them, to make sure that I was getting enough protein and fats in my diet and meeting my daily Exchanges. This meant doubling my portion sizes of soy products like tofu and eating a lot of peanut butter. I’m not a fan of peanut butter, but 2 tablespoons checked off 1 protein and 2 fats, so I learned to tolerate it, mostly by hiding it in more preferable foods. One of my go-to breakfasts was a panini-pressed peanut-butter-and-banana pita sandwich. If you haven’t tried it, I’d highly recommend it.
To come full circle, I love being a vegetarian, and while I won’t go around promoting my lifestyle, I do think that the world would be better off if fewer of us ate meat. That said, you shouldn’t become a vegetarian simply to lose weight. Yes, there are health benefits, but at least in my experience, it’s so much more than that. Whether you’re a meat-eater, a pescatarian, a vegetarian, or a vegan, one thing should be present in your diet: balance. It’s taken me literally years to get to a place in my life where I can eat in moderation and not feel the urge to restrict, and while getting there wasn’t easy, I can say with 100% confidence that the journey was well worth it.